Neal Stephenson has an interesting piece on technology lock-in, using rocket technology as an example:
[…]We may, in other words, need to look beyond strictly U.S.-centric explanations for such failures of imagination and initiative. […] Admittedly, there are many who feel a deep antipathy for expenditure of money and brainpower on space travel when, as they never tire of reminding us, there are so many problems to be solved on earth. So if space launch were the only area in which this phenomenon was observable, it would be of concern only to space enthusiasts. But the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance. Those are places we need to go if we are not to end up as the Ottoman Empire of the 21st century, and yet in spite of all of the lip service that is paid to innovation in such areas, it frequently seems as though we are trapped in a collective stasis. As described above, regulation is only one culprit; at least equal blame may be placed on engineering and management culture, insurance, Congress, and even accounting practices. But those who do concern themselves with the formal regulation of “technology” might wish to worry less about possible negative effects of innovation and more about the damage being done to our environment and our prosperity by the mid-20th-century technologies that no sane and responsible person would propose today, but in which we remain trapped by mysterious and ineffable forces.
It seems to me that greed has a lot to do with lock-in as well. There is no replacement for oil on the horizon. . .if what you desire is not an energy source, but a continuous flow of unimaginable sums of money. In many ways, the oil companies stand to gain even more wealth and power from peak oil, as the commodity they sell garners ever higher prices. The greater toll on our environment is not their concern. As the BP oil spill clearly demonstrated, the oil executives are far higher on the global org chart than any governmental employee who might try to stop them, and the oil is unlikely to wash up onto their private lake shore anytime soon.
Stephenson doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the way things happened and the way things had to have happened. There are an infinite number of ways we might have wound up using chemical rockets to launch things into space and none of his steps are necessary.
@Aaron Fown: I agree with you. Greed of the corporations who want to stifle competition so that their way of doing something continues. The only way the internet got going was because there wasn’t a model of anything like it before. But forget faster transportation(my personal lack of innovation pet peeve). The oil and auto industry will see to that never happening.
Stephenson? Are you trying to fill this thread with chanese for the new year or something?
More seriously, there is a huge difference between oil and other fossile fuels, as we could – with some effort – replace the others with alternative energy sources, but oil is the basis of an awful lot of industrial products we rely on and there is no viable alternative on the horizon.
I was wondering what it would take to finally break our oil dependency. Should have known it would be spacemen.
This article reads a lot like “Where’s my flying car?”
New technologies are being developed, but they take more time and money than imagining up concepts for sci-fi novels.
And rockets are good at what they do, if not ideal. They’re not going away any time soon – even if new technologies make them less visible. A payload on a space elevator still needs a rocket to get where it needs to go.
@MikeJ: That’s his whole point. There are lots of different ways to get to a technology endpoint, but once you start down a path, you start getting locked in even though that path includes a number of arbitrary choices.
Oh, and there is another factor that Mr. Stephenson ingores; classification. An enormous number of patents (5000+) are, at times forcibly, classified by the government every year for ‘national security’ purposes. Setting aside for a moment that leaked documents have revealed that such technologies as high efficiency solar cells are marked for instant classification, no doubt a lot of these technologies are ones that could be reworked into weapons systems. And what is easier to rework into a weapons system than an advanced space/lifter technology? It is quite possible that rockets are merely the space technology we are allowed to be aware of. If there were something better, given their track record, I doubt we would be allowed to know.
I wrote a whole article on the classification problem. It’s kind of shocking. .
All this science, I don’t understand.
It’s just my job, five days a week.
Thanks for this – I’m a writing adviser in a ‘Technology in American History’ college course, and Stephenson’s remark’s about relationships of technology to the gov’t and culture around it fit right in with how we direct students to think about these things. Krugman posted the ‘Simple Gifts’ part of Appalachian Spring this morning, and now this. Today has started so well it has to be special.
Stephenson has written about post-modern metaphysics too….like in his chapter of Seeing Further–
He argues that we need new metaphysicians, scientists capable of hacking the brainstem.
I cant see in side Seeing Further– but i think there was an essay at Corrante or Seed….ill try to find it later.
Do you seriously think there is some kind of launching technology that is being hidden from us? Don’t you think several people/nations would have discovered and used it by now if so? It seems a bit conspriacy-theorist to me…
@MikeJ: Agreed. So far I’ve gotten three paragraphs into his article and I’m amazed at how he’s spinning recent history. Specifically (so far):
– Victorious nations following WWII showed much more than “modest” interest in rockets. The fact that both sides were trying to gobble up the German rocket scientists as secretly as possible does not mean they weren’t interested.
– Development of atomic (not nuclear) weapons was neither sudden nor unexpected, unless your definition of both of those words is very much more liberal than normal.
– Both V2s and atomic weaponry may have only been of limited military usefulness, as he points out, but he neglects their obvious political usefulness.
But hey, it’s still early in the article, and he’s merely providing background. But it doesn’t help that I keep objecting to his history.
#12 Stealth technology, which dates back to the 70’s at least, and is fully publicly known, still has not been successfully copied, despite claims that the 5th gen Chinese fighter is stealth. An advanced lifter technology would be several rungs higher on the classification scale than that, no doubt. Our military industrial complex is better at keeping secrets than you seem to think.
But, I think it’s important to emphasize something else; we have been routinely classifying 5000 major inventions a year for decades now. Nearly one third of all research is not published under similar strictures. Only some of these originally came from the ‘black’ world. At that rate, given the way that technology builds upon itself, and the common knowledge that military technology is easily 20 years ahead of civilian technology anyhow, there could be labs somewhere that are centuries ahead of us. They may have things that we can’t even imagine!
Mothero’feckingod. How do you look at “the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in” and not come up with simple human greed?
um…ok – this says that basically the answer to my first question is yes (it wasn’t successfully concealed) and to the second that other countries haven’t yet copied it but are certainly close to achieving it. I am not a expert in this field, but I know enough to say that it is vanishingly unlikely that there is some secretive lifter tech out there. Do like your blog however, i will certainly bookmark :-)
We certainly snatched up as many German scientists as we could post WWII, I agree, but the US rocket program of the immediate post-WWII era consisted mainly of Von Braun’s team assembling leftover V-1s and launching them. There was no serious US rocket program comparable to what developed a few years later, and if the Soviets hadn’t developed the atomic bomb and H-Bomb so quickly, rocketry could have languished for far longer. I think that’s his point, and it’s pretty consistent with the history I’ve read.
No, no, you are missing my point; our MIC chose to publicize stealth technology, it wasn’t leaked or stolen first. I always read that as meaning that they had something better. And even after they publicized it, which would no doubt sharpen the desires of competing nations, the methods and chemistry behind it have still managed to remain largely secret for going on 40 years now.
Well, yes. But the problem with this is that we aren’t dealing with sane and responsible people and the reason we are trapped in those mid-20th-century technologies is in no way mysterious. It’s all about the Benjamins, right now and with no concern for the future of even their own families, for a certain minuscule subsection of the country/world. It drives me nuts that he doesn’t see that.
Using space technology as a opportunity to muse about lock-in wasn’t the best choice because it’s not clear what would replace chemical rockets. Stephenson, who appears to be a space travel fanboi, just assumes there must be something better. OTOH, terrestrial energy issues would have been a great choice, because we have a pretty good idea what might come next, and how to get there.
And if gunpowder hadn’t been invented we wouldn’t be having this discussion and we’d likely still be earthbound. That “if they worked…” is a yawning chasm. Sure we could launch with rail guns if we could only provide a terajoule jolt to the thing. Giant catapults? Spindizzies? A mid-air launch vehicle powered by 10,000 Pontiac GTO engines? Hell yes! Innovative? Yes. Usable or better? Probably not.
PeakVT; I agree completely. It’s odd, but midwestern states like Iowa are leading the way on alternative energy, by their own volition, and with no real national attention. I produced a video on that topic, in fact.
I swear, I’m not using this as a way of promoting my blogs/vlogs, it’s just that this discussion is right up my alley.
Felanius Kootea (formerly Salt and freshly ground black people)
Seems like a good thread for a moment in black history :-). Did you know that Obama advisor, Valerie Jarrett’s great-grandfather, Robert Taylor, was the first African American to graduate from MIT (in 1892)? He was an architect and went on to work at Tuskegee until he retired.
Re Neal Stephenson – I read and loved Cryptonomicon but wasn’t able to get into Snow Crash, or this article you linked to ;).
ok, but stealth=/=rocket tech! Also do you really think there’s an alternative to combustion to launch an object into orbit because i think you need to adjust the universe as currently constituted to do that. Also, if they found it useful to “let people know” that stealth tech is possible, why wouldn’t they “let people know” that alternative propulsion methods are available?
@Felanius Kootea (formerly Salt and freshly ground black people)
You weren’t able to get into Snow Crash? /drops Black Sun safe on his head
That’s a great book! Cryptonomicon less so – loved the historical bits, but many of the present day stuff was silly, YMMV…
25 comments in, no discussion of the only feasible leap ahead technology in energy/power generation, nuclear. Stephenson isn’t right across the board but he’s right about lock in, we don’t even want to explore radical big picture changes. The lock in is psychological and political and space & energy aren’t the only places it exists. Most of us are *way* more conservative than we’re willing to admit publicly.
I’m sorry, but the thing that struck me more than anything else about the Stephenson quote above was how opaque and pretentious the language was. I mean, the guy’s a professional writer, why is his statement such incomprehensible gobbledygook? I’m not complaining about the use of big words, but it just seems flowery for the sake of floweriness. I suspect he’s become one of those writers who has fallen in love with the the sound of his literary voice. It’s fucking distracting from whatever message is embedded in the blathering.
#25 In my experience, it’s much easier to shift our understanding of the universe than it is to shift the universe. Simply opening the black box of gravity could bring forth a bewildering array of new technologies, and if you don’t think that solving the mystery of the fourth force is not of interest in the world of black budget physics, then I’ve got a few bridges to sell you. With giant untapped oil reserves under them.
Nuclear is not really a leap ahead. It’s old tech, dirty, difficult, and too expensive without massive subsidies. Unless you are talking about thorium generators, of course, then I stand corrected. That tech is vastly superior, but was abandoned because you couldn’t make planet shattering weapons out of the waste. Priorities.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, and the snow day has just made me cranky.
@Superluminar: Alternative to rockets? Sure, another scifi libertarian wingnut thought magnetic catapults up the side of a mountain would be nifty. Even showed his math.
I don’t argue that his way is better, merely that an alternative is conceivable.
Felanius Kootea (formerly Salt and freshly ground black people)
@Superluminar: Loved the parts on cryptography, alan turing, bletchley park, the WWII bits on the Philippines, etc. and that was enough to make me like the book as a whole. I also liked the Diamond Age, which no one else I know can stand. Okay maybe I should give Snow Crash another chance.
@MikeJ: ooohhh linky please! That sounds like hard core stupid – I must read! Goddammit where are my Thorium generators?!
Ivan Ivanovich Renko
Sheesh. I loved Snow Crash, loved Diamond Age even more, had a blast with Cryptonomican; and have read the entire Baroque Cycle twice, alternately gobsmacked and guffawing.
You guys make me wonder about my own sanity.
[edit: I hated Anathem. If after two chapters I’m not hooked, I’m just not gonna get hooked.]
The Moar You Know
@someguy: I keep noticing this as well. In every “liberal”, or for that matter “conservative” discussion about the now absolutely desperate need for alternative energy sources that we now face, we flat out REFUSE to even address the only viable carbon-neutral alternative that exists, is not subject to the vagaries of local weather, provides more energy than we can use, and is proven to work.
Says a lot about who is willing to walk into the future when the folks embracing viable energy are France, Iran and India.
Don’t like the waste? Go thorium instead of uranium, as India is.
In the traditional meaning of the term, American liberals are the most conservative people on the planet.
So, the most expensive part of a rocket launch is the heavy lift in thick atmosphere of the tiny chunk of rocket you eventually want to put into orbit. Virgin Galactic (and the X-1 through X-15) solved this problem by using a mothership as the first stage, getting out of most of the soupy atmosphere via more conventional means, namely eating the atmosphere for part of the fuel reaction and using wing technology to surf atop it.
Again, you still get locked into the tech tree decisions made. An x-15 didn’t weigh more than a good smattering of bombs, and so the B-52 was a cheap first stage launch platform. However, if you want to do some serious dozens of tons style heavy lifting, we don’t have planes built for that. The WhiteKnight/Rutan/Virgin planes get around this by using composite materials (very light and stiff) to make very light planes and space vehicles, but it almost seems as if you’d have to have a super-blimp type vehicle to do efficient heavy lift orbital rocketry.
Felanius Kootea (formerly Salt and freshly ground black people):
yes those are the bits i liked too, just thought the present-day stuff was a bit wrong and glibertarish. Diamond Age was actually really good IMHO. Stephenson is probably the author i’d like to meet the most BTW, because i think he’s sort of libertarian but with actual interesting ideas…
@Superluminar: It was in multiple Heinlein books from the 40s and 50s. There are people who still think it’s feasible.
I don’t know enough about it to say if sounds plausible, but googling came up with one version of the concept that would launch at over 2000G. So unmanned only unless you have a good reason to get bloody paste to orbit.
IIRC, Heinlein got around it by accelerating at 1G in a loop until it was going fast enough. It would also be more feasible to only launch to low earth orbit or even suborbital, and then make up the speed difference with rockets from that point.
@bago: Hey, someone who gets the point of Stephenson’s essay.
@Ivan Ivanovich Renko: I hated Baroque Cycle, and hated Anathem for the first 100 pages. I thought Anathem got better. Baroque Cycle I forced myself to read the whole first book, and stopped about two chapters into the second one.
I loved Cyrptonomicon and Diamond Age. Heck, I liked Zodiac.
You answered your own question. He is an Author. He Knows.
@Aaron Fown: Unless you are talking about thorium generators, of course, then I stand corrected. That tech is vastly superior,
A relative who works at DOE has said that fossil-fuel alternatives are unworkable (lots of money spent, no even remotely encouraging results). Short term, we’re stuck with the fossils, long term will require nuclear. And thorium reactors are preferred since they’re cheap and safe. Just lots of red-tape and political impediments to clear away before getting there.
@someguy: yeah….hes written about this quite a bit. His theory in the Baroque Cycle is that metaphysics spurred scientific and economic “great leaps”….or something like that.
i had something on Stephensons New Metaphysics on the scifi branch blog of GNXP, but razib deleted the archives when i left GNXP.
i think Stephenson called it….Leibnitz and Newtons computational metaphysics.
something like that.
@Dennis SGMM: He’s probably thinking about the Orion concept (chuck a large number of nuclear bombs out of the trunk one at a time and ride the shock waves up). That’s what most rockets-suck-but-space-travel-rawks types eventually settle on as the solution we could have if only the tree huggers would let us.
OK so this old joke:
In a few decades the US will be going to Mars.
At least when US astronauts get there, they won’t need to take any food with them.
Question: Why won’t US astronauts need to take any food with them to Mars?
Answer: Because by the time the US gets to Mars, there’s going to be loads of fine Chinese restaurants there.
here is some vintage Stephenson from my archives.
The scientist as Jedi Knight.
@MikeJ: Well, you can’t do an orbital launch with just catapults, no matter what type you use. You need rockets for that.
Ignoring things like precession, a closed orbit will pass through the point of last impulse. With a catapult, that’s in the catapult. Which tends to be on the ground.
As far a energy policy in the U.S. (and for that matter most of the world), there is very simple explaination why oil is still the primary fuel for transportation and coal the primary fuel for electricity. Look at the profits of Exxon-Mobil, look at BP, look at the Koch brothers. et. al. Look at the hundreds of thousands who work in this industry. This is a interest in continuing the status quo ante on energy.
This is why I am pretty pessimistic regarding the global warming/climate change/new technology. It is really quite amazing where the Republicans are now, with anti-environmentalism not being a mere position of some, but a test of party loyalty. And the most extreme and nasty ones win the primaries and the general. With a major party actively wanting to return the U.S. to the environmental policies and standards of China, I think we are just going keep cooking like the frog in hot water. http://www.skepticalscience.com/Newcomers-Start-Here.html
The Romans were completely capable of building crude ocean-going steamships had they ever set their minds to it. They had steam-driven toys, shipwrights, navigation ability (all courtesy of the Greeks) and certainly the wealth to build whatever they desired (within the limits of iron-age tech).
Yet they never did. A simple galley (not fit for deep-blue water), rowed by slaves, full of Roman soldiers with their trademark short-stabby swords— That was all they ever required. Why develop the steam engine, when slaves are cheap and easy to replace? Why build and design a new kind of ship, when you can just capture ships from Carthage or (earlier) the Phoneticians and copy their designs?
A culture either invents what it needs on purpose, or takes advantage of what it finds by accident: But in both cases, it’s the requirements of that particular culture that drive the initial technology development. Granted, once a technology is mainstreamed, other uses will be found for it (DARPA probably didn’t have Facebook in mind when developing ARPANet), but that’s a different aspect to technology development.
So IMO “Technology lock-in” is a misnomer: It’s cultures that ‘lock in’.
And I agree with Stephenson that ours seems quite locked-in, indeed.
@Aaron Fown: I have worked many years in various black fields and if you think most of it is well advanced compared to what is being sold in the open market, you are dead wrong – worse, 90% of military electronics is many years to a decade behind what the average person can buy. Most military tech is based on existing and very well known but older engineering principles (most of which are worthless to the private industry) but does solve a special military problem so it is classified.
Physics is not a hidden, secret science – the average BS physics graduate has mastered 90% of all known advanced knowledge relative to the subject (worse still, these people have the complete knowledge (but they don’t know they know it)on how to build a city killer nuke.
While a magnetic rail gun could be used instead of a first stage in a shuttle like vehicle, there really is no other way to get any payload into space compared to what we have (space elevators are pure sci-fi nonsense and will remain so for at least another century. Nukes are impossibly dangerous so chemical it will remain for a long time.)
While it is very true that the shuttle is the worst of the worst (in both cost and poor performance) and any kerosene based motor would have been far better but if you think the military knows a way that is really better, you need to book a trip to the moon because you are not of this Earth.
@someguy: Nuclear’s just stupid. I don’t want to glow in the dark, do you?
@The Moar You Know: Please – thorium does not work and most Indian experts laugh about the people claiming otherwise. As for uranium, please, at current rates, it’d last less than 100 years and if we gear up, twenty at best. Breeders would go a long way but it takes ten breeders to supply one plant new fuel – that is expensive fuel (each plant costs a few billion and processing is highly dangerous, can material that is fully weaponized) and these plants can exploid in a nuclear explosion! That would ruin an entire city/area’s day (for many decades.)
Money? The payoff from basic research is way down the road from cost of doing it. As the level of technological advance increases so does the cost in money and time of finding and implementing advances.
Going back in time a fair ways, as the son of a nationally recognized engineer I spent a lot of time around that bunch and a common recurring theme was bitching about the bean counters running developement. Purely annecdotal, but they had cats about being run by MBAs.
I beat nails for a living and at that low tech end I’ve taken advantage of whatever advances helped production rates and quality. Because I get my hands dirty I can pretty easily see where things pay off and where they don’t. I see a hell of a disconnect between the two ends of society represented by wealth and those who make do with the outcomes – and that would include research well beyond something like the tools I happen to use.
@Judas Escargot: The Vikings would like to have a word with you.
#50 You guys at the DOD ‘lost’ ten trillion dollars in the 1990’s, and you didn’t even get some cool kit out of it?
What a disappointment. I thought you were engaging in some awesome and expensive research, and it turns out that you’re just mega-thieves. My bad.