Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tav's Mistake


Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is a typical Neal Stephenson novel: expansive and nearly constantly geeking out over something. If a character in one of Stephenson's SF novels is about to get into a spacesuit, you know that'll take five pages because Stephenson will want to tell you about every single element of the suit's construction. If a spacecraft needs to rendezvous with a comet, and must get from one orbital plane to another, Stephenson will need to explain every decision and the math underlying it, even if that takes fifty pages — or more. If you like that kind of thing, Seveneves will be the kind of thing you like.

I don't want to write a review of the novel here, beyond what I've just said; instead, I want to call attention to one passage. Setting some of the context for it is going to take a moment, though, so bear with me. (If you want more details, here's a good review.)

The novel begins with this sentence: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." After the moon breaks into fragments, and the fragments start bumping into each other and breaking into ever smaller fragments, scientists on earth figure out that at a certain point those fragments will become a vast cloud (the White Sky) and then, a day or two later, will fall in flames to earth — so many, and with such devastating force, that the whole earth will become uninhabitable: all living things will die. This event gets named the Hard Rain, and it will continue for millennia. Humanity has only two years to prepare for this event: this involves sending a few people from all the world's nations up to the International Space Station, which is frantically being expanded to house them. Also sent up is a kind of library of genetic material, in the hope that the diversity of the human race can be replicated at some point in the distant future.

The residents of the ISS become the reality-TV stars for those on earth doomed to die: every Facebook post and tweet scrutinized, every conversation (even the most private) recorded and played back endlessly. Only a handful of these people survive, and as the Hard Rain continues on a devastated earth, their descendants very slowly rebuild civilization — focusing all of their intellectual resources on the vast problems of engineering with which they're faced as a consequence of the deeply unnatural condition of living in space. This means that, thousands of years after the Hard Rain begins, as they are living in an environment of astonishing technological complexity, they don't have much in the way of social media.

In the decades before Zero [the day the moon broke apart], the Old Earthers had focused their intelligence on the small and the soft, not the big and the hard, and built a civilization that was puny and crumbling where physical infrastructure was concerned, but astonishingly sophisticated when it came to networked communications and software. The density with which they’d been able to pack transistors onto chips still had not been matched by any fabrication plant now in existence. Their devices could hold more data than anything you could buy today. Their ability to communicate through all sorts of wireless schemes was only now being matched — and that only in densely populated, affluent places like the Great Chain.

But in the intervening centuries, those early textual and visual and aural records of the survivors had been recovered and turned into The Epic — the space-dwelling humans’ equivalent of the Mahabharata, a kind of constant background to the culture, something known to everyone. And when the expanding human culture divides into two distinct groups, the Red and the Blue, the second of those groups became especially attentive to one of those pioneers, a jounalist named Tavistock Prowse. “Blue, for its part, had made a conscious decision not to repeat what was known as Tav’s Mistake.”

Fair or not, Tavistock Prowse would forever be saddled with blame for having allowed his use of high-frequency social media tools to get the better of his higher faculties. The actions that he had taken at the beginning of the White Sky, when he had fired off a scathing blog post about the loss of the Human Genetic Archive, and his highly critical and alarmist coverage of the Ymir expedition, had been analyzed to death by subsequent historians. Tav had not realized, or perhaps hadn’t considered the implications of the fact, that while writing those blog posts he was being watched and recorded from three different camera angles. This had later made it possible for historians to graph his blink rate, track the wanderings of his eyes around the screen of his laptop, look over his shoulder at the windows that had been open on his screen while he was blogging, and draw up pie charts showing how he had divided his time between playing games, texting friends, browsing Spacebook, watching pornography, eating, drinking, and actually writing his blog. The statistics tended not to paint a very flattering picture. The fact that the blog posts in question had (according to further such analyses) played a seminal role in the Break, and the departure of the Swarm, only focused more obloquy upon the poor man.

But — and this is key to Stephenson’s shrewd point — Tav is a pretty average guy, in the context of the social-media world all of us inhabit:

Anyone who bothered to learn the history of the developed world in the years just before Zero understood perfectly well that Tavistock Prowse had been squarely in the middle of the normal range, as far as his social media habits and attention span had been concerned. But nevertheless, Blues called it Tav’s Mistake. They didn’t want to make it again. Any efforts made by modern consumer-goods manufacturers to produce the kinds of devices and apps that had disordered the brain of Tav were met with the same instinctive pushback as Victorian clergy might have directed against the inventor of a masturbation machine.

So the priorities of the space-dwelling humanity are established first by sheer necessity: when you’re trying to create and maintain the technologies necessary to keep people alive in space there’s no time for working on social apps. But it’s in light of that experience that the Spacers grow incredulous at a society that lets its infrastructure deteriorate and its medical research go underfunded in order to devote its resources of energy, attention, technological innovation, and money to Snapchat, YikYak, and Tinder.

Stephenson has been talking about this for a while now. He calls it “Innovation Starvation”:

My life span encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. In the summer of 2011, at the age of fifty-one — not even old — I watched on a flatscreen as the last space shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where's my donut-shaped space station? Where's my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.

Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the automobile, the airplane, nuclear energy, and the computer, to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the twentieth century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

Now? Not so much.

I think Stephenson is talking about something very, very important here. And I want to suggest that the decision to focus on “the small and the soft” instead of “the big and the hard” creates a self-reinforcing momentum. So I’ll end here by quoting something I wrote about this a few months ago:

Self-soothing by Device. I suspect that few will think that addiction to distractive devices could even possibly be related to a cultural lack of ambition, but I genuinely think it’s significant. Truly difficult scientific and technological challenges are almost always surmounted by obsessive people — people who are grabbed by a question that won’t let them go. Such an experience is not comfortable, not pleasant; but it is essential to the perseverance without which no Big Question is ever answered. To judge by the autobiographical accounts of scientific and technological geniuses, there is a real sense in which those Questions force themselves on the people who stand a chance of answering them. But if it is always trivially easy to set the question aside — thanks to a device that you carry with you everywhere you go — can the Question make itself sufficiently present to you that answering is becomes something essential to your well-being? I doubt it.

7 comments:

  • I have a hard time taking the "lack of ambition" argument seriously. It always seems to have embedded in it this mid-50s, high-modern picture of invention and progress. Always -- in Stephenson, in the Hanlon essay you point to in your other post -- space travel is the backstop, the Great Disappointment.

    I'm tempted to take "small and soft" and recalibrate it so it's less an indictment, more a pure descriptor. In the last few decades we've invented pocket super computers. "Small." In the last few decades we have remade family life; the revolution is ongoing. "Soft."

    Small and soft can take down big game; just ask the bacterium.

    Now, Stephenson really has it in for mere improvement, and likewise, reading Hanlon, it seems like he would allocate all invention/progress credit for the aforementioned pocket super computer to… the moment the first modern computer came online? In some year pre-1971? It makes no sense. The refinement and exponentiation is the work. Stephenson and Hanlon must know this. If anything requires ambition, determination, and grit, it's that -- not the fun, feckless moment of inspiration.

    (Note: I'm glad Hanlon at least acknowledges that something like feminism might count as invention/progress. "Soft" again.)

    Ahh I could go on and on. Really it comes down to this: I think the "lack of ambition" argument isn't what it claims to be. Instead, it's simply an argument about which projects -- or maybe it's even simpler: which materials -- we should care about. Stephenson: "If you're not working with giant panels of steel and gouts of hot gas, don't talk to me." Well, fine. I myself prefer 700 MHz LTE signals and CRISPR-edited DNA sequences. This is a different conversation. I'd totally read a Stephenson essay titled "In Praise of Steel and Gas"!

    P.S.

    "…to devote its resources of energy, attention, technological innovation, and money to Snapchat, YikYak, and Tinder."

    It's fun to say, but it's not really true, is it? I feel beset by wonders. There seem to be big and meaningful projects everywhere I look. Maybe that's all that's required: the looking?

  • Robin, thanks for the pushback — as always with you, it’s both smart and kind. I will admit that you caught me in a little exaggeration there ... and after all, the Tinders and YikYaks of the world will alway be with us; people will always want to be entertained and distracted. I will admit also that there’s more than a bit of a “Where’s my jetpack?” tone to Stephenson’s lament.

    But I still think — if for different reasons than his — that he’s basically right about the problems of neglecting the hard in favor of the soft. Consider just a few examples:

    • California — and other parts of the world — wouldn't be suffering through the horrific drought it’s going through now if desalinization technologies weren’t stuck more-or-less where they’ve been for the past fifty years.

    • We’re still digging for fossil fuels in part because so little progress has been made in building infrastructure for solar and safe nuclear power.

    • Cities whose roads and bridges are literally falling to pieces are ignoring those problems while focusing on sexier things like citywide broadband internet access. (This is true to some extent of the city I live in.)

    • Cancer survival rates are moving upward, but at an agonizingly slow pace — and the life expectancies for some cancers are actually going down. (When my father died of lung cancer five years ago, his treatment was not significantly different than that for his father, whom lung cancer killed forty-five years ago.)

    • Very little progress is being made in the fight against Alzheimer’s, a disease that is becoming rampant as the population ages.

    I really do fear that our focus on cool new communications technologies tends to blunt our pain over these massive problems. We accept no improvement, or slow improvement, in areas essential to our well-being in part because we can be distracted by shiny toys. This sounds dismissive, I know, but I speak from personal experience: I often use the shininess of my toys to self-soothe — to forget for a while things that hurt.

  • I won't argue with any of those points. You never know where things are going, though. One tech becomes the foundation for another. First ubiquitous frivolous communications, and then…? We don't know.

    In conversations about tech, the future, etc. I often contend that, in the grand sweep of history, computation will be seen primarily as a stepping stone to our mastery of biology. That is, not a tech destination in its own right, but a waypoint on another journey, the journey towards medium-to-far-future synthetic biology (or whatever it's going to be) -- and that journey of course will be seen as the important one, the one worth talking about, because it will have given us bat-wings and omni-brains and dolphin buddies and…!

    I'm not sure I actually believe any of that, but it's fun to play with, and, in the same spirit, maybe the groundwork for something humongous and unexpected is being laid by… EMOJIS!!?

    P.S. I should clarify, my comment was >50% intended to simply register my readership & ongoing enjoyment of your writing here :-)

  • Disclaimer: I’ve never read Neal Stephenson, nor am I likely to. Your description of his book and the quoted passages demonstrate that as a writer, Stephenson has some insight into our modern predicaments (I like the observation about small and soft vs. the big and hard), but he falls squarely in the technonarcissism camp. As pointed out by you and your commentator Robin Sloan (great comment, BTW), that camp has lots of brands and flavors, but they all assume that the world before us will be an extension of the one behind us, namely, that growing problems of social organization will be characterized by various types of engineering and innovation. In other words, we will continue to double down by fixing and refining technocracy with yet more tech.

    History demonstrates pretty clearly that the focus of innovation and investment has shifted considerably over the past 150 years or so from (1) mechanical contraptions and processes to (2) large infrastructure projects to (3) space exploration and now to (4) computers, communications, and networking. (How all those play out in styles of warfare would be an interesting blog post.) That sequence could probably be revised and/or broken down into smaller segments, but the point is that in each phase, innovators rushed into each newly open field of endeavor as it provided the greatest opportunities in terms of both profit and sheer creativity. Stephenson’s boyhood nostalgia for space exploration is just that. Viewed from a practical perspective, the extraordinary difficulty of creating and maintaining habitable environments in orbit or elsewhere off-planet without regular resupply from Earth is so great that it’s really no wonder that NASA has all but abandoned manned space flight. Besides, we’re not biologically adapted to zero-gravity environments.

    I admit to being bugged that the first two bullet points in your own comment reinforce the idea of engineering fixes being the direction we should go in response to having boxed ourselves in with overreliance (due in large part to overpopulation and its concomitant overconsumption) on impermanent resources (oil and water). There is a much bigger picture than misallocation of our attention to innovation. Moreover, to mischaracterize problems as having technological rescues or escape hatches is a grave error, but you have lots of company in the public sphere. No one wants to admit that past has already guaranteed a future highly discontinuous from the present. So instead we bargain with fate and bemoan the wrong missed opportunities to solve problems of largely our own making.

  • Brutus, my bullet points concern "engineering fixes" because the conversation in this post is about engineering, and the allocation of engineering resources.

  • I guess I don’t understand why the conversation should be limited to some hypothetical what-if contemplation. Based on your description, Stephenson does not appear to range into the mystical, magical, monstrous end of science fiction but rather uses an imagined future to comment on where we went wrong in this reality and time. Accordingly, it occupies a position well within the realm of cultural analysis and implicitly proposes what might have been if only ....

    To pretend that his commentary on history bridging from the 20th into the 21st century is merely an entertaining hypothesis or thought experiment misses the opportunity to recognize a wider conclusion, even if Stephenson doesn’t provide it, that fits within our cultural narratives and intellectual history. Isn’t that one of the reasons for reading and blogging about his work?

  • Brutus, I have absolutely no idea what you're saying here, just FYI.

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