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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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  • Really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:12PM (#39740919)

    Inflated sense of self-worth alert

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by multiben (1916126)
      ^This. Don't worry Neal, your works are, at best, forgettable distractions.
      • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:54PM (#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

        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:06PM (#39741765)

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

          I see that Strunk and White must have harmlessly bounced off the impenetrable fortress of your mind.

        • by anubi (640541) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @11:47PM (#39742563) Journal
          Taco Cowboy... you didn't waste any time getting to the very core of why anybody would mess with STEM.

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

          Your devotion to science is driven by the same faction that drives mine.

          We had a discussion on Slashdot a few days ago of correct test answers being marked as wrong. [slashdot.org] It was full of very interesting comments.

          If there is anything discouraging STEM, its not Neal. He's not even on the radar screen.

          Slashdot brought the dragon right out for everyone to see.

          How can we get our kids interested in science, which revolves around a lot of diligent work searching for truth, only to find the rewards start out with being called the teacher's pet, progressing through "being a Boy Scout", "not a 'team player'", then forcible unemployment because one feels obligated to "do that which is right"?

          The comments here on Slashdot reinforced my observation that "being liked" is far more financially productive than "being right". No wonder the kids see through it.

          I got canned for standing up for what I thought was right.

          Many others had the same experience.

          Like religion, rejection based on your beliefs comes with the territory. A manager may want something based on how well a salesman did his job, whereas an engineer may reject it based on his experience of seeing stuff like that fail in the field. Political power ultimately rules.

          From what I can tell, this country no longer needs STEM workers, as other countries can do this much cheaper than we can. I am amazed at all the high-tech parts I can get from aliexpress.com .

          And I am also alarmed that a lot of datasheets I am interested in are in Chinese. I have disassembled several Chinese Lithium Ion battery chargers and noted how cleverly they were made - with Chinese house-numbered parts, no less.

          We cultivate a need for financial professionals, lawyers, insurance, and real-estate investment. Look at our tax laws - they really cream anybody earning a buck.

          I don't blame businesses for not trying to innovate in the USA.

          I am afraid to try as well. No sooner than I produce and try to sell anything, I will get sued - if for nothing more than paralyzing me until I financially die. This is on top of all the paperwork IRS requires of anyone that actually tries to DO anything in this country. Our Congress passes so much frivolous special-interest law that no-one can do anything without exposing themselves to lawsuits. Only the financially strongest can survive at that game.

          We may still love science, But we find something else to do for a paycheck.

          No, Neal, you are not killing STEM.

          Our system is.

          • by CaptSlaq (1491233) on Friday April 20, 2012 @08:24AM (#39744937)

            How can we get our kids interested in science, which revolves around a lot of diligent work searching for truth, only to find the rewards start out with being called the teacher's pet, progressing through "being a Boy Scout", "not a 'team player'", then forcible unemployment because one feels obligated to "do that which is right"?

            To quote (of all people) Indiana Jones: [science] is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.

            Pedantic? Perhaps. Science should be.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by nordee (104555)

        Bullshit article title.

        I was there. He prefixed most comments with "I don't want to be prescriptive to future authors" or "It's dangerous to make predictions because they were often wrong." He certainly never claimed, or even insinuated, that he was partly or even mostly responsible.

    • Not necessiarly (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:30PM (#39741065)

      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. 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.

      Media can influence culture, and sci-fi can for sure influence geeks. That doesn't mean that authors should necessarily take it on as some kind of personal responsibility, but there's something to be said for Utopian fiction and it does seem to be in somewhat short supply these days.

      • by WaywardGeek (1480513) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:46PM (#39741189) Journal

        Neal's books totally rock. He's one of the most influential sci-fi writers out there. There's exactly one book I read with my Dad, Cryptonomicon, and it was so cool that I build a hardware random number generator, and he wrote some software for one-time-pad encryption, and we had fun sending each other stupid e-mails that no one would ever be interested in decrypting, but they couldn't if they tried. Actually I sometimes wonder if our super-secure little unknown communication channel caused some poor NSA dweeb to have to listen to our phones for a year or two. If so... sorry!

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

        by dpilot (134227) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:48PM (#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.

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

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:18PM (#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."

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

            by sg_oneill (159032) on Friday April 20, 2012 @01:25AM (#39742957)

            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."

            It reminds me of the old Judge Dredd comics (well I guess they still make em, I havent really read em for a decade). In the back there would always be a letters to the editor where fans would write in to say what they liked and didnt like in the various 2000AD strips. Regularly however you'd get kids writing in and drooling about how awesome Dredd is and how cool living in megacity 1 would be. The editors would absolutely flip it at them, because the kids where missing that whilst Dredd had redeeming qualitys he was still an authoritarian fascist and megacity 1 was a terrible distopia that no sane person would actually WANT to live in.

            What scares me, is that is the diminishment of of the intellectual and structural independence of the judiciary (seriously america, you need to get rid of voting for your judges, it sounds like a good idea on paper, but its brought you the phenomena of conservative and liberal judges that would be mystifying anywhere else. remember if election funding can corrupt politicians it can corrupt judges too). This , combined with the growth of the surveilance state, and all the various technologies of discipline , we're actually turning , slowly, into that very distopia 2000AD warned us about.

            Its quite scary, but worst of all, some people actually want it.

            I think however, SCI-FI authors *should* write about distopias, because its one of the few ways we can really play out the various scenarios in our head and take control over whether technology is indeed going to be a liberating force, or instead our shiny new ball and chains.

        • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:32PM (#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.

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

          by ozmanjusri (601766) <(moc.liamtoh) (ta) (bob_eissua)> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:08PM (#39741775) Journal

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

          Earlier than that.

          Try Philip K Dick or Harlan Ellison for size.

          • dpilot mused:

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

            to which ozmanjusri responded:

            Earlier than that.

            Try Philip K Dick or Harlan Ellison for size.

            Earlier than that.

            Try H. G. Wells for size.

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

          by Grishnakh (216268) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @11:06PM (#39742327)

          Sci-fi is a reflection of contemporary culture and its view of the future. Back in the Star Trek days, westerners had a pretty optimistic view of the future. After all, they had just launched people into space, and were about to land them on the moon. Even back in Verne's day, people had very optimistic views of the future (they didn't anticipate two world wars) and the benefits to society that technology would bring. Finally, back in the Star Trek days, people were willing to spend money (through the government) to pursue big projects like this. Now, they're not. Extrapolating from present trends, the idea that humans (at least from western nations) are going to go anywhere beyond LEO anytime in the next 200 years is folly. The idea that society is going to collapse and kids are going to fight each other to the death in gladiatorial combat is far more realistic. Sci-fi authors are simply extrapolating from current trends, and correctly so.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Black Parrot (19622)

          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.

        • by Geof (153857) on Friday April 20, 2012 @03:08AM (#39743475) Homepage

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

          At least not in my opinion. In classic dystopias like 1984 or Brave New World, there is virtually no space left for individual freedom and choice. Cyberpunk, however, is all about the spaces in between in which individuals can make choices and possibly change things. Philosopher Andrew Feenberg agrees:

          The world Gibson describes is grim but not strictly speaking dystopian. It is true that elites rule it with immensely powerful means, but those means are so complex that they give rise to all sorts of phenomena over which no one really has control. There are many small openings through which a clever hacker can enter the system and commit a variety of unprogrammed deeds. The future is not clear but may yet be altered by human action on the network. (Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory, 1995, p. 140)

          The happy happy, joy joy world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, on the other hand, strikes me as truly static and dystopian. Nearly all cultural expression is centuries old. Every conflict can be solved through reason: there are no genuinely intractable differences of opinion or incompatible values among honest people. Only a totalitarian society could so thoroughly crush dissent and eliminate difference. I think I would go stark raving mad.

          I believe a better future is possible and worth fighting for, but compared to ST:NG I'd rather have Gibson's grungy cyberpunk any day. It is dirty, flawed, corrupt - but also iredeemably human. Its diversity and vigor are resistant to the totalitarian disease. The tragedy is that cyberpunk came true: but now we seem to be passing out the other side. A cyberpunk world might be a let-down beside visions of the future we once thought we would enjoy, but compared to many genuine possibilities it's possitively upbeat. Take a look at the world of Paulo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl, for example (which despite its fantastic elements feels right in the same way that Neuromancer once did) - though even he leaves a small space for hope.

          While I agree about the worth of utopian visians, I do not agree with the criticism of dystopian science fiction. The scholars of the Frankfurt School struggled to find an alternative to what they saw as a damaged society. When the human imagination limits itself to the realistic limitations of the world we live in, it serves to accept and conceal that world's flaws. Between the horrors of Stalinism and the alienation of capitalism, the Frankfurt scholars could not imagine an plausible alternative. So to find hope, they were deliberately negative. The injustices of the existing order pointed to the possibility of something better. Herbert Marcuse writes:

          The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal. At the beginning of the fascist era, Walter Benjamin wrote: It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us. (One Dimensional Man, 1964, p. 257)

          • by dbIII (701233)

            The happy happy, joy joy world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, on the other hand, strikes me as truly static and dystopian.

            Hence "Blakes 7" based around a Trek style universe by some writers that saw it the same sort of way.

      • 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.

        Media can influence culture, and sci-fi can for sure influence geeks.

        The problem is - work on mobile telephony long predates Star Trek. The first car phones were deployed in 1946! Not only that, but mobile communicators in SF predate Star Trek as well - witness the systems used by the crew of the Bell

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

        by Trogre (513942) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:01PM (#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 @09:19PM (#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 Alex Belits (437) *

          I do wonder what the zombie stories are all about, though...

          Effects of advertisement and other forms of brainwashing on motivation, combined with comment on lack of education and culture.

          Original zombies were commanded by the masters who "revived" the dead into them, and died again once their purpose is fulfilled. Now all they do is expand their ranks (by infecting others), hate everyone who is not a zombie, crave for something they don't seem to benefit from (brains), and act in the most primitive manner possible.

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

        by fearofcarpet (654438) on Friday April 20, 2012 @12:48AM (#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 identity0 (77976)

      I, presonally, blame George Lucas.

      Speilberg may be a co-consiprator.

    • It is not an inflated sense of self-worth that is the loci of his statements, but rather a sense of social responsibility that is so rare in this consumer-based society that it is in danger of becoming extinct.

      He has a valid point; most scifi today portrays a dystopian world, but that is not commentary on the future, but rather the present. The fictional writings of an era have always been heavily influenced by the emotions which surround the writers. Artists have long been the canary down the mine shaft..

      • Re:Really? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ATMAvatar (648864) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:41PM (#39741575) Journal

        If you were to ascribe blame to any particular group for the perceived slowing of innovation, the best target would be the lawyers. A dystopian future story pales in comparison to a stampeding herd of patent lawyers when it comes to stifling scientific and technological progress.

        You can't even daydream about something new without getting sued for infringing multiple patents anymore.

    • by rubycodez (864176)
      more people have read Stephson's books than have used desktop Linux.
  • by pluther (647209) <pluther.usa@net> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:15PM (#39740929) Homepage
    I think you're off the hook Mr. Stephenson.

    Remember all those people who caused the tech boom of the 90s grew up during a time when post-apocalyptic fiction was one of the most popular genres.

    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.

    But a lot of people still went into science and engineering...

    • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:26PM (#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 cpu6502 (1960974)

      They would have grown-up watching the original Star Trek (me, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) or the Next Generation Trek (younger folks). Those were both very positive influences showing that technology will improve the human condition. In fact given the ratings of 10% of U.S. households (about 9 million homes), I bet more people were watching trek than reading the negative sci-fi novels.

      • by Rennt (582550) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:37PM (#39741927)

        Thing is, I don't believe it's sci-fi's job to sell technology at all. Even the most positive stories should be tempered with a bit of pessimism.

        SF is supposed to ask questions about what technology does to society, and what that means to the society being changed... stories that are all sunshine and rainbows are nothing more then speculative fantasy.

    • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:36PM (#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 Shihar (153932) on Friday April 20, 2012 @12:34AM (#39742789)

      I was actually at his talk. He didn't discount the tech boom. His point is that the tech boom wasn't "big" science. If anything, it might have sucked some of the air out of the room for science. He was arguing that the Intertubes landed out our feet, everyone was like "wow, WTF is this and how can we use!?" and stopped doing a lot of other things. That is almost certainly true. We diverted a huge number of people who might otherwise have been "hard" scientist into working in and around the 'tubes. He was talking more about striving for grand science, not just what we call "tech".

      I have friends smart technical friends writing apps for cell phones. My most technically brilliant friends work for Google (an ad company) and Facebook (also an ad company). These people are near Savants with how scary smart they are, and their efforts are their brilliance is being funneled into figuring out ways to make you click on ads. For better or for worse, we have turned a huge portion of our most technical minds to working on shit that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't mean a whole a lot.

      Now, how much of that is a lack of optimism for the future and how much of it is that Google makes a fuck-ton of money? Eh, I think the money probably has more to do with it. That said, I wouldn't totally discount the subtle effect of sci-fi. I know sci-fi influenced me into going into engineering. I wanted carbon nanotube space elevators. The (delusional) dream of working on something like that is the only thing that lured me away from programming and into engineering. If not for sci-fi, there is a non-trivial chance that my path would have sent me down the road of making apps for people's cell phones instead of making the chips that go inside of them.

  • Lawyers (Score:5, Funny)

    by Nerdfest (867930) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:16PM (#39740933)

    He can try to claim credit, but I'm fairly sure lawyers are far more directly responsible, probably with MBA's being a close second.

  • by Datamonstar (845886) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:21PM (#39740981)
    If a Douglas MacArthur story shows up any time soon, I'm dumping everything outta The Crypt.
  • WTF dude (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Osgeld (1900440) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:21PM (#39740983)

    "the gloomy outlook prevalent in modern science fiction may be undermining the genre's ability to inspire engineers and scientists."

    or maybe its the fact you can get a business degree out of a box of crackerjacks and make more money with much less work sitting on your ass as a manager.

    • Re:WTF dude (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Friday April 20, 2012 @02:20AM (#39743247) Journal
      That's the problem right there: management is vastly overrated as a profession; it's interesting that moving into management is always perceived as a step up. I've seen plenty of managers expressing shock and horror at finding that some of their underlings make more than they do, and it seems that they've quickly moved to address that issue; it doesn't happen all that often anymore. Management is important and all that, but it does seem that somehow we got stuck in a loop with inflated egos pushing up inflated salaries and vice versa.

      Another problem is that a lot of companies seem to have problems coming up with good career paths for scientists and engineers. Especially career paths that don't end up in management. The other day, a fellow contractor working for my client asked me to provide input for his yearly appraisal. One section of the form was titled "future potential", where I was asked my opinion on what level the person would be able to attain in 5 years time, and what level he'd be at the top of his career. The choices were jobs like "programme manager", "department manager", "division manager"... the only option that didn't have the word manager in it was "CEO". And this is supposed to be a career path for an IT architect working for a tech firm?

      In general, techies are poorly understood, poorly managed, underpaid and not well respected. And all of these go hand in hand. Small wonder that young people are choosing other career options.
  • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:23PM (#39740993)

    For all his 80s and early 90s doom-and-gloom fiction, the future turned out to be pretty bright. TV and radio media is dying-out, being replaced with the instant gratification of the internet media. No need to wait until 8 o'clock to see your favorite show; or wait for MTV to play your favorite song; just watch it now online.

    People are talking directly to one another (okay typing to one another) and no longer believing the lies/blatant omissions coming from the old media. The press is once again the people, where it belonged all along. Things are being revealed that were never talked about before.

    We now have computers that fit in our pockets, but are ~1000 times faster than the computer Mr. Stephensen used to type his novels. Instead of being confined to just our local community of friends, we can met people of similar interests across the continent. (I've met all kinds of people through facebook -- common goal: Restore the bill of rights. End the wars. Balance the budget.)

    No the future's not perfect, but certainly better than the "I feel like slitting my wrist" future described by Neal.

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:45PM (#39741181) Homepage

      Gadget wise we're doing better.

      Real income for the majority of Americans and Europeans, the structure of society, the fundamentals of the economy, our infrastructure - not so much.

      Not to mention the upcoming specter of resource wars and our ever increasing tendencies towards a police state.

      We've changed our view of the apocalypse from nuclear Armageddon to the "Hunger Games" but it's still not a very rosy future.

  • Ugh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:25PM (#39741007)

    The people who think about becoming scientists are actually smart enough to discern at a relatively young age between sci-fi and reality. Survey how many smart kids who saw "Blade Runner" found that movie disenfranchised them about the future, or whether they just thought it was really cool.
     
    To some extent people don't want to be scientists because as a society we tend to devalue or outcast smart people and our children pick up on that, but to a larger extent it's because many scientists and engineers are severely underpaid for the many years of studying and training it takes to get in the field. One of my friends has spent 7 years of education, getting her Master's and PhD from one of the top schools in the country and having her thesis put in a top journal, and is now getting paid less than I made my first year as a severely underpaid software engineer at a start-up. She could have skipped school entirely and gone into the plumbing trade and her lifetime earnings would have improved. What do you expect when that's the case? (Also, many of the claims that we lack scientists and engineers are actually corporations who mean we lack cheap scientists and engineers, and are vying for H1Bs.)

    Stephenson should feel safe in the knowledge that he has not affected budding scientists and engineers in that way, and thankfully most of them will never have to deal with his writing that's as self-important as he seems to be. (After reading a little of his work, I thought/hoped I was done with him. Now he finds another way to be pompous and annoying.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:25PM (#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.

  • But, as you (painstakingly) reminded us in Reamde, you invented Google Earth. So there's that.

    I do blame you, though, for inspiring more geeks to goldbuggery. Tsk tsk.

  • by l0ungeb0y (442022) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:26PM (#39741019) Homepage Journal

    Seriously -- Snow Crash was alright and had it's place but Neal Stephenson is far from the technological catalyst he thinks he is.
    And frankly Neal should get stuffed for failing to recognize the darkness and dire warnings embedded in many of H.G. Well's stories that still have relevance today. If H.G. Wells can't stall progress and innovation -- who the hell is Neal to say he's even partly to blame?

    What I am convinced of is that I will never bother to read a single other book by Neal Stephenson -- I couldn't make it half way through Cryptonomicon before it got too boring and painfully long winded to read and Reamde, while at least starting out at a faster clip quickly devolved into a complete pile of contrived claptrap complete with Russian Mobsters who feel the need to explain themselves, a British Intelligence Agent who bangs everything she can and a Jihadi Terrorist who could double as a CNN Anchor.

    Perhaps we should tattoo "Massive Ego" to Neal's forehead.

  • But (Score:5, Funny)

    by sayfawa (1099071) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:26PM (#39741029)
    I only became a scientist so that I could be the one in control of a futuristic dystopia. Mind controls, genome engineered slaves, soylent, high-tech games to the death. I was really excited!

    But maybe that's just me.
  • by bug_hunter (32923) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:29PM (#39741049)

    Bring in a new Star Trek so we can have a sense of adventure and hope with future technology.
    Enough with the arrogant scientist tries to invent new source of power / robots / travel and causes mass explosions / killer robots / aliens to kill us all.
    Various treks did have issues with casting, plot, time-travel/hollodeck episodes, but it still always made me feel good about tomorrow.

    • i dont think so. i rather think freedom of speech is not just a recreational activity, it is vital to the ongoing survival of the human species. same for the other rights that suffer when all of space is controlled by a military dictatorship, aka, 'the federation'

      • by NiteShaed (315799) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:14PM (#39741379)

        same for the other rights that suffer when all of space is controlled by a military dictatorship, aka, 'the federation'

        You fail at Star Treks. The government is the United Federation of Planets, which has an elected President and representitves. It's not much different than today's democratic governments. Starfleet is the military/exploration arm of the Federation. Please turn in your geek card.

  • by jejones (115979) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:35PM (#39741097) Journal

    Mr. Stephenson, you're just part of a much larger bunch. Technophobic literature and movies have been around for a long time. The mad scientist has been a stock character since Frankenstein, and these days he's usually combined with today's other knee-jerk evildoer, the businessman. George Lucas wanting to show technology defeated by cute, fuzzy little commercial tie-ins probably had a lot more effect than your writings--again, with all due respect, and no indication of relative quality implied.

    How many films these days are masturbatory fantasies for the greens? Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Day After Tomorrow, The Hunger Games.... or TV series, like the History Channel's Life After Humans.

    All that said, you're right to the extent that you're certainly not helping. Once upon a time, Lloyd Biggle Jr. accurately said, as best I can recall, "Given a bunch of people in a sewer, mainstream literature will lovingly describe those who are content to stay there. Science fiction will write about those trying to get out." That's at best less true than it was.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by 0123456 (636235)

      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.

  • Stephenson is really great but he needs to tighten his prose up, big time! I'm a fan, but it's obvious he could cut a LOT of the fat out of his books.

  • he was a pessimist because he was a realist, and quite a lot of the stuff he wrote about came true.

    if we had more pessimists in the 1930s, the world would be in a lot better place.

    who were the optimists? they were the 'futurists', and they were allied with this new thing in italy called 'fascism' - the glorification of the machine of state, and the state of the machine.

    what is optimism in this age? "Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela. "My Country and the World" by Andrei Sakharov. "Cosmos" by Carl Saga

  • by trawg (308495) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:38PM (#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.

  • Human-phobic.

    I think there's ample evidence that technology is wonderful but the people using it just suck.

    Tech is advancing but our species isn't. We invented sharpened sticks to hit each other with to win food and mates and just generally let loose our ape rage.

    Now we use integrated circuits. Same shit.

  • No need to "reply" to Neal Stephenson that he is not personally responsible.

  • by paleo2002 (1079697) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:41PM (#39741151)
    I've always gotten the impression that the dark and dystopian futures prevalent in cyberpunk and related genres are the result of corruption and abuse of the power and potential of technology. They are a warning against what technology can become if not applied responsibly. Most tech-heavy sci-fi ends up being a warning against potential results of some new science and technology.

    Snow Crash . . . is basically reality now . . . Diamond Age is a better example. It portrayed two opposing views of nano tech implementation: centralized vs. decentralized production. Either way it demonstrated the potential of nanotechnology. And, hey, now we have people building 3D printers in garages and using them to make toys for their kids rather than enslave the underclass.
  • Don't get me wrong, I love his work.. But that's like saying The Terminator discourages roboticists from picking up a screwdriver. If anything it's spawned more because of the awareness of the field and how much of an influence it would have on our lives today.

  • The futures grim, but it has jack squat to do with science fiction stories. Instead it has to do with the cold hard realities of outsourcing and a lack of jobs. People don't want to go into a field without a future, especially when the people who would go into such a field tend to be more logic bound than passion bound to begin with. Why would anyone go into a field when society places no value in doing so?

    • by JustNiz (692889) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:14PM (#39741375)

      >> People don't want to go into a field without a future

      I can't think of a field that has more effect in making a more interesting future than software development. Well maybe stuff to do with physics and/or genetics but even that usually comes down to relying on software somehow.

      >> Why would anyone go into a field when society places no value in doing so?

      Because they love the work?
      Personally I went into software development because I couldn't conceive of doing anything else. The fact it pays better than average (or even at all) was entirely coincidental and lucky for me. It truly wasn't a factor in my career decision making. As a matter of fact I don't think I ever really made a decision to be a developer, as much as just continued to do what I do.

      I've observed that nearly always, people that choose software development only because they think it pays well:
      a) Have no intuitive feel for it, so mostly dont even understand how or why to write good code, let alone actually ever do it.
      b) Are often unhappy at work.
      c) Have changed their career path radically at least once.

      These type of people need to get into sales or something ASAP because their low quality work just gives the rest of us who are career professionals a bad image, and they will ultimately flunk out on their own anyway given enough time.

  • Pessimist (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @07:49PM (#39741207) Homepage Journal

    >> a "pessimist trying to turn himself into an optimist,"

    Yeah right, like that's gonna happen.

  • Dystopian or not, it always struck me as starkly pro-technology.
  • When I was growing up in the 60s the only ones in the school that didn't believe in evolution and the Earth being billions of years old were the couple of jehovah witness kids. Now we have members of Congress proudly proclaiming they are Creationists. Roughly a quarter to a third of the country is anti science which is a huge number of potential scientists and futurists. I'm sure many will pointy out that they aren't the mostly likely candidates for scientists but that's not entirely true because some scien
  • by netsavior (627338) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:03PM (#39741299)
    Nevermind the fact that Snow Crash inspired Google Earth [realityprime.com]
    It's not like that software is used by anyone.
  • by CosaNostra Pizza Inc (1299163) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:27PM (#39741477)
    I am a fan of some of his works. Actually, I'm a fan of good sci fi literature in general but "Snow Crash" is among my favorites. I have yet to read the sequel. Anyway, I think its noble but misguided for him to foot some of the blame because I don't see how it could in any way shape or form be his fault. His novels are often dark and distopian but I never came away thinking his novels convey a message to eschew science and technology.
  • dystopian sells (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Khashishi (775369) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:30PM (#39741495) Journal

    A good story needs some source of conflict; otherwise, there's just nothing to talk about. For hard science fiction, generally, the science and technology is going to be a primary focus of the novel; the author invents a setting and visualizes how real actors would respond in such a setting. Thus, the setting drives the plot. Therefore, it's only natural that the technology is going to be a source of tension. If you look for other sources of tension, like interpersonal problems, then you might just end up with a space opera.

  • by Qbertino (265505) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @08:37PM (#39741553)

    Sorry, but, the over-the-top story aside, I find the diamond age to be rather an utopia than anything else.
    I wouldn't care to much if the world went that way.
    Just give me my matter compiler. :-)

  • by Leuf (918654) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @09:30PM (#39741889)
    George RR Martin is doing a good job of making us not want to let the world go back to a feudal society. Or have dragons. Apparently before you can take over the world with them first you have to raise them and send them to college and 8000 pages later you still haven't done anything with them.
  • Who needs to read about technological dystopia anyway? We're too busy living in it.

  • Go back 83 years, s/Neal Stephenson/Erich Maria Remarque/ and s/Science/German Militarism/ .

    That'll tell you how much influence fiction writers have.

    Also, anyone who doesn't know that fiction is, well, fictional shouldn't be in science to start with.

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