My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.


COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but 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 come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…


The idea that living in space is constrained in freedom is also the theme of that guy who wrote the Mars book of the stranded astronaut that TC interviewed who wrote the followup Moon book: you could not, for example, legally smoke in the moon colony.

Actually, partial and incremental terraforming of Mars might be quite a lot easier than we thought.
Vast greenhouses constructed of silica aerogel are technically quite feasible:

Re: Clothing Not Changing

I disagree.

In the future, people will wear plain cotton green-screen clothes and you will see through your Google Glasses and chroma key compositing a person adorned with the finest and most stylish and expensive clothes which can be changed in a minute with the selection of a new channel on your i-device.

I am looking forward to the day when you see me in my electronic Indian headdress.

Think of all the ways people can signal to each other their tastes and identity.

As long as you're envisioning such augmented reality clothing, why not go all the way? The clothing will look different to different users.

Your boss will see you wearing sober office wear, but the co-worker down the hall who you've been flirting with will see you in something more attractive.

As always with new frontiers, property rights are key: presumably the wearer of the clothes gets to determine what the viewer sees. Otherwise creepy voyeurs will clothe the people walking by in skimpy clothing.

The future virtual brains will need a way to handle the problem of unanswerable questions. When your computer or phone crashes, it doesn't stop working and it is usually just trying to solve an infinite loop which is an "unanswerable question". The same problem may occur with wet wear brains and the obvious solution is to create a "God bucket" for all those questions to prevent your brain from running in circles.

Stephenson is a . . . . prophet. Tech has resurrected the prophet, but instead of prophecies with a focus on God, the prophecies focus on technology, real but mostly imagined future technology. It's an interesting development. Pessimists like Peter Thiel see a future bereft of significant technological advancements while Stephenson et al. see a future that is, well, futuristic. Is the prophecy something to be taken seriously or is it just an escape, a virtual future not an actual one?

The business of tech is, well, entertainment. Sure, there are promises of flying cars and spaceships to Mars, but are they merely distractions from the actual business of tech? I am fascinated by the attention given to autonomous vehicles, Elon Musk predicting just yesterday that they would be delivered in large numbers no later than next year. Of course, Musk is a promotor, but what's fascinating is the willingness of a huge number of people to suspend disbelief. That's nothing new. Consider the billions of Christians who believe in an afterlife.

Shouldn't "gate surveillance" in the transcript be "gait surveillance" ?

corrected, thanks

>it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them.

Yeah, and only the New York Times is supposed to be allowed to do that.

To be fair, if you want to know what it was to live the good life in vintage Soviet times, ask a grandchild of one of the Pravda writers from the late Kruschyov and the Brezhnev era. They even had a good chess column, which the NY Times no longer has, the poor sods.

It isn't just the Carlos Slim Times.

Kin Stanley Robinson's Mar Trilogy is an interesting take on the possible path colonization and political development might take on Mars.

That's a great choice and a great series of books. I'd also recommend The Expanse (the books and currently-running TV show are both excellent) for some commentary on the same topic.

I didn't like KSR's Mars trilogy. Too much 1970s thinking set in space.

If you want a thoughtful take on Space Socialism, far enough in the future to make it interesting rather than implausible, consider Banks' Culture series.

I haven't started The Expanse yet, but I'm interested in doing so.

Good point. With the exception of his earliest works, Banks’ standard fiction is pretty mediocre. His sci-fi is very interesting and even exciting. This is partly because his politics — silly 70s Labourite knee jerk anti-Americanism — don’t intrude. And he writes far better than Robinson.

Look to Windward is vaguely anti-American. And neurotically depressive.

I still liked it even though I reject the mood.

The Culture novels are great, but it's less socialism than a petting zoo economy. AI's govern the Culture. They direct its military, its scientific and industrial efforts, and they have power and wealth on a scale incomprehensible to the more-or-less baseline humans that inhabit their empire. The AIs provide a good life for the humans by 21st century standards, but the cost to the AIs is effectively pocket change.

I kind of agree. I keep wondering when the Minds are just going to decide to eat the Humans.

And it's socialism, but they still have status and choice assignments, and limited access to people and experiences, so the rejection of money as a way of measuring all that stuff seems weird. There may be no material scarcity, but there appears to still be a service economy, so to speak.

And to your point, the cost of the hedonistic paradise is basically nothing at the wealth level we're talking about. Which is why I mark it as less unrealistic than typical socialist Utopianism.

One thing that also gets to me is that the hedonistic paradise is definitely a young guy's paradise, with extreme sports and wild sex being the ultimate aim, and not family and children, or romance, farming or gardening, or whatever other demographics want. I guess they can't emphasize children because it breaks the long-term equilibrium of human society that's necessary to tell the stories he wants to tell, but in a reverse-Malthusian sense I'd expect a society that rich and that spread out to be growing quickly.

The Culture's a big "place" and perhaps you see some of the bits Banks' found interesting. Or rather, at least the bits most provocative to the sort of people who he enjoyed provoking.

(And he did enjoy provoking folk - note his not entire lack of sympathy to the "Affronters" in Excession; the bits where they build their culture around pissing the Culture and other "Involveds" off out of bloody mindedness / 'thrawn' get at least one cheer from Banks).

Maybe so. I thought The Affront were great.

Having spent some time in a city recently, it is amazing to me how transparently "unreachable floating/orbital/offworld cities" are metaphors for upper apartments and penthouses. Similarly the crowded, dangerous, surface for walking the streets or taking the subway.

It makes me less interested in the science fiction metaphor and more interested in the present state of spaceship earth.

(This is my pre-listening scan of the comments)

>I think that we’re in a dystopia now in a lot of ways.

Is it the soaring stock market? The record-high employment? The lack of US involvement in foreign wars?

Or is it because an old drunk lady lost the 2016 election?

Trans, Don’t spread lies. We don’t have record high employment. Employment peaked in 1999 with a labor force participation rate of 67%. It’s now 63%.

Don’t lie it doesn’t your case no good.

I hadn't realised but now you mention it, I suppose she was Trans

"Employment peaked in 1999 with a labor force participation rate of 67%. It’s now 63%."

No, nice try but your wrong. Peak employment in 1999 was 114 million. Employment last year was 128 million.

We are at peak employment.

Are you really gonna play dumb and ignore the change in size of the labor force? Well, carry on then.

On second thought, that was a really dumb response from me.

Christ you people are insecure. No there is no 'Trump boom'. The economy we have now is not different from the one in 2016 except the bull market is getting really long in the tooth.

I've been thinking about the word "gaslighting." I've seen people use it to describe recent politics. At times it seems to fit. But I never considered it central to the narrative.

Lately I've started to rethink that. Gaslighting, of others and of one's self, might be an important aspect of what's going on.

To claim "lack of US involvement in foreign wars" in the midst of America's longest foreign war seems a prime example of that.

Oh, so this does relate to the conversation, worst case social media, reality dissolving beneath us.

That bit about nihilism and social media .. these comments could have a better choice architecture.

Rather that implicitly rewarding rats and cucks.

"COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want."

It doesn't look like Stephenson has read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Or at least not recently enough to remember the details.

The setting for TMISAHM is that the Moon has been a colony for decades, has many independent settlements and is also a massive exporter of food to Earth.

Of course, people in the New World exchanged water for food with Europe.

It's also kind of dumb because of how critically dependent on technology the people living in North America back then were. It's just old technology, so we take it for granted. But they'd die pretty quick just the same if you took it away. The dependence on technology is no different, and he exaggerates their ease and freedoms.

Does anyone realistically think the nuclear submarine era of space colonization is going to last more than a few decades? Does anyone realistically think life on the Santa Maria was more pleasant than life on a nuclear submarine? It's just narrow-mindedness and an inability to think clearly about different circumstances. Which is how you wind up with morality plays masquerading as works of science fiction, I might add...

You are going to need a lot of transhumanism to make human existence in space as easy as human existence on a colony. Even your air is tenuous.

You won't worry about your air supply any more than you worry about your heat supply or water supply today. At scale, it will just be somebody else's job. It's not like there's some issue with making it reliable.

People can survive without food for weeks, without water for a few days, without oxygen 3 minutes, the vacuum of space is estimated to cause permanent damage after 30 seconds, animals die after 90 seconds of vacuum, radiation, etc.

People in the Santa Maria did not have to worry about having enough air to breath, they took it for you Lord Action ;)

People in a submarine must not worry about the Mars night temperatures of -70 Celsius. Which American settler had to worry about these temps? By the way, the Curiosity rover is working fine and sending nice pics under those conditions.

I love to do scuba dive. It is not remotely as complicate as space travel but it's a good introduction to a world where your immediate survival depends on a machine. An early settler would never have to worry about breathing 40 meter below the sea surface because he would have never reached there in first place.

Go outside naked in an Alberta winter and see how long you last.

My point is that it's just a difference of degree. You're familiar with hot and cold running water and sewage treatment plants and you don't think about how you'd be dead in weeks if that all shut down.

The space colonies are going to be nicer than it is down here after a few generations. That seems inevitable as the bulk of human economic activity, indeed activity of any sort, moves off planet. And you'll feel just as safe as you do now, probably safer, because the technology supporting you will be more advanced, more reliable, and more in the invisible background. That's just the long-term trend.

Take the Santa Maria, at the time a miracle of modern technology, out from under them and the air they're breathing will be in reach for minutes at most. This was before swim training was widespread, which might buy you hours in the North Atlantic depending on the weather.

It's no different. It's no different at all. They had a massive high-technology infrastructure to support their existence. It's just one that seems primitive to you 400 years later, and one that seemed kinda normal to them at the time.

In 2400 people won't be walking around astounded at the super-fancy technology that lets them walk around on Titan. They'll be bored with it and impatient for the new wizz-bang thing, just like they are today.

Life expectancy in the Roman Empire was under 30 years old and it was under 35 during the Middle Ages. Civilizations have flourished in conditions where half the children didn't make it to 10.

I thought that had been proven false. Wasn't it an artifact of the high infant mortality?

I think that's what RIPM is saying. You get used to things, even spectacular achievements of high technology like near zero infant mortality, to the point where you don't think of it anymore. Instead, you complain about how the WiFi in your jetliner is too slow.

Life off-earth will be spectacular soon enough. And we'll all think it's mundane.

What is with this inconstant "Hubble Constant"?

Why can't astrophysicists keep their data collectors calibrated properly?

What confidence can we have as to the accuracy of any measurements?

> "... one of the things he talks about is how much computing power would be needed to simulate the universe that we see around us to a full level of fidelity, such that we never see glitches, we never see anything that’s imperfectly rendered."

The placebo effect will eventually be understood to be precisely that kind of glitch.

There are more cells in our bodies than stars in our galaxy, and they are far more tightly coupled in their interactions compared to point-like sources of gravity. Computing the true effect of any given drug on a human body is apparently expensive enough that our simulation uses heuristic shortcuts to determine the outcome.

Dark matter, dark energy, quantum behaviors: all glitches in the simulation. They involve the impossibly large and impossibly small, and the Creators didn't think they needed to deal with those.

How well (with how much fidelity, accuracy, validity) could any device in our realm of baryonic matter be said to model or account for these vast non-baryonic realms whose existence has barely been inferred (whose respective constitutions remain hardly understood) and which is said to impinge upon our realm of existence because of discrepancies we find in analyzing exclusively baryonic data?

(I also still see no reliable way to say that non-baryonic matter and energy exist for the healthy existence of baryonic matter: our pitiful realm of baryonic matter looks as if it may constitute the pus-swollen appendix of the Macrocosm.)

If you know what you are talking about, that was eloquent.

But maybe you are an innumerate person who stumbled on an interesting truth.

I have no way of knowing.

...why does it matter what kind of person stumbled upon it?

Just seems truthy to me. I'm not a 'we are The Sims' guy, but if we are those very weird bits of edge science seem like glitches in the matrix.

> "And if you were somehow convinced that [the simulation hypothesis] was true, or thought it very likely to be true, would it change anything in your behavior?"

> "I don’t know..."

His answer makes no sense, or rather it just evades the question.

In a physical universe our thoughts end when our neurons die and decompose. But in a simulation, consciousness very plausibly may survive death. And then the simulators might conduct a... post-mortem... on whether the performance of your "life" met their expectations.

If we're in a simulation, then a lot of formerly quasi-religious concepts are actually very likely true:

the existence of one or more supreme beings;
"commandments" (how should we live our lives? what is expected of us?);
an afterlife;
a "judgement day" (perhaps with punishments or rewards);
the possibility of reincarnation;
the possibility of miracles (they're just Easter eggs in the simulation software);
young-Earth creationism (dinosaur fossils really are just stage props and fictional backstory, along with the rest of the universe)

In short, if you were indeed convinced that simulation hypothesis was true — a big if, but that was the premise of the question after all — then that must change your outlook and your behavior. You'd have to think hard about some variation of Pascal's wager.

Many self-proclaimed rationalists reject the idea of simulation for the exact same reason that creationists reject evolution. Because they perceive it to conflict with their intensely-felt notions about religion, their instinctive reaction is to insist vehemently that it must therefore be wrong. But making dogmatic statements about a plausible but unfalsifiable hypothesis is a very strong indication that you have a faith-based belief system.

It sounds like you assume that the simulators care about the simulatees.

I hear that economists now model the choices of individual agents. Do they hold a brief moment of silence for the agents lost after each computer run?

It's not an assumption, but it's a distinct possibility. I did mention "some variation of Pascal's wager".

Of course, anything is possible. Our whole universe might be just a throwaway, a fleeting burst of a single firework. Or even an old-style Windows screensaver, drawing abstract patterns on a monitor, watched by no one.

Ok, that's darkly funny, the screensaver thing

"An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter."

Well it's definitely unheralded. But is it true? I'm gonna go with "no". The New World isn't just the USA, and the settlers in Australia seemed to cope pretty well, without relying on the natives.

None of this means anybody was very nice to the natives, but that doesn't mean you can just make stuff up ...

Jamestown was founded in 1607, Botany Bay was 1788. Australia's settlers had far more tech.

I suppose it's true that this did happen to some degree, but I think Neal's first answer (and not his woke answer) was probably better - space colonization simply isn't very analogous.

I don't expect that indigenous people necessarily helped settlers more than they fought them (even killed them), got the better of them in trades, etc.

The real difference is that the Americas had resources in spades (compared to Europe, and little of it could be shipped back, contra ideas of "ghost acres"), so even if people who went off the beaten track in a sort of rugged individualist way died off, high reproductive rates among the settlers meant there'd be someone along to replace them in a jiffy. Together with fairly often lots of reward on getting to the new land first, even if it means a bit of breaking away and risk.

But space is going to mean a lot of in group coordination to unlock scarce resources, or it doesn't happen.

"But space is going to mean a lot of in group coordination to unlock scarce resources, or it doesn't happen."

It that in group coordination is one person with a hoard of robots, I'm not sure it changes that much.

Is a hoard of robots more than a horde of robots?

I suppose if you ever get to the right place in price points of automation. In the near term it seems like any feasible one person with sufficient robots is generally going to be someone with a lot of corporate backing, corporate position and wealth, and so not really too likely to be off doing anything too ruggedly individualist, as much as the end point of a huge enterprise.

"I suppose if you ever get to the right place in price points of automation."

Yes, I agree that's a necessary prerequisite. The assumption being that the automation continues on its current exponential curve and robots can harvest materials to build additional robots.

I was assuming we were talking about the next 50-100 years. Certainly this is not going to happen in the next 10-20 years.

I've read most of Neal Stephenson's books and a lot of interviews with him. I appreciate that there wasn't a ton of overlap from content I'd already encountered as well as the effort to ask wide-ranging questions of someone who has had a long career. His notion about geek culture as a surrogate religion is pretty fun if you start with some of Durkheim's ideas. My favorite question was your follow up to his response that he might want to live within the Baroque Cycle novels. I enjoy your interviews with scholars, but I hope you'll interview some more spec/ sci fi writers--KSR, China Mieville, William Gibson come to mind. Thanks and good luck.

Anyone remember Neal Stephenson's "Clang" Kickstarter project? The idea was to make a computer game simulation of swordfighting meant to be as historically accurate as possible. It failed, and I'm sad it did--could have been amazing.

I've just heard the whole conversation. Really excellent. I was surprised at the toll writing takes on him. I was also kind of surprised on his response to the whole physical/virtual path of innovation. I totally agree with it, and I think this is a incredibly under discussed issue (i.e., the fragility being imposed in our society by our search for physical security in the workplace). Thank you!

I was reading the news, and I just learned Signor Salvini has decided to support Mr. Eduardo Bolsonaro's nomination as Brazil's ambassador in the United States. I think it is becoming clear that Brazil has become a major player.

I'm just surprised that Stephenson's half of the conversation didn't stretch for 1000 pages.

And then provide all the conclusions in the last 50 pages.

Tyler, you used one of my questions but didn’t credit it as a reader question!

COWEN: Are there any of your fictional worlds you actually would want to live in?

Is from comment 109, right here:

Don’t know why the link didn’t come through as a link...anyway, very enjoyable conversation.

Why is this guy so regarded? Cryptonimicon sucked.

Did you ever try to read Quicksilver? I tried three times and gave up. The dictionary would have more of a plot.

But what about more important question - when Tyler gets shrunk to quantum size and inserted into Elon's asshole to establish livable colony, how politically free do you think Tyler would be?

But what about more important question - when Tyler gets shrunk to quantum size and inserted into Elon's ***hole to establish livable colony, how politically free do you think Tyler would be?

Clothing is changing.

Not the clothes but the raw materials supply chains and the manufacturing process. Some people work on the re-use and recycle of valuable textiles, they call it circular economy.

Now and then we take the family to a nice restaurant. The kids may be wearing something resembling "streetwear" style, or just school clothes. We are always treated deferentialy, and seated between people who may be the same, or may be in old school high fashion dresses and blazers.

I'd worry that we were bringing down the standard if we were the only ones. Now I think clothing culture is just more wide open.

Actually, now that I think about it, I have seen a dude walk into a Little Italy restaurant wearing a dress. He too was seated without comment.

To be fair, his dress was nicer than my tourist shorts.

All in all, I am more in tune whith what I see as Stevenson's wisdom and pessimism, than any libertarian naivete.

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