Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Neal Stephenson's Lamentations

Neal Stephenson, author of the recently released REAMDE, has a long piece posted at the World Policy Institute website. In this piece he laments our lack of progress in solving our own, or the world’s problems.

In this piece he notes that the world’s leading power, the United States, seems to be incapable of pulling of the “big project” any more. There has been very little movement since the 1970s toward relieving our dependence on oil imports, there has been no great continuation of the exploitation of the resource beyond our planets gravitational field, and now even the creaky tottering space shuttle has been cancelled without a replacement. We cannot even do deep drilling without causing an enormous lake of oil to slither and slime its way across the Gulf of Mexico.

He goes on to note that the second world power, China, does big projects, but that they are rather derivative and unimaginative in nature.

Using an example close to his home, Seattle, he notes that they cannot even get a commuter rail line built without endless delays and court battles.

His explanation is that we are no longer as a society willing to take risks. In order to progress, you have to gamble, and to gamble is to risk loss.

Neal Stephenson, World Policy Institute, Fall 2011 (hat tip: The Browser)

The illusion of eliminating uncertainty from corporate decision-making is not merely a question of management style or personal preference. In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that—a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in.

Today’s belief in ineluctablecertainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation.

Stephenson in his writing does seem to have a bit of the libertarian streak. In his REAMDE, which I am half way through at the moment, all the real action so far as revolved around unattached single folks who have no children, little less wives, to worry about coming home to. Most of them can go gallivanting around at their whim as they have are not corporate clock punchers. This tends to make for a whole cornucopia of intelligent, capable characters to keep the action going, although the lot of the typical family man seems to be to have a gun put in his face so that his taxi/boat/misc. means of transportation can be commandeered.

In the past, when he has cited a philosophical system that he seems to be somewhat counter to libertarianism, he mentioned Walter Wink’s concept of “Domination Systems.” But it is an odd distinction. Wink’s views seem to loosely follow a leftish-Christian Anarchist path, while Libertarianism is viewed as being more associated with the right. But the similarities, if not the proscriptions of Anarchists and Libertarians, with their suspicion of excess government or individual oversight should be obvious. Both would likely be popular with people from wealthy backgrounds, like middle-class Americans, who don’t like to be told what to do. Mind you, I can distrust government with the best of them. I just don’t try and cloak my obvious self interests under a cloak of altruism.

First, we actually have a prime example of advancement through failure: the internet. Granted, it was Gibsonwho coined “the web”, but presumably Stephenson has heard of the Dot.Com bust. The Dot.Com bust with its (more important really) parallel Telecom bust was critical to over expanding the reach of and depth of the telecom revolution. It didn’t get us to Mars, and it didn’t help our energy problems, but it still is a potential tool. And of course this is sitting on that computer hardware revolution that had what was envisioned as the ships computer in the original Star Trek (or even a much latter technocratic Sci Fi role-playing game) as fitting into a programmable calculator.

But he does have a point. If we have made all of these advances why aren’t we further along in space or in solving our energy needs. Why are we, in so many other areas, so cautious?

Well one reason our rate of progress may be slowing up is that we have already captured most of thelow hanging fruit. The easy obvious technological advances have been made. We can still make advances, but it takes more research money and a lot more specialization. Obviously, if you can seriously plan to make a T-Rex cousin hatch out of a chicken egg you’re making a progress of sorts. But we are no longer in a position where a part-time scientist is going to be one of the leading lights of his age.

Another factor is that both our population, and our resource usage is now at a much higher level than it was at the time of the Apollo Moon landings starting in 1969. In fact the last landing in 1972 comes just a couple of years before the OPEC oil crises, and is also a time where real wage growth began to stagnate. In 1970 the United States had a little over 200 million people, today we have a little over 300 million. World population was around 3-1/2 billion people, and today it is almost double that. In benchmarked dollars, world gross national producthas tripled from 1980 to today. So with more people using a lot more stuff even on a per person (per capita) basis, we are certainly closer to whatever upper limit of raw resources we have than were in the late 1960s. Possibly we can use technology around some of these problems. But remember, to some degree, we went to the moon because we thought it would be cool, and we wanted to be the coolest. WE went looking for oil in the deep waters off the Gulf because we don’t have much choice.

You can complain about China being derivative, but they are a much poorer country than we are. Their per capita GDP is 1/10th of the United States. Since much of his REAMDE is set in China, I am sure Mr. Stephenson is aware of the relative wealth of our countries. If the Chinese government has a large pile of money to work with, it is only because the pool of water they are skimming off of is shallow, but very very wide.

This brings us to the second problem. Why do lack any consensus on moving forward. I think Mr. Stephenson is correct in some of his summations about an information overload, and the litigious nature of our society has been allowed to get completely out of hand. However, I think there is a deeper root cause underlying much of these problems.

We have many instances of societies that reached their natural limits of growth, and then in various differing ways fell back to a lower equilibrium, or collapsed. The cyclical nature of empires was a somewhat understood phenomena before the industrial revolution.

Well if the speed of the industrial revolution, the rate of advance is slowing, faster than the rate of our population growth, you are going to have a situation where people begin to fight over the size of their slice of the pie, rather (through growth) making their own pie. We have discussed this in relation to Saudi Arabia (before the recent Arab uprisings), the current credentialing crises (and here), the economic stall speed of an economy, food prices (many times: one example), and other points I lack the time to track down at the moment.

Historically what happens is that it is the elite groups that begin falling out over the spoils. The elite groups expand to the point where their fathers are fine, but there are too many sons to divide the spoils between. In the United States, being a sometimes equalitarian capitalist country, we got around this to some degree by borrowing lots of money. We have been doing that for some time now. Some of the European countries also borrowed a lot of money. And countries that needed the jobs more than they needed the money, kept handing out the loans: directly by buying bonds, or indirectly by weakening their currency.

While we were spending all this money, instead of making our cars really fuel efficient, we choose to make our cars much bigger and much more powerful. We created some extraordinarily well insulated building materials, and advanced our HVAC control systems immensely. Instead of making our little ranch homes net positive for energy usage, we moved to the air conditioned Sunbelt and bought huge McMansions. So when he complains that we did not make advances in important areas, he is actually incorrect. We did make advances; it is the implementation of those advances that is at odds with his goals. The middle class lived the lifestyle of the wealthy.

So part of the reason the big ideas slowed up is demographic in nature. I have spent most of my time here making that point.

But to some degree it is moot. Our society did not, and will not make progress because it does not care. We did not care when we had money (granted that much of it was borrowed), and now that we are running out of money, we are certainly not to extend any great sacrifice now. We are a little cautious, but mostly we don’t care.

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