Home > musing > Innovation, elevation, and space travel

Innovation, elevation, and space travel

April 26, 2012

Science Fiction writer Neal Stephenson recently wrote this essay entitled “Innovation Starvation” on how it’s too bad we don’t have an innovative culture any more. I kind of like and agree with some parts his essay, especially this:

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

It’s similar to my reasoning for not googling something under discussion for at least 30 minutes, especially when it seems possible to reckon whether it’s true or not.

I would add this: it’s tempting to immediately gauge the competition when you have a new idea, especially a business idea. But if you develop it within yourself or a small group of people it will inevitably morph into something that is probably unrecognizable from the original idea, so with that in mind, googling the original idea is actually irrelevant anyway. Stephenson makes a point similar to this in his essay.

Stephenson goes on:

The illusion of eliminating uncertainty from corporate decision-making is not merely a question of management style or personal preference. In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that—a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in.

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

While I agree that people, especially within the context of large companies or government, are too short-sighted, I think this view is overly negative. On smaller scale, and in smaller companies, people do definitely take real risks (and pay for them sometimes).

But this essay is really about “doing the big stuff” and that’s where I’ll just have to argue against it altogether. Stephenson, like many sci-fi writers, is totally into the idea of space travel and is deploring the fact that we as a nation have turned away from it because of its expense and because we don’t want to take huge risks with money and people. Unlike in the good-old days of the Sputnik Era.

But I’d argue that the Sputnik Era was really about the Cold War and competition with the Russians, not space travel. This nostalgia is misplaced, similar to how people talk about family values and how great it was in the 1950’s, while ignoring the outrageous racism, sexism, and homophobia that existed then. It’s a revisionist view.

I’m not saying nothing cool happened in order to get a man on the moon, because clearly lots of cool stuff did happen. I’m just saying it happened in the context of a very serious us-versus-them mentality, where we were actively afraid of being blown up in a nuclear war, and I for one am not signing up for that again just so we can work together better.

More generally, Doing Something Big almost by definition means making sacrifices on other projects, so it makes sense that people who benefit from the chosen project think it’s awesome but other people not so much.

Going back to space travel: it’s a funny subject for conversation. When people talk about it they often experience elevation, which is my favorite recently understood emotion, and it means they transcend their normal existence. This seems to happen to young people and science fiction fans especially when talking about space travel, can happen to people listening to music, and used to happen to a lot of people when listening to Obama’s speeches.

Having been born and raised around science fiction and space lovers, I get this, and I can even summon up the accompanying elevated trance at will. But I also get that the idea of putting a huge amount of our resources into space travel, when we still haven’t figured out how to consistently feed people here on earth, is not completely reasonable.

I’m not arguing for no space travel, because there’s definitely a place for the basic scientific research that gets accomplished in the wake of cool, ambitious plans. But to Neil Stephenson I’d say, buddy there’s a pretty good reason this isn’t happening, and it’s not just because people aren’t innovative.

Categories: musing
  1. Jay
    April 26, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Invention always involved more wrong starts than right ones. The difference seems to be that the successes don’t pay for the failures as much as they used to. Whether this is because of diminishing returns to R&D over time, or because copycats have gotten faster, is not clear to me.


  2. Synoptic
    April 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Stephenson argued elsewhere (http://slate.me/t4Snpi) that space travel was essentially the by-product of trying to launch nuclear payloads to greater distances, so he is aware of its complicated origins. Likewise, the discovery of the Galapagos islands and the corresponding nascent ideas of modern biology were the byproduct of England’s empire-building endeavors. Given that we still need to “get important things done”, I think his larger point about innovation is that space travel is just as important to the scientists and engineers with the requisite imagination for the tasks as the Galapagos islands have been to biologists, and we’ll never achieve these “important things” with the current climate of austere risk-taking. But I get your point…ideally there would be a public debate on the matter between Stephenson and Gil Scott-Heron.


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