There’s a great interview with Neal Stephenson at Reason right now. Every time I read something by Neal, whether a book or an interview, it amazes me how unassumingly intelligent this man is.
My favorite question and answer from the interview:
Reason: The Baroque Cycle suggests that there are sometimes great explosions of creativity, followed by that creative energy’s recombining and eventual crystallization into new forms—social, technological, political. Are we seeing a similar degree of explosive progress in the modern U.S.?
Stephenson: The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions. So, in the early-to-mid-19th century, it was all about expansion westward and a colossal growth in population. After the Civil War, it was about exploitation of the world’s richest resource base: iron, steel, coal, the railways, and later oil.
For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.
It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.
Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we’re coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it’s going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be “worse.” If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we’ll get lucky again. In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less compelling than they might have in 1955.
I have got to pick up the last book in the Baroque Cycle soon.