NEAL STEPHENSON IS the author of some of the most prescient and beloved science fiction of the last 30 years, including Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and Seveneves. His fiction deals heavily with economics, online culture, the history of philosophy, and the nature of money, with descriptions of bitcoin-like cryptocurrency systems appearing years before the technology's real-world debut. His books frequently evince a skepticism of state power and an appreciation for decentralized technologies that will appeal to libertarians.
He's also worked in the tech industry, serving as an early employee at Blue Origin, the private space firm founded by Jeff Bezos, and working with the Long Now Foundation to promote optimistic science fiction explicitly intended to inspire actual technological innovation. In 2014, he took a role as the chief futurist at Magic Leap, a pioneering augmented reality company.
Stephenson's latest doorstopper of a novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (William Morrow), is a not-quite-sequel to his 2011 book Reamde, a sprawling contemporary thriller set against the backdrop of a multiplayer online role-playing game built partially around the complexities of international currency. Fall picks up where the earlier book left off, with the story of Richard Forthrast, the game's wealthy founder. It follows him into the virtual afterlife, telling a two-strand story set in both physical reality and a simulated environment. It's part exploration of the legal and technological mechanics of radical life extension, part Dungeons & Dragons-style epic fantasy quest. Imagine a TED Talk on the singularity delivered jointly by Elon Musk and John Milton.
Fall is, in other words, a typically fascinating work by one of the most fascinating minds in fiction, science or otherwise. In June, Tyler Cowen, chairman of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, spoke with Stephenson about the current state of the economy, the future of technology, and how decentralized platforms have shaped the past and present of online culture.
Cowen: Let me start with some general questions about tech. How will physical surveillance evolve? There's facial recognition in China that's coming to many airports. What's your vision for this?
Stephenson: I think it's just going to be based on what people are willing to tolerate and put up with. There's already something of a backlash going on over the use of facial recognition in some cities in this country, so I think people just have to be diligent, and be aware of what's happening in that area, and push back against it.
Is there a positive scenario for its spread? Is it possible it will make China a more cooperative place, a more orderly place, and in the longer run they'll be freer? Or is that just not in the cards?
I'm not sure if cooperative, orderly, and freer are compatible concepts, right? People who are in internment camps are famously cooperative and orderly.
Freedom is a funny word. It's a hard thing to talk about because to a degree, if this kind of thing cuts down, let's say, on random crime, then it's going to make people effectively freer. Especially if you're a woman or someone who is vulnerable to being the victim of random crime, if some kind of surveillance system renders that less likely to happen, then effectively you've been granted a freedom that you didn't have before. But it's not the kind of statutory freedom that we tend to talk about when we're talking about politics.
Other than satellites, which are already quite proven, what do you think is the most plausible economic value to space?
It's tough making a really solid economic argument for space. There's a new book out by Daniel Suarez called Delta-v, in which he's advancing a particular argument. It's a pretty abstract idea, based on how debt works and what you have to do in order to keep an economy afloat. But I think it's a thing that people need to do because they want to do it as opposed to because there's a sound business argument for it.
Do you think socially we're less willing or able to do it than, say, in the 1960s?
Well, the '60s was funny, because it was a Cold War propaganda effort on both sides. How that came about is a really wild story that begins with World War II, when Hitler wants to bomb London but it's too far away, so he has to build big rockets to do it with, and so rockets advance way beyond where they would have advanced had he not done that.
And then we grab the technology, and suddenly we need it to drop H bombs on the other side of the world. So again, trillions of dollars go into it. And then it becomes so dangerous that we can't actually use it for that. So instead, we use that rocket technology to compete in the propaganda sphere.
I once knew a grizzled old veteran of that '60s space program who said that the Apollo moon landings were communism's greatest triumph. So that's how that all happened. And it happened way earlier than any kind of rational economic argument could be made for it, and I still think it's the case that if we're going to do things in space, it's more for psychological reasons than it is for money reasons.
If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be perpetual martial law, like living on a...