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Neal Stephenson Takes Blame For Innovation Failure 448

Posted by samzenpus
from the who's-to-blame dept.
itwbennett writes "Neal Stephenson is shouldering some of the blame for discouraging budding scientists and engineers, saying in a interview that perhaps the dark turn science fiction has taken is 'discouraging budding scientists and engineers.' For his part, Stephenson has vowed to be more optimistic. From the article: 'Speaking before a packed lecture theater at MIT yesterday, Neal Stephenson worried that the gloomy outlook prevalent in modern science fiction may be undermining the genre's ability to inspire engineers and scientists. Describing himself as a "pessimist trying to turn himself into an optimist," and acknowledging that some of his own work has contributed to the dystopian trend, he added "if every depiction of the future is grim...then it doesn't create much of an incentive to building the future."'"
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Neal Stephenson Takes Blame For Innovation Failure

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:25PM (#39741011)

    ...I left academia when I discovered that the world doesn't want to help itself, but to destroy itself with a new global religion called "the free market", being neither free nor much of a market.

  • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:26PM (#39741021)

    He's focused too much on America.
    From TFA:

    In fact, said Stephenson, we already have much of the fundamental technology we need to fulfill such science fiction ambitions as large scale solar power production, or routine space flight.

    Let's see what happens when China gets a man (or woman) on the moon.

    We've accomplished all the easy, flashy stuff.

    Now comes the not-as-easy-as-before-but-still-possible stuff. Like the first man (or woman) on Mars. Even if it is a one way trip for now.

    We're not focused on it because it takes the resources of at least one nation to do so. And we've already set the bar (man on the moon). But there are other nations.

  • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:36PM (#39741103)

    Between the cold war and the religious mania of the early 80s, "If Jesus doesn't get you, Oppenheimer will" was the phrase of the day.

    I find that a grim outlook actually makes me dig my heels in much more so. Five years ago, I wasn't too engrossed with privacy, politics or anything like that. These days, I seem to be going out of my way to make noise and generate resolve amoung the population. I think there is an element of Ying/Yang to it, the harder certain people will push to empower themselves or the folks that pay them, the more people will stand their ground.

    "Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." - Che.

  • by trawg (308495) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:38PM (#39741121) Homepage

    ...given programming legend Michael Abrash (now currently at Valve Software) just announced that he's currently researching wearable computing more or less as a direct result of Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash!

    His post [valvesoftware.com] on the Valve blog is really interesting and worth reading.

  • by 0123456 (636235) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:39PM (#39741137)

    I think a large part of the blame must go to publishers, who have apparently only been interested in 'literary' SF about dark characters (preferably written by raving socialists) over the last few years. This is probably why 60% of the best-selling SF e-books on Amazon were self-published, last I checked.

  • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:42PM (#39741163) Homepage
    You must live on an isolated mountaintop somewhere. The Indian and Chinese scientists and engineers I have worked with for decades have all been top notch, including all the new ones coming in now.
  • Re:Not necessiarly (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dpilot (134227) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:48PM (#39741197) Homepage Journal

    Yesterday on Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Edition spoke with an author about the rise in "dark fiction" for youth. There were many good points brought up, but it got me thinking off in another direction...

    As someone else here has mentioned, it isn't so much that there's dark fiction, there's always been dark fiction. I see a bigger problem in that the Utopian fiction (like Star Trek) has diminished. The overall tide has gotten significantly darker.

    I remember as a kid my first real book was "20,000 Leagues Under the See", which while it had dark elements, was really typical turn-of-the-century Utopian science fiction. Shortly after that, the WW-III nuclear apocolypse stuff typical of the time started moving into the mix. But even as that and environmental disaster sci-fi mixed in, the Utopian stuff was still present.

    To me the real tipping point seems to be as the "corporate dystopia" of which William Gibson and Cyberpunk was part. Around that time, the Utopian sci-fi started dropping off. In more recent years, I've started seeing more "end times" sci-fi, too. (Think "Terminal World", "Feersum Endjin", "The City at the End of Time", "Spin", to name a few.) Peter F. Hamilton and Iain Banks are still pretty optimistic, though with the latter, in "State of the Art" he made it pretty clear that Earth is not part of "The Culture."

    No, Stephenson isn't to blame, but he's participated in the problem, and hasn't been part of the solution.

    Personally, I think if the swinging pendulum, hope we're pretty much at the limit of the swing, and hope the whole system hasn't gone nonlinear or fallen off its bearings.

  • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:54PM (#39741237) Journal

    I am an avid scifi freak

    Have been reading scifi since 1960's, and still can't stop reading the stuff (including manga since late 1980's and animation nowadays)

    But my love of Science didn't emerge from my scifi reading habit

    My love of Science stems from my curiosity of what happens all around me

    The scifi genre is just like any other, there are good ones and there are real lousy ones, but no matter how good or bad the scifi is, it will never encourage or discourage me from exploring

    Nope, I just ain't gonna be influenced by a book

  • Re:Not necessiarly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:18PM (#39741407)

    To me the real tipping point seems to be as the "corporate dystopia" of which William Gibson and Cyberpunk was part.

    I recently ran into someone I hadn't seen for years, who used to be heavily into cyberpunk back in those days. I asked him how that was going, and he doesn't read or cosplay any of that any more. I asked why, and he said, "It's not fun any more, it's coming true."

  • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:32PM (#39741507)

    Horror works by capturing the fears of the majority at that point in time.

    Afraid of losing your job to a machine?
    Robot horror fiction.

    Afraid of being nuked by an enemy country?
    Radiation mutant horror fiction.

    Afraid of losing your middle class status?
    Dystopian future horror fiction.

    To correct the horror fiction you need to "fix" the underlying fear that is feeding it.

  • by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:46PM (#39741609) Journal

    Dystopian pessimistic works of sci-fi? There are warnings, and then there's just plain unwarranted slasher sci-fi. The Cold War saw a lot of post nuclear apocalypse settings. While some of the ideas (fish and boulders still raining down from a turbulent sky years later on the pitiful remnants of humanity) didn't hold up if indeed they ever made any sense back then, on the whole, these warnings were of incalculable value if they in any way helped persuade politicians not to turn the Cold War hot. For the latter, there are things like the Jupiter Effect, devastatingly destructive comet dust, and, dare I suggest, Snow Crash. Independence Day had a feel good element to it, but was a turkey. I haven't read Cat's Cradle, but from what I know of Vonnegut, I'm supposing Ice 9 is satire about the very thing I'm complaining about. Clarke regretted using psychic phenomena in Childhood's End. The trouble with a Mathusian novel such as The Mote in God's Eye is that it makes a big deal out of a problem that nature solved billions of years ago. However, it may be that our unprecedented advances have reopened this problem. Many of the natural mechanisms that prevent such catastrophic collapses, such as isolation and predation, don't seem to apply to us. Today, the idea of falling off the edge of the world is quaint and not taken seriously because (excepting a few cretins) we know worlds are not flat. Malthusian ideas may fall into that category in the future as we discover more mechanisms that prevent that. Grey goo and Jurassic Park are more plausible, but they get dramatic and push the idea to extremes that are ludicrous. If a single T. Rex somehow got loose, it wouldn't last an hour. Soon as modern weapons can be brought to bear, it's dead.

    There's also too-good-to-be-true sci-fi. The ramifications of the Star Trek transporter is one of those things that the story writers mostly refused to pursue because its powers would wreck havoc on the entire setting, to say nothing of the plots. Who needs a doctor when you can just beam from one pad to an adjacent pad, leaving behind any infectious agents and repairing any bodily damage, including aging?

    I've noticed that one thing sci-fi is out of touch with is copyright, and it seems deliberate. I suspect traditional publishers take a real dim view of any futuristic novel that has free copying as part of the setting. Star Trek con man Mudd is chastised for ignoring patents and copyrights. In Hyperion, which won SF awards, one of the characters is an author who wrote a work that was a big hit with AI computers. In the story, the computers paid for just 1 copy and handled distribution themselves. His publisher comments that copyright doesn't mean shit when dealing with AI. I don't know of any serious work that attempts to paint a dystopian future caused by the breakdown of copyright. If there was such a work, it'd make a fine example of stupidly dark sci-fi.

  • Re:Not necessiarly (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Trogre (513942) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @10:01PM (#39741729) Homepage

    The cell phone really did get inspiration from Star Trek communicators. There was an interview with one of the guys at Motorola who worked on it saying something along the lines of how he saw the communicator not as an impossible sci-fi gadget, but as a challenge to make.

    I always thought that was inspired by Maxwell Smart's shoe phone. Indeed, many baby boomers use the term "shoe phone" to refer to cell phones.

  • Re:Not necessiarly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shutdown -p now (807394) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @10:19PM (#39741835) Journal

    It seems more to me that themes in fiction tend to pick up the overall "attitude" of the society with respect to progress (and other things), rather than the other way around. There's probably some amplification effect from that, like your example with the engineer, but if you look at the timelines, progressive utopian fiction was generally following up on series of scientific breakthroughs - e.g. Star Trek was riding the wave of new tech with roots in WW2 that got appropriated for peaceful purposes. Before it, think of Jules Verne - sure, he did predict a lot of things to come, but his books were based more on the progress that he observed in his time.

    For another example, in the country of my birth - the USSR - science fiction (even of the "unofficial", underground kind) was largely optimistic. It had its share of social dystopias early on (like "We"), but after 60s or so, when the horrors of revolution and NKVD became history, no-one could come up with a credible "bad" scenario: the future was universally seen as a time of better things to come due to rapid scientific progress. After the country crashed, Russian sci-fi reacted by turning all doom and gloom: not even sci-fi dystopias, but alt history of all things became the most prolific genre...

    With that in mind, the current trend of dystopian sci-fi likely just reflects the overall "meh" attitude towards the prospects of our scientific development. I do wonder what the zombie stories are all about, though...

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Friday April 20, 2012 @12:00AM (#39742297)

    This is not completely off-base. If you've read any science fiction, you'll definitely notice the trend towards dystopias with pandemics, genetic engineering, energy crises, and overpopulation, especially in comparison to earlier sci-fi.

    I think it's because sci-fi has gotten older and more mature than it was in the 60s.

    Back then, people looked at what was going on in the space program, and extrapolated from that trend (humans went from riding horses to walking on the moon in less than a century) that the future would be a bright place: they acknowledged that some problems would pop up between now and then, such as overpopulation and genetic engineering (both of these were covered in 60s Star Trek; the latter being central to Khan), but that technology and improved social systems would overcome these problems.

    People at the time didn't realize that what would really happen would be that people would decide they'd rather not bother too much with pursuing science and technology (unless it helps them make fancy hand-held devices they can play games on), and certainly not with space exploration, because they'd rather spend money on wars over oil. And the naive ideas people had back in the 60s about social conditions improving have obviously turned out to be bunk, with much of western society turning back to Dark Ages-style fundamentalist religion. Nowadays, sci-fi authors are just looking at the way society has turned out over the last decade or two, and they're again extrapolating from current trends, and correctly surmising that our future is quite dark indeed.

  • Re:Not necessiarly (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Friday April 20, 2012 @12:31AM (#39742463)

    I see a bigger problem in that the Utopian fiction (like Star Trek) has diminished.

    Yes, what the galaxy needs is a Federation that puts strong Americans in charge (to rein in the temperamental Russian crew members) of ships to spread our culture (and their seed) throughout the galaxy.

  • Re:Not necessiarly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fearofcarpet (654438) on Friday April 20, 2012 @01:48AM (#39742847)

    While I certainly wouldn't say one person bears a large load of responsibility, don't knock the idea in general. Star Trek had some very real influence on geeks. They saw a Utopia in it that they'd like to see happened, and some worked towards it.

    I'm a research scientist and I was heavily influenced by Star Trek as a kid. That utopian world in which technology is a positive force for humanity and where rational thought and curiosity replace ignorance-based fear and militarism was a island of serenity in a small town full of bible-thumping, anti-intellectual fundamentalists. I consumed a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but Star Trek made a particular impression on me. When I was finally exposed to real-world science, I fell in love with Chemistry in my first year of college with cheerful optimism that I might help move the real world slightly closer to that fictional world. I even lobbied hard to name my son Jean Luc.

    I do, however, disagree with TFA; when I was in college we didn't have the Internet to tell us about every cute Nature or Science article, so we were left with our imagination and what we could photocopy in the science library. If anything, I think the danger for potential scientists now is that their opinions about what science is are being shaped too much by under-qualified "science journalists" writing pseudo-fiction about real research. It replaces the unbridled imagination and curiosity of young minds--which fiction reinforces--with an erroneous understanding of what modern science actually is. Worse, it emphasizes the unsubstantiated claims about potential future applications that have become a necessary part of the scientific literature (i.e., the chest thumping that under-funding research necessitates) which leads to disappointment when young people are exposed to actual research. This phenomenon culminates in a perception that science fiction--dystopian or otherwise--is even more realistic and fact-based than ever. I think what science fiction needs is more imagination.

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Friday April 20, 2012 @02:49AM (#39743071)

    As I told someone else, you're wrong. The number of fundamentalists in the US is at an all-time high, and they outnumber all the mainline Protestant denominations now. They're not more vocal, they're much more numerous. "Megachurches" didn't exist 50 years ago.

    And BSG wasn't about the future, it was about the past. And where are you seeing this optimistic "morning pulp"? I sure haven't seen any in the last 5 years. I can only think of one movie that was about humans in space: Avatar. All the other sci-fi has been about post-apocalyptic zombies.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Friday April 20, 2012 @03:26AM (#39743293) Journal

    If you want to know the details, the moderator asked him why people were pessimistic about technology, and whether science fiction authors had any role to play in shaping this viewpoint. Naturally, he said that science fiction (as a whole) could write optimistic futures to help inspire scientists and engineers.

    Which is interesting, but wrong, because it incorrectly assumes that the pessimism is misplaced, that the fault therefore lies with the public, and that the science fiction affected the public as a whole. In reality, people are pessimistic about technology in large part because it is so frequently misused and abused, which is largely because the @$^@#$& science fiction writers keep giving world governments ideas. 1984? TVs with webcams. Fahrenheit 451? Book burnings. Brave New World? Witness a public education system that no longer teaches us to question, a drug war resulting in huge subcultures that are shunned from society as a whole, or the mass high fructose corn syrup addiction that addles much of the public. The governments don't read these books and think, "It would suck if society were ruled in a draconian manner," but rather, "Society is going to be ruled in a draconian manner eventually, so I'd better take steps to secure my place at the helm." And this is why science fiction causes the public to become pessimistic about technology.

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