Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality – Conversations with Tyler

Check out the Conversations with Tyler Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • On space exploration:
    • “I think it’s a thing that people need to do because they want to do it as opposed to there being a sound business argument for it”
  • We’re currently living through the worst-case scenario of how social media might play out
  • Good storytellers are capable of developing a sense of empathy and putting themselves in the shoes of the reader
  • “Dystopia is an interesting idea because a lot of times, what science fiction writers are really doing is writing a kind of metaphorical story about the present. I think that we’re in a dystopia now in a lot of ways. A lot of things have gotten better, but what’s happening politically right now, what’s happening socially, is definitely trending in a dystopian way. That’s what we should be concerned about right now.”

Books Mentioned

  • Neil’s Books:
  • Delta-v by Daniel Suarez
    • Daniel explains how debt really works and what’s necessary for keeping an economy afloat
  • The Charles Dickens novel, Bleak House, is underrated according to Neal
  • Neal recently read A Culture of Fact by Barbara Shapiro
  • Neal is a huge fan of Robert Heinlein‘s novels

Intro

  • Neal Stephenson (@nealstephenson) is arguably the world’s greatest author of speculative and science fiction

How will physical surveillance evolve?

  • Physical surveillance = recording you while you’re wandering around town
  • “It’s going to be based on what people are willing to tolerate”
    • Facial recognition has already received some backlash
  • It’ll probably increase freedom
    • For example – If it turns our to cut down on crime, you’re more “free” to walk the streets as you please

Other than satellites, what’s the most plausible economic value of space?

  • “It’s tough making a solid economic argument for space”
  • “I think it’s a thing that people need to do because they want to do it as opposed to there being a sound business argument for it”
  • Check out Delta-v by Daniel Suarez
    • Daniel explains how debt really works and what’s necessary for keeping an economy afloat
  • Being in space is like being in the intensive care unit in the hospital
    • In both cases, you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines to keep you alive
  • Space colonies would probably be quite different than settlements in the New World
    • For one – settlements had indigenous people who knew the areas very well and were well equipped to find food/shelter

What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolves?

  • Neal talks about the downsides of social media in two of his books: Seveneves and Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (his latest)
  • “I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now”
  • Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on reality (aka the facts) and then make decisions based on that
    • But this shared understanding of reality has dissolved
    • Humans who are controlling the social media algorithms can “game the system” and produce whatever depiction of reality best suites them (which is often something that drives people in a particular direction politically)
    • “At the end of the day, people won’t agree on facts unless there’s a reason for them to do so”
      • Neal recently read A Culture of Fact by Barbara Shapiro (the book discusses how the idea of facts entered our minds in the first place)

What will people wear in the future? How will clothing evolve?

  • Clothing is already pretty complicated
    • We take it for granted – think about the complexity of the fabric/the way the seams are laid out
  • “You take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.”
  • New materials may come along, but it probably won’t change much from here
  • The idea of smart clothing sounds great, but we change our clothes all the time
    • It makes more sense for the “smart” aspect to be separate from the actual clothing

How bullish is Neal on Bitcoin and crypto?

  • “So far, it seems like they’re a bit of a solution in search of a problem”
  • Neal thinks distributed ledgers are more interesting 
    • “When people want to talk to me about a new cryptocurrency, I tend not to be super interested in continuing that conversation. But when they want to talk to me about using distributed ledgers to enable some other kind of initiative, then frequently, it can get very interesting indeed.”

The Art of Storytelling

  • Neal has combined his ability to tell stories in prose with his background in science/math/engineering
  • How did Neal become so good at telling stories?
    • “Part of it begins with empathy because, in order to tell somebody a thing, you need to know and understand what it’s like to not already know that thing”
      • Good storytellers are capable of putting themselves in the shoes of the reader/listener

Innovation Starvation (except in bits)

  • Eric Weinstein and Peter Theil touched on the stagnation in innovation in these Podcast Notes
  • This stagnation is primarily in the world of atoms, not bits
  • What’s led to it? – The amount of institutional barriers
  • “When it comes to networks, computers, and so on, the amount of innovation has been unbelievable. It’s just been spectacular, and it’s because there’s so little friction.”
    • If you know what you’re doing, you can sit down, write some code, and boom
      • Then – the cost of manufacturing/shipping your product is basically zero (bits are free)
  • Physical manufacturing technologies, like 3D printers, that have been enhanced/sped up by mixing software into the tool chain will hopefully dig us out of this innovation stagnation within the world of atoms

Overrated or Underrated

  • Leibniz as a philosopher – Underrated
    • “Mostly because of the backlash that he got from people like Voltaire”
  • Survivalists – it depends on the aspect
    • “I know some, and they definitely have got a wide range of skills above and beyond just shooting things with guns, but I don’t necessarily agree with their overall take on just about anything.
  • The Charles Dickens novel Bleak House – Underrated
    • Mainly due to the craziness of what happens in the story
  • The science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon – Neal passes on this one
  • The novels of Robert Heinlein: Are they still readable today, or are they simply of their time?
    • Definitely of their time
    • Neal is a huge fan of Robert’s writing
  • Morse code – underrated 

Which ideas or areas of life aren’t sufficiently thought about?

  • Even smart people have a hard time with statistical thinking and probability
    • “There are a lot of things that, really, the only rational way to think about them is to think about them in terms of statistics, but that just doesn’t come naturally to people.”

Why are so many people so lonely?

  • We have the internet, more people than ever live in cities, and there’s more people on the planet than ever before… what’s going on?
    • Neal isn’t actually convinced people aren’t more lonely than they’ve ever been 
    • Sure people used to live in close tribes, but what happened when you didn’t really like the people you were surrounded by?
      • Living alone, by today’s standards, would certainly be an improvement

Neal’s New Book –  Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

  • It’s based on the question – could it be the case that the world we live in is a digital simulation?
  • In the book, a new digital simulation is created as a sort of a digital afterlife where people can live
    • This raises the question – Are we living in a digital simulation and creating our own digital simulations inside of it? And if so, how deep does that stack go?
  • Does Neal think we’re living in a simulation?
    • “I’m not sure if it makes a difference”
    • The idea that we’re living in a simulation tends to help people zoom out from the day-to-day particulars of life, and allow them to think about things from a calmer frame of mind
  • Neal drew a lot of his ideas for the book from The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch
    • He also drew inspiration from the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton
      • On the poem – “It’s not just a beach read by any stretch of the imagination. Beads of sweat pop out on your forehead as you make your way through this thing. To really get it, you’ve got to appreciate all of the beautiful language that he’s using, and it is beautiful, but you’ve got to read the thing line by line.”

Dystopian Science Fiction Writing

  • “Dystopia is an interesting idea because a lot of times, what science fiction writers are really doing is writing a kind of metaphorical story about the present. I think that we’re in a dystopia now in a lot of ways. A lot of things have gotten better, but what’s happening politically right now, what’s happening socially, is definitely trending in a dystopian way. That’s what we should be, I think, concerned about right now.”
    • Fragmentation is getting worse socially – people no longer have a common basis for conversation

Additional Notes

  • Pop culture/movies are, in a way, replacing region
    • Someone might draw the same lessons and inspirations from Lord of the Rings that a devout Christian might draw from reading the Bible.
  • If Neal were to pick any of his fictional worlds to live in, it’d be that of Baroque Cycle
  • Neal says partaking in construction work helped his writing
    • How so? – It took his mind off writing for several hours a day. Construction work requires focus and attention.
      • “It occupies the front room of your brain for a while and allows interesting, creative things to happen in the back.”
  • If Neal weren’t a writer, he says he’d probably have ended up writing code for some tech company
  • Neal’s advice to aspiring writers:
    • Writing is a terrible choice economically – so don’t go quitting your job in tech to become a writer anytime soon
  • The commonality that unites Neal’s readers – the desire and willingness to spend a lot of time in a big story world
    • “I think it’s just people who think about things, who have a kind of complicated inner life, and who derive satisfaction from reading big stories with lots of ideas in them.”
  • Neal writes from 8 AM – 11 AM on a typical day, but when he stops…
    • “As I’m walking around for the next 15 minutes or so, sentences will come into my head. By and large, they’re the best sentences, so I’ve learned to carry a recorder with me — now it’s just the voice recorder app on my phone — because I know that if I jump in the car and start driving somewhere, I’m going to have a few of these lines that I don’t want to lose.”
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