Science

Virginia Postrel: Why Neal Stephenson, Peter Thiel Are Wrong About the Future

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Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel has a great piece up at Bloomberg View. She notes recent books by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson and libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel that "lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed." Cue Apollo program nostalgia.

But as Postrel shows, the idea that we were somehow more upbeat about the future when the baby boomers were still wet behind the ears isn't ahistorical:

Americans in the mid-20th century were not in fact sanguine about the future. Anxieties about the march of technology were common. In February 1961, a statistics-filled Time magazine feature warned that automation was wiping out jobs and, worse, "What worries many job experts more is that automation may prevent the economy from creating enough new jobs." At least nine episodes of the original "Star Trek" series were about threatening or out-of-control computers. (Still others involved menacing androids or ominous artificial intelligences whose exact nature was vaguely defined.) Movies such as "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and, of course, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) picked up the scary-computer theme. Nor was the space program as universally popular as we nostalgically imagine. Americans liked the moon race, but only in July 1969—the month of the moon landing—did a majority deem the Apollo program "worth the cost."

Thiel writes about the need to recapture a "definite future," one in which specific tasks are undertaken that can concretely succeed or fail (his book Zero to One, which I'm reading, is genuinely interesting). Stephenson is calling for "more interesting Apollo-like projects" and fiction that celebrates the bounty of possible futures. Postrel counters:

Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people—that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won't directly reap their benefits. They're even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction. 

The Knick

Postrel writes that people in the mid-20th century believed the future would be better than the present because they believed their present was better than the past. They either had emerged from a pretty brutal recent past or the memories of just how rotten things had been were kept alive via historical consciousness and other forms of storytelling. In many ways, we've lost that sensibility despite ongoing improvements that are both large and small in our daily lives. 

Storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress. The trick is not to confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive. The past, like the present and the future, was made by complicated and imperfect people. Recapturing a sense of optimism requires stories that accept the ambiguities of history—and of life—while recognizing genuine improvements.

Postrel also makes a compelling case for the TV show The Knick, which chronicles "decidedly flawed characters living in an exciting but brutal period and improving surgery through clever, risky and—by today's standards—often-high-handed medical procedures. 

The whole piece is well worth reading.

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  1. Couldn’t even spell her name right in the headline.

    Things were better when Postrel was still here.

    1. Fixed it with no h/t. Bastards.

      1. The URL still bears witness.

  2. Great shot of Ginnie, Nick.

  3. So Stephenson and Thiel are those enemies of the future she was talking about? And did you know Postrel wrote a book about the future and its?antagonists?

  4. Postrel writes that people in the mid-20th century believed the future would be better than the present because they believed their present was better than the past. They either had emerged from a pretty brutal recent past or the memories of just how rotten things had been were kept alive via historical consciousness and other forms of storytelling. In many ways, we’ve lost that sensibility despite ongoing improvements that are both large and small in our daily lives.

    Perhaps we’ve lost that historical consciousness because a large scale quasi-religious political movement has been promoting the contradictory views that America was the source of evil in the world, that our past was better than our present and that godverment will build utopia if only we let it.

    1. The only thing standing in the way of utopia are the kulaks, hoarders, and wreckers.

  5. I think one incredibly important thing to keep in mind that the “channeling” of technological progress into narrow computer-related areas is only partially an engineering matter.

    It’s largely a political and regulatory matter.

    In the world’s most advanced economy, for several decades now (ever since the Sandra Day O’Connor Betrayal), the only type of advancement that has been permitted is in software development.

    This is because software development can occur in the sort of pretty office complexes that local development boards want to see built.

    If you wanted to invest in technological advancement in any area of life that requires you to conduct your activities in buildings other than pretty office parks, you would have been stopped cold. For…decades, now.

    You would have to fight your way through a process designed to slow you down as much as possible and force you to kowtow to as much “community input” as possible. And the only people who can undertake activities on that kind of brutally slow timeline are existing, well-capitalized firms, or politically connected insiders – neither of which are groups that are well known for innovation or advancement.

    1. This is an excellent point.

      For instance, here in Western PA, we have been treated to several years’ worth of grandstanding from politicians and politically connected companies about how “manufacturing is making a comeback.”

      Well, that is not the case in Allegheny County, for instance, where the regulatory agencies have set up nearly insurmountable barriers to actual new manufacturing facilities that do not fit into a “light environmental footprint” mold. The only manufacturing that can get air permits is the type that fits nicely in a nondescript pre-engineered metal building in an industrial park. Forget anything that requires major process cooling, or heavy transport, or large bulk storage of hazardous chemicals as feed stocks.

      So the “manufacturing revolution,” if it happens, will be very limited.

  6. I remember growing up the future did seem much brighter and most people seemed more upbeat about it. Hey, we actually sent people to the moon back then and most of us thought we would have flying cars and cities on Mars by now. Instead we have ISIS and Ebola.

    I think Thiel is right.

  7. Big projects need big energy! Cut off the stupid windmills and solar cells. Build some big nuke plants and gas pipelines.

  8. To expand on other points made on this thread, often times, the really Big Ideas are strangled in the womb because our risk averse, environmentally correct, highly regulated society makes those things impossible, or downright illegal.

    We are now an Empire with entrenched political forces in every nook and cranny of life. Innovation is now the enemy.

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