Lost technologies, Seveneves, and The Secret of Our Success

Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t read Seveneves by now they probably don’t matter.

Seveneves is an unusual and great novel, and it’s great as long as you attribute some of its less plausible elements to an author building a world. One plausible element is the way humanity comes together and keeps the social, political, and economic systems functional enough to launch large numbers of spacecraft in the face of imminent collective death. If we collectively had two years to live, I suspect total breakdown would follow, leaving us with no Cloud Ark (and no story—thus we go along with the premise).

But that’s not the main thing I want to write about. Instead, consider the loss of knowledge that inherently comes with population decline. In Seveneves humanity declines to seven women living in space on a massive iron remnant of the moon. They slowly repopulate, with their descendants living in space for five thousand years. But a population of seven would probably not be able to retain and transmit the specialized knowledge necessary for survival on most parts of Earth, let alone space.

That isn’t a speculative claim. We have pretty good evidence for the way small populations lose knowledge. Something drew me to re-reading Joseph Henrich’s excellent book The Secret of Our Success, and maybe the sections about technological loss are part of it. He writes about many examples of European explorers getting lost and dying in relatively fecund environments because they don’t have the local knowledge and customs necessary to survive. He writes about indigenous groups too, including the Polar Intuit, who “live in an isolated region of northwestern Greenland [. . . .] They are the northernmost human population that has ever existed” (211). But

Sometime in the 1820s an epidemic hit this population and selectively killed off many of its oldest and most knowledgable members. With the sudden disappearance of the know-how carried by these individuals, the group collectively lost its ability to make some of its most crucial and complex tools, including leisters, bows and arrows, the heat-trapping long entry ways for snow houses, and most important, kayaks.

As a result, “The population declined until 1862, when another group of Intuit from around Baffin Island ran across them while traveling along the Greenland coast. The subsequent cultural reconnection led the Polar Intuit to rapidly reacquire what they had lost.” Which is essential:

Though crucial to survival in the Arctic, the lost technologies were not things that the Polar Intuit could easily recreate Even having seen these technologies in operation as children, and with their population crashing, neither the older generation nor an entirely new generation responded to Mother Necessity by devising kayaks, leisters, compound bows, or long tunnel entrances.

Innovation is hard and relatively rare. We’re all part of a network that transmits knowledge horizontally, from peer to peer, and vertically, from older person to younger person. Today, people in first-world countries are used to innovation because we’re part of a vast network of billions of people who are constantly learning from each and transmitting the innovations that do arise. We’re used to seemingly automatic innovation, because so many people are working on so many problems. Unless we’re employed as researchers, we’re often not cognizant of how much effort goes into both discovery and then transmission.

Without that dense network of people, though, much of what we know would be lost. Maybe the best-known example of technology loss happened when the Roman Empire fell, followed by the way ancient Egyptians lost the know-how necessary to build pyramids and other epic engineering works.

In a Seveneves scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the novel’s protagonists would be able to sustain and transmit the knowledge necessary to live somewhere on earth, let alone somewhere as hostile as space. Quick: how helpful would you be in designing and manufacturing microchips, solar panels, nuclear reactors, plant biology, or oxygen systems? Yeah, me too. Those complex technologies have research, design, and manufacture facets that are embodied in the heads of thousands if not millions of individuals. The level of specialization our society has achieved is incredible, but we rarely think about how incredible it really is.

This is not so much a criticism of the novel—I consider the fact that they do survive part of granting the author his due—but it is a contextualization of the novel’s ideas. The evidence that knowledge is fragile is more pervasive and available than I’d thought when I was younger. We like stories of individual agency, but in actuality we’re better conceived of as parts in a massive system. We can see our susceptibility to conspiracy theories as beliefs in the excessive power of the individual. In an essay from Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes: “Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” The world itself is big, densely interconnected, and our ability to change it is real but often smaller than we imagine.

Henrich writes:

Once individuals evolve to learn from one another with sufficient accuracy (fidelity), social groups of individuals develop what might be called collective brains. The power of these collective brains to develop increasingly effective tools and technologies, as well as other forms of nonmaterial culture (e.g., know-how), depends in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social connectedness. (212)

The Secret of Our Success also cites laboratory recreations of similar principles; those experiments are too long to describe here, but they are clever. If there are good critiques of the chapter and idea, I haven’t found them (and if you know any, let’s use our collective brain by posting links in the comments). Henrich emphasizes:

If a population suddenly shrinks or gets socially disconnected, it can actually lose adaptive cultural information, resulting in a loss of technical skills and the disappearance of complex technologies. [. . . ] A population’s size and social interconnectedness sets a maximum on the size of a group’s collective brain. (218-9)

That size cap means that small populations in space, even if they are composed of highly skilled and competent individuals, are unlikely to survive over generations. They are unlikely to survive even if they have the rest of humanity’s explicit knowledge recorded on disk. There is too much tacit knowledge for explicit knowledge in and of itself to be useful, as anyone who has ever tried to learn from a book and then from a good teacher knows. Someday we may be able to survive indefinitely in space, but today we’re far from that stage.

Almost all post-apocalyptic novels face the small-population dilemma to some extent (I’d argue that Seveneves can be seen as a post-apocalyptic novel with a novel apocalypse). Think of the role played by the nuclear reactor in Steven King’s The Stand: the characters in the immediate aftermath must decide if they’re going to live in the dark and regress to hunter-gatherer times, at best, or if they’re going to save and use the reactor to live in the light (the metaphoric implications are not hard to perceive here). In one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, two generations after the disaster, descendants of technologically sophisticated people are reduced to using melted-down coins as tips for spears and arrows. In Threads, the movie (and my nominee for scariest movie ever made), the descendants of survivors of nuclear war lose most of their vocabulary and are reduced to what is by modern standards an impoverished language that is a sort of inadvertent 1984 newspeak.* Let’s hope we don’t find out what actually happens after nuclear war.

In short, kill enough neurons in the collective brain and the brain itself stops working. Which has happened before. And it could happen again.


* Check out the cars in Britain in Threads: that reminds us of the possibilities of technological progress and advancement.

Re-reading Cryptonomicon

It’s still excellent, and it’s so excellent that it’s one of the books I re-read when I can’t find anything good to read. The density of Cryptonomicon’s ideas and the strange (at first) construction of its plot makes it a particularly promising re-reading, since getting the full effect the first time through is almost impossible.

CryptonomiconThe novel is very fond of explaining things and so are its characters. “Things” seems like a vague, loose word here but it’s appropriate given the diversity of explanation. To list the topics that come up would be too tedious for this post but would be in keeping with the novel. Take one example, as a character explains startup financing in the ’90s:

We begin with nothing but the idea. That’s what the NDA is for—to protect your idea. We work on the idea together—put our brainpower to it—and get stock in return.

Except that, as we know now, ideas aren’t that important (the execution is important) and the best ideas are usually mocked at first. But the rest is pretty accurate, and the dialogue shows that the characters have ideas, share ideas, care about ideas, and fight over ideas. Ideas—actual ideas, as opposed to what many intellectuals think of as ideas—don’t appear often in novels. To the extent they do, ideas usually appear as grand abstractions tediously embodied in specific characters.

Skip some sections if they don’t speak to you the first time through; they may later, though the famous Cap’n’Crunch scene still does little for me, or to me.

Few books describe real nerd culture:

“You have jet lag now?” Goto asks brightly—following (Randy assumes) a script from an English textbook. He’s a handsome guy with a winning smile. He’s probably in his forties, though Nipponese people seem to have a whole different aging algorithm so this may be way off.
“No,” Randy answers. Being a nerd, he answers such questions badly, succinctly, and truthfully. He knows that Goto essentially does not care whether Randy has jet lag or not. He is vaguely conscious that Avi, if he were here, would use Goto’s question as it was intended—as an opening for cheery social batter. Until he reached thirty, Randy felt bad about the fact that he was not socially deft. Now he doesn’t give a damn. Pretty soon he’ll probably start being proud of it.

Conversation is a skill and it’s a skill most nerds don’t develop, which may be why they face troubles in dating. Nerds spend lots of time with machines and to some extent that time begins to shape their minds to think like machines.

The psychologies of innovators and deep thinkers may not be viable subjects for literary writers, or, if they are, I haven’t seen the fruit of those writers’ labor.

Most novels that are called “novels of ideas” are actually not. Finding a novel of ideas embedded congenially in a novel of intense action is unusual, especially when most novels of ideas are actually novels of navel gazing. Cryptonomicon also violates many of the rules one hears from MFA types and is useful for that reason: many “novels” are not actually novel.

Copies are available for $.01 on Amazon (which means $4 with shipping), and that’s a steal.

The Death of the Novel and Ryan Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying”

“As Chris Hedges, the philosopher and journalist, wrote, ‘In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle this frustration.’

As a manipulator, I certainly encourage and fuel this age. So do the content creators.” (67-8)

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Trust Me LyingI have read a million essays, most dumb, about the Death of the Novel or the Death of Literature; “Anxiety of influence: how Facebook and Twitter are reshaping the novel” is one recent specimen, though there will no doubt be others: the topic seems as attractive to the essay writing set as cat pictures and porn are to Internet users. Yet the quoted passage from Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator resonates more than most samples in the genre. Reality is complicated and the best novels, and narrative art generally, strives to capture that reality. Does a novel make a cultural sound if no one is there to read it?

“In an age of images and entertainment” it might also be useful to recall the Stephenson quote posted a few days ago:

Literate people used to spend a lot of time reading books, but during the Internet years those have begun to seem more and more like a distinct minority: a large and relatively well-off minority, to be sure, but one that simply doesn’t register in the electronic media, as vampires are invisible to mirrors. [. . .] Books, though, and the thoughts that go through the heads of their readers, are too long and complex to work on the screen—but it a talk show, a PowerPoint presentation, or a webpage. Booksih people sense this. [. . .]

If bookishness were just a niche pastime, like stamp collecting or waveboarding, none of this would really matter. But it’s more than that. It is the collective memory and accumulated wisdom of our species.

Not all hobbies are created equal. I wonder too if bookishness makes one less susceptible to the media manipulations Holiday describes in Trust Me, I’m Lying. “Less susceptible” is of course not the same as “immune.” Nonetheless, I would take from the book several lessons:

1. Beware the cheap, faux outrage that is seemingly everywhere online.

2. Realize that people are still herd animals—a point Holiday makes—and that while this is often adaptive (if everyone is literally running in one direction, there’s probably a reason) it has many drawbacks. Intellectually and economically it is often not good to be part of the herd.

3. Most people don’t separate news and entertainment, though few think explicitly about this point. Whatever larger cultural structures might have existed to enforce this separation at one point are if not gone altogether then mostly gone, and Trust Me, I’m Lying is a eulogy of sorts.

4. The environment in which we evolved for tens of thousands of years or more is very different from the one in which we live now; though that’s an obvious point, the many ways in which now and then are different still surprise me. Consider:

the public is misinformed about a situation that we desperately need to solve. But heartbreaking sadness does not spread well. Through the selective mechanism of what spreads—and gets traffic and pageviews—we get suppression not by omission but by transmission.

5. Trust Me, I’m Lying raises my estimation of academia, at least slightly.

Life: The power of the book and the power of memory

“If bookishness were just a niche pastime, like stamp collecting or waveboarding, none of this would really matter. But it’s more than that. It is the collective memory and accumulated wisdom of our species.

The rough-and-ready intellectual consensus of the mid-Twentieth Century is being pushed out by a New Superstition whose victims can find testimony on the Internet for anything they choose to believe. The only cure for it is reading books, and lots of them. When all things bookish are edited out of public discourse, strange things happen, or seem to. When our societal attention span becomes shorter than the lifetime of a steel bridge over a river, what appears to be a solid strip of highway can suddenly fall out from under us. Like a portent from the medieval world.”

—Neal Stephenson, from Some Remarks; see also “Twilight of the Books.”

That being said, I don’t think the Internet is only for “New Superstition,” and some of the “intellectual consensus” was and is wrong. Knowledge that people post and read on the Internet is neither right nor wrong, superstitious nor factual.

What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**


* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

The creator’s mindset and lawyers’ destructiveness in Cryptonomicon

Rereading Cryptonomicon is always an absurdly pleasurable experience that yields ideas I should’ve noticed before but didn’t. For example, hacker Randy Waterhouse undergoes a life change characteristic not only of numerous nerds I know, who often swerve from the mind-numbingly pointless activities to fantastically enriching ones even though both spring from the same drive, but that also demonstrates the difference between someone who’s just happy to make something and lawyers, who do sometimes deserve their bad rap and rep:

[Randy’s] life had changed when Charlene had come along, and now it changed more: he dropped out of the fantasy role-playing game circuit altogether, stopped going to meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and began to spend all his free time either with Charlene or in front of a computer terminal. All in all, this was probably a change for the better. With Charlene, he did things he wouldn’t have done otherwise, like getting exercise, or going to see live music. And at the computer, he was learning new skills, and he was creating something. It might be something completely useless, but at least he was creating.

“Things he wouldn’t have done otherwise” probably also include showering regular and buying clothes when the old ones develop holes, if Randy is anything like the majors nerds I’ve known and, occasionally, been. Most importantly, he’s making stuff. And that’s what distinguishes Randy, whatever his other problems might be, from everyone else. Lots of people talk about doing things and relatively few do. When you find someone who does stuff, it’s notable, even if the thing “might be something completely useless.”

In Randy’s case, he writes a game based in part on information gleaned from a crazy grad student named Andrew Loeb, and, when Andrew finds out, he ends up suing Randy; when the university whose computers Randy used finds out, they sue him too. Naturally, this is only a very light gloss on how it goes down, like the difference between lipstick and car paint, but events ultimately leave Randy here:

In the end, just to cut his losses and get out of it clean, Randy had to hire a lawyer of his own. The final cost to him was a hair more than five thousand dollars. The software was never sold to anyone, and indeed could not have been; it was so legally encumbered by that point that it would have been like trying to sell someone a rusty Volkswagen that had been dismantled and its parts hidden in attack dog kennels all over the world.

Which, apparently, is what happens when deranged, unreasonable people meet certain kinds of lawyers, or come from them. Randy eventually comes to “decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.” But we have no society-wide immune system to people whose lives are “fractally weird” and want to makes others’ lives miserable, via abusing the legal system or some other means. The people who will make others’ lives miserable don’t really understand the mindset of creators, who’re just trying stuff out to see what happens. And they often don’t realize what other people are like, either, because they haven’t developed the intellectual immune system necessary to protect them from crazy assholes. Creators often live in a gift economy while others live in a commercial economy. So they get in situations like Randy does, having “to hire a lawyer” and cut their losses.

Reading over this post, I realize that, as usual, it’s not really possible to excerpt Cryptonomicon effectively, because the scene in question lasts four densely forested hardcover pages and delves into a level of nuance appropriate for Emacs users. And Stephenson’s novels are fractal too: you can examine almost any segment, from the sentence on up, and find that any part is as detailed and intense as the whole. I haven’t begun to dissect what comparing software, a non-tangible entity that can be infinitely copied with near zero cost, to a Volkswagen, which is quite finite and has many other characteristics separating it from software, actually says about both software and Volkswagens.

Through Randy, however, Stephenson is trying to explain hackers, or at least show one in action, since they’ve been conspicuously absent in literary fiction while probably doing more to change the world than virtually any other group over the last 30 or so years. You can’t really explain their core in a short space, which is why Stephenson devotes about a quarter of a 1,000 page book to examining one, and another quarter or so to examining one’s literal and figurative predecessor. But I could imagine an academic paper examining the construction of a hacker’s temperament, how it differs from the straw-man average man’s temperament, and how an eventual awareness of that difference forms the hacker’s outlook. Randy’s encounter with Andrew can be read as the awareness of that difference coming to the fore, rather as a comic book hero comes to realize that his special powers separate him from his classmates. The difference is that comic book heroes usually have their villains pre-selected and presented as suitably villainous, whereas in life it’s pretty unusual to come across someone as conveniently villainous as Andrew is here.

The creator's mindset and lawyers' destructiveness in Cryptonomicon

Rereading Cryptonomicon is always an absurdly pleasurable experience that yields ideas I should’ve noticed before but didn’t. For example, hacker Randy Waterhouse undergoes a life change characteristic not only of numerous nerds I know, who often swerve from the mind-numbingly pointless activities to fantastically enriching ones even though both spring from the same drive, but that also demonstrates the difference between someone who’s just happy to make something and lawyers, who do sometimes deserve their bad rap and rep:

[Randy’s] life had changed when Charlene had come along, and now it changed more: he dropped out of the fantasy role-playing game circuit altogether, stopped going to meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and began to spend all his free time either with Charlene or in front of a computer terminal. All in all, this was probably a change for the better. With Charlene, he did things he wouldn’t have done otherwise, like getting exercise, or going to see live music. And at the computer, he was learning new skills, and he was creating something. It might be something completely useless, but at least he was creating.

“Things he wouldn’t have done otherwise” probably also include showering regular and buying clothes when the old ones develop holes, if Randy is anything like the majors nerds I’ve known and, occasionally, been. Most importantly, he’s making stuff. And that’s what distinguishes Randy, whatever his other problems might be, from everyone else. Lots of people talk about doing things and relatively few do. When you find someone who does stuff, it’s notable, even if the thing “might be something completely useless.”

In Randy’s case, he writes a game based in part on information gleaned from a crazy grad student named Andrew Loeb, and, when Andrew finds out, he ends up suing Randy; when the university whose computers Randy used finds out, they sue him too. Naturally, this is only a very light gloss on how it goes down, like the difference between lipstick and car paint, but events ultimately leave Randy here:

In the end, just to cut his losses and get out of it clean, Randy had to hire a lawyer of his own. The final cost to him was a hair more than five thousand dollars. The software was never sold to anyone, and indeed could not have been; it was so legally encumbered by that point that it would have been like trying to sell someone a rusty Volkswagen that had been dismantled and its parts hidden in attack dog kennels all over the world.

Which, apparently, is what happens when deranged, unreasonable people meet certain kinds of lawyers, or come from them. Randy eventually comes to “decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.” But we have no society-wide immune system to people whose lives are “fractally weird” and want to makes others’ lives miserable, via abusing the legal system or some other means. The people who will make others’ lives miserable don’t really understand the mindset of creators, who’re just trying stuff out to see what happens. And they often don’t realize what other people are like, either, because they haven’t developed the intellectual immune system necessary to protect them from crazy assholes. Creators often live in a gift economy while others live in a commercial economy. So they get in situations like Randy does, having “to hire a lawyer” and cut their losses.

Reading over this post, I realize that, as usual, it’s not really possible to excerpt Cryptonomicon effectively, because the scene in question lasts four densely forested hardcover pages and delves into a level of nuance appropriate for Emacs users. And Stephenson’s novels are fractal too: you can examine almost any segment, from the sentence on up, and find that any part is as detailed and intense as the whole. I haven’t begun to dissect what comparing software, a non-tangible entity that can be infinitely copied with near zero cost, to a Volkswagen, which is quite finite and has many other characteristics separating it from software, actually says about both software and Volkswagens.

Through Randy, however, Stephenson is trying to explain hackers, or at least show one in action, since they’ve been conspicuously absent in literary fiction while probably doing more to change the world than virtually any other group over the last 30 or so years. You can’t really explain their core in a short space, which is why Stephenson devotes about a quarter of a 1,000 page book to examining one, and another quarter or so to examining one’s literal and figurative predecessor. But I could imagine an academic paper examining the construction of a hacker’s temperament, how it differs from the straw-man average man’s temperament, and how an eventual awareness of that difference forms the hacker’s outlook. Randy’s encounter with Andrew can be read as the awareness of that difference coming to the fore, rather as a comic book hero comes to realize that his special powers separate him from his classmates. The difference is that comic book heroes usually have their villains pre-selected and presented as suitably villainous, whereas in life it’s pretty unusual to come across someone as conveniently villainous as Andrew is here.

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