Neal Stephenson: Innovation Starvation

Please read the whole text. Interesting quotes:

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51—not even old—I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness.

My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few.

I lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating that the real issue isn’t about rockets. It’s our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff.

A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Communication among them can become a mare’s nest of email threads and Powerpoints. The fondness that many such people have for SF reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision.

the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone.

The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

At a modest marginal cost, the space shuttle’s external tanks [ETs] could have been kept in orbit indefinitely. […] Not destroying them would have roughly tripled the total mass launched into orbit by the Shuttle. ETs could have been connected to build units that would have humbled today’s International Space Station.

A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. […] Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.


Tim Wu talks with Neal Stephenson, a science fiction writer and author of such books as Anathem and Snow Crash, as part of the „Stranger Than Fiction” series:

If you take someone from 1967 and send them forward to 2012, they wouldn’t really much that was different. And in some ways they would see things missing. People still drive around in cars. […] They’re still flying around in the same 747s and 737s we got now. SSTs [Super Sonic Transport] don’t exist anymore. We’ve lost the ablility to launch human beings into space, let alone send them to the moon and bring them back.

as if we have hit the wall in terms of introducing new technologies and I am curious as to why that happened.

When that [the mobile electronics market] opened up, it just created a big sucking sound – to paraphrase Ross Perot – that pulled in every single technically minded inventive geek for the next generation or so. The people who, in a previous generation, would have been designing airplanes or so ended up working on apps.


Solve for X: Neal Stephenson on getting big stuff done:

In the first two thirds of the 20th century we went from not believing that heavier then air flight is possible to walking on the moon.

Human spacetravel is a lost art.

Diseases that we could easily treat with antibiotics have become intractable and are making a comeback.

And even diseases that could easily be snuffed out by vaccines are coming back, simply because parents aren’t getting their kids vaccinated because they don’t believe in science anymore.

To be fair, there is a partial explanation of this in the rise of the personal computer and the Internet which has siphoned of a huge fraction of inventive energies to work on forms of progress that aren’t as obvious as space rockets and nuclear bombs.
I saw the best minds of my generation writing spam filters.

Deep Water Horizon and Fukushima kind of converted me to the view that the threat now has not become ‘too much innovation’ but ‘not enough innovation’.
The reactors that melted down in Fukushima were build in the early 1970ties, based on designs from the 1960ties. So if you look under the hood of a 1960ties automobile – if you can even find one that is still running – and you compare it to what you can see under the hood of a modern vehicle, it has to send a little chill down your spine to think that nuclear reactors built in and designed in that era are still hot today.

It’s my thesis that a small number of people have to shoulder greater risks in order to create changes eventually that reduce risk for civilization as a whole. And when they stop fulfilling that responsibility, a decline sets in that may require some concious effort to reverse.

Here’s an airplane. Argue with that. I just saved your kids life with penicillin. Argue with that. Here’s a mushroom cloud. Polio vaccine. A guy walking around on the moon. Argue with those.
But when those inarguable triumphs stop coming, the anti-science people come back and begin making inroads to a degree educated people can’t even comprehend. For example by denying that the moon landing has ever happened.
So it’s entirely plausible that a 100 years from now, it may be believed by 99 percent of all the people in the world, that the moon landing were a hoax. And the idea, that they actually happened may have the status of a totally marginalized conspiracy theory. [.. ] And there are people who are actively working on making that happen.

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„Leyrers Online Pamphlet“ ist die persönliche Website von mir, Martin Leyrer. Die hier veröffentlichten Beiträge spiegeln meine Ideen, Interessen, meinen Humor und fallweise auch mein Leben wider.
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