Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The men who sold the moonshot

with 3 comments

When you ask Google whether we should build houses on the ocean, it gives you a bunch of results like these. If you ask Google X, the subsidiary within the company responsible for investigating “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars and space elevators, the answer that you get is rather different, as Derek Thompson reports in the cover story for this month’s issue of The Atlantic:

Like a think-tank panel with the instincts of an improv troupe, the group sprang into an interrogative frenzy. “What are the specific economic benefits of increasing housing supply?” the liquid-crystals guy asked. “Isn’t the real problem that transportation infrastructure is so expensive?” the balloon scientist said. “How sure are we that living in densely built cities makes us happier?” the extradimensional physicist wondered. Over the course of an hour, the conversation turned to the ergonomics of Tokyo’s high-speed trains and then to Americans’ cultural preference for suburbs. Members of the team discussed commonsense solutions to urban density, such as more money for transit, and eccentric ideas, such as acoustic technology to make apartments soundproof and self-driving housing units that could park on top of one another in a city center. At one point, teleportation enjoyed a brief hearing.

Thompson writes a little later: “I’d expected the team at X to sketch some floating houses on a whiteboard, or discuss ways to connect an ocean suburb to a city center, or just inform me that the idea was terrible. I was wrong. The table never once mentioned the words floating or ocean. My pitch merely inspired an inquiry into the purpose of housing and the shortfalls of U.S. infrastructure. It was my first lesson in radical creativity. Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

I don’t know why Thompson decided to ask about “oceanic residences,” but I read this section of the article with particular interest, because about two years ago, I spent a month thinking about the subject intensively for my novella “The Proving Ground.” As I’ve described elsewhere, I knew early on in the process that it was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. The obvious source was The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel that generated a lot of useful plans along the way, as long as you saw it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you were planning to actually spend fifty billion dollars. The difference between most of these proposals and the brainstorming session that Thompson describes is that they start with a floating city and then look for reasons to justify it. Seasteading is a solution in search of a problem. In other words, it’s science fiction, which often starts with a premise or setting that seems like it would lead to an exciting story and then searches for the necessary rationalizations. (The more invisible the process, the better.) And this can lead us to troubling places. As I’ve noted before, Thiel blames many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. As he famously said six years ago to The New Yorker: “The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.'”

Google X isn’t immune to this tendency—Google Glass was, if anything, a solution in search of a problem—and some degree of science-fictional thinking is probably inherent to any such enterprise. In his article, Thompson doesn’t mention science fiction by name, but the whole division is clearly reminiscent of and inspired by the genre, down to the term “moonshot” and that mysterious letter at the end of its name. (Company lore claims that the “X” was chosen as “a purposeful placeholder,” but it’s hard not to think that it was motivated by the same impulse that gave us Dimension X, X Minus 1, Rocketship X-M, and even The X-Files.) In fact, an earlier article for The Atlantic looked at this connection in depth, and its conclusions weren’t altogether positive. Three years ago, in the same publication, Robinson Meyer quoted a passage from an article in Fast Company about the kinds of projects favored by Google X, but he drew a more ambivalent conclusion:

A lot of people might read that [description] and think: Wow, cool, Google is trying to make the future! But “science fiction” provides but a tiny porthole onto the vast strangeness of the future. When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams. We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these “flat-pack futures,” and they infect “science fictional” thinking.

He added: “I fear—especially when we talk about “science fiction”—that we miss the layeredness of the world, that many people worked to build it…Flying through space is awesome, but if technological advocates want not only to make their advances but to hold onto them, we have better learn the virtues of incrementalism.” (The contrast between Meyer’s skepticism and Thompson’s more positive take feels like a matter of access—it’s easier to criticize Google X’s assumptions when it’s being profiled by a rival magazine.)

But Meyer makes a good point, and science fiction’s mixed record at dealing with incrementalism is a natural consequence of its origins in popular fiction. A story demands a protagonist, which encourages writers to see scientific progress in terms of heroic figures. The early fiction of John W. Campbell returns monotonously to the same basic plot, in which a lone genius discovers atomic power and uses it to build a spaceship, drawing on the limitless resources of a wealthy and generous benefactor. As Isaac Asimov noted in his essay “Big, Big, Big”:

The thing about John Campbell is that he liked things big. He liked big men with big ideas working out big applications of their big theories. And he liked it fast. His big men built big weapons within days; weapons that were, moreover, without serious shortcomings, or at least, with no shortcomings that could not be corrected as follows: “Hmm, something’s wrong—oh, I see—of course.” Then, in two hours, something would be jerry-built to fix the jerry-built device.

This works well enough in pulp adventure, but after science fiction began to take itself seriously as prophecy, it fossilized into the notion that all problems can be approached as provinces of engineering and solved by geniuses working alone or in small groups. Elon Musk has been compared to Tony Stark, but he’s really the modern incarnation of a figure as old as The Skylark of Space, and the adulation that he still inspires shades into beliefs that are even less innocuous—like the idea that our politics should be entrusted to similarly big men. Writing of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team, Thompson uses terms that would have made Campbell salivate: “You might say it’s Rapid Eval’s job to apply a kind of future-perfect analysis to every potential project: If this idea succeeds, what will have been the challenges? If it fails, what will have been the reasons?” Science fiction likes to believe that it’s better than average at this kind of forecasting. But it’s just as likely that it’s worse.

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2017 at 9:02 am

3 Responses

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  1. If any cities are ever built on the ocean, only hero’s and their families are allowed to live there, for quick access to the others to help. A very dangerous excersise!

    reetsmeets

    October 11, 2017 at 9:20 am

  2. ‘Seasteading is a solution in search of a problem.’

    Oh, not necessarily. What else is Banana Island, off Lagos, Nigeria, but a seastead? (Please don’t nitpick that it’s an artificial island, not a floating city; it’s essentially serving the same purpose as Thiel’s proposed libertarian seasteads.)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_Island

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2011/05/04/the-most-expensive-neighborhood-in-nigeria/#27ad2fe058a9

    ‘Science fiction likes to believe that it’s better than average at this kind of forecasting. But it’s just as likely that it’s worse.’

    It depends on the science fiction in question, doesn’t it?

    SF is like those million typing monkeys who eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare or the Bible. SF writers have made so many millions of predictions over the decades that eventually it emerges that someone somewhere has gotten things right. So the stock instance of something that SF in the 1960s-80s was supposed to have utterly failed to predict was the Internet and its appurtenances. Except if you’ve read enough of the stuff, you find at least a couple of people in a couple of books who predicted what our digitally connected world would be like with a surprising degree of specificity.

    A bigger problem with science fiction as prediction is that it creates models that then take up permanent residency in the cultural mind at large. And sometimes those models are good and workable, like Star Trek’s communicators, which beget our cellphones. Sometimes, though, those models are really bad — Campbell’s ‘big theories with big instant applications’ in general; or, for a very specific example, the model we now have of the Internet of Things, which is deeply stupid and nonsensical because really, underneath it all, it’s the Jetsons from the early 1960s.

    Mark Pontin

    October 11, 2017 at 8:57 pm

  3. @Mark Pontin: I agree heartily with your last two paragraphs. As you’ll hopefully soon see, I spend a good portion of the book picking apart these issues.

    nevalalee

    October 14, 2017 at 8:52 pm


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