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


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.