Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Derek Thompson

The men who sold the moonshot

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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

The MAYA prophecy

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Raymond Loewy on the cover of Time Magazine

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, there’s an excerpt from the upcoming book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Its author, Derek Thompson, argues that success in a wide range of fields results from what researchers have called “optimal newness”—a degree of innovation that is advanced enough to be striking, but also just familiar enough to be accessible. Thompson illustrates his point with numerous examples, from plot formulas in prestige dramas to chord progressions in popular music, and he notes that science and business are vulnerable to it as well:

In 2014, a team of researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University wanted to know exactly what sorts of proposals were most likely to win funding from prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health—safely familiar proposals, or extremely novel ones? They prepared about 150 research proposals and gave each one a novelty score…The most-novel proposals got the worst ratings. Exceedingly familiar proposals fared a bit better, but they still received low scores. “Everyone dislikes novelty,” Karim Lakhani, a co-author, explained to me, and “experts tend to be overcritical of proposals in their own domain.” The highest evaluation scores went to submissions that were deemed slightly new. There is an “optimal newness” for ideas, Lakhani said—advanced yet acceptable.

Thompson frames his argument with a consideration of the career of the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who summed up the principle with the acronym MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” And while this may seem like a tautology—an innovation is acceptable until it isn’t—it’s worth scrutinizing more closely. When we look at business or the arts, we find that they often reward the simulation of innovation, which pushes all the right buttons for novelty while remaining fundamentally conventional. The result can be an entire culture that regards itself as innovative while really only repeating an endless cycle of the same clichés. You can see this clearly in technology, of which Thompson writes:

In Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists also sift through a surfeit of proposals, many new ideas are promoted as a fresh spin on familiar successes. The home-rental company Airbnb was once called “eBay for homes.” The on-demand car-service companies Uber and Lyft were once considered “Airbnb for cars.” When Uber took off, new start-ups began branding themselves “Uber for [anything].”

And when every company is talking about “disruption,” it implies that very little is being disrupted at all—especially when the startups in question are inclined to hire people who look just like the founders.

Charles Atlas

Not surprisingly, I found myself applying this observation to the history of science fiction. When you look at Astounding in the golden age through the lens of “optimal newness,” you find that it fits the definition pretty well. John W. Campbell was famously conservative in many respects, and he was wary of directly engaging such subjects as sex and religion. In 1939, when he first read Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—,” he loved it, but he also noted in a letter to a friend that it was “too hot to handle,” and that the references to religion had to be carefully edited. Decades later, he was still saying the same thing—the phrase “too hot to handle” recurs repeatedly in his correspondence. Campbell had a fixed idea of how much change his readers would tolerate. As he later wrote to his father: “[Astounding] is carefully expurgated to suit the most prudish—while I’m busy sawing away at the piling on which the whole crazy structure is resting.” And his caution is visible in other ways. When he took over Astounding, it was still basically a pulp magazine, and in order to retain his readership, he couldn’t depart too far from the original model. Instead, he tweaked it in small but significant ways. Instead of the usual hypermasculine heroes, he introduced a new kind of character—the “competent man” who solved all of his problems using logic and engineering. But he was still a white male. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell that he could be anything else. And as late as 1967, he was still saying that he didn’t think his readers could accept a black protagonist.

And he had good reasons for believing this. One of the first things that everyone notices about the fans of this era—who were a small subset, but a highly visible one, of the readership as a whole—is that many of them were outsiders. They were poor, sickly, unathletic, and sexually inexperienced, and they craved stories that told them that they could become something more. Like Charles Atlas, whose ads were inescapable in the magazine’s pages, Campbell was selling a vision of transformation, which said that you, too, could become a superman if you worked hard enough at it. And he was telling the truth. The sense of otherness that many young science fiction fans experienced was a temporary one, inseparable from the hell of adolescence, and most of them grew up to become productive members of society. They were competent men in larval form. But the genre had less to say to fans who were set apart by qualities that couldn’t merely be outgrown, like race, gender, or sexuality. Like Silicon Valley, it was pitched to appeal to a particular kind of outcast, and this was reflected in the heroes that it celebrated. As long as the formula remained intact, you could do pretty much as you liked. But it also limited the kinds of stories that could be told, to the point where it created a self-fulfilling prophecy about the writers who were drawn to it. The planets were exotic, but the faces were familiar. It’s no secret that science fiction has always tended to take the approach of optimal newness, and that it innovated within acceptable boundaries. But acceptable to whom?

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2016 at 9:31 am

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