Behind The Tech with Kevin Scott - Neal Stephenson, Award-winning science fiction author

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NEAL STEPHENSON: I think I’m a little bit of a freak, even among writers. I hear other writers talking about self-discipline and writers block and the struggle. It’s not like that for me. I mean, I don’t mean to be egotistical or anything like that, but at no point in my career have I ever felt as though I were inflicting some kind of discipline on myself. It’s just what I like to do.

KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.

In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.


CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello and welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft.

KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.

CHRISTINA WARREN: And our guest on the show today is Neal Stephenson. Neal is an American writer who is known for his works of speculative fiction, and in is seminal book, Snow Crash, Stephenson actually coined the term metaverse and popularized the term avatar in a computing context. He is one of my favorite authors in this genre. I’m a massive fan.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, me too. I have been so profoundly influenced by Neal’s works. I’ve read all of his books, over and over and over again, and the interesting thing to me about Neal is, I think he was especially prescient with Diamond Age and Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, you know, which were books that he wrote 20 years ago-ish, but like his recent books are also just spot on, like he has a real knack for thinking deeply about the trends that are shaping the world and then extrapolating just a little bit forward to capture what is about to happen and it’s – I just don’t know how he does it.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No. I totally agree. I mean that is what I think is really special about his work, is that it feels both prescient and futuristic. It seems like, you know, it’s not that far off, but it’s just different enough that it seems – you know, it is fantasy, but as time goes on, like you just see, like how on the pulse all of his insights really have been.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, really incredible.

CHRISTINA WARREN: All right, well, let’s dive into your conversation with Neal.


KEVIN SCOTT: Our guest today is Neal Stephenson. Neal is an American novelist whose books have been categorized as science fiction, historical fiction, cyber punk, post-cyber punk and even baroque. He explores areas such as mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency and the history of science.

Neal also writes nonfiction about technology for publications such as Wired and has worked as an advisor for Blue Origin. He was also chief futurist of Magic Leap for a few years. Neal’s works include the novels Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age and Zodiac. Welcome to the show, Neal.

NEAL STEPHENSON: It’s a pleasure to be here.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, before we get into the stuff that you’re working on today, I’d really love to start with your interests as a kid and how you got into doing what it is that you do.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Sure, well, it’s a funny thing about people that, you know, whatever you experience, day to day, while you’re growing up, you think it’s normal until you get out into the wide world and see that it’s not. So, I grew up in a college town in the Midwest: Ames, Iowa, that is home of a science and engineering-centric university. My parents are both engineers, scientist types and just where I grew up, that was true of the parents of almost all of the other kids around me.

So, that was kind of the air that I was breathing when I was a kid and it led to typical boyhood interests, you know, of wanting to be an astronaut, flying model rockets, model airplanes, tinkering with things, and so on and so forth. So that was my life until I graduated from high school and went to university at the age of 17.

KEVIN SCOTT: And were your parents technical people?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. My paternal grandfather was a physicist; maternal grandfather, a biochemist. My dad, an electrical engineering professor. My mother was a chemist who worked as a research assistant in labs, life sciences labs at the university, and various uncles and aunts and so on also had, you know, more or less technical professions.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, super-interesting that you must have had science, mathematics and engineering and technology, just in the air that you were breathing, but did your parents have any opinion about what direction your life should take, were they pushing you in particular directions, or just sort of encouraging curiosity?

NEAL STEPHENSON: I think more just encouraging curiosity. I don’t think there was pushing in the sense we’d normally think of pushy parents. It’s more kind of just what is considered normal in a household. You know, when people all around you, in your neighborhood in your social circle, have got advanced degrees or they’re working on PhD dissertations, or what have you, that is just kind of ends up seeming to be a typical career path in the same way that if you grew up in a family of carpenters, it would seem completely normal to learn carpentry and get a job as a carpenter. But I didn’t ever feel any pressure in the sense that one normally thinks of that.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, so I think that’s a good segue into beginning to talk about your work as an author. You probably get this a lot, especially from computer nerds that you talk with, but your works were extraordinarily influential for me. So, I read them when I was, you know, at this developing point in my career, and you know, the thing I think your books did for me was maybe what your environment did for you, so they provided this world where, you know, you had this vision and it wasn’t all bleak, nor was it all, you know, optimistic and Pollyanna, but it seemed like real world, with real characters, with real struggles and – you know, real consequences for the things that they were choosing to do, like in this environment that they were constrained by in a variety of creative ways, and it has shaped a lot about how I think about what the future could be. Was that your intention when you set out to write these works?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, when I set out it was a fairly chaotic and unplanned kind of just sort of lunging randomly into the unknown, so I – the first book that I wrote came out of nowhere. I was still in college. I was living in a slum apartment in Boston. I had no money. Spring break rolled around. I couldn’t go anywhere, and so I just sat alone on the couch for 10 days and typed and ended up producing a short fantasy novel. It’s never been published, never will be, but that kind of made me aware of something I hadn’t known before which is that I’m capable of sitting down and writing a book.

And then when I graduated from college, I was stuck at home for a while and wrote a second book, and then decided, well, maybe I should actually try to make a go of this. You know, I can – it’s not unusual for someone to take a year or two off between undergraduate college and graduate school, so maybe I’ll just try this for a while, and if it doesn’t work out, grad school would be my default option.

So, I did that and happened to get lucky with the third book, very lucky, got connected to an editor and agent in New York who were willing to devote a little bit of time to helping me develop as a writer, and so that was my first published book, The Big U, but it came about in a pretty chaotic way.

You know, I had written some excerpts of it and kind of an outline of what I wanted to do, and sent that off as a query and when a positive response finally came back, I realized I needed to write the whole thing, so I burned all of my vacation time at work and just sat there, again, for a couple of weeks, just banging this thing out, and what I delivered was a mess, but again, I had an editor, Gary Fisketjon, who was willing to spend some time going over it and showing me how to clean it up.

So all of this – I mean, the picture I’m trying to paint here is that, in general, this was just total unplanned chaos and hasty improvisation and not any kind of systematic career development.

KEVIN SCOTT: Well, I am sort of curious, like what gave you the courage or confidence, or whatever it was, to sit down and write those first two things I mean, did you even have an expectation that anyone was going to read them, or was it a thing that you were doing for yourself? Had you written things before?

NEAL STEPHENSON: I don’t think a lot of courage was really involved. I mean, it was really just me with nothing else to do, doing this because it was amusing and kind of interesting. I enjoyed doing it. And obviously, at that point in your life, you’re thinking about, wow, could I make a career of this, is anyone ever going to read it, might somebody buy it – so that’s totally on your mind, but you know, at that stage, it feels more like a hobby project or sort of self-expression. You know, there’s no risk that’s really being taken, and so I just did it.

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s, having written a book, obviously one that’s – neither as good as, nor as popular as any of the things that you’ve done, like it’s just a lot of work. I mean, it’s a real exercise in self-discipline when you have this world of possibilities. You can choose to do anything with your time to sit down, you know, with yourself and a keyboard and try to get your thoughts organized enough to tell a story, or you know, describe a set of ideas well enough that somebody else might find some value in them. I’m always fascinated to talk to folks like you who have made writing their profession and try to understand how it is you get from one project to the next.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, I don’t know, I think I’m a little bit of a freak, even among writers. I hear other writers talking about self-discipline and writer’s block and you know, the struggle. It’s not like that for me. I mean, I don’t mean to be egotistical or anything like that, but it’s never – at no point in my career have I ever felt as though I were inflicting some kind of discipline on myself. It’s just what I like to do.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s fantastic. So, I think one of the really extraordinary things about your books is you’ve been very prescient, and I think part of it is because the books have literally influenced people who are building tech and doing science, but you also have been a fairly accurate prognosticator of some trends that have unfolded pretty closely to how you’ve described them. I mean, and it’s sort of consistent. I mean, like obviously, we’ve got, you know, companies out now spending tens of billions of dollars building metaverse which is a term you coined years ago.

But also in your last book, Fall, I was just struck, the first third of that book. You know, not to spoil anything for anyone, but the way that you describe this near future with the internet and misinformation and – you know, this plausible scenario that you could use to sort of attack the infrastructure of the internet. Like I read it and I was like, wow, this is all chillingly possible.

So, how I mean, it’s probably a stupid question, but how do you get into the headspace or expose yourself to enough information where you can sort of think these thoughts and get as consistently close to the puck as you do?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, thank you. I started writing computer programs when I was 14 years old. You know, we had a little room in our high school with a modem connection to the mainframe at the university and a teletype, and we would write programs in BASIC on paper tape and run them over the phone. I continued writing programs in college, and after college, as soon as I could afford a computer, I got one, a Mac, the 1984 Toaster Mac, and learned how to write code on that.

So I wasn’t doing it at quite a professional level, but enough to sort of get it and to understand how programming works, and if writing hadn’t worked out for me, probably the most likely career path would have been that I would have ended up writing code somewhere in a tech company. And at the time that I wrote Snow Crash, I had been trying to sort of combine some of my interests by – I was collaborating on a project to create a graphic novel where we were going to use some image processing to generate some of the imagery, and so I was writing code on a color Mac, I think it was the Macintosh 2 to do that.

So, that brought me kind of a little bit up to speed with the technology and the terminology of three-dimensional computer graphics and how all that stuff worked. So, that project didn’t move forward but I was able to take some of what I’d written for it, some of the characters and the ideas, and fold them into an original novel, Snow Crash, and so that book is kind of steeped in the technical knowledge that I had at the time, as a result of working on all that graphics stuff.

And then from there on, I guess, with some of the other books it becomes just a matter of trying to follow current developments in different technologies, like in The Diamond Age, you know, it’s largely about molecular nanotechnology, which is not something I ever did, obviously, but it was easy enough to read the available literature about how it might work and get some ideas regarding that, and so on and so forth, with Cryptonomicon and some of the other books.

KEVIN SCOTT: I do think you do have a very high hit rate. Is part of that who you talk to? I mean, I’m guessing, as your novels became more successful, like it’s a little bit easier maybe to talk to experts, but like maybe you were I mean I guess because of your upbringing, you also had access to experts, just – you know, through academia. How important is that?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, it’s more accessing literature, be it online or on paper, than talking to experts. There’s a lag that happens where, when you’re writing the book, people don’t know who you are, necessarily, and then after the book comes out, they want to talk to you. So for example, in the case of the Baroque Cycle, I was doing all of the research for London and the early Royal Society from available literature and not really having a lot of direct contacts into that world, and then after the book came out, I began to hear from people in London who have connections to that city and to its history, who—had I known them before when I was writing the book—would have been incredibly valuable resources for me, but by the time they knew of me and I knew of them, it was kind of too late.

It’s still a great pleasure and honor to know them and talk to them, but it’s not going to affect what’s in the book at that point. So that happens very consistently with all of my books. It’s just kind of an inevitable thing, and there have been some cases where it was possible for me to kind of get ahead of that curve a little bit. So, in the case of Seveneves, for example, by virtue of having previously worked at Blue Origin, I knew enough people in the space industry that I was able to reach out to companies like Planetary Resources and Tethers Unlimited here in Seattle and get some direct input early enough in the process that it actually helped shape what appeared in the book, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

KEVIN SCOTT: Super interesting. So, let’s talk about today, like how – you know it seems to me, at least, that life is imitating art in a certain sense, that many of the things that you talked about in some of your earlier books, and even in your most recent books are unfolding pretty closely to the way that you described them in the books.

So, maybe let’s talk a little bit about metaverse which is, you know, obviously a thing that is going to see a lot of change over the next handful of years, just because there’s so many people inspired enough to invest a lot of their time and energy and capital in this space. Like what’s your, you know, sort of rough take on where things are headed?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, you know, metaverse, avatar and terms like that have been bouncing around the technical world for a long time now, but more as a kind of in-crowd kind of terminology and what’s happened in the last year or so is that, that’s kind of broken out into public discourse as a marketing term, as a sort of catch-all term to mean a lot of things, and so the – you know, I think kind of the most general thing I can say about it is just that we’re bumping up against the limits of what can really be done with flat displays.

So, when I look at the – I mean, just the displays that are around me here in my workspace, they’re spectacular, you know, they’re gigantic screens that are showing images in incredibly high resolution. They show movies at, you know, full resolution, full sound quality. I’ve got a TV, which is middle-of-the road, I mean, it’s not a super-special TV, but you know, it’s capable of showing movies that are as finely resolved as my eyes can detect. Like if we added more pixels to my TV set, it would be interesting technically, but I wouldn’t be able to see the difference.

So, beyond a certain point, that kind of technology can’t really get any better, and I think that people who are in the business of selling hardware and the associated software and operating systems to the general public need a place to go. They need a “next thing,” you know, that they can use to drive their businesses forward, and so metaverse is kind of a catch-all term now for stuff that people want you to buy a few years from now, and you know, by process of elimination, it’s got to be something beyond screens. It’s got to be, you know, stereoscopic or better displays, AR, VR, and then with that hardware, there has to be huge jumps forward in the capabilities of the software and the operating systems that drive pixels and sound into that hardware.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I mean, the curious thing for me is like, and so I totally agree with you that metaverse is like an interestingly vague marketing term, and like the vagueness lets people project all sorts of expectation and belief into a thing and like I don’t know that I really understand whether, like a particular thing is a metaverse and something else isn’t. Like, for instance, like the way that I’ve been thinking about metaverses in general, largely influenced by your work, is they seem to me, generally speaking to be – or need to be sufficiently convincing, immersive experiences that in some way sort of blur the classical boundary between digital and physical worlds.

And – you know, like there are a lot of things that – maybe my definition is wrong, but there are a lot of things that satisfy the definition, and so I look at my kids who, really love Minecraft and Roblox, and these, you know, sort of 3D worlds that get projected onto a 2D screen. They almost exclusively play them on a tablet, which is a small 2D screen, but they are completely and utterly immersed, like they are convinced that what’s happening in this world is real. Like there’s interaction, like they build things, they – there’s some form of commerce that happens in them. So, I mean, do you think it’s even useful to try to define what a metaverse is now, or like we just sort of have to iteratively discover what the world wants them to be?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, I mean, that’s up to the individual, you know, what it is that they’re looking for, like I – you know, I’m not a fan of tablets, personally, but some people obviously are, so if that works for you, great, otherwise maybe you’re looking for some other hardware platform to work on, but I would say that, kind of a common thread is the idea of multiplayer, that you’re interacting in real time with other people, who are in the same virtual space, even though they’re physically not where you are.

And I think another element that implicitly or explicitly is included in how people think about the metaverse is that it’s not all one app, it’s not all one game that – like, if you play Halo or World of Warcraft, you’re in a three-dimensional space, running around – you can encounter other people, but it still feels like a game, not a metaverse, because it’s a kind of hermetically sealed IP, in a way. Whereas when people talk about metaverse, they’re frequently talking about something where there’s the possibility for different applications to kind of bump up against each other and interact with each other in a predictable and agreed upon way.

KEVIN SCOTT: And do you, I’m so fascinated by this topic in general, like a couple of questions I’d love to ask you, like one – and I don’t know whether this is a hard or easy question, is what role do you think AI plays as these metaverses become more prevalent?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, AI is another term that can mean a lot of different things, and so it kind of depends. I mean, there’s an old joke that, as soon as AI works, people start calling it software, and so AI is always kind of the next thing down the road, even though AIs of various kinds have found their way into practical use, sort of all over the place.

So, it can mean a lot of different things. In games, it means sort of any behaviors on the part of non-player characters, or even the environment that in some way create an illusion of responsiveness, and so, its usage in games is pretty loose and pretty forgiving. A technical researcher might have a different point of view on what that means.

KEVIN SCOTT: One of the things that you’ve described in Fall is this fictional collapse of the internet and the information networks of that world, because of information overload and the sort of bifurcation of belief systems, you know, that there’s this sort of shaky notion of objective reality, and you know, you’ve got half of the population who believes a set of things that are unilaterally opposed to what the other half believes, and that in one half of the population, like you imagine that you would have to have some sort of mediating agent that helps you interpret all of the information that’s flying at you. So, like you don’t go onto the internet like someone, or something goes on the internet on your behalf to like to help you get through all of the druck to like real information.

Do you think that that is a thing that – you know, either for metaverse or like the larger information ecosystem that we’re going to have to have in the future?

NEAL STEPHENSON: I don’t know if that particular system is the answer. I mean, what’s described in Fall is the notion that you would have an editor and the more money you have, the more affluent you are, the better an editor you can afford, and poor people don’t have any editors, and so they’re just exposed to complete unfiltered garbage, and then that has the effect of making them poorer, in the long run. So, that’s more of a – I think kind of a fictionalized depiction of where we are now.

I guess my current thinking on this is that it’s all driven by the incentives that you personally experience in your day-to-day life, and if you’re in a line of work, somehow, or in a social situation where being able to tell fact from fiction is valuable to you, then you’ll be more discriminating in how you interpret information that comes in off the internet, but if it doesn’t matter, or if you’ve got some sort of positive incentive to believe in garbage, then you’re going to believe garbage. Nobody makes that choice – well, few people make that choice, because there’s, you know, sort of altruistic seekers of truth that they chose what they’re going to believe and how they’re going to get information based on the social and economic incentives that they are faced with.

KEVIN SCOTT: Do you think that’s true, even of scientists? I mean like one of the – and like maybe again, it’s all about incentives and social context, but like one of the fascinating things to me about how we’ve tried to pursue science, not always to the highest standards since the Enlightenment, is like you just sort of have a structural system that encourages people to propose ideas in rigorous way and for other people to attack those ideas in an equally rigorous way so that you can get closer and closer to some kind of understanding of what might be reliably true, versus false.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, I think that’s a good description of how it’s supposed to work.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and so, like obviously, it doesn’t work like that always. We can sort of see – you know, we can see at various points in time, like you know, that goal being perverted by politics or by, you know, what individual people are trying to accomplish that has nothing to do with truth-seeking, but do you think it’s better for the world to have more of these sort of institutional things where the vector is towards reliable truth, versus not, or like that you only narrowly need it, like you said, in these sort of professions where there are real consequences for believing BS.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, I mean, this is – I’m a big fan of an American philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce, who wrote a piece in 1877 about how people believe things. It’s called The Fixation of Belief, and I won’t try to explicate the whole thing here, but the – kind of the gist of it is that the majority of people sort of believe what they’re told to believe. And people of that mindset don’t know what to make of the scientific method, because they’re fixated on authority.

And so, like a classic example of this is I saw some debate online a few weeks ago about John Locke, one of the, you know, founders of the whole kind of enlightenment worldview who had written some stuff about Africans that no one believes – no one, no sane person believes today. So, but it was fairly commonplace for people back then to have beliefs that, today we know are wrong.

And so, someone was pointing to this as evidence that Locke, and by extension, the whole enlightenment project was wrong, top to bottom, because they were viewing the whole conversation through basically an authoritarian lens or the lens of someone who follows what Peirce would call the method of authority. And so, in that worldview, if you can discredit a particular authority, then you’ve successfully discredited everything downstream of that authority.

But from the point of view of a scientific method kind of person, that’s not how we think at all. What we respect is not any one particular exponent of this, not any one particular person or authority or any point of view that people believed in the past, but rather the process, the ongoing process that enables us to recover from mistakes and pick and choose what we think is currently supported by facts, and evidence and logic.

So, that’s just a difference in mindset between followers of the method of authority versus followers of the – what Peirce would call fallible-ism, which is simply accepting the fact that you might be wrong. And so, you need some kind of system for figuring out whether you’re wrong.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that’s super interesting. I mean, one of the things that I think about a lot is, whether we have chosen it as deliberately as we might have wanted to or not, we have a fairly – actually, not fairly, just an outrageously complex society built on layers and layers and layers of abstraction where, you know, just in the technical world, things have to be able to compose in predictable ways with one another in order for you to be able to deal with the next level of complexity that you’re building the world on top of.

And so, you have to have something like the scientific method to at least get the, you know, the interfaces between all of these things that have to compose right, because, like, there is no appeal to authority. You can’t just… You know, and I think we’re sort of learning that in, you know, like a bunch of our – like, the global economy, for instance. Like, you can’t just wish that the global supply chain might do a particular set of things. It’s very complicated.

And, you know, one of the things that I think about a lot, and I don’t know if, like, this is even a reasonable framing for things, but we live in this world of, like, this crazy stacking of complex abstractions, and we all depend on each other and the composition of those abstractions in incredibly complicated ways. And I think we underestimate how valuable it is to have a stable equilibrium where all of those things can continue to develop. And, like, the development just happens to accrue mostly to public good.

And so, I just sort of worry a lot, and, like, I’d love your take on this because I think you’ve written about this in your books, of whether you think that we have the right incentives for people in their day-to-day lives who aren’t looking at the – this incredibly complicated global picture. No one can because you can’t fit all of the details into any human brain, but do you think we have the incentives set right where each of us can go out and do what we do well and have that ladder up into, like, a stable, prosperous world order?

NEAL STEPHENSON: I think, kind of by definition among affluent, educated people, you know, people who work for tech companies or banks, or whatever, in – in the rich people economy that exists, albeit in a kind of ad hoc, you know, somewhat chaotic way, and it’s all – that’s almost tautology to say that because if you are plugged into that and you get it, you understand it, you’re on the road to being a rich person, or at least a comfortable person.

But, you know, on the other side, again, there’s a pretty large number of people who essentially can believe whatever they want to and not be aware that they’re in a bubble and not really – it doesn’t affect their fate one way or the other. And so, you get, in extreme cases, you get people just believing stuff that looks objectively crazy and wrong.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. It – the interesting thing to me for… probably the entire course of human history, and, like, certainly, this has been true since the Enlightenment, like you’ve had these rational systems existing alongside irrational ones. And, like, there’s at least been enough of a détente between the two systems where, you know, we can sort of make forward progress together. And I just wonder, like and I – I think, for me, it seems super hard to imagine, like, how you get every person to behave perfectly rationally.

One of my recent guests was Steven Pinker, who just wrote a really great book about rationality. And, like, I think everybody should read the book and, you know, sort of use the tools that he outlines in the book to try to get yourself to behave more rationally, but you know, in some sense, and, like, he even says –

NEAL STEPHENSON: But – but if you’re reading a book about thinking by Steven Pinker, you’re, there’s probably some self-selection already happening.

KEVIN SCOTT: (Laughter.) Yeah. I mean, part of what I so appreciate in the work that you produce is, like, you… in your science fiction, you’re not asking people to go through all of these cognitive tricks that Stephen is in his book to, like, be able to process the world that you’re perceiving. You are asking people to be inspired by things, to, you know, let their imaginations free about what could be good and bad. And, you know, I think that plays an incredibly important role in, like, getting, you know, the rational and the irrational systems to have some kind of harmony with one another.

So, I don’t know what you think about what we could do. Like, do we need more inspirational fiction? Do we need – like, what – what can we do to get things more balanced than they are right now, because I think about this a lot. I’m sure you do, as well. It’s hard to ignore how out of whack things are.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. I mean, for a while there, there was sort of a détente, as you put it, between kind of the scientific, rational world and big, established churches, like the Church of England, for example, and it wasn’t always perfect. There was always some, you know, trouble along the blurry edges of things. But you can kind of see this negotiation process take place over time, as, you know, Darwin says, “oh, you know, evolution is a thing and the world is really old.” And so, after some pushback and some – some grumbling, eventually, the – the church comes around to the view that, yeah, okay, the biblical account in Genesis is metaphorical. You know, the world is more than 6,000 years old.

And so, there’s this kind of progressive movement of the – the boundary between rational and irrational that takes place kind of slowly over centuries, but it only works if you’ve got, you know, in the case of, let’s say, England, you’ve got an established church. And there’s other churches as well and other faiths, but there’s kind of one dominant church and the people who run that church go to the same universities with the physics professors and they know each other. And so they’re able to kind of maintain this, what you call a détente.

That’s not where we are now. And now, kind of social media allows anyone to start the equivalent of a church. And so, there’s no way to establish kind of fixed boundary lines like that. So, and, you know, people – people try to sort of munge them all together into a movement like QAnon, and it kind of is there for a while and then sort of frays and – and falls apart. People go off and join other groups.

So I don’t know what that future looks like in the situation we’ve got now where there is no Archbishop of Canterbury to lay – or the pope, or what have you, to lay down the official theology.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it an interesting thing to think about, like, how destabilized the, you know, this, let’s call it 250-year equilibrium that we’ve had. Like, you know, maybe, maybe it isn’t as destabilized as we think it is. But if it is, like, it’s an interesting thing to think about what – you know, how we get to the next stable equilibrium. And I think it’s a mix of, you know, technology and, you know, having some big problems that we’re all going to go solve together, which need a mix of the rational and irrational.


And when I say irrational, like, I’m not being pejorative because like I suspect both you and I, like I know me, at least, like, I have all sorts of irrational crap that I –

NEAL STEPHENSON: No, you’re using it as a shorthand for something else. I get it.


NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. I mean, I was with you until COVID. (Laughter.) And then seeing people, like, dying because they heard on social media that vaccines were bad and refused to change their beliefs when people are dying all around them, and indeed, they’re sick and literally on their deathbed really has changed my mind and has shaken me up a little bit because one wants to believe in a kind of sad, but satisfying version of that story where when people bump up against mortality and see friends and family dying or see that they might die, they finally sort of come to their senses, but that has not happened.

So I think it goes pretty deep and I don’t know how we get out of that as long as social media continues to operate the way it operates today.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, the – the one counterpoint I would – I would offer this, and, like – (laughter) – this is – it’s sort of funny. Like, I was hoping you were going to cheer me up, but, like, here, let me – let me try to –

NEAL STEPHENSON: (Laughter.) Yeah, forget it.

KEVIN SCOTT: Let me try to cheer you up. (Laughter.) You know, I think all of what you just said is, like, it’s very discouraging. It’s incredibly dispiriting, but it’s the same thing that happened in the Spanish flu. Like, I read a whole bunch of the historical documents around – so, I live in the Bay Area. Like, I’ve read a bunch of the documents about how the public processed the Spanish flu in San Francisco, and the masking mandates, and the public health orders and whatnot. And it’s very, very similar to what’s going on right now.

NEAL STEPHENSON: You might, just parenthetically, if you haven’t read it, you should read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year


NEAL STEPHENSON: Because it’s – it’s just hilariously on point, like paragraph after paragraph. It’s just straight out of the early days of COVID, you know, 2020.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. F. Scott Fitzgerald had some really interesting letters that he wrote at the time. It’s at the beginning of the pandemic, I read all of this stuff and I’m like, wow, like, we’ve learned nothing. And at the end of the pandemic, I was like, wow, we, you know, we did the same things back that and we’ve had a whole century of, like, the most unbelievable progress that the human race ever had following that.

So, I don’t believe necessarily that the pandemic and how we processed it is an indication that we’re in some sort of…

NEAL STEPHENSON: Is anything new.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I mean –


KEVIN SCOTT: I mean, and yeah, that’s as hopeful as I can get because usually I’m the one who’s the pessimist. (Laughter.)

NEAL STEPHENSON: I’d like to know, you know, like, what was the messaging that ordinary people heard, you know, back in those days. When they went to church, you know, were the sermons, you know, did people talk about this and suggest that they wear masks or were there the equivalent of anti-vaxxers at the time? Were the anti-vaxxers respected members of society or, you know, how did that whole picture look?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I’m guessing it’s, like, super complicated. My mother lives in rural central Virginia and is southern Baptist and is a devout believer. And she’s, you know, a 70-something year old little southern church lady, right? But she is also triple vaxxed and like, defends her health perimeter fiercely. And, you know, she tells me these stories about her church community of these little old ladies, and there are a bunch of folks who are like her and there are a bunch of folks who are not like her. And, you know, they get a little frustrated with one another, but they figured out how to have a détente of some sort. And, like, that actually gives me hope, a lot of hope.


KEVIN SCOTT: We are almost out of time, and I had a couple more questions I’d like to ask you. Like, one is, like, you, you know, by virtue of your job, like writing speculative fiction or writing these stories about futures that might be, you seem to always be thinking about what’s next. So, like, what are you excited by, inspired by? Like, what do you think might be the interesting set of next things that, either good or bad, that we should be thinking about right now?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, it does seem like the kind of thing that I should have an opinion about, right? (Laughter.) But my mind doesn’t kind of work that way. I’m still kind of reeling from COVID and trying to make sense of it all. So, I guess I’m super curious to see whether the current crisis is the beginning of just a longer and deeper overall downturn, or is it something that we bounce back from in a creative and positive way. So, I don’t claim to have any particular insight. With the 2016 election and some other things that surprised me, like COVID, I’m kind of stepping back a little bit from any attempt to claim I know what’s going to happen next, because clearly, I don’t.

KEVIN SCOTT: Oh, I don’t know. You seem to always have. Maybe what we need to do –

NEAL STEPHENSON: I mean, I think a big one to watch and sort of a longer term kind of mega trend is carbon capture.


NEAL STEPHENSON: I mean, Termination Shock is about solar geoengineering, which is kind of a temporary Band-Aid approach, but I’m super curious to see how that plays out over the next couple of decades.

KEVIN SCOTT: Totally agree with you there and I – I think the thing that we’re seeing right now is there are some really powerful tools coming online that help with that problem. One of the things that we’ve been tracking for three or four years now is if you pick up an issue of Science or Nature any given week, with greater frequency, you see people across a whole bunch of scientific disciplines using machine learning in places where they would have just used combinatorial optimization or numerical optimization in the past to, like, solve a problem like airfoil design or, you know, protein structure prediction or like, pick your thing.

And you know, at least for these numerical optimization problems in physics, like, we don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with the differential equations that describe the physical systems, but the way that you use the differential equations to actually simulate something just requires a lot of tradeoffs. So they don’t have closed-form analytical solutions, obviously, because they’re all nonlinear and all kinds of wonky.

So, when you get into simulation space, you’re making tradeoffs about physical scale or time scale or, like, available computation or whatnot. And people are really, now – like, I think it’s going to really take off this year – are using machine learning to learn something about the structure of these problem spaces that can dramatically accelerate the performance of the simulation or optimization.

And so, like, there are things that are already being published at conferences where, like, we can send you this paper, like a group at Caltech, they invented a thing that they call a neural operator for solving the Navier-Stokes flow equations for computational fluid dynamics. And they didn’t get a 10 percent speed up or a factor of two speed up in performance without losing accuracy. Like, they got a thousand times speed up.


KEVIN SCOTT: And so, I think, you know, when you see things where your improvements come by orders of magnitude, like huge new things become possible. And like, we’re seeing this generalize fairly well across a whole bunch of problems. And so like, you know, you think about carbon capture and, like, you need to design new catalysts and new materials and whatnot. It’s exactly the sort of thing where, you know, if you can get a million X speed up on classical methods, it’s great.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. I mean, once you get on the inside of the inside of current research, it can be incredibly exciting. And but it’s kind of fragmented into a lot of different areas, right? So, you really have to be on top of things, on top of a particular area to understand and appreciate some of the advantages of what’s going on.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, you know, the thing that I did after 2016 is I stopped spending any time at all on social media – (laughter) And I renewed my subscriptions…

NEAL STEPHENSON: Good for you.

KEVIN SCOTT: …to Science and Nature. And I was like, yeah, I’m only going to consume information that is long form, preferably peer reviewed or produced with high editorial standards, because I was spending an inordinate amount of time consuming information that was sort of the, you know, the food equivalent of junk. Like, I wasn’t learning anything. I wasn’t, you know – it wasn’t helping me be better at anything.

And I think, you know, in that sense, you read Science and Nature every week and even through the course of the pandemic, it’s really inspiring. Like, we’re making a lot of progress. Like, the quality of the work is crazy good. That – that’s my hope. (Laughter.)

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, no, that’s one of the oddities of our time, right, is that that sort of thing is going on and we’re like creating mRNA vaccines in no time, you know, and saving millions of lives. So, and that is all co-existing with people who think that it’s a hoax or that the vaccines have microchips, you know, in them. (Laughter.) So, it’s an interesting picture, to be sure.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. So, one final question before I let you go. I ask this of everyone. You obviously love your day job. I mean, it sounds like you don’t suffer for your writing, that it’s a thing you enjoy doing. But I’m curious, outside of that, what are the things that you do for fun?

NEAL STEPHENSON: I like building things. I like making physical objects. It might be, you know, packing together a little Arduino circuit or, you know, machining something or 3D printing something. And so, I have kind of a bunch of projects running in parallel at any given time in that vein. And I’m you know, by design, not trying to have them be economically viable. I’m not, you know, I’m not trying to patent anything or create IP, you know, in an economic sense. I’m just following my nose and working with likeminded people on making cool stuff.

KEVIN SCOTT: What sorts of things do you machine?

NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, I’ve got a vertical machining center, a CNC machining center and a lathe. I’ve got two different 3D printers, various other things that I have access to.

KEVIN SCOTT: What VMC did you buy?


KEVIN SCOTT: Nice. Yeah, I’ve got a little Datron Neo, which is only suitable for non-ferrous materials.

NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, I’ve also got a Shapeoko that’s maybe similar to what you’re talking about, wood and aluminum, plastic. But yeah, I’ve got a few… I mean, you spend a certain amount of time just maintaining the tools themselves, but I’ve always been interested in the weird physics of long, skinny like whips and chains, which dates back to things I was studying 20 years ago. So, I’m playing with some of that. I’m playing with some ideas in the area of carbon capture and just some artistic kind of hobby projects.

KEVIN SCOTT: That is so super cool. Yeah, I mean, if you ever need to subcontract out any of your stuff, like I would be happy to try to help. (Laughter.)

NEAL STEPHENSON: Good to know. Yeah, thanks. Thanks for the offer, yeah.

KEVIN SCOTT: (Laughter.) Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. And thank you for doing what you do. You’ve been a real inspiration to me over the years, and I hope to be reading Neal Stephenson books in the future until I’m an old-ass man. (Laughter.)

NEAL STEPHENSON: I hope to be writing them that long. So, thanks for your kind words. I enjoyed the conversation.

KEVIN SCOTT: Awesome. Thank you.


CHRISTINA WARREN: Well, that was Kevin’s conversation with Neal Stephenson. So, what a great conversation, first of all. It was really great hearing the two of you talk about different things, and I was actually kind of interested in the conversation you were having about the metaverse and I guess some of the unknowns and the opportunities about what that term even means, I guess, in our current context.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. He is obviously one of the people to talk to about the metaverse, because I think he’s been so insightful in predicting what it might be and, like, at the same time, inspiring a bunch of people who are working on metaverse right now to do what they’re doing. So, he’s got this sort of inspire-influence thing happening simultaneously.

But, you know, I think one of the things that was really interesting for me to hear him say about the metaverse is that he doesn’t believe that it’s one monolithic thing and that metaverses may and probably will take a whole bunch of different forms. And, like, to me, that’s – that’s the exciting thing. It’s like we’re either at or right on the cusp of the technology for building these things being good enough for them to become ubiquitous. And the way that they’re going to become really good is a bunch of developers and a bunch of creatives taking all of these technological components and making something great.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, I totally agree. I had the same thought. I really liked that he was saying he doesn’t think it’s going to be just one thing because I think that’s important. I think that when we look at what these future things will be, like, you know, in my lifetime, I think the most important thing that has happened has been the World Wide Web.

And again, as you said, that was a bunch of different people, a bunch of different technologists, and artists and people coming together to build new things, but it wasn’t just one idea. It wasn’t just one, you know, concept. It could go in a bunch of different directions. And I think having those possibilities and having that ability to, I guess, kind of evolve is exciting. And that is what I think, why so many people are excited about the metaverse, whatever it might be.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. And I think the thing that we all should remember is that every platform and technology ecosystem that has ever emerged has become great because you have this plurality of people creating on top of it. It’s never about, like, one thing and one group’s rules about the thing. It has to be open enough where everybody can get involved and help to shape it into, like, this rich, interesting direction. And, like, that I think is – it’s important to remember and it’s exciting to think about.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, I think that’s a great point. I mean, if anything, I think you could almost make the argument that if you don’t have that plurality, as you say, then it’s not going to take off. It’s not going to be successful because, as you point out, it’s only been those things where we’ve had everybody kind of working together and kind of doing their own things and building off of one another that you actually have something that really matters and can really change the world.

KEVIN SCOTT: Totally agree. And even if a thing doesn’t have the plurality of participation and influence and it takes off, it probably isn’t going to be as great as it could be if it did. So, I’m really excited about what the next handful of years is going to bring.

CHRISTINA WARREN: I am too, and I’m also excited to, you know, see what future Neal Stephenson books will look like and what insights he will have for us, going forward.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, for sure. Like, I said there at the end, I hope I’m reading Neal Stephenson’s books until I’m a very old man. (Laughter.)

CHRISTINA WARREN: Same. I mean, old woman, but I’m right there with you because his work is incredible and he continues to do great work.

All right, well, that is all the time that we have today. Thank you to Neal Stephenson for sharing his time and insights with us. If you have anything that you’d like to share with us, please e-mail us anytime at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.

KEVIN SCOTT: See you next time.