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NASA Space Science Technology

Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation' 437

Geoffrey.landis writes "In an essay discussing the space program, author Neal Stephenson suggests that the decline of the space program 'might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.' He suggests that we may be suffering from innovation starvation: 'Innovation can't happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.'" Though the context is different, this reminds me of economist Tyler Cowen's premise that the U.S. has for decades been in a Great Stagnation.
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Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation'

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  • Its the war (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sgt scrub ( 869860 ) < minus punct> on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:37PM (#37613868)

    The space program was killed in the 70's because of the Vietnam war. Carter tried to return the U.S. to a space and science society but got caught up in the beginning of the newest form of war.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:37PM (#37613882) Journal

    Sounds a lot like today.

  • by IWantMoreSpamPlease ( 571972 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:41PM (#37613924) Homepage Journal

    Back then, we didn't molly-coddle everyone and give medals to everyone for participation. We rewarded only the winners, the brave, and left the rest in the dust.

    Then liberals (note the lower case useage please) took over the schooling systems and have been doing their damnedest to make everything "fair", and as such, we have a generation afraid to take risks, expect to be rewarded for being mediocre, and generally a failure, yet have a massive ego issue. It's not wonder we are where we are these days.

  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:43PM (#37613970)

    The period that Stephenson identifies with a decline in the ability to get 'big' things done coincidence near perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism in the west

    I believe you mispelt 'big government welfare statism'.

  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:51PM (#37614070)

    Really? Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were proponents of "big government welfare statism" were they?

    Yes. Reagan called it 'military spending', while Thatcher increased welfare spending during her time as Prime Minister; and, even if they hadn't been welfare statists, they were only in power for a few years of the last forty.

    But don't let reality spoil a good rant.

  • by medcalf ( 68293 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:57PM (#37614186) Homepage
    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as "bad luck."
  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:58PM (#37614190)
    He just accused the educational establishment (and the supposed 'liberal' forces behind it) for stifling human innovation. Its an extraordinary claim, not only lacking extraordinary evidence but lacking any evidence at all. Why shouldn't I talk to such a cretin like he is a child? There is no onus on me to disprove something he hasn't proved in the first place!
  • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:01PM (#37614234) Journal

    I don't see the evidence. I see plenty of cases where we can't get things done because the "rules" don't allow it. All they way down to the girl down the street can't open a Day Care or a Hair Salon because compiling with Government requirements written in by existing rent seeking industry or liberals who put risk avoidance ahead of basic pragmatism always seeking to eliminate any personal responsibility from everyone.

    We have never ever "deregulated" anything! Financial deregulation did not make it any more possible for me and few neighbors to get together and open bank! What it did was simply remove oversight from a group "winners" government had already picked, and continued to preserve them with barriers to entry.

    Real deregulation would be just that it would be repealing laws, WITHOUT writing new ones. Its never been tried, on any kind of scale. Still everyone points at "deregulation" as some failure of libertarian policy ideas when what the "deregulation" that has actually occurred does not even remotely resemble what and real libertarian would call deregulation!

  • Re:You bet. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:02PM (#37614240)

    We don't protest the success of the top 1% richest people, we protest the inequality in the division of rewards of success. []

  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:02PM (#37614250)

    But at the same time, I don't like the idea that if I spend a year of my time developing something, someone else can spend 2 weeks making a slight improvement and start selling it.

    If your idea is so simple that someone else can copy it and improve it in two weeks, why should you have the armed might of the state preventing them from doing so?

    If I also spend a year of my time developing the same idea, but complete my work a week after yours, why shouldn't I have the same rights you do? I spent all that time and now you're saying I can't use my own invention just because you finished a few days earlier?

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:04PM (#37614282)

    My entire life (born 1981) has been a history of market deregulation, so don't come at me with all that 'government gets in the way' horseshit. Deregulation has not protected pre-appointed 'winners', otherwise the dot com bubble would never have happened. Government has been rapidly getting out of the way for 3 decades plus, and the result has been a market running out of control with greed and bad information (which, according to the prophets of neoliberalism, shouldn't happen)

    Libertarians have their ideal, utopian state - its called Somalia. Kindly go live there.

  • Re:dotcom (Score:2, Insightful)

    by marnues ( 906739 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:05PM (#37614286)
    The dotcom world is a service sector based on solid technology. It is not a manufacturing sector and the hardware necessary is not manufactured here, let alone requires anything like a big R&D project. The Internet/WWW are another conclusion of refining technologies developed in the 40s and 50s. Very big and important in a social context, but it is not itself a moon landing or a smallpox vaccine. Cowen's belief is the Internet will enable us to create a new big thing. The new big thing must be real innovation, something novel, not just an improvement of communications systems.
  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:11PM (#37614368)

    If they are so obvious, the evidence should abound, and you would be able to cough some up. You can't, so I'm calling bullshit on your paranoid ignorance. I'm also going to take a wild guess, and say that you've never worked in a school?

  • Re:You bet. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by stdarg ( 456557 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:24PM (#37614528)

    Keep in mind the top 1% is over 3 million people in America alone. You honestly think many of those 3 million people invented "absurd financial ponzi schemes with other peoples money" ??

    More realistic reasons:
    - their families sacrificed a lot to send them to medical school or law school
    - they sacrificed a lot to start a new business that became successful
    - they got lucky

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:27PM (#37614574)

    Its not a state, its a petition. You can try and create your pathetic little Galt's Gulch if you want, but after you've realised that you aren't quite the innovators you've convinced yourselves you are, and that you rely heavily on public goods, you will come crawling back.

  • Re:You bet. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:28PM (#37614584)

    Yeah, those CDOs with the fake AAA credit rating were some scary shit. For a second there the 1%ers were at a huge risk of missing out on their multi-million dollar bonuses.

    And the Koch brothers, they took a major risk inheriting millions from their father and then took huge risks with other people's lives and health by skirting laws and regulations put in place after the risk takers before them risked other people's lives and health and lost, well, the people living and working around the risky operation lost not the 1% risk takers.

    There are many 1%ers who are taking personal risks in beneficial efforts, Steve Perlman, the guys around start ups like SpaceX, etc. But there are many more who are taking risks where failure is more of a loss for those around them than a failure of their own. The risking of everyone else for non-innovative based gains is part of the basis for the protests. You probably realize the protests aren't actually protesting success but acknowledging the destructive actions of a fair number of the 1%ers doesn't quite work for your snarky comment.

  • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:34PM (#37614650)

    To be fair to damburger, the OP's baseless rant is repeated so many time by brain dead people who can't be bothered with facts that it is easy to become testy after refuting it a few thousand times. It starts with creating a fantasy enemy that bears no relation to anything in reality and applying a label used by people who disagree with you, in this case 'liberals'. Then you claim the fantasy enemy did some horrible thing that never happened, in this case "taking over" the education system.

    So damburger's response may be blunt, but it is totally correct to ask for even a tiny shred of evidence to support the outlandish claims.

  • by jklovanc ( 1603149 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:00PM (#37615040)

    ICBMs contributed to launch vehicle technology which contributed to satellite technology which contributed to a lot of things.
    Yes there were a lot of money spent on things that are now obsolete due to the end of the cold war. There were also a lot of things that may never have been built without it. GPS is an excellent example of this. It was originally a Defence Department project because the military needed a way to target munitions accurately and to track it's assets. Private companies have tried and failed to put up satellite constellations, think Uridium, but the Government paid for GPS and ensured that it worked. Another major project that was advanced by the military was the US Interstate system. There was a lot of opposition to paying for the system but the defence department chipped in quite a bit because one of the considerations in the placement of these highways was the movement of troops and materials during time of war.

    Look at all the things that come out of DARPA []. Many DARPA technologies are now in civilian use.

    Yes, there has been a lot of money spent on the military in the 20th century. It is also debatable whether or not it was a waste. Is it a waste for a bank to spend millions of dollars on a safe that will never be attacked by thieves because the thieves know they can never get in? I have a saying; any state not sufficiently protected by military assets will soon become the property of another state. Were the Trident submarines a waste? Maybe. Did Trident submarines ever fire a nuke in anger? No. Did they deter the USSR from attacking the US and the countries it protects? Maybe.

  • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:38PM (#37615564)

    OK, I understand the difference between American and European usage of the word "liberal" (in Europe "liberal" is center-right, in the US "liberal" is "center-left" [which is "extreme left" to many USians and still pretty right-wing in European eyes]; from the context it is clear that you're talking about American liberals), but what is the difference between "liberal" and "Liberal"?

    The OP's intended meaning of liberal is anyone who disagrees with him, and the usage generally follows other terms that describe an intentionally undefined enemy like "them" and "illuminati". What caused these problems? Them.

  • by Baron von Daren ( 1253850 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:51PM (#37615736)

    I don’t think it is as much an issue of innovation as resource outlay. We live in a world where profit is the prime motive, and thus the prime value. This is fine for markets, but this mindset has overreached markets themselves and become the default value system for societies as a whole.

    In the past societies invested in large scale visions for reasons that aren’t always easy to articulate, but that were certainly not limited to economic gain. Whether it’s space exploration or building cathedrals and monuments, large scale projects require massive resources and corporate (as in group) commitment. Our epoch is dominated by self-interest (some might argue enlightened self-interest), market forces and market mentalities. Obviously, there is no incentive for corporations to outlay massive resources for projects that are either risky and/or that offer limited or negative ROI. But that’s not really the issue; I wouldn’t expect them to do so. The problem is that the market mentality has so thoroughly usurped dominance across all facets of society, the common opinion is that everything should be run like a business.

    If you run government like a business, or put differently if you govern your society as though it was a giant company, society has no place for grand vision. We are constantly told that only markets know what society needs and are best equipped to efficiently provide those needs. Of course it isn’t profitable to engage in these kind of projects (or not obviously profitable), so markets will not engage in them. Moreover, if government engages in them, it will require resources, i.e. taxes revenues, and we are constantly told that taxes destroy markets (though the actual data doesn’t bear this out). Anyway, I could follow this tangent into a political debate, but salient point for this thread is that we have become a market society and a market only values grand vision if it leads to obvious monetary profit. If the same resources can be spent toward a greater profit elsewhere it would ‘be foolish’ not to spent to spend it elsewhere.

"To take a significant step forward, you must make a series of finite improvements." -- Donald J. Atwood, General Motors