Are we there yet?

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Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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As a kindergarten student a half century ago, I read the same book over and over again, nearly every day. My favorite in our classroom’s little library, it had a title imbued with confidence and promise: “You Will Go to the Moon.”

Needless to say, I have not done so.

So I sympathize with science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson and venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, whose new books lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed. “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,” writes Stephenson in the preface to "Hieroglyph," a science-fiction anthology hoping “to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.” In "Zero to One," a book mostly about startups, Thiel makes the argument that “we have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it.”

Their concerns about technological malaise are reasonable. As I’ve written here before, “political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits.” It’s depressing to see just about any positive development -- a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance -- greeted with gloom. (“The trend is wreaking havoc in the blood bank business, forcing a wave of mergers and job cutbacks.”)

When a report about how ground-penetrating radar has mapped huge undiscovered areas of Stonehenge immediately provokes a comment wondering whether the radar endangers the landscape, something has gone seriously wrong with our sense of wonder. “There’s an automatic perception ... that everything’s dangerous,” Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, “and that there’s some cosmic balance at work--that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.”

He’s identified a real problem, but his remedy -- “more interesting Apollo-like projects -- won’t work. If it did, the baby boomers who grew up with Apollo wouldn’t be so down on progress.

Besides, we have plenty of big projects. The human genome has been sequenced. Enormous libraries of books and collections of paintings and drawings have been scanned and made searchable online. James Turrell is making great monumental art in the Arizona desert. Three -- three! -- billionaires are running their own space programs. Space is so popular among his peers that Bill Gates, whose own modest goals run to conquering malaria and other tropical scourges, finds himself telling interviewers that “it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.” If there’s public malaise about progress, it isn’t because nobody is doing anything bold.

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past.

Americans in the mid-20th century were not in fact sanguine about the future. Anxieties about the march of technology were common. In February 1961, a statistics-filled Time magazine feature warned that automation was wiping out jobs and, worse, “What worries many job experts more is that automation may prevent the economy from creating enough new jobs.” At least nine episodes of the original "Star Trek" series were about threatening or out-of-control computers. (Still others involved menacing androids or ominous artificial intelligences whose exact nature was vaguely defined.) Movies such as "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and, of course, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) picked up the scary-computer theme. Nor was the space program as universally popular as we nostalgically imagine. Americans liked the moon race, but only in July 1969 -- the month of the moon landing -- did a majority deem the Apollo program “worth the cost.”

Meanwhile, back in those good old days people were already voicing worries about technological stagnation that sound a lot like Stephenson’s and Thiel’s. “Before 1913,” Peter Drucker wrote in 1967, economic development “was taken for granted, but since then we’ve apparently gone sterile. And we don’t know how to start it up.” He noted that “with the exception of the plastics industry, the main engines of growth in the past 50 years were already mature or rapidly maturing industries, based on well-known technologies, back in 1913.”

Only information technology, Drucker suggested, might reverse the prospects of stagnation. “One cannot predict what it will lead to, and where and when and how,” he wrote of the computer. “A change as tremendous as this doesn’t just satisfy existing wants, or replace things we are now doing. It creates new wants and makes new things possible.”

We’ve lived to enjoy those unpredictable new wants and possibilities. But hacker hero though he is, Stephenson has begun treating them as incredibly dull and inconsequential compared to the Hoover Dam. The most visible technological progress of our times is, he now seems to think, #borrring. Worse, the Internet and its consequences are supposedly distractions from the important work of building great physical objects.

“What I’m sort of hoping,” Stephenson said at a Technology Review forum in 2012, “is that if we look back on this era 100 years ago, we’ll say, well, it was a very actively inventing and creating society and then the Internet happened and everything got put on hold for a generation while the Internet was kind of absorbed and we figured out what to do with it--and then we got going again and got caught up on the things we failed to do while we were Facebooking"

This attitude is self-defeating. We already have plenty of critics telling us that our creativity and effort are for naught, our pleasures and desires absurd, our civilization wicked and destructive. We live in a culture where condemnatory phrases like “the ecosystems we’ve broken” are throwaway lines, and the top-grossing movie of all time is a heavy-handed science-fiction parable about the evils of technology and exploration. We don’t need Neal Stephenson piling on.

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public. (Nobody else in my kindergarten was grabbing for "You Will Go to the Moon.") People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories -- not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories -- that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.

Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and culturally influential people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.

Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people -- that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won’t directly reap their benefits. They’re even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction. If Stephenson wants to make people more optimistic about the future and more likely to undertake difficult technological challenges, he shouldn’t waste his time writing short stories about two-kilometer-high towers. He should find a way to tell tales about past transformations that don’t require 2,000-plus pages. (I say this as someone who has enjoyed his massive Baroque Cycle of 17th-century historical fiction.)

Storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress. The trick is not to confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive. The past, like the present and the future, was made by complicated and imperfect people. Recapturing a sense of optimism requires stories that accept the ambiguities of history -- and of life -- while recognizing genuine improvements.

Fortunately, we now have an example of such stories: the Cinemax-HBO medical drama "The Knick," which is set in a turn-of-the-20th-century New York hospital. Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler got the idea from early 20th century medical textbooks they purchased on #borrring old eBay. “We were astonished,” Begler told an interviewer. “We couldn’t put these books down.”

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the series depicts decidedly flawed characters living in an exciting but brutal period and improving surgery through clever, risky and -- by today’s standards -- often-high-handed medical procedures. It demonstrates how difficult advances can be, and how much ambition and arrogance even the most promising experiments can require. As you might expect, the show features the advent of electric lights and X-rays -- the technological progress we remember -- but it also highlights such forgotten incremental improvements as better suction machines, suture techniques and hand-made gizmos for stanching the flow of blood. Without preaching, it makes the idea of progress real.

“Back then something like syphilis, easily treatable today, could have devastating effects and a procedure as common as a C-section ended up fatally most of the time,” a review reminds not science-fiction fans but the readers of Vogue. When progress was popular it wasn’t just for geeks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net