Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71)

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Mercatus Center
Jul 17 · 32 min read

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

TYLER COWEN: I am here today with Neal Stephenson, who is arguably the world’s greatest author of speculative fiction and science fiction. Welcome, Neal.

NEAL STEPHENSON: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me on your program.

COWEN: Let me start with some general questions about tech. We will get to your new book.

How will physical surveillance evolve? There’s facial surveillance, gait surveillance in China that’s coming to many airports. What’s your vision for this?

STEPHENSON: When you say physical surveillance, you just mean —

COWEN: They record your face, they know who you are, they track your movements.

STEPHENSON: Actually recording you while you’re wandering around somewhere, as opposed to tapping your phone, that kind of thing.

COWEN: And if you jaywalk, they’ll fine your bank account, and you’ll get a text message two minutes later.

STEPHENSON: Right. Well, I think it’s just going to be based on what people are willing to tolerate and put up with. There’s already something of a backlash going on over the use of facial recognition in some cities in this country. I think people just have to be diligent and be aware of what’s happening in that area and push back against it.

COWEN: Is there a positive scenario for its spread?

STEPHENSON: For it spreading?

COWEN: Right. Is it possible it will make China a more cooperative place, a more orderly place, and in the longer run, they’ll be freer? Or is that just not in the cards?

STEPHENSON: I’m not sure if cooperative, orderly, and freer are compatible concepts, right? Cooperative and orderly, definitely. People who are in internment camps are famously cooperative and orderly, but . . .

Freedom is a funny word. It’s a hard thing to talk about because to a degree, if this kind of thing cuts down, let’s say, on random crime, then it’s going to make people effectively freer. Especially if you’re a woman or someone who is vulnerable to being the victim of random crime, and some kind of surveillance system renders that less likely to happen, then, effectively, you’ve been granted a freedom that you didn’t have before.

But it’s not the kind of statutory freedom that we tend to talk about when we’re talking about politics and that kind of thing.

COWEN: Other than satellites, which are already quite proven, what do you think is the most plausible economic value to space?

STEPHENSON: It’s tough making a really solid economic argument for space. There’s a new book out by Daniel Suarez called Delta-V, in which he’s advancing a particular argument, which is a pretty abstract idea based on how debt works and what you have to do in order to keep an economy afloat. But I think it’s a thing that people need to do because they want to do it, as opposed to because there’s a sound business argument for it.

COWEN: Do you think, socially, we’re less willing or able to do it psychologically than, say, in the 1960s?

STEPHENSON: Well, the ’60s was funny because it was a Cold War propaganda effort on both sides. The whole story of how that came about is a really wild story that begins with World War II, when Hitler wants to bomb London. But it’s too far away, so he has to build big rockets to do it with. So rockets advance way beyond where they would have advanced had he not done that.

Then we grab the technology, and suddenly we need it to drop H bombs on the other side of the world. So again, trillions of dollars of money go into it, and then it becomes so dangerous that we can’t actually use it for that. Instead, we use that rocket technology to compete in the propaganda sphere. I once knew a grizzled old veteran of that ’60s space program who said that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph.

So that’s how that all happened, and it happened way earlier than any kind of rational economic argument could be made for it. I still think it’s the case that, if we’re going to do things in space, it’s more for psychological reasons than it is for money reasons.

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.

On social media

COWEN: You saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did in Seveneves. It’s also in your new book, Fall. What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolved? And what’s the institutional failure? Why do many people think they’re screwing things up?

STEPHENSON: I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.

And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

COWEN: But what’s the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

STEPHENSON: The problem seems to be the fact that it’s algorithmically driven, and that there are not humans in the loop making decisions, making editorial, sort of curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks.

As such, it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there’s also just a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people’s faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.

COWEN: If we go back to the world of 2006, where there’s Google Reader, there’s plenty of blogs, RSS is significant, algorithms are much, much less important — does that work well in your view? Or is the problem more deeply rooted than that?

STEPHENSON: Well, I think, at the end of the day, people are not going to agree on facts unless there’s a reason for them to do so. I’ve been talking about a really interesting book called A Culture of Fact by Barbara Shapiro, which is a sort of academic-style book that discusses how the idea of facts entered our minds in the first place because we didn’t always have it. Procedures were developed that would enable people to agree on what was factual, and that had a huge impact on culture and on the economy and everything else.

And now that’s, as I said, going away, and the only way to bring it back is, first, to have a situation where people need and want to agree on facts.

On what the future will look like

COWEN: Your idea of this smart book, which is in Diamond Age — do you think that will ever happen? There will be a primer that people use, and it’s online, and it will educate them and teach them how to be more disciplined?

STEPHENSON: A lot of different people have taken inspiration from The Diamond Age and worked on various aspects of the problem. It’s always interesting to talk to them because it’s sort of a classic “six blind men and the elephant” thing, where I’ll hear from someone who says, “Oh, I’m working on something inspired by The Diamond Age.” And I ask them what that means to them, and it’s always a little different.

Sometimes it’s how do we physically build something that could do what that book does? Sometimes it’s how do we organize knowledge, how do we set up curricula that are adaptable to the needs of a particular reader? It’s really not just one technology. It’s a whole basket of different hardware and software technologies, and people are definitely coming at that from various angles right now.

COWEN: What do you think stops it from happening? We don’t have the tech? Or just users aren’t interested, or what? What’s the constraint?

STEPHENSON: It’s just kind of distributed among a large number of different projects. There’s not any one big, centralized, this-is-it version of the thing, which isn’t necessarily bad. That’s a great way for people to spawn a lot of ideas and do a lot of decentralized work on a project, but nothing is pulling it together into the primer.

COWEN: In your early novels, like Snow Crash, Diamond Age, there’s a sense that states often have become quite weak. Do you think in reality, the state has ended up staying more powerful, for reasons which are surprising? Or you foresaw that?

STEPHENSON: I certainly didn’t foresee anything. In Snow Crash, in Diamond Age, I’m kind of riffing on a way of thinking that I saw quite a bit among basically libertarian-minded techies during the ’80s and the ’90s that was all about getting rid of the nation-state and reducing the power of nation-states.

If that was happening, I think it got flipped in the other direction, basically, by 9/11. When something like that happens, it immediately creates a desire in a lot of people’s minds to return to a more centralized, authoritarian nation-state arrangement, and that’s the trajectory that we’ve been on ever since.

COWEN: One of your very early books was called In the Beginning . . . Was the Command Line, about software. How do you think that’s held up?

STEPHENSON: Well, if you keep in mind when it was written, I think it’s held up OK. A lot of what’s in there is somewhat perishable. For example, I talk about an operating system called BeOS, which isn’t really a player anymore. So in that sense, parts of it are dated, but it’s good for what it is.

COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

COWEN: How bullish are you on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies? Do they have some kind of killer application? Or are they a novelty?

STEPHENSON: So far, it seems like they’re a bit of a solution in search of a problem. I think that the nonmonetary applications of distributed ledgers seem to be more interesting than just making money. When people want to talk to me about a new cryptocurrency, I tend not to be super interested in continuing that conversation. But when they want to talk to me about using distributed ledgers to enable some other kind of initiative, then frequently, it can get very interesting indeed.

When people want to talk to me about a new cryptocurrency, I tend not to be super interested in continuing that conversation. But when they want to talk to me about using distributed ledgers to enable some other kind of initiative, then frequently, it can get very interesting indeed.

I just had a conversation last night with a friend of mine here who’s looking at a really cool possible new application of distributed ledgers. Whether that distributed ledger is based on blockchain, I think, is a separate question. Blockchain seems to be a pretty complicated and expensive way of doing that.

COWEN: Here’s a reader question, and I quote: “Are you, in part or in whole, Satoshi Nakamoto?”

STEPHENSON: No. I saw that article last week on this topic, and I realized that the guy who’s writing it is largely just goofing, but I hope nobody takes it seriously.

It’s flattering that anyone imagines I’ve got the mathematical know-how needed to make something like blockchain. But if you look at how that system works, it requires a very high degree of cryptographic knowledge and coding skill that is beyond my abilities, certainly. And I definitely do not have the lifestyle of a person who has that much money.

On storytelling

COWEN: Now, you’re Neal Stephenson. What is the fundamental unique ability you have that maybe others do not?

STEPHENSON: I think it starts with storytelling and the ability to tell stories in prose. Then the particular angle that I bring to that is having some background in science, math, engineering, that enables me to write stories that are driven by those kinds of ideas and that can take advantage of inherently interesting things that I stumble across in those areas.

COWEN: How did you train yourself to learn storytelling?

STEPHENSON: I think that part of it begins with empathy because, in order to tell somebody a thing, you need to know and understand what it’s like to not already know that thing, which seems kind of obvious.

Little bit of a tangent here. For a while, my kid was on a soccer team, and we had a group of parents who would organize going to these different soccer games all over the city, each one at a different field. These different parents would write emails. This was before mapping systems were good, so parents would take turns writing emails, telling you how to get to the soccer field.

The range of skill was amazing. You would get people who just couldn’t do it, couldn’t make a very simple description of how to go from point A to point B, and others who wrote these amazing, almost like little short stories about it.

I started thinking about it then, and thinking that the thing that distinguished the people who were good at it was that they were capable of putting themselves in the shoes of somebody who didn’t know how to find that field and imagining what it would be like to try to navigate that route. And those people were good at it.

So I think that storytelling does begin with that kind of empathy. Then there’s more related skills that you can pick up over time by practice, just having to do with how you organize words on a page, how you edit, how you paste things, and so on.

COWEN: It seems we’ve entered an age of permanent secular innovation starvation. Why did that happen?

STEPHENSON: I think there are a lot of institutional barriers that have arisen. A lot of it, I think, seems to be well intentioned, but somebody was pointing out to me a little while back that the Golden Gate Bridge was built in a shockingly brief period of time compared to almost anything that we try to build today.

Another good example would be the Hoover Dam, which went up in no time. It also killed a lot of people, so as we become more cautious about not killing people, let’s say, during a given project, and not creating other bad side effects, that slows things down pretty radically. There are institutional systems in place now — most places — to limit those kinds of bad side effects, so it’s kind of a mixed bag.

COWEN: If someone says, “Well, tying everyone together with smartphones that you can Google to any piece of information within seconds, that that was a big project. It’s quite new. We succeeded at it rather spectacularly. There’s not actually innovation starvation.” What’s your response?

STEPHENSON: Well, you’re talking about a project that I worked on a couple years ago called Hieroglyph, which was all about this topic. My general stance on it is that yeah, when it comes to networks, computers, and so on, the amount of innovation has been unbelievable. It’s just been spectacular, and it’s because there’s so little friction.

When you want to innovate in those areas, if you know what you’re doing, you can sit down and you can write some code. You can achieve great things just on your own or just with a small team. Then the cost of shipping — that manufacturing and shipping is basically zero because bits are free.

So, innovation in those areas is definitely amazing, but I think it’s had the side effect that if you are an innovation-minded person and you want to do something new, you always end up finding your way, sooner or later, into implementing whatever it is in software. And if you can’t do it in software, then things slow to a crawl, comparatively, and you’ve got to be ready for a lot of frustration and obstacles.

COWEN: Will the arrival of some future general-purpose technology fix that? Say robots? Or is that just how the world will be forever?

STEPHENSON: Well, we have to make innovation in the physical sphere into something that we’re good at, and I think that is happening. I personally enjoy working with modern makerish technologies, like 3-D printers, and other . . . let’s call them physical technologies that have been greatly enhanced and sped up by mixing software into the tool chain.

So that is definitely going on, but it seems to me, sometimes, that hobbyists — people who do things, who build things because they’re passionate about it — can get a lot done in a hurry. But as soon as you start to involve capital and profit-and-loss statements and so on, that, again, the rate of progress can slow down quite a bit just because people are so concerned about patents and protecting IP and how do we turn a profit from this, how do we create shareholder value?

COWEN: Given your focus on the Puritans and the Baroque Cycle, do you think Christianity was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution, and that’s why it occurred in northwestern Europe? Or not?

STEPHENSON: One of the things that comes up in the books you’re talking about is the existence of a certain kind of out-communities that were weirdly overrepresented among people who created new economic systems, opened up new trade routes, and so on.

I’m talking about Huguenots, who were the Protestants in France who suffered a lot of oppression. I’m talking about the Puritans in England, who were not part of the established church and so also came in for a lot of oppression. Armenians, Jews, Parsis, various other minority communities that, precisely because of their outsider minority status, were forced to form long-range networks and go about things in an unconventional, innovative way.

So I guess my answer is sort of, cautiously, yes, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. It’s not the big, established churches that necessarily led to this, and it’s not Christianity per se, because not all of these people were Christians. But it’s the circumstances that made it possible for these weird outsider groups to find footholds in various niches and do new things.

COWEN: Why did God knock down the Tower of Babel? And if we build a very, very tall building today, will he do the same again?

STEPHENSON: I don’t think so. It could fall over for a number of reasons, but probably not because God knocks it down, although there’s only one way to find out. I think we should totally build that tower.

I have to use this opportunity to quote danah boyd. She’s a researcher at Microsoft Research. I was corresponding with her last week, and she made the point that . . . Snow Crash talks specifically about the Tower of Babel myth, and danah was saying that a lot of people who started tech companies were inspired and wanted to build something like the Metaverse in Snow Crash, but it turns out that, instead, they built the Tower of Babel. They created a situation in which we’re unable to talk to each other.

COWEN: Here’s another reader question, and I quote: “The major Stephenson trope seems to me to be the single person or small group that is wise to tech or science overcoming large, tech-based adversaries, who are blind to their vulnerabilities, from the hero of Zodiac to the raiding team in Anathem, with many others in between. What is his theory of why large organizations are so bad at managing the low-level tech? Or is it just a literary device that does not hold true in practice?”

STEPHENSON: I think it’s largely the latter. It’s a great literary device. It’s hard to write a compelling story about a giant organization. It’s a lot easier to write one about a small group, where you’ve got different personalities interacting with each other, and you get to know them as individuals. I think actual real-world examples of that happening are somewhat few and far between.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Now, in the middle of all these conversations, we have a segment, overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out some nominations. You give us your response. You’re free to pass, but the first one is Leibniz as a philosopher.

STEPHENSON: I have to say underrated on the whole, mostly because of the backlash that he got from people like Voltaire, who didn’t get him, and Kant, who kind of took him down. I think he’s enjoyed a resurgence more recently, but definitely underrated in the couple of centuries after he died.

COWEN: But given that today there seems to be no coherent theory of quantum gravity, is it possible that his core hypothesis of windowless monads to solve cosmology . . . could it in some way turn out to just be correct?

STEPHENSON: There are physicists who are working on ideas that are inspired by that. It’s not an idea that he reduced to a mathematical theory in the way Newton did with his. So you have to question whether it’s really a theory at all or just a cool idea that could lead to a theory, but I guess time will tell.

COWEN: Survivalists — overrated or underrated? There’s plenty in America, plenty in the Pacific Northwest, right?

STEPHENSON: Yeah. It depends on what aspect of them we’re rating here. I know some, and they definitely have got a wide range of skills above and beyond just shooting things with guns, but I don’t necessarily agree with their overall take on just about anything.

COWEN: The Charles Dickens novel Bleak House.

STEPHENSON: I would say underrated because it’s got just crazy, random stuff in it that you almost can’t believe that you’re reading it. There’s a case of spontaneous combustion in it. There’s a character who, with no warning, just dies from spontaneous combustion. No explanation. It just happens.

COWEN: Is Dickens an influence on you?

STEPHENSON: Oh yeah, he’s totally an influence as a prose stylist, and as someone who’s . . . We think of Victorian novels as a kind of stodgy, old-school way of writing, but he was all over the map in terms of nutty, random things that he would put into his books.

COWEN: The science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon — underrated or overrated?

STEPHENSON: Pass.

COWEN: The novels of Robert Heinlein. Are they still readable today, or are they simply of their time?

STEPHENSON: Well, they’re certainly of their time, but I find that of all of the science fiction writers that I read when I was a kid, his stuff has stayed with me more than others because he had this knack for capturing little moments, little human interactions, and images that produced really vivid memories in my head that are still with me.

COWEN: Morse code — overrated or underrated?

STEPHENSON: Currently underrated, I guess, because people aren’t really using it much, but very important in its time.

COWEN: Which ideas, or which areas of life, do you feel right now are not sufficiently thought about? Not enough pondered?

STEPHENSON: People have a hard, hard time — even pretty fairly educated, smart people have a really hard time with statistical thinking and probability. There’s any number of . . . Well, a classic example is global climate change, where people have a hard time distinguishing between climate and weather.

But that’s just one example of a really common thing, which is that there are a lot of things that, really, the only rational way to think about them is to think about them in terms of statistics, but that just doesn’t come naturally to people.

COWEN: Why are so many people so lonely today, as David Brooks often suggests? We have the internet. There’s more people than ever before. More people live in cities or populous suburbs. Yet —

STEPHENSON: I guess I’m not convinced, necessarily, that they are more lonely than they were before. That might be true. It sounds plausible, but I don’t know that for a fact. Definitely, more traditional societies — you’re kind of living together in more crowded places with family and community, which is all well and good if you happen to like those people and they treat you well.

Many cases in which that doesn’t happen, and if that’s the situation you’re in, then being able to live alone may be a big improvement.

COWEN: When a society becomes more secular, as has been happening, what replaces religion for the average person, if anything?

STEPHENSON: Superhero movies.

COWEN: And are those good — superhero movies?

STEPHENSON: Well, they’re not all good, but they . . . I seriously think that pop culture, Lord of the Rings is —

COWEN: Neal Stephenson, perhaps?

STEPHENSON: Well, I don’t know about him, but the Lord of the Rings — that whole world has become something approaching a secular religion for a lot of people. It’s not that they literally . . . Well, some kind of literally believe it, but even those who don’t, draw from it a lot of the same lessons and inspirations that, say, a devout Christian might draw from reading the Bible.

COWEN: In your new book, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, what do you see is the implicit theology of that book?

STEPHENSON: It’s based on the question of, could it be the case that the world we live in is a digital simulation, which is something that people have pondered. What happens in the book is that a new digital simulation is created as a sort of digital afterlife for people to live in, and it raises the question of, is it turtles all the way down? Are we living in a digital simulation and creating our own digital simulations inside of it? And if so, how deep does that stack go?

What happens when these dead people begin to create a virtual world to live in in the afterlife is that they end up recapitulating a lot of the myths and the legends and the religious tropes that they dimly remember from this world. It gets to the question of, do we have a psychological need for those things, such that when they’re taken away from us, we have to kind of rebuild them from scratch?

COWEN: What do you think of the Bayesian argument that we probably are, in fact, living in a simulation; that if every society of a sufficiently advanced level creates a large number of simulations, and you work back, using the Bayesian calculus, then we’re probably in one. We’re more likely simulated than a future simulator. Or maybe we’re both, but at least we are in a simulation.

STEPHENSON: Well, I’m not sure if it makes a difference. We’re definitely here either way, so it’s definitely an interesting notion. In a way, it’s the jumping-off point for Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.

I also drew a lot of ideas from a book by David Deutsch called The Fabric of Reality, which talks about a number of things. But one of the things he talks about is how much computing power would be needed to simulate the universe that we see around us to a full level of fidelity, such that we never see glitches, we never see anything that’s imperfectly rendered. He sort of heads in the direction of saying that it would take the entire universe to do that.

COWEN: That’s, in essence, like the medieval cosmological argument that we’re all a simulation in the mind of God, and that is the universe, and it’s all devoted to a kind of calculation of what we are, ontologically so and necessarily so.

STEPHENSON: Yeah, so it’s that, kind of recast in a more physics-based, computer science–based mold.

COWEN: And if you were somehow convinced that was true, or thought it very likely to be true, would it change anything in your behavior?

STEPHENSON: I don’t know. A lot of