From lamenting the decline of the US manned space program, to believing that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 suggests we have achieved little in the energy space since the OPEC oil shock in 1973 despite all the talk of wind farms, tidal energy and solar power.
Using Science Fiction, he illustrates how far back we may have been holding some of our industries – industries now driven to the margins of safety by a quarterly accounting cycle and fear of litigation.
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.
Competition between Western democracies and communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off.
A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.
Perhaps only the alternate reality offered by science fiction now creates an environment where “Get Big Things Done” scale innovation can consistently take place. Whilst, back on [this version of] planet Earth:
Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more complex.
Yet I believe there is much cause for hope here.
It takes relatively little for a large community to form around a shared vision – an agreed-on goal.
Much like the oft-recycled – yet apocryphal – story of the janitor at NASA who, when asked by President John F Kennedy “What do you do?” answered: “I help to put men on the moon.”
Science Fiction may offer some an easy way of visualising a better, more accommodating future, but we are already in a more accommodative environment than at any point in recorded history. One where people with shared visions and passions can freely communicate and readily collaborate around their ideas, beliefs and goals.
But Stephenson seems less sanguine about the prospects and offers few immediate answers here – his position being well supported by his observations.
Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.
Most daunting of all is his concluding paragraph:
“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—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.”