Opinion | He Conceived of the Metaverse in the ’90s. He’s Unimpressed With Mark Zuckerberg’s.

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When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” My guest today is author Neal Stephenson. He writes worlds into existence that many sci-fi lovers like myself know and love, like the ones he created in “Snow Crash” and “Cryptonomicon.” And the futuristic concepts in his books have inspired real world inventions — ideas you might have heard of, like the metaverse and Bitcoin. Stephenson’s novels are about the future, of course, but more than anything, reading them makes you feel like he can see into the future. His latest book, “Termination Shock,” does exactly that. In it, Stephenson creates a world that’s overrun by the effects of climate change. In a review, The New York Times called him a “speculative polymath, a hadron-collider of a mind.” Wow. So, I obviously wanted to ask Neal about what it’s like to see his ideas come into the real world, and if there’s anything to be optimistic about when it comes to climate change.

Neal Stephenson, welcome to “Sway.” So I’m really looking forward to talking about your new book, “Termination Shock.” But I wanted to start with something that’s been in the news a lot in the past couple of months, which you commented on. In October, Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook as Meta. And he spoke at length about Facebook’s plans to create a version of the metaverse. This is an idea you introduced in your 1992 breakthrough book “Snow Crash,” which I think every techie has read completely and quotes from. Did you watch Zuckerberg’s announcement? And what was your initial reaction?

neal stephenson

No. I didn’t watch. I just got a text from a friend of mine out of the blue that said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I had no idea what he was talking about. So then I had to go on. I mean, I’m busy. I was doing other stuff at the time.

kara swisher

So, your loss? Explain that. Why did he think it was a loss?

neal stephenson

I mean, my friend was just joking. He was just being sympathetic. You know, it’s flattering when people take ideas from a book that you’ve written and try to realize those ideas. That’s been going on for a long time since “Snow Crash” came out. This is a step up in the amount of attention —

kara swisher

And money.

neal stephenson

Yeah. Well, money for other people.

kara swisher

Yeah. So, can you explain how Meta and Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse differs from the one you created in your novel 30 years ago?

neal stephenson

So I haven’t paid a lot of detailed attention. The idea of holding virtual meetings where everyone’s represented by an avatar. The idea of playing a board game with somebody virtually across the table from you who’s actually far away. That stuff is really old hat. And so it’s hard for me to make out what they claim to be doing that’s new, other than maybe implementing those old ideas on a larger scale for a broader audience.

kara swisher

Yeah. It didn’t feel very fresh in my estimation. Changing of outfits was also something I did, I don’t know, 10 years ago.

neal stephenson

I mean, we’ve had multiplayer online games for a long time. Fortnite, you know, is an enormously successful game played by hundreds of millions of people. So I don’t quite see what the new is. Nobody there has communicated with me, and I don’t have any insight, really, into what they’re doing other than glimpsing bits of the video and hurriedly clicking away from them.

kara swisher

Yeah, good. Hurriedly — [LAUGHS] I like that. I like your understatement. So Twitter co-founder and now former C.E.O. Jack Dorsey has been openly critical of Meta’s metaverse. He said you were right when you originally wrote about a virtual world owned by corporations where end users were treated as citizens in a dystopian corporate dictatorship. Do you continue to share those concerns, given that you were the one that put them forth?

neal stephenson

It’s a little bit complicated. I mean, “Snow Crash” is clearly a dystopian novel, although it’s also kind of poking fun at dystopian novels. So it’s sort of both of those things. The metaverse, I think, is kind of neutral. I mean, it’s certainly part of this dystopian world, but in and of itself, it’s just an entertainment medium. It’s not inherently bad.

kara swisher

Well, Neal, people said that about the internet. You and I were around in the early days, and that was the idea, but people with giant corporations that made billions of dollars sort of botched it a little bit. Are you worried about that?

neal stephenson

, they botched it from your point of view and my point of view. But from —

kara swisher

Not their point of view.

neal stephenson

Not from their point of view. Yeah. So, I mean, what they did was they came up with a business model that’s not really anticipated in “Snow Crash,” which is this idea that you could give people a free-to-play application and then monetize their eyeballs and their personal data. And so, in retrospect, that seems like kind of the obvious play, but I didn’t see it coming, necessarily. So I think that’s kind of what we need to focus on if we’re talking about the future of metaverse-type applications. What’s the business model that is making it possible for people to make money off of it?

kara swisher

So what do you hope people could get out of a good metaverse? It seems like in your book, they’re trying to escape the fact the world isn’t so great to live in anymore. Is there a positive case for it? Or is it always dystopian in this way? It’s an escape valve.

neal stephenson

So I know you talked to Jaron Lanier not long ago. So he and I have similar views on this. Every time you input data to a social media site, you’re giving free I.P. to whoever runs that site. And that can mean clicking on a like button or something like that. But even if you choose not to log on for a day and you don’t interact at all, that’s data in and of itself. And AR/VR devices are going to have much more sophisticated ways of extracting information from your usage habits. So they’re tracking your eyes to some extent, your pulse, all of that stuff. So the ability of these devices to gather information is enormous, and I don’t think that we should just let them do that. So, you know, I’m on board with the idea that we need the equivalent of labor unions because we’re all workers in these factories. Anyone who uses social media. And if General Motors opened a car factory and just asked people to show up and build cars for them for free, you know, nobody would take that as a serious proposition. But it’s kind of what we’re all doing. So I think a better system is one that would look kind of the way manufacturing looked after labor unions entered the picture, where the people who have been contributing their free labor have some kind of collective bargaining power. And, as such, are part of the process, and helping to improve the product as opposed to just throwing their data over a blank wall.

kara swisher

Yep. And they get to keep it. We get a free map or a dating service, and now we’ll get a 3D version of it. And then they get all the value. But it is a horrible reality that people don’t realize they’re making, and a bad trade in general. But, talking about horrible realities, that’s what you write about in your new book “Termination Shock.” First of all, what does “Termination Shock” mean to you? Explain it to people who have not read the book yet.

neal stephenson

Sure. So there are a number of ideas kind of under the heading of so-called geoengineering, meaning technological interventions in climate to blunt the effects of having too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, basically. One of the kind of hypothetical drawbacks that’s been talked about is that if somebody were to begin intervening in the climate to hold down the temperature, and then they stopped, that it would create a so-called termination shock. Meaning that the climate would very suddenly snap back to kind of what it ought to be with unpredictable and kind of violent — presumably violent results. So “termination shock” is just a phrase that one hears sometimes when people are talking about geoengineering and climate change that I thought sounded cool.

kara swisher

Yeah. It’s sort of like unintended consequences of what actually happens. Just for people who haven’t read it, it’s set in the near future Earth when the effects of climate change have drastically changed the environment. For instance, Texas has been taken over by feral hogs, and you need to wear a special suit — I think it’s called an Earth suit — to go outside. It makes me think about some other worlds. Like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Philip Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” So what are some of the influences here? Besides the fact that — I know feral hogs has been an actual issue in Texas.

neal stephenson

Well, I’m not known for being introspective, but what I was trying to do was present a vision of the future that was far enough out to give me a little bit of creative leeway, but not so far out that people who read it would kind of dismiss it as, oh, you know —

kara swisher

Sci-fi.

neal stephenson

This isn’t going — yeah, right. It’s science fiction, it’s far future, it’s not going to affect me. So I was trying to find a middle ground between those two. And then in this case, kind of, it all kind of proceeded from the premise of, okay, if somebody did decide to intervene and do some solar geoengineering, what’s kind of the simplest, most achievable way that they could do that? And then kind of the logic of it follows from that. So you’ve got a guy who’s intervening. He’s aware that he needs to do some coalition-building around that and try to find some other people who are willing to back him up. He selects sort of a panel of leaders from parts of the world that are vulnerable to climate change, but that also have kind of money and technology and sort of a will to power, as it were, and tries to get them on his side.

kara swisher

So they’re very entertaining. The one you’re talking about is a billionaire named Theodore Roosevelt Schmidt, which you write, “was the real name of the man who appeared in television commercials and billboards across the South as T.R. McHooligan.” McHooligan is an inventor of the world’s biggest gun that shoots out sulfur to combat climate change. Trying to, I guess, replicate a volcanic eruption, essentially.

neal stephenson

Yeah. So this is a pretty well-established idea. We know it’s been the case for all of human history that from time to time, a big volcano will erupt — an explosive one like Mount St. Helens — that just shoots a bunch of sulfates right into the stratosphere. And when that happens, it forms a veil that — for a couple of years, it stays up there, and it bounces back some fraction of the sun’s radiation and leads to a worldwide decline in temperatures. Then it washes out sort of naturally and things go back to normal. And the leverage is pretty high. So people have talked about building artificial volcanoes, in effect, that would do this in a controlled and managed way, as a way of blunting the effects of —

kara swisher

Or bringing down the temperature. Of course, sulfur — like sulfur is damaging to something. So one of the things I like about your books is the detail. There are 20 pages on how to make a sulfur gun. Where did that come from?

neal stephenson

Yeah, I mean not — I should say, not real engineering. It’s all back of envelope stuff. The particular kind of gun that he’s building is a so-called gas gun or a light gas gun, which is a thing that has been around for a long time. It was developed in research labs decades ago, and it basically is like a big pea shooter that uses a light gas like hydrogen or helium to push a bullet up a barrel. So that’s old hat. So I was just kind of adapting the idea for this particular application.

kara swisher

You have said, as you just noted, good science fiction tries to pick futures that are plausible enough to convince readers, essentially. So which part of reality did you gravitate towards or pick up on to include here?

neal stephenson

Well, I think sometimes even people who are kind of tuned in to environmental issues and climate change may not totally be on top of that reality. I mean, there’s a lot of emphasis on, let’s go to a zero-emissions economy or let’s reduce the amount of carbon emissions, which is great, and we absolutely need to do that. But we’re still in big trouble, and just doing that alone isn’t going to get us out of trouble. So there’s that underlying reality. And then there’s this notion of geoengineering, which I think doesn’t get talked about very much because it’s quite controversial, and some people don’t want to be seen anywhere near it. So that’s kind of where I’m starting from, and I’m saying, what if there was somebody who just didn’t care and kind of came at it with a classic kind of mentality of big oil, gas, mining, that what would be the geopolitical fallout, perhaps literally, from somebody doing that? Because if somebody were to intervene, it would affect different regions of the Earth’s surface in different ways. And some countries are going to do simulations. They’re going to ask themselves, how is this thing going to affect temperature in our country, how is it going to affect rainfall, and then they’re going to — as all nation-states do, they’re going to act in their own national interest.

kara swisher

Absolutely. And this is one person just doing it because politicians, political parties, and countries have environmental platforms, but they aren’t really moving the needle on climate change. And the characters aren’t looking for them to do it. Is that how you feel about the U.S. and other governments today when it comes to climate change? Because without a coordinated approach, the solution might be some billionaire deciding to do something about it.

neal stephenson

So far, it hasn’t been super impressive. The ability of big democratic countries and institutions to get together and come up with a coherent strategy — I mean, conferences like the COP26 in Glasgow, that’s great. I mean, we absolutely need to be doing that. But one of the things that one could do in a science fiction book is to just ask the what if question. And that’s what I’m doing here. Realistically, I doubt that it would be an individual billionaire just unilaterally taking action. But a decade or two down the road, I can easily see a country making a decision that they’re just going to do this because it’s going to make things better for that country.

kara swisher

I could see billionaires doing it. I can tell you this. I completely believe that Elon Musk might do something like this at any moment in time. Or maybe he’s already planning it from his lair, wherever that is. One of the things you do talk about is that inherent unfairness. When you think about this unfairness of what’s happening — how do you think about that as a sci-fi writer? And doesn’t every writer of these kind of things for the future have to contend with climate change and its impact on the wider population going forward?

neal stephenson

Well, I think certainly anyone who’s writing a science fiction book set on this planet in the latter half of this century has to address it. It’s part of the landscape now, and to just ignore it would seem odd. Our job as storytellers is to try to get readers to suspend their disbelief and be drawn into the story. And when you put stuff in that just doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense, it tends to draw people out of that. So I think it’s hard to write a realistic account of this planet in the next few decades that doesn’t talk about this quite a bit.

kara swisher

So, when you were writing this book, were you trying to warn people? Amuse them? Does that make you hopeful? Or you just want to call attention to it?

neal stephenson

Well, you used the word entertain. And I think it’s important to just be upfront about the fact that I’m an entertainer. That is what I do for a living. You know, I write books that people find entertaining enough that they’re willing, hopefully, to sit and read all the way through them. And if they’re not willing to read them, if they don’t find them sufficiently entertaining, then what’s the point? Now if I’ve checked that box, then I can start thinking about some of these more lofty topics, like is it useful? Is it socially constructive? Am I warning people? That kind of thing. So I think in this case, the opportunity that I saw as a storyteller was that this stuff is really important. And so I felt as though just by kind of covering those topics in a reasonably science-based manner, that it would be possible to tell a story without veering into blatant preaching or advocacy.

kara swisher

So I think if we went to Silicon Valley, we’d find geoengineering advocates. And I know Google was working on thermal stuff. I know at one point they were going to buy one of the Hawaiian islands to do a wind farm. People may not be aware of this, but they almost did buy one.

neal stephenson

News to me.

kara swisher

Yeah. I’m telling you right now. They did. The one that Larry Ellison pretty much bought. Lanai. A lot of good wind there. So when you think about that, you’re coming up with their own versions of the world’s biggest guns, and the funding comes in your case from TR McHooligan. Did you have a real billionaire in mind when you were writing him?

neal stephenson

No, I actually kind of bent over backwards to try to make it clear that this was not any one particular real billionaire. So that’s one reason why my guy has got this very idiosyncratic background in oil and mining with a later career in restaurants and truck stops. It’s kind of me trying to be super obvious about the fact that this is not one of the usual cast of tech billionaire characters that are so familiar to us.

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Jaron Lanier, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Neal Stephenson after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]

And so one of the things that was interesting around — as I was listening to this, is this idea of trying to innovate our way out of this crisis — our climate crisis. And one of the things I wrote about about two years ago in The Times was, I said the world’s first trillionaire will be a climate change technologist. I just made it up. Just wanted to get people going. But one of the things you wrote about, and I went back to an essay that has stayed with me many years — I keep a copy of it — a concept you wrote that appeared in Wired, called innovation starvation. I thought it was a perfect way to put it. You wrote this 10 years ago. One of the points you make is we can’t be so pessimistic about the world that there will be no innovation. And you wrote “I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled. Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.”

neal stephenson

Wow.

kara swisher

Talk about how you feel now about that.

neal stephenson

Well, I mean, with SpaceX, they’ve been getting some big things done for sure. So if I were to rewrite that now, I’d have to call that out as an exception, or address that topic somehow. An oddity of our time is that we have this class of billionaires who are — they’re not merely super rich. But the disparity in wealth is just incredible. Like, the fraction of the world’s total wealth that they control is mind-boggling. And at the same time, a lot of the institutions that we used to look to solve big problems 50, 75, 100 years ago, don’t seem to be doing that. And so we’re now kind of in the habit, almost, of just expecting billionaires to tackle big problems, you know, Mars colony or eradicating malaria or what have you. And it’s interesting to ask why. I think part of it is that when you get enough money, you do have a certain kind of agency that you don’t have if you’re a high-ranking military official, or a lawmaker, CEO, because there’s all kinds of systems of accountability and due diligence that you have to respect. And those were put into place for good reasons based on abuses and unexpected problems. But to your point about the first trillionaire, what needs to happen — removal of unbelievable amounts of carbon from the atmosphere isn’t going to happen without engineering projects on an incredibly large scale. It’ll be the biggest engineering project in history. And so you’ve got to ask the question of how to pay for that. And it seems like the best way would be if we could create structures such that it was possible to make money from that. Because I think that by far the best way to solve this problem would be by unleashing a lot of talent and a lot of ambition to find solutions for it as opposed to kind of top-down.

kara swisher

So do you think we’re innovation-starved, still? 10 years later from that essay? One of the things that you talked about was how you get inspiration for innovation. Do you think we’re still starved, and how do we feed ourselves, I guess, inspirationally?

neal stephenson

I do see a kind of — this may just be a sampling error. I do see a kind of yearning among classic techies to build things. I mean, what’s sort of happened and what kind of explains that period when the space program didn’t seem to be going anywhere is sort of that it became possible to make money from arranging bits. And so the kinds of technical brains that in an earlier generation might have been building rockets or nuclear reactors or something instead sat in front of screens typing, and a lot of money got made that way. And a lot of important innovations have happened that way. But I do occasionally now see people who’ve sort of been there, done that, turning away from it and immersing themselves in physical innovation and invention.

kara swisher

Yeah. One of the things I used to say — and I got this from the guy who was a rug seller in Palo Alto who then became an investor — they would buy his rugs and he would take stock in their companies. And he said one of the things he observed was that there were a lot of big minds chasing small ideas, and that was going to be a problem, eventually. And you actually wrote that, too, 10 years ago. “The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like a childish preoccupation of a few nerds with side rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.” So how do you get them? Is it just that they’ll get to it eventually after they’ve made their first billion?

neal stephenson

Wow, I sound kind of bitter, there, don’t I?

kara swisher

Yeah, you do. I like it. I think it works. I think it works.

neal stephenson

Well, there is a kind of inspiring quality to space technology that has been very attractive to a lot of nerds. And we can talk all day about why that particular thing is so exciting. I mean, I’m as much a victim of that as anyone. I’m kind of interested in carbon capture. A little bit less so in geoengineering, because geoengineering is just like the tourniquet that you put on the patient’s leg while you’re driving them to the emergency room. You don’t apply the tourniquet and then declare them healed. So they’re both important, but this business of trying to extract unbelievably huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and make it scalable and economically realistic, it might be something that has that — I won’t call it sexy, because it’s not — but that degree of glamour that might start drawing some good brains into it.

kara swisher

Yeah. Carbon mitigation seems so sexy. Let’s mitigate some carbon. But one of the things you mentioned was a space travel. That essay that I was referring to was about space travel. You worked for Blue Origin, which was Jeff Bezos’s effort.

neal stephenson

Yeah I was there from 1999, which is when it started, until about 2006 when they kind of launched their first version of New Shepard. And then that was the point where we amicably parted ways.

kara swisher

Why was that? Because this is an area of interest to you. And I know that you posited in that essay that there needs to be more space innovation beyond just rockets. Is that what motivated you to do that?

neal stephenson

Yeah. I mean, you always need to be able to tell yourself a story about how you’re contributing. What’s my value add here? And so I kind of felt in the early going, that company, or its precursor, which is called Blue Operations LLC, was more just kind of exploring the boundaries of space as it were. So we looked at a bunch of alternative space launch technologies, like using ground-based energy sources like lasers or microwaves to propel spacecraft. And I felt as though I was contributing some value during that phase. But I think it was like 2003, 2004 that the company kind of made the decision to move in the direction it’s been following ever since. And so that involved bringing in more of a aerospace complex kind of head count and approach to doing things, where I was happy to kind of sit and watch it. At some point I couldn’t honestly say —

kara swisher

Yeah, I don’t think space tourism is your thing, is it? For example.

neal stephenson

You know, it’s as good a business model as any other, but I just — like, the actual, the engineering processes that you have to follow to responsibly build a system like that weren’t really compatible with my lifestyle, I guess for lack of a better term.

kara swisher

You want to do something fresh. Do you think that Musk is doing that with his non-disposable rockets and things like that? You had talked about external tanks and the uses of it. Has there been innovation, or where do you think it’s going to come from?

neal stephenson

Well, again, I mean, those are amazing successes. They are all still in the realm of chemical rockets. There are certain technologies that kind of become entrenched. And once they’re entrenched, it’s almost always easier to keep optimizing them than it is to go back to the beginning and start down another path. Nobody wants to go back to the very beginning and explore a different path at this point.

kara swisher

So who do you think, between the two of them, and then there’s also Richard Branson, has a better vision of the future of this endeavor of space travel?

neal stephenson

My own biased guess is that I’m not that interested in Mars. I mean, I see why it’s exciting and inspiring to a lot of people, and I don’t fault them for that, but to me it seems very exposed to radiation hazards. And there’s chemical issues. There’s perchlorates on the surface that are bad news. So whenever I’ve thought about this, I’ve always kind of eventually come around to the conclusion that the best way to be in space is to use available NC2 materials — basically asteroids — to build large colonies that rotate to produce one G of gravity. And they’re surrounded by lots of dirt so that radiation can’t come in and mess you up. And you’ve got water and agriculture and space to move around. So I think that’s more where Blue Origin is headed. More towards, let’s build really nice environments closer to Earth, and maybe take some heavy industry off of the surface of the Earth. What’s really special about the Earth is its ecosystems. Its flora and fauna. Its landscapes, weather. All that. You can cover some of that up with a steel mill, and we do that all the time. But the steel mill could be anywhere. If you had the choice, you’d rather put the steel mill on a piece of artificial land in space, and then keep the real estate on Earth —

kara swisher

Pristine.

neal stephenson

Yeah.

kara swisher

So do you — is your next book going to be set on one of these things?

neal stephenson

A space colony? No. I kind of did that in “Seven Eves,” in the last part of it. And I have nothing against the idea, but I currently have other plans.

kara swisher

So what are those?

neal stephenson

Well, I always hate to talk about stuff before it’s real. But it’s probably something in a historical vein, which I enjoy doing very much.

kara swisher

So one of the things, when you think about these things, would you ever want to live in space? Where do you think we should be living? With these climate change issues. Would you want to — it’s really kind of an observation I have, is that two of the richest people on Earth are attempting to leave it. Is that the solution for us? Or do you have a preference for one? How bad would it have to get on Earth for you?

neal stephenson

Well, I mean right now it’s — for all the problems that we’ve got — is pretty good. And so it’d be nice to have, like a cabin on a space colony and go there for a few weeks a year. Something like that.

kara swisher

Not the moon? You don’t want to go to the moon and live there for a little bit?

neal stephenson

No. The moon has got all the same kinds of problems as Mars. Radiation. And the dust is probably carcinogenic.

kara swisher

Yeah, I did a great interview with Caleb Scharf, who’s the astrobiologist. He said that, that you’re going to be dumb and smaller. Really, that’s the problem.

neal stephenson

Dumb and smaller?

kara swisher

Yeah.

neal stephenson

What’s not to like?

kara swisher

What’s not to like? So, you know, that’s not something you want to do. But what chances, then, do you give humanity? This is a long, 700-page book about ecological disasters, which many people have written about. You’ve long noted the need for a shared vision and derided excessive individualism. It seems like we’re in a period of excessive individualism right now. You also worry about having too much information. You said when people have too much information, they tend not to do things. So are we in that process? Do we have too much information? Should we have less?

neal stephenson

So if you apply that to climate change, geoengineering, it’s a pretty good example. Because we have very sophisticated computational models where you can plug in a particular scenario, like what if somebody builds the big sulfur gun in Texas and turns it on. And you can see a credible prediction of how different areas are going to be affected. And so you get lots of information that way. And some of that information is going to be scary. I’m not saying that in a patronizing way. Some of it’s genuinely going to kind of scare people and make them not want to do it. I think that’s true a lot of innovative ideas, and there are many things that got done in the past — big projects that got done that probably would not have gotten done if we’d been capable of foreseeing in advance some of the negative consequences that would come from them. What may be changing with the whole climate debate is the possibility that the situation that already exists is so dangerous that the dangers of doing nothing may overbalance the hypothetical dangers of taking some kind of action.

kara swisher

So does that make you — I’m going to read you a final quote. It’s by Paul Virilio, who you probably are aware of. “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck. When you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash. When you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity which is invented at the same time as technological progress.” So what side of that equation are you on? Do you feel pessimistic or optimistic, given the book you’ve just written?

neal stephenson

Kind of short-term worried. Longer term, you know, I’m choosing to be optimistic.

kara swisher

But are you actually optimistic?

neal stephenson

Yeah. Yeah. Good question. I mean, I’m afraid we’re going to see some really bad climate events. And if you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry For The Future,” he opens that book with a really harrowing and typically for him well-researched and carefully wrought depiction of a climate disaster in India where it gets so hot and humid that everyone dies. Called it wet bulb disaster. I’m afraid that we may start seeing those or similar climate disasters happening. So that’s going to be bad, no question about it. So what I choose to believe is that, eventually, we’ll somehow come up with the business plan or the set of incentives that will make it possible to realize your idea of the carbon capture trillionaire, or what have you. And that people will turn their creative energies and talent for building institutions and creating things into that all-important project. I hope that 100 years from now, the CO2 level in the atmosphere will be back down to where it was before the Industrial Revolution. And that it’ll stay there.

kara swisher

I’m not so sure that trillionaire is going to be very nice. I’m in the total recall portion. The guy who ran Mars, if you recall, he was not very nice. But I have hopes, too.

neal stephenson

It may be a requirement, that he’s not very nice, or she’s not very nice.

kara swisher

Probably he. So, in other words, it’s time to get an Earth suit.

neal stephenson

I think there are places where we’re going to need them.

kara swisher

All right. Neal Stephenson, it’s a fantastic book. Thank you so much.

neal stephenson

Well, thank you. It was a great conversation. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Sway is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Daphne Chen, Caitlin O’Keefe, Elisa Gutierrez, and Wyatt Orme. Edited by Nayeema Raza. With original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin, and Mahima Chablani. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, along with a feral pig, download any podcast app then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Source: NYT > Top Stories

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