The following is a conversation with Neal Stephenson, a legendary science fiction writer
exploring ideas in mathematics, science, cryptography, money, linguistics, philosophy, and virtual
reality, from his early book Snow Crash to his new one called Termination Shock.
He doesn’t just write novels.
He worked at the space company Blue Origin for many years, including technically being
Blue Origin’s first employee.
He also was the chief futurist at the virtual reality company Magic Leap.
This is the Lex Friedman Podcast.
To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, here’s my conversation with Neal Stephenson.
You write both historical fiction, like World War II in Cryptonomicon, and science fiction,
looking both into the past and the future.
So let me ask, does history repeat itself, in which way does it repeat itself, in which
way does it not?
I’m afraid it repeats itself a lot.
So I think human nature kind of is what it is.
And so we tend to see similar behavior patterns emerging again and again.
And so it’s kind of the exception rather than the rule when something new happens.
What role does technology play in the suppression or in revealing human nature?
Well, the standards of living, life expectancy, all that have gotten incredibly better within
the last, particularly the last hundred years.
I mean, just antibiotics, modern vaccines, electrification, the internet.
These are all improvements in most people’s standard of living and health and longevity
that exceed anything that was seen before in human history.
So people are living longer, they’re generally healthier, and so on.
But again, we still see a lot of the same behavior patterns, some of which are not very
So some of it has to do with the constraints on resources, presumably with technology you
have less and less constraints on resources.
So we get to maybe emphasize the better angels of our nature.
And in so doing, does that not potentially fundamentally alter the sort of the experience
that we have of life on earth?
You know, until the last 10 or so years, I would have taken that view, I think.
But you know, people will find ways to be divisive and angry if it scratches a kind
of psychological itch that they have got.
And we used to look at the Weimar Republic, what happened in the economic collapse of
Germany prior to the rise of Hitler, World War II, and kind of explain Hitler, at least
partially by just the misery that people were living in at that time.
The economic collapse.
Yeah, hyperinflation and unemployment and the decline in standard of living.
And that sounds like a plausible explanation.
But there are economic troubles now for sure.
We had the bank collapse in 2008.
And there’s stagnation in some people’s standards of living.
But it’s hard to explain what we’ve seen in this country in the last few years just strictly
on the basis of people are poor and angry and sad.
I think they want to be angry.
So without being political in a divisive kind of way, can we talk about the lessons you
can draw from World War II?
This singular event in human history, it seems like, and yet, as you say, history rhymes
at the very least.
Being who I am, I tend to focus on the curious technological things that happened in conjunction
with that war.
Which may not be where you want to go.
Well, there’s several things.
Sorry to interrupt.
So one in Cryptonomicon is more like the Alan Turing side of things, right?
And then there’s the outside of technology.
First of all, there’s the tools of war, which is a kind of technology.
But then there’s just like the human nature, the nature of good and evil.
Well, so one of the things that emerges from the war and from the extermination camps is
that we were never allowed to have illusions anymore about human nature.
So you have to learn that lesson to be an educated person, and you have to know that
even in a supposedly enlightened, civilized society, people can become monsters quite
So that is for sure the big takeaway.
Do you agree with Solzhenitsyn about the line between good and evil runs through the heart
of every man?
That all of us are capable?
I read a good chunk of the Gulag Archipelago when I was a teenager because my grandfather
had it in his house because he was one of these Americans who was obsessed with the
Soviet Union and the Soviet threat and wanted people to be aware of some of what had happened.
And so he had those books lying around and I would read them.
And it’s a similar kind of parallel story to what happened in Germany during the war,
this creation of this system of camps and oppression and lots of troubling behavior.
To me it’s a story of how fear and desperation combined with a charismatic leader can lead
But it’s also a story of bravery, of love, of brotherhood and sisterhood and basically
You have a man’s search for meaning, which is the story of a man in a concentration camp
basically finding beauty in life even under most extreme conditions.
So to me World War II is not necessarily a bleak view of human nature.
It’s a little moment of evil that revealed a much bigger good in humanity.
So I’m not so sure that it leads me to a pessimistic view of the world, the fact that somebody
like Hitler could happen, the fact that a lot of people could follow Hitler and get
excited and maybe even love the hate of the other for some moment of time.
I think all of us are capable of that, but I think all of us also have a capacity for
And I think, I don’t know what you think, but I think we have a greater desire for good
And it seems like that’s where technology is very useful as a guide, as a helping hand.
Can you give me an example maybe?
So I give you examples of futuristic technologies and I can give you examples of current technologies.
Current technologies, knowledge in the form of very basic knowledge, which is like Wikipedia
and search the original dream of Google that I think is very much a success, which is making
the world’s information accessible at your fingertips.
That kind of technology enables the natural, if this axiom, this assumption that people
want to do good is true, then letting them discover all of the information out there,
false information and true information, all of it, and let them explore that’s going to
lead to a better world, to better people.
Fascist technologies is, I personally, I mentioned to you offline, sort of love artificial intelligence.
And so AI that’s an assistant, that’s a guide, like a mentor to you, that you can in the
way that Google searches, but smarter, where you can help send it out and say, this is
the direction in which I want to grow, not authoritarian lecturing down from the algorithm
of telling you this is how you should grow, but almost the opposite, where you use it
as an assistant, a servant in your journey towards knowledge.
That sounds like an easy thing, but it’s actually from an AI perspective very difficult.
I mean, this is the theme of a book I wrote called The Diamond Age, which talks about
a book that essentially does that.
And I’ve been sort of watching people try to come at the problem of building that thing
from different directions for ever since the book came out, basically.
And so I kind of have, although I haven’t worked on it myself, I do get a sense of the
level of difficulty in realizing that goal.
So that book is in the 90s, so as Google is coming to be, it’s essentially not Google,
but the search engine, the initial search engines, which gave birth to Google essentially
That was still in the era of Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves and multiple different search engines.
And yeah, I’m pretty sure I had not heard of Google at that point.
That would have been 95, 96.
I think the book came out in 94.
And then, of course, the social networks followed, which is another form of guidance through
the space of information.
Well, what happens is that these things come along and then people find ways to game them.
And so I saw an interesting thread the other day pointing out that 20 years ago, if you
had Googled Pythagorean theorem, chances are you would have been taken directly to a page
explaining the Pythagorean theorem.
If you do it now, you’re probably going to…
The top hits are going to be from somebody who’s got an angle, who’s got a scheme, right?
They’re trying to sell you math tutoring or they’re working some kind of marketing plan
So the traditional engines become actually less useful over time for their original educational
That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be replaced by newer and better ones.
First of all, to defend the people with the angle, right?
They’re trying to find business models to fund, oftentimes, which is funny you went
with Pythagorean, like you went at math, those greedy bastards, but it’s great.
How can we monetize the Pythagorean theorem?
Well, I mean, education, right, is just to figure out like people who love math education,
for example, love it purely, not purely, but very often love it for itself, for just teaching
Because, you know, when coming face to face with, for example, like the YouTube algorithm,
they start to try to figure out, okay, how can I make money off of this?
The primary goal is still that love of education, but they also want to make that love of education
their full time job.
But I see that sort of that dance of humanity with the algorithms as it finds this kind
of local pocket of optimality, or suboptimality, whatever, it gets stuck in it.
It’s a pocket of some sort.
But I see that pocket as way better than what we had before in the 80s, right, or the 90s
before the internet.
But like, and now we’re now, this is also human nature, we start writing very eloquent
articles about how this pocket is clearly a pocket, it’s not very good, and we can imagine
much better lands far beyond, but the reality is it’s better than before, and now we’re
waiting for a new book.
And you have to wait either for lone geniuses or for some kind of momentum of a group of
geniuses that just say, enough is enough, I have an idea, this is how we get out.
And it’s too easy to be sort of, I think, partially because you can get a lot of clicks
in your articles being cynical about being in this pocket, and we are forever stuck in
this pocket, and then coming up with this grandiose theory that humanity has finally,
like it’s collapsing, stuck forever like a prison in this pocket, but reality, it’s just
clickbait articles and books until one curious ant comes up with the next pocket.
Yeah, tunnels through the barrier or gets enough energy to jump over the barrier.
And eventually we’ll be, as you’ve talked about, I mean, we’ll colonize the solar system,
and then we’ll be stuck in the solar system, and then people will say, well, we’re screwed
because when the sun energy runs out, there’s no way to get to the next solar system, and
It goes on until we colonize the entirety of the observable universe.
I think getting out of the solar system is going to be a hard one.
So can you, you mentioned this, can you elaborate why you think, back to sort of a serious question,
why do you think it’s hard to get outside of our solar system?
It’s just an energy calculation.
I mean, you can do it slowly whenever you want, but the idea of getting there in one
lifetime or a few lifetimes requires huge amounts of energy to accelerate.
And then as soon as you get halfway there, you need to expend an equal amount of energy
to decelerate, or you’ll just go shooting by.
And so that means carrying a lot of energy.
And there’s ideas like Yuri Milner, I think, is still funding the idea to use laser propulsion
to send something to another star system, a small object.
But it’ll have no way to slow down, as far as I know.
They never talk about that part, like how do we slow down?
It’s a quick flyby to take a good picture, I guess.
Yeah, you better take some good pictures on your way by.
So, and that’s great if it happens, I’m not knocking it.
But the amount of energy that’s needed is just staggering, and there’s other issues
like just how do you maintain an ecosystem for that long in isolation?
How do you prevent people from going crazy?
What happens if you hit something while traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of
So that’s sort of some combination of expanding human lifespan, but also just good old fashioned,
stable society on a spaceship.
Yeah, yeah, the generation ship.
No, I think that’s the only way.
It would have to keep going for a long time.
And they might get to where they’re going and find a shitty solar system.
We can try to do some advanced survey, but if you get there and all the planets in that
solar system are just garbage planets, then it’s kind of a big let down for this like
thousand year voyage that you’ve just been on, right?
So we have a pretty narrow range of parameters that we need to stay between in order to survive
in terms of the gravitational field that we can deal with.
So that sets a bound on the size of the planet and what we need in the way of temperature
and atmosphere and so on.
So when you look at all those complications, then basically building sort of exactly the
environment we want out of available materials in this solar system starts to look a hell
of a lot better.
It’s hard to make an economic argument, let’s say, for making that journey.
One of the things I like about the expanse is the fact that the people who are trying
to build the starship to go to the other solar system are doing it for religious reasons.
I think that’s the only reason that you would do it because economically it just makes more
sense to build rotating cylindrical space habitats and make them perfect.
Well, isn’t everything done for religious reasons?
Like why do we exploration?
Why do we go to the moon again and do the other things?
What does JFK said is not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.
Isn’t that kind of a religious reason?
I knew a veteran of the Apollo program who once said that the Apollo moon landings were
communism’s greatest achievement.
Yeah, so the conflict between nations is a kind of…
Not exactly a religion, but it’s what you’re talking about.
Well, it’s a struggle for meaning and that meaning isn’t found in some kind of…
It’s hard to find meaning in mathematics.
It’s found in some kind of in music and religion, whatever, art.
Some people do, but those are probably not enough of them to…
People that find meaning in mathematics, they usually find meaning between the lines nevertheless,
not in the actual proving some kind of thing.
So from a cost perspective, do you actually see a possible future where we’re building
these kind of generation ships and just why not launch them one a year out like wandering
ants out into the galaxy?
I have nothing against it.
It’s just, like I said, it’s got the motivation to do it has to come from some kind of spiritual
or kind of non tangible calculus.
So from a business model perspective, you don’t think there’s a business model there?
No, no way.
One of the many fascinating things you’ve done in your life, you were at the very beginning,
you were the person that convinced Jeff Bezos to start a spaceship company, a space company.
You were there at Blue Origin for a few years in the beginning working on alternate propulsion
systems and at least according to Wikipedia, alternate business models.
Yeah, I mean, to go back to the first thing you said, Jeff Bezos is not a guy who required
a lot of convincing.
He’d been thinking about it since he was five years old and it was an inevitability.
But the idea that kind of got hatched in 1999 was to just do some advanced scouting work,
explore the corners of the space of possibilities.
And so that was Blue Operations LLC, which was the precursor to Blue Origin.
And so it was a small staff of people that did that for a few years.
And I think it was about 2003, 2004 that it swung decisively towards the direction it’s
been following ever since, which is using basically existing aerospace technologies
and models to make chemical fueled rockets for space tourism.
I believe and I continue to believe that the fact that we use chemical rockets is just
an accident of history that comes out of World War II.
So until World War II, rockets are being built on a small scale by people like Robert Goddard.
But then Hitler desperately wants to bomb London, but he can’t quite reach it and the
Luftwaffe has been kind of neutralized.
So he decides he’s going to lob warheads into it with rockets, which is a terrible misallocation
It’s a terrible idea.
So it only could have happened in a dictatorship controlled by a lunatic.
But that’s the situation that existed.
So they built these rockets, that’s the V2.
And then it’s just a complete coincidence that that war ends with atomic bombs being
developed in a completely separate super weapon program.
And so suddenly the existence of the bombs creates a demand for rockets that didn’t exist
before because if you’ve got atomic bombs, you need a way to deliver them.
You can do it with bombers, but it’s a lot better to just hurl them to the other side
of the world on the top of a rocket.
So suddenly rockets, which had gotten a boost because of Hitler’s V2 program, got a much
bigger boost during the 50s and 60s.
And it is a complete, you’re right, for some reason I never thought of this, it is an accident
of history that nuclear weapons are developed at a similar time.
First of all, nuclear weapons didn’t have to be developed at the same time as World
That’s an accident in history.
And then the fact, okay, so then Hitler started using rockets, that’s an accident of, okay,
That’s a fascinating set of coincidences.
Yeah, which is true of a lot of technologies, by the way.
By the time these rockets are kind of working, we’ve got hydrogen bombs that are so big and
so devastating that nobody really wants to use them.
But it turns out you can fit a capsule with a couple of people in it into the socket on
the end of a missile that was made to hold a hydrogen bomb.
So we start doing that instead as a proxy for having a war.
I’d love to be in the meeting where the first guy brought that up as an idea.
It’s probably a Russian.
Why don’t we strap a person to the rocket?
Well, it probably was because they did it first, right?
The Russians did it first.
And they had perhaps less respect for sort of safety protocols.
They were a little bit more willing to sacrifice the life of an astronaut or to risk the life
of an astronaut.
This is basically the story of how through all of this competition and because of these
historical accidents, trillions of R&D dollars and rubles were put into development of chemical
rocket technology, which has now advanced to an incredibly high degree.
But there’s other ways to make things go really fast, which is all that rockets do.
That’s all orbit is.
It’s just going really fast.
And because so many nerds are obsessed with space, people have been thinking about alternate
schemes for as long as they’ve been thinking about rockets.
And so one of the first things that I learned kind of trying to explore new possibilities
was that I could put all of my brainpower to work and be creative as I could and invent
some idea that I thought was new for making things go fast.
And I would always find out that some guy in Russia or somewhere had thought the same
idea up 50 years ago and figured out all the math.
And so at a certain point, you give up on trying to invent completely new ideas and
just go poking around trying to find those guys.
So there’s a number of ideas that we looked at.
Some are crazier, some are less crazy.
And the direction that that company eventually took was chemical rockets.
Is there something you can comment on possible ideas?
So first of all, you could use nuclear, so nuclear propulsion.
So that’s, I mean, you’ve probably heard of Project Orion, which was the…
Freeman Dyson and some of his collaborators had a scheme to power a large space vehicle
by detonating atomic bombs behind it.
And so one of the other people who was working at Blue Operations during this time was George
Dyson, the son of Freeman.
And so we knew all about Project Orion and he found an old film that they’d shot on a
beach in La Jolla of a prototype of this that was powered by like lumps of C4.
So that was an idea, but for a private company, obtaining a large number of atomic bombs was
probably out of scope.
So it was more of a theoretical thing.
There’s a conceptually similar approach using lasers that Freeman worked on with Arthur
Kantrowitz and some others, where you take a pulsed laser and you fire it at a vehicle
that has a block of ice on the back.
And the pulse hits the ice and flashes off a layer of steam that becomes plasma.
And plasma is opaque because it conducts.
And so being opaque, it then absorbs all of the energy from the laser pulse and gets
really hot and just pushes on the back of the block of ice.
And then you wait a moment for that to dissipate and then you do it again.
So it would just kind of vibrate its way.
Like it sounds really violent, but Freeman said that if you were wearing like rubber
sold tennis shoes standing in this vehicle, you would just feel a mild vibration.
So there your source of energy is on the ground and you’re getting higher specific impulse
than you could get by burning chemicals.
Jordan Kerr and others worked on another laser system, the late Dr. Jordan Kerr, that just
would heat up a heat exchanger by many converging solid state lasers from the ground.
And Kevin Parkin works on a similar scheme that just uses microwaves to do that.
We looked at tall towers.
I spent a while looking kind of semi seriously at giant bullwhips.
What’s a bullwhip?
Just a whip, you have them here in Texas, right?
Yeah, I understand.
But how does that have to do with propulsion?
If you think about it, a whip is an incredibly simple primitive object that can break the
speed of sound.
So it’s unbelievable in a way that for thousands of years, people with no technology have been
able to accelerate objects through the speed of sound just through an architectural trick.
Just the physics of a moving bend of material in a medium can do this.
So that’s the thing I still think about from time to time.
You can use the same physics to make freestanding loops of chain or other flexible materials
that just kind of stand up under their own physics.
I mean, it’s kind of awesome to imagine.
So imagine using the same kind of physics of a whip, but have at the end of it a spaceship.
That would detach at the moment of maximum velocity.
Why wouldn’t that?
So part of my motivation in studying that was to ask that question.
It was more almost a symbolic way of saying, look, there’s all kinds of physics we haven’t
It’s no more crazy than the idea of chemical rockets.
It’s just that more money’s gone into chemical rockets, right?
Can I ask you a question on propulsion that’s a little bit more out there?
So I don’t know if you’ve seen quite a lot of recent articles and reports and so on about
UFOs, like the Tic Tac aircraft.
I keep seeing a lot of chatter about it, but I haven’t gone deep into it.
So the DOD released footage filmed by pilots, and there’s a lot of reports about objects
that moved in ways they haven’t seen before that seem to defy the laws of physics if we
consider the aircraft that we have today.
So the reason I asked you that is because it kind of, to me, whatever the heck it is,
it’s inspiring for the possibilities of ideas for propulsion.
If it’s like secret projects from foreign nations or it’s physical phenomena that we
don’t yet understand, like ball lightning, all those kinds of things, or if it is aliens
or objects from an alien civilization.
I most likely believe if it’s an object from an alien civilization, it’s got to be like
a really dumb drone that just got lost.
It’s definitely not like the pinnacle of intelligence.
It’s like some teenager’s science fair experiment.
Yeah, it just flew for a few centuries out and just landed, and then we humans are all
like really excited about this wild thing.
I mean, what do you think about those…
First of all, like the millions of reports of UFOs, right?
There’s some psychology there that’s deeply cultural, but also the possibility of aliens
having visited Earth.
Yeah, I mean, I’d like to see some better pictures.
For the reason I mentioned earlier, having to do with the difficulty of traveling between
star systems, it’s really hard for me to believe it’s aliens.
I just can’t understand why you would go to all that trouble to transport something across
light years and then do what these UFOs are allegedly doing.
Like how is that interesting?
How does that justify the trip?
So if you travel across those kinds of distances, you would make a bigger splash.
First of all, I would expect that the arrival of these things would be something we’d notice.
It’s got to decelerate into our solar system unless it got here really, really, really
So I guess that’s a possibility and just kind of snuck in.
So at the end, we would detect some kind of footprint in terms of energy.
You would think.
So I actually think your idea of a science fair project gone bad, it makes more sense
in that it would explain why if these things are alien technologies, they’re just kind
of hanging around our aircraft carriers for no particular reason, like not trying to communicate.
Can you imagine a scenario where aliens have visited Earth or are visiting Earth and we
wouldn’t notice it at all?
I mean, if they’ve got technology to get here, they’ve probably got technology to conceal
the fact that they’re trying to conceal themselves.
I meant more like they’re not trying to conceal themselves, but we’re just our cognitive capabilities
are like too limited and we are not thinking big enough.
We’re looking for little green men, we’re looking for things that operate at a time
scale that’s human like, you know.
I love thinking about ideas like that.
That’s great science fiction novel fodder that the aliens are so different that we simply
don’t see them.
Is there, in terms of language, do you think it would be difficult, not aliens visiting
us but traveling to other places to find a common language?
You’ve written about the importance of language in intelligent civilizations.
How difficult is the problem to bridge the gap between aliens and humans in terms of
language so we’re not lost in translation?
Yeah, I mean, there’s different takes on that depending on how biologically similar they
are to us, you know.
I mean, there’s a school of thought that says, basically, advanced life has to be carbon
based for just reasons of chemistry.
So right away, if you impose that limitation, then you’re kind of assuming something that’s
starting to be biologically similar to us.
So if they’re about as big as we are and they kind of move around in space, in a physical
body the way we do, then there’s probably a way to solve that communication problem.
If they’re beings of pure energy from Star Trek or something like that, then it’s a different
Well, I love thinking about that kind of stuff too.
I mean, consciousness itself may be alien.
I mean, it could be, like you said, beings of pure energy.
I think of life as just complex systems, and the kind of forms those complex systems can
take seems to be much larger than the particular biological systems we see here on Earth.
I have to ask a Twitter question about aliens.
This is for Twitter.
What would you expect from Twitter?
Can humans have sex with aliens?
You could pass.
I asked a language question.
Can they communicate?
Can they fall in love before sex?
That’s how it works.
So which question am I answering?
The sex or the love?
I mean, it depends what is more fundamental to relations across intelligent species.
I mean, sex can mean a lot of things.
So I mean, if you’re…
Your production, right?
You know, in Star Trek, in classic Star Trek, you had to really suspend your disbelief to
think that Spock was half Vulcan and half human, right?
Because that’s just not going to work DNA wise.
So if by sex, you mean reproductive sex, then I would say no, unless you go to a panspermia
kind of theory, which is that, you know, humans were seeded onto the planet as part of a galactic,
you know, program of some sort.
And then we’re just returning home, hanging out with our old relatives.
But that doesn’t seem, you know, it doesn’t seem plausible.
We know that humans had sex with Neanderthals, with Denisovans, so you could think of them
as aliens that came from our planet.
So that’s a kind of data point, I guess.
But you know, if you broaden your definition of sex to mean any kind of gratifying physical
interaction then sure.
And that’s how we get to love.
And love can take many forms.
Love can certainly take many forms.
I have to ask you, in terms of space, just looking at where Blue Origin is, looking at
where SpaceX is today, and maybe looking out 10, 20 years out from now, are you impressed
at what’s happening?
We just saw William Shatner go up to space.
Yeah, I was just watching his video this morning before I came here.
Are you impressed at where things stand today?
I mean, SpaceX in particular has done things that are just unbelievable.
And I don’t think anyone was anticipating 20 years ago, let’s say, when this all started,
just the speed with which they’d be able to rack up these incredible achievements.
If you’ve kind of even seen a little bit of how the sausage is made and so the difficulty
of doing any kind of space travel, what they’ve achieved is just unbelievable.
What about maybe a question about Elon Musk?
Even more than Jeff Bezos, he has a very kind of ambitious vision of this project that we’re
on as a species, of becoming a multi planetary species and becoming that quickly, as soon
as possible, landing on Mars, colonizing Mars.
What do you think of that project?
There’s two questions to ask.
First, the question is, what do you think about the project of colonizing Mars?
And second, what do you think about a human being who is so unapologetically ambitious
at achieving the impossible, what a lot of people would say is impossible?
I think that colonizing Mars is the kind of goal that’s easily stated.
It’s the kind of thing that can inspire people to get involved in a way that some other programs
So I think it’s well chosen in that way.
I have technical questions about, there’s a problem of perchlorates on the surface of
Mars that’s going to be big trouble.
And there’s radiation.
This is known.
What about business questions?
Do you think, because you mentioned sort of going outside of the solar system would best
be done for religious reasons.
What about colonizing Mars?
Can you spin it into a business proposition?
It’s hard to think of a resource that’s on Mars that could be brought back here cheaply
enough to compete with stuff we could just dig out of the ground here or grow here.
So I don’t know if there is a business plan for that or if it’s just strictly we’re going
to go there and see what happens.
Maybe again we need communism to get us going, to give us a reason, a little bit of the competition.
Well there’s plenty of people who are sufficiently excited by the colonize Mars vision that they’re
willing to just go all in on it, even if there’s not a business plan behind it.
But I think it’s well chosen.
I think it’s probably the only approach to take.
A lot of the, when white people came to this continent and started colonizing it, there
was not a lot of coherent planning.
What plans they did have turned out to be terrible plans.
Trying to come up with plans that extend decades into the future is a waste of time.
So do it for the kind of unexplainable love of the unknown, like the journey towards exploring
the unknown and just kind of keep going.
You saw it with Shatner and his reaction to the flight yesterday.
He, for him that trip was more than worth it just for these intangible reasons.
What did he say?
I haven’t watched the video yet.
He was trying to express, talking a lot about the moment where suddenly you kind of rise
above the thin blue blanket of the atmosphere and you’re up into the blackness.
And that had a huge impact on him.
So he was kind of, I wouldn’t say groping for words because he was pretty eloquent,
but he was trying to express his feelings about that in a way that is pretty gripping
So you worked on this kind of stuff, we can go back 10 years ago.
You wrote an essay called Innovation Starvation.
You worked on this kind of idea since then, kind of looking at maybe a little bit cynically
about our age today and our unwillingness to take on big risky projects.
So in the face of that, what do you think of people like Elon Musk?
Because to me, people like that are inspiring and gives you hope in the face of a more kind
of pessimistic perspective of our age.
Yeah, well he’s clearly willing to tackle big ambitious projects without a lot of kind
of soul searching or trying to make up his mind, right?
It’s just like, let’s dig tunnels under cities.
Step one, make a joke about it on Twitter.
Step two, actually do it.
And I mean, things have slowed down quite a bit.
Our ability to build things at pace is a lot less than it was, and there’s reasons for
We’re more concerned with safety and environmental impacts than people were when they were building
some of the great Publixworks projects of the mid 20th century.
But we’re at the point now where even just maintaining the stuff that we’ve got is such
a huge project that we need to put big resources into it and good minds into it, or else we’re
going to be losing things that we take for granted.
Do you think that there’s a lot to be done in the digital space?
You mentioned sort of Wikipedia and knowledge, don’t you think there could be a lot of flourishing
in the space of innovation, in terms of innovation in the digital space?
Yeah, I mean, I’d like to see that.
I think it’s where a lot of the brainpower went during the last couple of generations,
because people who might previously have been building rockets or other kinds of hard technologies
ended up instead going into programming, computer science, which is understandable and great.
We’ve got structural problems right now in the way social media works that are pretty
severe, and so I certainly hope that we’re not, 10 years from now, that we’re not exactly
where we are today when it comes to that stuff.
We need to move on.
The beautiful thing about problems is they show you how not to do things, and they give
opportunity to new ideas to flourish and to beat out the ideas of the old, which is a
dream for me to see new social media that beats out the ways of the old.
So I tend to, you perhaps agree that it’s not, that it’s impossible to do social media
Oh, not at all.
I mean, I listened to your interview with Jaren a couple of weeks ago, and I know Jaren,
and we’ve talked about this.
He went hard on me.
He basically said, like, it’s impossible.
It was very nice.
Well, the last time I kind of paid attention to Jaren’s thoughts on it, he was thinking
in terms of that basically there should be micro payments such that if I, by clicking
the like button on something, I’m essentially giving valuable intellectual property to Facebook
or Twitter or whatever.
It’s not a very large amount of IP, but it’s definitely a transfer of information that
when they aggregate it is beneficial to them.
So and now I do remember that he, on his interview with you, was talking about what, data unions
Those are a lot of interesting ideas, but for me, the biggest disagreement was in the
level of cynicism.
He has a distrust and cynicism towards people in Silicon Valley being able to do these kinds
And I’m really, okay, when you have a large crowd of people that are doing things the
wrong way, you should nevertheless maintain optimism because what’s important is to find
the one person in that room that’s going to do things the right way.
Cynicism is going to completely silence out the whole room.
So he was saying, I’ve been here a long time.
I’ve known, you know, I understand like how these folks work, they think they’re gods
and they know the right way to do things and they will tell you how to do those things.
And that kind of hubris is going to always lead you astray when you are the one who’s
engineering the algorithms.
And there’s a lot of deep truth to that because algorithms are powerful.
And many people when given power do not do the best of things.
I mean, most, what is it, the old Lincoln line, if you want to test the man’s character,
give him power.
But that doesn’t mean that some people are not able to handle the power, that some people
are not able to come up with good ideas that create better social media.
Yeah, I didn’t interpret Jaren’s statements as being entirely cynical and hopeless.
He’s definitely raising, you know, issues of concern.
But he wouldn’t be out, you know, writing the books that he’s written and talking about
this stuff if he didn’t think there was a way.
If he didn’t think there was hope, yeah.
And part of it, as you probably know with Jaren, he just loves a good argument.
He just loves to have a little bit of fun.
Well I have to ask you about, I mean, we talked about taking all big, bold, risky ideas.
So in your new book, Termination Shock, it’s set here in Texas.
Part of it is, yeah.
Most of it.
It’s a great place to set it.
So in it, the main character, TR McCooligan, a Texas billionaire oil man and truck stop
magnate, decides to solve climate change, to take on climate change by himself.
So this is an interesting philosophical exploration of how to solve climate change from a perspective
that’s perhaps different than we’ve been thinking about.
I wouldn’t use the word solve, but let’s say ameliorate the temporary effects.
Take on the challenge.
So it’s very interesting, but as, so there’s a gradual nature to this process.
And I mean, just like in your book, the power of innovation is something that has saved
us quite a few times in history.
So what role does that play in this gradual process?
So ultimately we don’t solve the problem until we get the CO2 out of the atmosphere.
But that is going to take a while.
We’re still adding more.
We haven’t even started to reduce the amount.
So there’s two possibilities inside to interrupt is reduce the amount that we’re putting in
the atmosphere and two is removing what we got in the atmosphere.
We have to do both.
And those are two different kind of efforts in terms of like what’s involved.
Because it stays up there.
So I think just last week, China announced that they’re going to try to level off their
CO2 emissions in like 2030.
So 2031, they’ll only put as much CO2 into the atmosphere as they did in 2030, which
is still a lot of CO2 in 2060, they’re saying will be net zero.
So if everyone in the world does that and the PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere by then is
say 450 parts per million, it’ll stay at 450 parts per million until we take it out.
And taking it out is hard.
It’s a big, it took us a long time.
We had to empty out huge coal mines and oil reservoirs and burn all that stuff.
We had to chop down forests and dig up peat bogs in order to create all of that CO2.
And so we have to reverse all of those processes somehow in order to remove the CO2 and get
it back down, hopefully into the 200 and some parts per million range where it used to be.
So how about you get a single Texas billionaire to have a massive gun that blasts huge quantities
of sulfur into the upper atmosphere.
That’s idea number one.
This is called solar geoengineering.
And it’s a, we know that it’s a possibility on a technical level because volcanoes have
been doing it forever.
So many times in human history, we’ve seen a volcanic eruption that was followed by a
global cooling trend that lasted for a couple of years.
And one of these things happened I think in the 60s or 70s in Indonesia and the Australians
sent a plane up into the stratosphere to take some samples of the plume.
And when it came back down, the windscreen of the plane had sort of a deposit on it.
So one of the Australian scientists licked it and reported that it was painfully acid.
So that was our first kind of clue that what was being injected into the stratosphere was
And so we know then Pinatubo came along in the 90s and did this experiment for us.
So we know that sulfur in the stratosphere, it forms little spherical droplets of sulfuric
acid after it combines with water and those bounce back some of the sun’s rays and reduce
the amount of solar energy entering the troposphere, which is where we live.
So we know that it works and we also know that the stuff goes away after a couple of
So it gradually washes out.
And so it’s not a permanent thing.
The good news, bad news is it’s not permanent.
So if you don’t like what’s happening, you can just stop and wait a couple of years and
you’ll get back to where you started.
The bad news if you’re in favor of this kind of thing is that you have to keep doing it
So this guy is one of those, he’s read these papers, the TR, the character in the book.
He knows all this and all people who are familiar with climate science kind of know this.
It’s a pretty well established fact.
And so he just decides he’s going to take action unilaterally and do this.
And so there’s different ways to get the sulfur up there, but because it’s Texas, he builds
the biggest gun in the world.
It’s just six barrels pointed straight up and he begins firing shells loaded with sulfur
into the stratosphere.
And so the book is about not so much that as how people react to his doing that, what
the political ramifications are around the world because this is an extremely controversial
idea and not everyone’s on board with it.
And even if you are willing to consider using a technological intervention, the fact is
that it’s going to have different effects on different parts of the world.
So some areas may suffer more negatives than positives and they’re not going to be happy.
So what do you think, so in his case, in TR’s case, he can get around getting permission
If we were to look at us facing outside of the story, us facing climate change, where
do you think the solution will come from?
Governments working together or from bold billionaire Texans?
I’m pretty sure that this kind of intervention is never going to emerge from Western democracies.
This kind of, sorry, government coordinated, which option one?
From a government, from a, like those are, I want to sort of the distinction, one is
the idea, the technological idea you’re talking about, but two is like who comes up with the
idea and agrees on it, governments or individuals.
If this were to happen, I think it would be either an individual or more likely just some
government somewhere that just decides it’s in their interests to unilaterally do this.
And you know, that’s not me advocating it, it’s just, it would be comparatively so cheap
and easy to implement a solar geoengineering scheme that someone is probably going to do
it once things get bad enough.
But I don’t think that governments will, or Western governments, just because they’re
not, well, we’ve seen what happened with vaccines, right?
So getting people to take vaccinations or wear masks, you know, has turned out to be
incredibly hard, even though it might save those people’s lives.
See, I blame, that’s not Western, that’s, I blame failure of leadership there, of leaders
being not coming off as authentic, not being inspiring, uniting, all those kinds of things.
I think that’s possible.
I think it’s just that we’ve gotten, the leaders we have right now aren’t the right people
because we’ve lived through kind of a long stretch of relatively comfortable times.
And it feels like unfortunate if you just look at history, that hard times made great
leaders and easy times make like bureaucrats that are egotistical and greedy and not very
interesting and not very bold.
No, I think that’s fair.
So, you know, we may be entering one of those interesting times, you know, in the Chinese
curse sense, yeah.
So I could be wrong, but I mean, there’ve been some efforts to explore solar geoengineering.
There was a plan to send up some balloons, high altitude balloons to take some measurements
in Scandinavia that got squashed by objections from people who lived up there who were just
opposed to the whole program on principle.
So we’ll see a lot more of that.
And it’s going to be a hard program to advocate for just because I think people don’t quite
understand how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere and how far we are from even slowing
down the rate that we’re adding more to say nothing of bringing that number down.
We’re a long way out from that.
Do you see in terms of portfolio of solutions, us becoming a multi planetary species as part
Is this also being a motivator for investing some percent of GDP into becoming a multi
And what percent should that be, you think?
You know, in an indirect way, maybe.
I mean, you know what people will say, which is the same argument that has been leveled
against space exploration since the Apollo program, which is why don’t we solve our problems
here on Earth before we spend money going into space.
So I’ve never been a believer in that argument.
I think there could be a sense in which the new perspective that could be obtained by
thinking about like if we’re thinking about terraforming Mars, changing its atmosphere,
making it more amenable to life and survival.
You could see that maybe changing people’s opinions about terraforming the Earth.
There are some dangerous consequences to this particular idea of blasting software of geoengineering.
What do you make of sort of big, bold ideas that are a double edged sword?
Are all ideas like this, all big ideas like this, they have the potential to have highly
beneficial consequences and a potential to have highly destructive consequences?
I wouldn’t say all.
I think, you know, going back to what we were talking about earlier, how technology developed
in the 50s and 60s, there was a period of time there when people maybe had unrealistic
ideas about new technology and weren’t sufficiently attentive to the possible downsides.
So we got, and there’s a reason why, I mean, in the mid 20th century, we saw antibiotics,
we saw the polio vaccine, we saw just simple things like refrigerators in the home.
My grandmother to her dying day called the refrigerator the ice box because when she
grew up, it was a box with ice in it.
So you see all that change and it’s largely for the benefit of people.
And so if somebody comes along and says, hey, we’re going to build nuclear reactors to make
energy or here’s a new chemical called DDT that’s going to kill mosquitoes, then it’s
easy to just buy into that and not be alert to the possible downsides.
And of course, we know that the way that those early reactors were built and the way that
the supply chain was built to create the fuel and deal with the waste was poorly thought
out and we’re still dealing with the resulting problems at places like Hanford in the state
And we know that DDT, although it did kill a lot of insects, also had terrible effects
on bird populations.
So the kind of backlash that happened in the 70s that is still kind of going on is to sort
of assume that everything is a double edged sword and always to look for, we have to absolutely
convince ourselves that the downside isn’t going to come back and bite us before we can
adopt any new technology.
And I think the people are overly sensitized to that now.
Yeah, it’s funny, depending on the technology, people are a little bit too terrified of certain
technologies, like artificial intelligence is one.
My sense is that the things that they’re afraid of aren’t the things that are likely going
to happen in terms of negative things.
It’s probably impossible to predict exactly the unintended negative consequences.
But what’s also interesting is for AI as an example, people don’t think enough about the
I mean, the same is true with social media.
It’s very popular now, for some reason, to talk about all the negative effects of social
We’ve immediately forgotten how incredible it is to connect across the world.
There’s a deep loneliness within all of us, we long to connect and social media, at least
in part, enables that even in its current state.
And all the negative things we see with social media currently are also in part just revealing
the basics of human nature.
It didn’t make us worse, it’s just bringing it to the surface.
And step one of solving a problem is bringing it to the surface.
The fact that there’s a division, the fact that we’re easily angered and upset and all
of that, the witch hunts, all those kinds of things, that’s human nature and it just
reveals that allowing us to now work on it, it’s therapy.
And so that’s another example of a technology that’s just, we’re not considering the positive
effects now and in the future enough of.
I have to ask you about, there’s a million things I can ask you about, but virtual reality,
I gotta ask you.
You’ve thought about virtual reality, mixed reality quite a bit.
What are the interesting trajectories you see for the proliferation of virtual reality
or mixed reality in the next few years?
Yeah, so I was at Magic Leap for, what, five years.
With the best title of all time.
And so I sort of had a little squad of people in Seattle doing what you might call content
R&D, so we’re trying to make content for AR, but because it’s such a new medium, it’s more
of an engineering R&D project almost than a creative project.
So it was fascinating to see everything that goes into making an AR system that runs.
So AR, an AR device, if it’s really gonna do AR, needs to be running Slam in real time.
And that alone is a big…
So for people who don’t know, first of all, virtual reality is creating an almost fully
artificial world and putting you inside it.
Augmented reality, AR, is taking the real world and putting stuff on top of that real
world, and when you say Slam, that means in real time, the device needs to be able to
sense, accurately detect everything about that world sufficiently to be able to reconstruct
the 3D structure of it so you can put stuff on top of it.
And doing that in real time, presumably not just real time, but in a way that creates
a pleasant experience for the human perception system is, yeah, that’s an engineering project.
Yeah, well said, and it’s just one of the things that the system has to do.
It’s also tracking your eyes so it knows what you’re looking at, how far away what you’re
looking at is.
It’s performing all those functions, and it’s got to keep doing that without burning up
the CPU or depleting the battery unreasonably fast, and that’s just table stakes.
It’s just the basic functions of the operating system, and then any content that you want
to add has to sit on top of that.
It’s got to be rendered by the optics at a sufficiently low latency that it looks real
and you don’t get sick.
So it’s an amazing thing, and a magically shipped device that can do that in 2019.
And they’re about to ship the ML2, but I don’t know any more about that than anyone else
because I don’t work there anymore.
Does it still, to some degree, boil down to a killer app, a content question?
Like you said, it’s kind of a wide open space.
Nobody knows exactly what’s going to be the compelling thing.
So doesn’t a super compelling experience of some sort alleviate some of the need for engineering
Well, there’s a base layer of engineering that you have to have no matter what, but
you’re certainly right that people, like in the early days of video games, put up with
kind of low frame rate and what we would now call crappy graphics because they were having
so much fun playing Doom or whatever.
So for sure that’s true.
And so I was working on consumer facing content, there was a great team in Wellington, New
Zealand that made a game called Dr. Groydbrod’s Invaders that realized the potential of AR
gaming in a way that I don’t think anything else has before or since.
And so that was definitely the strategy until, what, April 2020, which is when the company
decided to pivot to commercial industrial applications instead.
And I haven’t seen their financial projections, but I assume they had good reasons for making
that strategic decision.
It just means that it’s no longer necessarily targeted at just end users who want to play
a game or be entertained.
That to me from a dreamer, futurist perspective is heartbreaking because I don’t know necessarily
from in the VR space, but I see this kind of thing with robotics where to me the future
of robotics is consumer facing and a lot of great roboticists, Boston Dynamics and companies
like that are focused on sort of industrial applications for financial business reasons.
Now I can see the parallels for sure.
It was a fun project.
We worked on an app, for example, called Baby Goats, which just populated your room with
That seemed like a killer app right there.
No, we thought highly of the idea for sure.
But because of the SLAM, the system knew, for example, here’s a table, here’s a little
We know the heights.
We know how high our animated baby goat can jump.
So our engineers had to build a system for converting the SLAM primitives into game engine
objects that the AIs in the game could navigate around.
And that ended up shipping as more of a dev kit or a sort of how to a sample app than
as a finished consumer facing.
You mean the baby goat AI?
That seems to me like a world I could entertain myself for hours, just every day coming home
to see baby goats.
I mean, it was an ambient kind of…
It’s not a thing that you would sit there and play like a video.
But now there’s baby goats.
I mean, what’s the purpose of having dogs and cats in your life exactly?
It’s kind of ambient.
They’re not really helping you do anything, but it’s enriching your life.
You can go and play fetch or something for a while if you want, but you don’t have to.
So we worked on that in a bigger project that was more of a storytelling in a fictional
The hardware is worth a look.
There’s still a belief, I just saw it this morning looking at Twitter, that the Magic
League never shipped anything.
But they’ve been, since 2019, you can go to their website and buy one of these devices
anytime you want to spend the money.
And the new one is coming out, I think in 2022, so in a few months.
What do you think, looking out 50 years from now, what wins?
Virtual reality, augmented reality, or physical reality?
Meaning like, what do people that have financial resources enjoy spending most of their time
I’ve always been a fan of AR and it’s kind of an easy answer because if you’re wearing
an AR device and you put a bag over your head, it becomes a VR device.
If you block out what’s really there, then all you’re seeing is a VR.
But you are, with AR, constrained to kind of operate in something that’s similar to
With VR, you can go into fantastical worlds.
But there are still issues in those fantastical worlds with motion sickness.
If your body is experiencing acceleration, your inner ear, that differs from what your
eye thinks it’s seeing, then you’ll get sick, unless you’re a very unusual person.
So it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it’s just a constraint that VR designers have to learn
to work with.
So do you think it’s possible that in the future, we’re living mostly in a virtual reality
Like, we become more and more detached from physical reality?
For entertainment, maybe, for certain applications, I’m personally more, I mean, we have to make
a distinction between what I would personally find interesting and what might win in the
So maybe some people, maybe lots of people, would like to spend a huge amount of time
I’m personally more interested in enhancing the experience that I have of the physical
world, because the physical world’s pretty cool, right?
There’s a lot to be said for moving around in the real world.
And I ask you for you personally, to try to play devil’s advocate, or to try to construct,
to imagine a VR world where you and Neal Stephenson wouldn’t want to stay.
Not because the physical world all of a sudden became really bad, for some reason, like you’re
trying to escape it.
Like, literally, it’s just more enriching.
In the same way, like, there’s a glimmer in your eye when you said you enjoy the physical
Like, double up on that glimmer for the virtual reality.
Can you imagine such a world?
Well, like, I’ll give maybe an example that’s a bridge, which is that I like making things.
So I like working in a machine shop and making objects with 3D printers or machines or whatever.
And so I’ve had to learn how to get good at using a CAD program.
There’s many to choose from.
I use one called Fusion 360.
And I can spend hours in that trying to create, imagine and create the things I want to create.
And it’s not virtual reality exactly, but that whole time, my whole field of view is
occupied by this monitor that’s showing me a window into a three dimensional space.
I’m rotating things around.
I’m imagining things.
I’m making things.
And so that is pretty close to being in virtual reality.
Does that thing have to exist for you to experience true joy?
Can you stay in Fusion 360 the whole time?
Do you have to 3D print it and touch it?
Yeah, I mean, that’s my game.
That’s what I’m up to.
But it happens that if you’re building a virtual environment, if you’re making a game level
or creating a virtual set for a film or TV production, the thing that you’re designing
in the program may never physically exist.
And in fact, it’s preferable that it doesn’t because the whole point of that is to make
imaginary things that you couldn’t build otherwise.
So I think lots of people spend a good chunk of their working hours in something that’s
pretty close to VR.
It’s just that currently the output device happens to be a rectangular object in front
You could replace that with a VR headset and they’d be doing the same stuff.
There’s all kinds of interfaces.
For example, I enjoy listening to podcasts or audiobooks, but let’s say actually podcasts
because there’s an intimate human connection in a podcast.
It’s one way.
But you get to learn about the person you’re listening to and that’s a real connection
and that’s just audio.
For a lot of people, that’s just audio.
And for me, that’s just audio as a fan of people and you kind of a little bit are friends
with those people.
Yeah, they’re in your life, you’re listening to them, yeah.
And I mean, they’re as far away from real as it gets.
There’s not even a visual component.
It’s just audio.
But they’re as real, like if I was on a desert island, like my imagination, like this thing
works pretty good in terms of imagination.
It creates a very beautiful world with just audio.
Or even just reading books.
Exactly, reading books.
Even more so with reading books because there are certain mediums which stimulate the imagination
When you present less, the imagination works more and that can create really enriching
To me, the question is, can you do some of the amazing things that make life amazing
in virtual worlds?
It seems to me the answer there is obviously yes.
Even if I, like you, am attached to a lot of stuff in the physical world, I think I
can very readily imagine coming up with some of the same magical experiences in the virtual
world where you make friends and you can fall in love, where the source of love in your
life is to a much greater degree inside of a virtual world.
And then love means fulfillment, that means happiness, that’s the thing you look forward
And not some kind of dopamine rush type of love, but like long lasting like friendship.
The real deal.
The question is on what is there in the way of applications, the content, and can it feed
you those things?
Can it give you, like in my example of using the CAD program, it gives me the ability to
do something I enjoy, which is imagining things and making things in a particular way.
Can we psychoanalyze you for a second?
What exactly do you enjoy?
Is there some component of you building the thing where you get to at least a little bit
share with others?
Like is there a human in the loop outside of you in that picture?
Will anyone ever see it?
There’s a source of your enjoyment because I would argue that perhaps when like the turtles
all the way down, when you get to the bottom turtle, it has to do with other sharing with
And if you can then put those humans inside the VR world, then you start to…
Then you can…
Okay, for example, you could do it in the physical world, the 3D printing, but you share
it in the virtual world and that’s where the source of happiness is.
I think at least speaking for myself, I’m always thinking in terms of an audience and
at some level I feel like I’m doing this for someone or communicating to someone, even
if there’s not a specific someone in mind, it could just be an abstract theoretical someone.
And it’s like another app I spend a lot of time in is Mathematica.
And when I do a Mathematica notebook, if I’m trying to figure something out, I spend a
lot of time typing, just my stuff is just huge blocks of text, just me thinking out
loud and then some graphs and calculations and stuff.
Because to me, that act of explaining things and commenting helps me understand what I’m
And there’s kind of an audience, amorphous audience in mind.
I mean, most of this stuff nobody will ever see and yet I’m creating it as if there were
an audience that might read this stuff because that’s a necessary constraint that helps me
do a better job.
What’s the, this might be a tricky question to answer, what comes to mind as a particularly
beautiful thing that you’re proud of that you created inside Mathematica visualization
wise or something that just comes to memory if it’s possible to retrieve?
So the thing I’ve spent the most amount of time on is I got obsessed a long time ago,
was trying to tile the globe with hexagons.
An actual globe?
Well, any spherical.
But with an eye towards putting it on the earth.
And so, and have it be recursive.
So you can have hexagons within hexagons, which is hard because and probably a bad idea
because you can’t tile a hexagon with smaller hexagons.
They don’t, they stick out.
So they’re, oh, they stick out.
So there’s a, can you do some kind of fractal hexagon situation?
So it’s that and people who know me are always, now make fun of me for this.
So they’ll send me, if they see a picture with hexagons in it, they’ll like send me
a link to make fun of me.
So as some.
One of those people, Roger Penrose or.
I think Roger’s a little above my level.
He’s into hexagons as well and tiling.
So I did a lot of that and I thought, you know, it was pretty cool, but there’s some
like surprisingly intractable problems that keep coming up.
Like you’ve always got to have some pentagons.
Like if you start with the icosahedron, which is equilateral triangles, which is a logical
place to start, you can cover those with hexagons, but every vertex where the triangles come
together is a pentagon.
Has to be a pentagon.
So it’s all hexagons and then there’s a pentagon at the intersections.
How’d you figure that out?
Is that a known fact?
Well, it’s just, if you look at a.
Like just by inspection.
It’s an obvious thing.
So any system that you come up with to do this has got to have this exceptions built
into it for those 12.
You could have quintillions of hexagons, but you’ve still got to have 12 pentagons somewhere.
So I’ve blown a hell of a lot of time on that over the years.
By the way, a lot of those kind of problems are very difficult to prove something about.
I think Uber did it because someone, one of my friends who knows of my interest in this
and who likes to give me a hard time sent me a link.
This is a couple of years ago to some code base that I think came out of Uber where they
had done this.
You break down the whole surface of the earth into little hexagons.
So that was a real knife through the heart.
But I’ll probably come back to it someday.
Is there something special about hexagons or are you interested in all kinds of tiling?
Well, I’m interested in all kinds of tiling, but I know my limitations as a math guy.
So hexagons are about my speed.
Just sufficient amount of complexity.
But no, tiling is a really interesting problem.
Both two and three dimensional tiling problems are fascinating and they’re one of those ancient
puzzles that has attracted brainiacs for centuries.
Let me ask you a little bit about AI.
What are some likely interesting trajectories for the proliferation of AI in society over
the next couple of decades?
Do you think about this kind of stuff?
I do not think about it a lot because it’s a deep topic and I don’t consider myself super
well informed about it.
And AI seems to be a term that is applied to a lot of different things.
So I’ve messed around just a tiny little bit with neural nets, with what’s it called PCA,
principal component analysis.
So I guess I tend to think in terms of some granular bottom up ideas rather than big picture
So like very specific algorithms, like how are they going to, what problem are they going
to solve in society such that it has like a lot of big ripple effects.
I mean, we could talk a particular successful AI systems and success defined in different
ways of recent years.
So one is language models with GPT3.
Most importantly, they’re self supervised, meaning they don’t require much supervision
from humans, which means they can learn by just reading a huge amount of content created
So read the internet and from that be able to generate text and do all kinds of things
It’s possible they have a big enough neural network.
It’s going to be able to have conversations with humans based on just reading human language.
That’s an interesting idea.
To me, the very interesting idea that people don’t think about it as AI because they’re
kind of dumb currently is actual embodied robots.
So robotics like Boston Dynamics have downstairs and upstairs legged robots.
You know, the currently Boston Dynamics robots and most legged robots, most robots period
are pretty dumb.
Most of the challenges have to do with the actual, first of all, the engineering of making
the thing work, getting a sensor suite that allows you to do the same thing as with Magic
It’s like a layer of like, where am I and what am I looking at?
I don’t need to deeply understand my surroundings at a level beyond of what will hurt if I run
But even that is hard.
But the thing that I think people don’t in the robotics space explore enough is the human
robot interaction part of the picture, which is how it makes humans feel, how robots make
And I think that’s going to have a very significant impact in the near future in society, which
is the more you integrate AI systems of whatever form into society where humans are in contact
with them regularly.
So that could be embodied robotics or that could be social media algorithms.
I think that has a very significant impact.
And people often think like AI needs to be super smart to have an impact.
I think it needs to be super integrated with society to have an impact and more and more
that’s happening, even if they’re dumb.
No, I mean, a lot of my exposure to robots is that I’m associated with a combat robotics
And I’ve been to a few battle bots competitions.
And that’s not like a lot of ways that’s pretty far from the kind of robotics you’re talking
about because these robots are remote controlled.
They’re not autonomous.
And so they’re pretty simple, but it’s interesting to watch people’s emotional reactions to different
So there was one that was in the last year’s season, the 2020 season called Rusty that
was just like put together out of spare parts and it looked kind of cute and it became this
huge crowd favorite because you could see it was made of like salad bowls and random
pieces of hardware that this guy had like scavenged from his farm.
And so immediately people kind of fell in love with this one particular robot.
Whereas other robots might be like the bad guy, if you think of professional wrestling,
the heel and the baby face.
So people do, for reasons that are hard to understand, form these emotional reactions.
And we form narratives in the same way we do when we meet human beings, we tell stories
about these objects and they can be intelligent and they can be biological or they can be
almost close to inanimate objects.
That to me is kind of fascinating.
And if robots choose to lean into that, it creates an interesting world.
If they start using feedback loops to make themselves cuter.
Not just cuter, but everything that humans do, let’s not speak harshly of robots, humans
do the same thing.
Oh no, I wasn’t meaning it in a, but you’re right, humans based on feedback will change
Yes, I do this on Instagram all the time, how do I look cuter?
That’s the fundamental question I ask myself.
So why wouldn’t a robot wanna, it’s like oh wow, people really don’t like the quad mount
machine gun on top of my turret, maybe I should get rid of that and people would feel more
Or lean into it, be proud of it.
Like you won’t take my gun, whatever the saying is, from my dead cold hands.
I mean their personality, adding personality such that you can start to heal, you can start
to weave narratives.
I think that’s a fascinating place where there’s this feedback loop, like you said, where AI,
especially when it’s embodied, puts a mirror to ourselves.
Just like other humans, our close friends, they kind of teach us about ourselves.
We teach each other and through that process grow close.
And to me it’s so fascinating to expand the space of deep meaningful interactions beyond
That’s the opportunity I see with robots and with AI systems and that’s why I don’t like,
my biggest problem with social media algorithms is the lack of transparency.
It’s not the existence of the algorithms, it’s, well there’s many things.
One is the data.
Data should be controlled by people themselves.
But also the lack of transparency in how the algorithms work.
You change your perception of what’s real in hidden ways.
In hidden ways.
Like you should be aware, just like when you take, I don’t know, if you take psychedelics,
you should be aware that you took the psychedelics, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
And second, you should become a student and a scholar and there should be research done,
there should be open conversation about how your perception has changed and then you become
your own guide in this world of altered perception because arguably none of it is real.
You get to choose the flavor of real.
I mean, this is something you explore quite a bit.
Do you yourself think that there is a bottom to it where there is reality, there’s a base
layer of reality that physics can explore and our human perception sort of layer stuff?
Is there, let’s go to Plato, is there such a thing as truth?
I lean towards the Platonic view of things.
So I believe that mathematical objects have a reality that it’s not all made up by human
And I don’t know where that reality comes from.
I can’t explain it, but I do think that mathematical objects are discovered and not invented.
I did a lot of, not a lot, but I did some reading of Husserl when I was writing Anathem
and he’s a 20th century phenomenologist and he’s writing in the, he’s writing at the same
time as scientists are starting to understand atoms and becoming aware that when we look
at this table, it’s really just a slab of almost entirely vacuum and there’s a very
sparse arrangement of tiny, tiny little particles there occupying that space that interact with
each other in such a way that our brains perceive this object.
So that’s kind of the beginnings of phenomenology and his stuff is pretty hard to read.
You really have to take it in small bites and go a little bit at a time.
But he’s trying to come to grips with these kinds of questions.
How did you come to grips with it?
Why does this table feel solid?
Well, I mean, we’re an evolved system that there’s, we have biological advantages in
knowing where solid objects are.
So we’ve got this system in our head that integrates our perceptions into this coherent
view of things.
One of the take homes that I like from Husserl is the idea of intersubjectivity and the idea
that the fundamental requirement for us to stay sane is for us to share our perceptions
and have them ratified by other, they don’t even have to be people, but a prisoner in
solitary confinement might domesticate a mouse or even insects because they perceive the
same things that the prisoner perceives and so convince him that he’s not just hallucinating.
Yeah, there’s the establish a consensus, but see, that doesn’t mean any of it is real.
You just establish a consensus.
It could be very distant from something that’s real in an engineering sense of real.
Like you could build it using physics.
But I think that a valuable application for an AI robot would be just to do nothing except
It just sits there and if you hear a door slam, you might turn to see what it is.
If the robot at the same time turns to look at the door slam, it’s ratifying your perception.
But isn’t that the basis of love is when the door slams, you both look, but for deeper
things, you both hear the same music and others don’t.
I mean, isn’t that what that means?
By love, I mean depth of human connection.
Yeah, you arrive at similar reactions without having to explicitly communicate it.
But we could start with a robot that listens explicitly for the slam doors or scary sounds.
I can think of an example of this is when I went to college, we’d be sitting at the
cafeteria, a bunch of people eating our dinner together that we had just met, let’s say.
So a bunch of new people in your life and someone might make a funny remark or a not
so funny remark or something would happen and you might then at that moment make eye
contact with someone you didn’t know at the other end of the table.
In that moment, you would realize this person is reacting.
This person heard what I heard.
They’re reacting the way I reacted.
Nobody else appears to get the joke or to understand what just happened, but random
stranger down there and I, we have this connection and then you build on that.
So then the next time something happens, you automatically look at your new friend and
they look back at you and before you know it, you’re hanging out together because you
know you’ve already established without even talking to each other that you’re on the same
It’s seemingly so simple, but so powerful that establishing that you’re on the same
wavelength at some level.
There’s no reason why you and a toaster can’t have that.
I’m just saying.
Does this smell burned to you?
I think it’s burnt.
If a toaster could just say that to you.
Cryptonomicon published in 1999, set in the late 90s and involves hackers who build essentially
Bitcoin white paper came out in 2008.
So I have to kind of ask, from you looking at this layout of what’s been happening in
cryptocurrency, the evolution of this technology, how has it rolled out differently than you
could have imagined in two ways?
One the technology itself and two the human side of things, the human stories of the hackers
and the financial folks and the powerful and the powerless, the human side of things.
Well, Cryptonomicon is pre Bitcoin, it’s pre Satoshi, it’s pre blockchain as you point
So at that point I was kind of reacting to what I was seeing among people like the Bay
Area Cypherpunks in Berkeley.
There was a branch here in Austin as well and a lot of their thinking was based on the
idea that you would have to have a physical region of the earth that was free of government
You couldn’t achieve that freedom by purely mathematical means on the network.
You actually had to have a room somewhere with servers in it that a government couldn’t
come and meddle with.
And so a lot of ideation happened around that view of things that there were efforts to
figure out jurisdictions where this might work.
There was a lot of interest for a while in Anguilla, which is a Caribbean island that
had some unusual jurisdictional properties.
There was SeaLand, which is a platform in the North Sea.
And so there was a lot of effort that went into finding these physical locations that
were deemed kind of safe.
And that all goes away with blockchain, it’s no longer necessary.
And so that really changes the picture in a lot of ways because you no longer have…
From a novelist point of view, the old system was a lot more fun to work with because it
gives you a situation where hackers are wandering around in strange parts of the world trying
to set up server rooms.
So that’s a great storytelling thing.
There’s still a little bit of that in the modern world, but it’s just there’s several
server rooms as opposed to one centralized one.
Whereas the new wrinkle is the need to do a lot of computation and to keep your GPUs
from melting down.
So people building things in Iceland or in shipping containers on the bottom of the ocean
But there’s still governments involved and there’s still from a novelist perspective
interesting dynamics with big governments like China and more sort of renegade governments
from all over the world trying to contend with this idea of what to do in terms of control
and power over these kinds of centers that do the mining of the cryptocurrency.
So we’re in a stage now that kind of goes beyond the initial…
Like there was…
The stuff I was describing in Cryptonomicon had a little bit of air about it of the underpants
gnomes in that we’re gonna build this system and then we’ll make money somehow.
But the intermediate step was left out.
And that is…
I think we’re now sort of into that phase of the thing where Bitcoin, blockchain exists,
people know how it works, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies exist.
People are using them and it’s sort of like, okay, what now?
Where does this all lead?
Do you have a sense of where it all leads?
Like is it possible that the set of technology kind of continues to have transformational
effects on not just sort of finance but who gets to have power in this world?
So the decentralization of power.
Big questions, right?
So I guess there’s a little bit of the cynic in me thinking that as soon as it becomes
important enough, the existing banks and people in power are gonna sort of control it.
I guess an easy answer is that maybe it won’t be a big change in the end.
There’s a utopian strain sometimes in the way people think about this that I’m not so
There is a technological aspect to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that make it a
little easier to pull along the utopian thread because it’s harder for governments to control
I mean, they have much fewer options.
They can ban, they can make it illegal.
It’s more difficult.
So technology here is on the side of the powerless, the voiceless, which is a very interesting
Of course, yes, it does have a utopian feel to it, but we have been making progress throughout
Maybe this is what progress looks like.
There will be the powerful and the greedy and the bureaucrats that take advantage of
it, skim off the top kind of thing, but maybe this does give more power to people that haven’t
had power before in a good way, like distributing power and enabling sort of more greater resistance
to sort of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, that kind of thing, and also enabling
all kinds of technologies built on top of it.
Ultimately, when you digitize money, money is a kind of speech, or it’s a kind of mechanism
of how humans interact, and if you make that digital, more and more of the world moves
to the digital space, and then you can finally fully live in that virtual reality with the
In a lot of ways, I think in that realm of technology that the money per se is one of
the less interesting things you can do with it, so I think cryptographically enforceable
contracts and organizations built on those, that seems to me like it’s got more potential
for change just because we do already have money, and although it’s an old system, it’s
been digitized to a large extent by the stripes and the credit card companies of the world.
I also love the idea of connecting two smart contracts, connecting data, sort of making
it more formal, it’s like Mathematica, more structured, the integration of data, of weather
data, of all kinds of data about the stuff in the world, so they can make contracts between
people that’s grounded in data, and that’s actually getting closer to something like
truth, because then you can make agreements based on actual data versus kind of perceptions
of data, and if you can formalize, like distribute the power of who gets to tell the story, and
that’s an interesting kind of resistance against the powerful in the space of narrative.
Yeah, David Brin has been saying for a while that the only way to settle arguments across
the political divide is to make bets, so people can say the election was stolen, or whatever
controversial position they’re taking, and they’ll keep saying it until you wager real
money on it.
So maybe there’s something there, if you could kind of turn that into a, put a user interface
Yeah, have a stake in your divisiveness, in your arguments.
Will Dogecoin take over the world?
You know, I don’t follow the different coins that much, so I don’t, I mean I hear about
Dogecoin and I’ve kind of followed the story of it.
So the interesting aspect of Dogecoin is it, so in contrast to like Bitcoin and Ethereum,
which are these serious implementations of cryptocurrency that seek to solve some of
the problems that we’re talking about with smart contracts and resist the banks and all
those kinds of things, Dogecoin operates more in the space of memes and humor, while still
doing some of the similar things.
And it presents to the world sort of a question of whether memes, whether humor, whether narrative
will go a long way in the future.
Like much farther than some kind of boring old grounded technologies.
Whether we’ll be playing in the space of fun.
Like once we’ve built a base of comfort and stability and like a robust system where everyone
has shelter, everyone has food and the basic needs covered, are we going to then operate
in the space of fun?
That’s what I think about Dogecoin.
Because it seems like fun spreads faster than anything else.
Fun of different kinds, and that could be bad fun and that could be good fun.
And so it’s a battle of good fun versus bad fun.
It goes viral very, very quickly when you, if you post something that people find fun
And that’s what Dogecoin represents.
So there’s like, so Bitcoin represents like financial, like serious financial instruments
and then Dogecoin represents fun.
And it’s interesting to watch the battle go on on the internet to see which wins.
This is also like open question to me of what is the internet?
Because fun seems to prevail on the internet.
And is that a fundamental property of the internet moving forward when you look a hundred
years out, or is this a temporary thing that was true at the birth of the internet and
it’s just true for a couple of decades until it fades away and the adults take over and
become serious again?
Well, I think the adults took over initially and then it was later on that people started
using it for fun, frivolous things like memes.
And that’s, I think that’s pretty much unstoppable, you know, because even people who are very
serious, you know, enjoy sending around a funny picture or something that amuses them.
I personally think we spoke about World War II.
I think memes will save the world and prevent all future wars.
You’ve been handwriting your work for the past 20 years since writing The Baroque Cycle.
What are the pros and cons of handwriting versus typing?
For me, I started it as an experiment when I started The Baroque Cycle because I had
noticed that sometimes if I was stuck having a hard time getting started, if I just picked
up a pen and started writing, it was easy to go.
So I just decided to keep with that.
If it got in my way, I didn’t like it, I could always just go back to the word processor
and be fine.
But that never happened.
So there’s a certain security that comes from knowing that it’s ink on paper and there’s
no operating system crash or software failure that can obliterate it.
It’s a slower output technique.
And so a sentence or a paragraph spends a longer time in the buffer up here before it
gets committed to paper, whereas I can type really fast.
And so I can slam things out before I’ve really thought them through.
So I think the first draft quality ends up being higher.
And then editing, first draft of editing is just faster because instead of like trying
to move the cursor around or whatever or hitting the backspace key, I can just draw a line
through a word or a sentence or just around a whole paragraph and exit out.
And in doing so, I very quickly created an edit, but I’ve also left behind a record of
what the text was prior to the edit.
Of course, all the digital versions have those quote unquote features, but their experience
Is there a romance to just the physical, the touch of the pen to the paper doing what has
been done for centuries?
I think there is.
I think there’s just the simplicity of it and not having any intermediary technology
beyond the pen and the paper is just very simple and clean and so I’ve got a bunch of
I started buying fancy paper from Italy a few years ago because I thought I would be
more conservative with it, but it’s still a trivial expenditure, so it doesn’t really
alter my habits very much.
So all that said, once you do type stuff up, you use Emacs.
I use Emacs, obviously the superior editor.
Let me just ask the ridiculous futuristic question because Emacs has been around forever.
Do you think in 100 years we will still have Emacs and Vim, or like pick a let’s say 50,
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
No, I mean whenever you’re doing anything in Linux, you’re spending a lot of time editing
little config files and scripts and stuff and you need to be able to pop in and out
of editing those things and it needs to work.
Like even if the windowing GUI is dead and all you’ve got is like a command line, to
get out of that problem, you might need to enter an editor and alter a file.
So I think on that level, there will always have to be sort of very simple, well Emacs
isn’t very simple, but you know what I mean.
There have to be basic editors that you can use from either the command line or a GUI
just for administering systems.
Now how widespread they’ll be, there’s a certain amount of, what’s the story of the American
folktale of the hammer guy who drives the railroad spikes, John Henry, trying to keep
up with the steam hammer and eventually the steam hammer wins because he can’t drive the
spikes fast enough.
So there’s a sense in which Microsoft, who knows how much they’ve invested in code visual
studio or Apple with Xcode.
So they’ve put huge amounts of money into enhancing their IDEs and Emacs in theory can
duplicate all of those features by if you just have enough Linux hackers writing Emacs
Lisp macros, but at some point it’s gonna be hard to maintain that level of, to keep
up feature for feature.
The interesting thing about Emacs just is it’s lasted a long time and I think you talked
about that there’s a certain fads certainly in the software engineering space and it’s
interesting to think about technologies that sort of last for a very long time and just
kind of being in the, what is it, how do they get by?
It’s like the cockroaches of software or the bacteria software or something like this base
thing that nobody, everybody’s just became reliant on and they just outlast everything
else and slowly, slowly adjust with the times with a little bit of a delay, with a little
bit of customization by individuals kind of that, but they’re always there in the shadows
and they outlast everybody else.
And I wonder if that might be the story for a lot of technologies, especially in the software
Shell scripts, all that stuff, you can’t run the modern world without a bunch of shell
scripts booting up machines and running things.
So that is gonna be a hard thing to replace.
And then tech for typesetting that you use, you said.
For when I want to print it out, yeah, I just have some simple macros that I use, but then
I have to, the publisher put their foot down and they want it in Word format now.
So years ago I wrote some macros to convert and this time, what did I do?
No, I use sort of regular expressions.
So I was to do italics in, you put it in curly brackets and you do backslash IT and then
you type what you want to type and that’s how you get italics in tech.
So you can create a regular expression that’ll look for some text between curly brackets
preceded by backslash IT and then instead convert that to italics.
And Word will do that.
Word if you go deep enough into its search and replace UI.
You can do regular expressions.
Is just regfs.
It’s funny that you did that.
I mean, I’m sure there’s tools that help you with that kind of thing, but the task is sufficiently
simple to where you can do a much better job than anyone, anybody else’s tool can.
That’s a fascinating process.
That’s fine for me.
And it keeps you from messing around with formatting.
Like, Oh, what if I put this chapter heading, you know, in, you know, a sans serif font?
It’s a, it’s just classic wanking.
And so those options are closed off in what I’m doing.
Is there advice you could say, what does it take to write a great story?
The power of, of good yarns, good narratives to, um, pull people in is, is, uh, incredible.
And I think my sort of amateur theory is that it’s an evolutionary development that if you’re,
um, you know, uh, uh, cave person sitting around a fire in the rift valley a million
years ago, um, if you can tell the story of how you escaped from the hyenas, um, or how
uncle Bob, you know, didn’t escape from the hyenas, and if the people listening to you
can take that in and they can build that scenario in their heads, like a kind of virtual reality
and see what you’re describing, then you’ve just conferred an incredibly important advantage
on the people who’ve heard that story.
And so they know a bunch of stuff now about how to stay alive that they could not have
learned in any other way.
Um, I mean, animals who don’t have speech though, they might warn each other, they might
make a sound that says danger, danger, um, but, uh, but as far as we know, they can’t
tell more complicated stories.
So it’s a part of us.
I, the, the, the collective intelligence seems to be one of the key characteristics of the,
of homo sapiens, the ability to share ideas and hold ideas together in our minds and storytelling
is the fundamental aspect of that.
Maybe even language itself is more fundamental because the language is required to do the
storytelling or maybe they evolve together.
Maybe they co evolve.
So I think that you’ve got to work with that and I think, uh, sometimes it seems like in
kind of, um, literary circles that having a lot of plot is a little bit frowned upon
as it’s pulpy or it’s exploitative, but, um, for me, I don’t have any compunctions whatsoever
I like stories that, um, are grabby and fun and exciting to read.
And once you’ve got one of those going, once you’ve got a good yarn going that people will
enjoy reading, then you’re free to do whatever you want, uh, in the frame of that story.
Um, but if you don’t have that, um, then you got nothing.
What about having like, uh, which you do at a technological scientific rigor, like to
the, to the accuracy and as much as possible, how does that add to the, to, to Bob telling
the story or telling the story about Bob or on the campfire?
Well, the main thing that it does is, um, present, um, little details that you might
not have come up with on your own.
So if you’re just sitting there freely imagining things, um, you, uh, you, your, your brain
probably isn’t going to serve up the wealth of details and the resulting complications
and surprises that real, that the real world is constantly presenting us with.
And so, um, in my case, if I’m, um, trying to write a story about, you know, some that
involves some technology like a rocket or, uh, orbital maneuvers or whatever, then delving
into those details eventually is going to turn up some weird unexpected, you know, thing
that, uh, gives me material to work with, but also subliminally readers who see that
are going to be drawn in more, uh, because they’re going to, uh, to, to find that, um,
oh, I didn’t see that coming, you know, you know, it’s got some of the complexity and
surprise value of the real world.
It does something, um, uh, Alex Garland, director who did, uh, who wrote, uh, directed Ex Machina.
I think about AI movies and the more care you take in making it accurate, the more compelling
the story becomes somehow.
I’m not, I’m not sure what that is.
Um, maybe because it becomes more real to the people writing the story, maybe it just
makes you a better writer.
The key to any storytelling is getting the, the readers to suspend their, their disbelief.
And there’s all kinds of triggers and little tells that can break that.
Um, and once it’s broken, it’s really hard to get it back.
Uh, you know, a lot of times that’s the end.
Everybody will just close the book and not pick it up.
Um, I gotta ask you, you’ve answered this question, but I gotta ask you the most impossible
question for an author to answer, but which Neal Stephenson book should one read first?
So when people ask me that, I usually ask them what they like to read, right?
Because, uh, I mean, there’s the best known one is probably snow crash, but that’s a cyber
That’s at the same time, making fun of cyber punk.
Um, so it’s kind of got some layers to it that, uh, might not seem so funny if you don’t
have that, if you don’t get the joke, right?
So, um, there’s, uh, I’ve written, as you point out, I’ve written historical novels.
Some people like those.
Some people prefer those.
So if that’s what you like, then kryptonomicon or the baroque cycle is where you would start
if you like sort of techno thrillers that are set in a modern day setting, but aren’t
science fictiony per se, then, uh, Reamdy, um, is one of those.
And termination shock, um, is, is, is definitely one of those.
Um, so it just depends on, on, uh, what people like.
What, what, uh, when people a long time ago recommend I read snow crash, they said, uh,
it’s the, it’s Neil Stevenson light.
It’s the, uh, like if you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the depth, like the rigor book,
like that’s a good, that’s a good introduction to the man.
So essentially you broke it down by topics, but if you wanted to read all of them, what’s
a good introduction to the, to the man, because obviously these worlds are very different.
The philosophies are very different.
What’s a good introduction to the human?
People ask the same thing of Dostoyevsky, people, it’s a, it’s a hard one to answer.
Maybe seven eves because it’s got big themes.
Um, it’s, you know, it’s about heavy, heavy things happening to the human race.
Uh, but hopefully the story is told through a cast of characters that, uh, people can
relate to, you know, and it moves along, uh, so, uh, it, it does go kind of deep eventually
on how rockets work and orbital mechanics and all that stuff, but, um, people were able
to get through it anyway, or some people just skip over that.
You know, um, as an author, let me ask you what books had a big impact on your life that
Is there any that jumped to mind that, uh, you learned from as a writer, as a philosopher,
as a mathematician, as an engineer?
This is one of these questions where I always blank out.
And then when I’m walking out the door, I’ll, I’ll remember 12, so this is a random selection
that doesn’t represent the top.
The top ones, um, well, I mentioned, you know, gulag archipelago and it’s kind of a hefty
and dark, but, and then it has a personal connection as well.
Just like where you found the book to the part, the time in your life, where you found
it, who recommended it.
That’s also part of the story.
So there’s definitely that there’s, you know, I, I circle back to Moby Dick a lot, um, because
we read it in a, uh, a really great English class I had in high school.
And I came in with an oppositional stance because I thought that the teacher was going
to try to talk me into having all kinds of highfalutin ideas about allegory and what
does this mean?
What’s the symbolism?
And it turned out that, uh, it turned out to be a lot more interesting and satisfying
Um, what was the first powerful book you remember reading that like convinced you that this
form could have depth?
Was it Moby Dick?
Was it like in high school?
I’m trying to remember, well, Moby Dick was definitely a big one.
Um, I mean, I used to read a lot of classics comics when I was, I don’t know if you’ve
seen these, it’s a whole series of comic books that, um, uh, it was viral.
You could, uh, in the, in the back of each comic book was an order form.
You could check some boxes and fill out your address and mail it in and more would show
And, but it was like, they would do the Count of Monte Cristo, you know, Moby Dick, you
know, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe, you know, all this of classic books, uh, were,
they had put into comic book form.
Reading Moby Dick, if you’re nine years old is a tall order.
There’s some very complicated sentences in there and a lot of digressions, but if you’re
just looking at the comic books, like, holy shit, look at that whale, you know?
Um, and, um, and ultimately the power of the story doesn’t need the complicated words.
It’s, it’s all about the man and the, and the whale.
So you could get kind of a grounding in a lot of classic works of literature without
actually reading them, which is, you know, it’s great when you’re nine years old.
So, so I read a lot of that stuff, uh, for sure.
The annotated Sherlock Holmes, um.
You mentioned David Deutsch too, as an inspiration for some of your work.
I mean, you’ve, you’ve obviously didn’t like really a lot of research for the books you,
What, uh, do you remember a book that made you want to become a writer or a moment that
made you become a writer?
I think like the, you know, the answer I usually give is that when I was in like fifth grade
and one of my friends came to school one day, he was wearing leather shoes, like dress shoes
and I hated dress shoes cause mine never fit.
And so they were uncomfortable.
I couldn’t run, you know, they were cold, it was Iowa.
So I kind of said, I remember very clearly thinking, okay, I don’t like where this is
Like, does this mean that next year all of the kids are going to be wearing leather shoes?
So I need to find a job where I don’t have to do that.
So that was like the first time I thought about trying to find such a job, you know,
being a writer.
And then, and then I just read a lot of, uh, just classic science fiction short stories
and started trying to write some of my own.
And there were just classic young adult stories like by Heinlein and the other classic names
that you think of.
But the Heinlein ones stuck, have stuck with me in a way that the others didn’t.
What’s the greatest science fiction book ever written, just removing your work from consideration?
I’m loving torturing you right now.
Greatest ever non Stevenson.
Do we include fantasy or does it have to be science fiction?
Oh, interesting fantasy.
I did not expect that twist.
Uh, well, for in a weird way, they’re lumped together in people’s minds, right?
So they are, but there, but there’s also a boundary somehow.
I’m not sure what that is exactly.
It’s a mystery.
So, I mean, if we do include it, then it’s easily the, the Lord of the rings.
But, um, I mean, greatness is a interesting quality to, uh, to try to define.
Um, and for me, a lot of the, the fun and the joy of such books is, is not in what you’d
call greatness, but just storytelling.
So I was always a big fan of has have space suit will travel, which is a Heinlein young
It’s just, uh, it’s just a fun, good read.
Um, so, so fun is a big component.
Greatness is overrated.
Well, I don’t know it’s overrated, but it’s just, you know, it’s, it might be underdefined
to put it that way.
So how space it will travel now, I definitely have to read that one.
You mentioned Iowa.
It was, uh, there a couple of times I got to spend, uh, quite a bit of time with Dan
Gabel with Tom Brands who are wrestlers was, uh, is it now wrestling, martial arts, part
of your life, any part of your form formation of who you are as a human being?
I think so.
In a, it was a late, it was a late thing for me, but growing up in Ames, um, Dan Gabel
was, uh, a few years older than me.
And so sometimes we would go to the arena at the university and watch wrestling meets
and um, and this was before his Olympic career.
So everyone knew he was the star of that team and that he was the best, but people didn’t
yet know he was the greatest of all time.
You saw Gabe.
So that was part, it’s, it’s funny is, uh, it feels like a small world that you would
be in the same space as Dan Gabel a hundred feet away, a little dot on the mat trouncing
his opponents, him and him and Chris Taylor.
So the other star was this 400 pound plus guy named Chris Taylor who, uh, also went
to the Olympics.
So yeah, people, you know, he was, he was a no, he was a, uh, athletic hero and wrestling
is there’s certain States like Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Iowa, where wrestling is the sport because
those are States of small towns.
And so if you’re a small town is if you’re like Dan Gabel, uh, and you have to be on
a football team with 20 other guys who are not Dan Gabel, then no matter how good you
are, your team might, might suck.
Uh, but if in a solo thing, you can, you can go to the Olympics.
So we did a lot of wrestling in our gym classes in school and I didn’t like it.
And I think partly it’s just that it was so, so competitive and the people who were cared
about it really cared about it a lot, you know?
And so it was, it was pretty tough and I didn’t think I had the right body type.
But then when I was, uh, after college, I was in Iowa city for a few years when he was
coaching the, that the wrestling team there and the, he won like nine championships out
of 10 years, you know, during that, during that time.
So he was both the greatest individual wrestler of all time and like the greatest team coach.
Um, so I know I’ve never met him, but we’ve, uh, he’s kind of been like in my sphere of
awareness since I was, you know, kind of my whole life.
And people would always tell stories about him, like I think he got arrested once for
some kind of, I don’t know, minor offense in Ames.
And so he just basically stayed up all night.
He was in this cage in the jail, just stayed up all night doing pull ups on, you know,
it sounds about right.
And, uh, uh, so yeah.
So has that been, I mean, I was such an interesting place in the world and wrestling is just part
of that story.
Is that somewhere in there?
Does that resonate deeply with who you are?
It was a formative thing for me growing up there for sure.
It’s just a, uh, you know, uh, uh, or at least used to be a very orderly place, high social
capital, very minimal class differences.
So like you’d have some people who would drive a Cadillac instead of a Chevy, but, uh, that
That was, you know, those were the rich people, right?
So, um, and a college town is always a different environment like, uh, you know, Austin, uh,
has some of this, um, so it was a pretty kind of utopian, uh, other than the weather and
a few other things, uh, environment to, to grow up in the, the martial art I ended up
doing is sword stuff, which is interesting because it uses a different feedback loop.
So when you’re, if you’re grappling, everything is through sense of touch and your sense of
touch is very old and simple, right?
Like earthworms don’t have, don’t even have eyes, but they can tell when they’re being
So it’s very fast.
Um, and uh, with, um, with a standoff or like boxing or some kinds of sword fighting, you’re,
you’re not touching the other person.
Most of the time, your, your, your visual system is doing something way more, it’s doing
slam and trying to figure out what the other person is up to.
And so, um, that always felt more my speed.
So in an Olympic style fencing, you’re, it doesn’t start really until you’re crossing
blades with the other person and now you’re back to wrestling, you’re feeling what they’re
doing and it’s all about that.
But some of the older sword arts, um, don’t engage the blade that way.
You stand off at range and then you make cutting attacks and, um, and, uh, and so, so those
are all processed visually and I think I’m more of a slow thinker, so it works for me
I mean, the same, it has the same, the artistry and the beauty of boxing, I suppose, just
like you said, is like, there’s no, there’s no contact and it’s all processed visually
and I’m sure there’s a dance of its own that, that depends on the characteristic of a sword
There is a set of, of stances and, and, uh, basic reactions that you try to learn that
are thought to be defensible, um, and, and safe or safer.
And so it tends to be a series of short engagements where you’ll, you’ll close in, you’ll try
out your, your idea and it works or it doesn’t, then you, you back off again.
It’s interesting to think about like human history because martial arts, okay, that’s
But in terms of sword fighting, just the full range of humans that existed who mastered
sword fighting or sought the mastery of sword fighting, just to imagine the thousands of
people who, the heights they have achieved because the stakes are so incredibly high
to be good.
And it’s the richest, most powerful people in those societies spending whatever it takes
to get the best gear and the best training because you’re right, everything depends on
And it’s still life and death.
I mean, that, that’s fascinating, um, that, that’s fascinating and we perhaps have lost
that forever with greater weapons.
I mean, the artistry of sword fighting when it’s life and death and you go into war, you
have the Miyamoto Musashi’s of the world, right?
The, I don’t know, there’s a, there’s a poetry to that, that there’s a mastery to that that
I don’t know if we could achieve with any other kind of martial art.
Well the, one of the good, you were talking earlier about the, the, the good effects of
the internet, social media that we sometimes overlook.
And, and one of those is that, um, there were all these isolated people around the world
who were interested in this, who found each other and kind of created a network of, of
people who help each other learn these things.
So that doesn’t mean that anyone is, is up to the level of the you’re talking about yet,
but um, but it is happening and um, and so, um, there’s a, a, a large number of old treatises,
old written documents, uh, that have been dug up from libraries and, and people have
been going over these and translating them from old dialects of Italian and German, um,
to make sense of them and, and learning how to do these techniques with different, uh,
Um, actually there’s a guy here in Austin named Damond Stith who does African, historical
African martial arts.
Um, also martial arts of, uh, of enslaved Africans who would learn machete fighting
techniques in the Caribbean, South America.
He’s probably within a mile of us.
He’s an amazing guy.
I’m going to look him up.
Can I ask you for advice?
Can you give advice for young people, high school, college, you know, undergrads thinking
about their career, thinking about life, how to live a life that you’d be proud of?
You think quite a bit about like what it’s required to be innovative in this world.
You think quite a bit about the future.
So if somebody wanted to be a person that makes a big impact from the future, what advice
would you give them?
I think a big part of it is finding the thing that you will do happily and, um, I don’t
want to say obsessively because that sounds like maybe it’s pathological, but, but if
you can find a thing that you’ll, you know, you’ll sit down, you’ll start doing it and
hours later you kind of snap out of it, where did the time go?
Um, then, um, that’s a really key discovery for anyone to make about themselves when they’re
Uh, because if you don’t have that, um, it’s hard to, uh, to figure out where you should
put your energies, you know, and as you might have the best intentions, you might say, I,
you know, I want world peace or whatever, uh, but, um, uh, at, at the end of the day,
what really matters is how do you spend your time and, and are you spending it in a way
that’s productive, uh, and, um, uh, because it doesn’t matter how smart you are or well
intentioned you are unless you’ve figured that out.
And so it’s finding the thing in which you can sort of, you naturally lose yourself in.
The thing is, um, at least for me, there’s a lot of things like that, but I first have
to overcome the initial hump of really sucking at that thing.
Like the fun starts a little bit after the first hump of really sucking and then you
could suck just regular.
So often people, oftentimes people can give up too early, I think.
I mean, that’s true with mathematics for me, it’s for a lot of people is if you just give
it a chance to struggle, if you give yourself time to struggle, you’ll find a way, you’ll
find the thing within that thing that you can lose track of time with.
That’s a key detail that, um, that’s an important thing to add to, to what I said, which is
that, uh, this might not happen the first time you do a thing.
Maybe it will, but, um, uh, you might have to climb that learning curve and, um, if there’s
pressures in your life that are making you feel bad about that, then, um, it might prevent
you from, from getting where you need to be.
Um, so there’s some complexity there, uh, that make, can make this kind of non obvious.
Um, but, uh, that’s what, that’s why we need, you know, good teachers.
Um, you know, another beneficial thing, uh, of the internet is YouTube and being able
to learn things, how to do things on YouTube, the, the, the dude who made the YouTube video
doesn’t care how many times you hit pause and rewind, um, they’re never going to like
roll their eyes and, and be impatient with you.
Um, and sometimes, uh, spending a huge amount of time on one video or one book, like making
that the thing you just spent a huge amount of time on rereading, rereading, or rewatching,
rewatching that, that somehow really, um, solidifies your love for that thing.
And like the depth of understanding you start to gain and it’s okay to stay with that.
I used to think like, there’s all these books out there, so like, I need to keep reading
or keep reading.
But then I realized, um, I think it was somewhere in college, uh, uh, where you could just spend
your whole life with a single textbook.
There’s nothing in that textbook to really, really stay.
Meisner, Thorne and Wheeler, Gravitation, you know, is, is one of those, or another one is,
um, The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose, which is just incredibly deep and it starts
with like two plus two equals four and it, at the end you’re at the boundaries of, of
Uh, it’s an amazing, amazing book.
Let me ask you the big ridiculous question.
You’ve pondered some big ridiculous questions in your work.
What’s the meaning of this whole thing?
What’s the meaning of life?
Well, as far as I know, we’re unique in the, the universe.
There’s no evidence that there’s anything else in the universe that’s as complicated
as what’s between our ears.
I can’t rule it out, but, um, so we appear to be pretty special and, um, so it’s got
to have something to do with that and one of the reasons I like David Deutsch, in particular
his book, The Beginning of Infinity, um, is that he talks about the power of explanations
and the fact that, um, most civilizations are static that they’ve got a set of dogmas
that they arrive at somehow and they just pass those on from one, uh, generation to
the next and nothing changes.
But that huge changes have happened when people sort of follow whatever you want to call it,
the scientific method or enlightenment, uh, there’s different ways of thinking about it,
but basically explanatory, it’s, it’s about the power of, of explanations and being able
to figure out why things are the way they are and that has created changes in our, um,
thinking and our way of life over the last few centuries that are explosive compared
to anything that came before and David sort of verges on classifying this as like a force
of nature in its potential transformative power.
If we keep going, um, you know, we could, uh, you know, if we figure out how to colonize
the universe like you were talking about earlier, how to spread to other star systems, um, then
it is effectively a force of nature.
This kind of drive to understand more and more and more, deeper and deeper and deeper
and to engineer stuff so that we can understand even more.
It’s the, well, it’s the old, the universe created us to understand itself.
Maybe that’s the, uh, the whole purpose.
It is an interesting peculiar side effect of the way we’ve been created is we seem to
be conscious beings.
We seem to have little egos.
We seem to, uh, be born and die pretty quickly.
There’s a bunch of drama.
We’re all within ourselves pretty unique and we fall in love and start wars and there’s
hate and all the, the full interesting dynamic of it.
So it’s not just about the individual people, somehow like the concert that we played together.
That’s kind of interesting.
And there’s a lot of peculiar aspects of that, that, um, I wonder if they’re fundamental
or just quirks of evolution, whether it’s, whether it’s death, whether it’s love, whether
all those things, I wonder if they’re, um, from an engineer perspective when we’re trying
to create that intelligent toaster that listens for the, for the slam door and this, and the
smell of burning toast, whether, uh, that toaster should be afraid of death and should
fall in love just like we do, you know, you’re a fascinating human being.
You’ve impacted the lives of millions of people.
It’s a huge honor that you would spend your valuable time with me today.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for coming down to beautiful, hot Texas.
And thank you for talking today.
It was a pleasure and I’m glad I came and did it.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Neal Stephenson to support this podcast.
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And now let me leave you with some words from Neal Stephenson himself in his novel, Snow
The world is full of things more powerful than us, but if you know how to catch a ride,
you can go places.
Thanks for listening and hope to see you next time.