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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Geeks, writing and the future: a Neal Stephenson interview

Today’s story about Neal Stephenson didn’t do justice to the great conversation we had, first over Ethiopian food and then here at the newspaper offices.

For a photo, we took him down to an old press in the basement where he posed next to a dial that displays thousand pages per hour of output, which is kind of funny for a guy who writes 1,000-page novels longhand.

The conversation was all over the place, so here are excerpts rather than a transcript.

Q: Do you have another book started already?

A: I can’t – you get excited about a new idea now, you can’t do anything abou it – I have all these distractions for two or three months (around the release of “Anathem”). it would be disaster to get all strung up on a project and not be able to do anything about it.

Q: Can you talk about what you’re working on at Intellectual Ventures?

No. It’s all complicated and encumbered … basically when I talk about this aspect of my life,eveyrthings’ a a thousand times more complicated because it gets into issues of IP and people I work with, the public relations crew there – I can’t just have a normal, relaxed conversation about it.

The gist of it is that I like to tinker, I like to build things, to make stuff, work with tools, computers – make things. I’ve been doing it my whole life. It happens from time to time, at IV, where they need to make something, to make it a better idea, find out of it’s going to work. At times like that I’m happy to be of service.

So do you have a blue collar role there?

I wouldn’t quite say that. In any case it’s more like mathematical modeling. It’s kind of a long story.

Q: How has Seattle influenced you and why do you live here?

A: My father’s side of the family is from around here and so when I was a kid growing up in Iowa, every summer we’d get into the statoin wagon and drive from there to here. We spent a month every summer in the Northwest.

My uncle took us down to the market once and showed us this place where he bought coffee – I saw coffee in bean form for the first time in my life, instead of just ground stuff in a can. That place of course was the first Starbucks. So I’ve had those connections for a long time. My wife’s career developed in such a way that we ended up here which was perfectly suitable for me – I was comfortable with the city and knew my way around a little bit. We had to leave for about four years but we came back when we could and have been here ever since.

Our coming back coincided with the publication of “Snow Crash,” which brought me to the attention of technical people and so over the years I’ve interacted with various people – as anyone does who lives here -who work at the local high-tech companies.

Q: David Stutz, who composed a CD for “Anathem,” used to work at Microsoft …

A: When I was starting to work on “Anathem,” I would go and attend concerts by two of the groups he sings in … kind of to get in the mood. I’d go up to St Mark’s and listen to this a capella, renaissance, medieval music being performed. There’s somehting about St. Mark’s – it fits perfectly with the story of “Anathem” because it’s kind of ancient and modern at the same time. It has the general shape and style of a medieval church but you get inside and you can see that the walls are poured concrete and the alterpiece is kind of a high-tech thing. So it’s kind of retro – I don’t (know) the right way to describe it, but it’s exactly the right mix. That combined with the music just got me in the right frame of mind to work on that book.

A little bit later I explained to David what I was working on, he got interested in actually trying to create some of the music that the characters in the book might sing in their monastery. That’s how that whole project came about. It’s an example of collaboration that I think is unique to a place like Seattle – the high-tech industry draws people here who are good at programming computers but they have other interests, too, other interests and talents they can bring to bear on other kinds of porjects. It’s something you can see all over town now – people get to the point where they can lift their heads up above the day to day work of what they’re doing in the high-tech world, they start to think about bigger projects and start getting involved in charities or artistic endeavors or take the time to do new companies that make it a more interesting place.

Q: If you’re writing never took off, would you have gone to work for a place like Microsoft, doing programming?

A: I think it’s inevitable I would have ended up at a high-tech company because when I was in college I became reasonably proficient in programming. I was certainly a better programmer than a physicist. I might have been an adequate physicist but economic reality is that somebody like me would have ended up programming computers – I could have goten paid to do that, so yeah, I would have ended up working at a high-tech company somewhere.

Q; Did that give you confidence to pursue the writing career, knowing that you had something to fall back on?

A: I didn’t have that confidence at the time because this was back in 1980, 81 – and you know, the personal computer revolution was happening but – it’s hard to imagine now, but back then it wasn’t obvious that you could go to the West Coast and snag a programming job at a high-tech company.

I can remember people on my college campus showing off Apple II computers so that story was kind of beginning but Windows hadn’t happened yet and that whole mindset of I’ll go to work for a high tech company and make tons of money, that didn’t exist yet.

Q: Do you still program?

A: Usually now if I need to do some programming type stuff I use Mathematica which is an expensive but very powerful general piece of technical software. You can solve programming problems in it without having to deal with the hassle of low level computer languages. I can still write code in C if I had to but everything’s kind of changed now because to write code now you’ve got to build it to work with a particular operating system, a particular graphical user interface, and you spend the majority of your time fooling around, getting to know that user interface code – not actually solving the problem you’re trying to solve. Systems have gotten so complicated it’s really hard for a person to just sit down and write a piece of software.

Q: So you still write your books in longhand?

A: I start out with just a fountain pen and some paper and I write maybe 10 or 15 pages in a day, a day’s work. I go back the next day and I go over the pages again with a different colored pen and kind of do little edits. By the time I’ve gotten through that, I’m warmed up and ready to move on and write the next 10 or 15 pages or so. Every so often when the stack gets thick enough I carry it over the computer and I type it in. At that point I can edit it, print it, fuss around with it, do all the computer-y stuff. That’s kind of my process.

Q: So you have a couple layers of editing there – you write longhand, it’s slow enough to think about what you’re writing, then you edit as you type it in?

A: That’s why I do it that way, because the quality of the first draft is higher.

Q: It must be time consuming, especially when you’re writing 1,000 page books.

A: When it’s your job and you just get up and do it every day, time isn’t really the constraint. I mean, if you produce one page of material a day you’ve got a 365 page novel in a year. If you did that consistently over a literary career, by the time you retired you’d have 50 novels published, so that’s not the bottleneck, It’s not the issue. as you can tell from the size of these books.

Q: Do you see yourself ever taking a break from writing and pursuing one of these ventures around here full-time, like the Intellectual Ventures gig or a space project?

A: Those make sense to me in that I have to do something other than write all the time. I would always get involved in home construction or building electronic circuits or messing around with computers … it made more sense to pursue those activities with other people, actually doing something meaningful.

Q: Your books are appropriate for Seattle, where people build these unbelievably complicated things, like airplanes and operating systems, and for fun go see the Ring cycle. You have to invest some time, they’re complicated, but the payoff’s huge.

A: There’s sort of a dichotomy now between two tendencies called vegging out and geeking out. People are stressed, they’re tired from a long day, they just want to veg out – they colapse in front of the big screen TV, they watch a television show or they play a video game or something. The whole idea is to do something that’s as easy as can be, it places no demands on your brain or your attention span. I’m exhibit A of vegging out – I veg out all the time. If that was all that people did, we’d really be in trouble. But there’s another countervailing activity that people do which is geeking out – they’ll pick some specific thing that they’re really interested in and they’ll know everything about it. It turns up in surprising places. You kind of expect it among high-tech geeks. But you can go anywhere in the country and you can find somebody who, maybe he’s driving a forklift at Wal-Mart for a living but then he comes home and his passion is Civil War re-enactment. He knows everything that happened at the Battle of Shilo down to 60-second slabs of time – he’s got the outfit, he’s got the costume, he’s got the gun. So that’s his way of having fun, is geeking out on that one topic. So I think that coincides with the redemption of geekiness in our culture. We used to call them nerds and they were kind of scorned, and now we call them geeks. A geek, it’s a term of approbation – it means someone who’s a little weird, a little dorky in some ways, but they have something over which they have a complete mastery of skill and knowledge. If you need their services, they’re a great person to have around.

I think geeks geeking out is gradually replacing older institutions as a way that knowledge is perserved and developed in this society.

I’m kind of going on and on, but the point, you started asking me about the effort required to bury yourself in one of these books and read one of these big books. I guess what I’m saying is there are books in both categories. There’s veg-out novels and there’s geek-out novels. I’m tending to write geek-out novels, although I try to put some fun stuff into them, too, so you can enjoy a little bit of vegging out between the geeky parts.

Q: What’s going to happen to society of people stop geeking out, if they all veg out?

A: If you just try to stand back and take a general long range look at our society right now you could become very gloomy about the future because it seems like it’s all surface, it’s all toward the veg-out end of the spectrum. Givent that all of our prosperity, all of our military prowess, our standard of living, is all based on technology, you could easily get the idea that our country’s just falling apart with explosive speed. So I used to kind of feel that way. In fact just yesterday the CEO of Intel was going on a rant about this, about how we’ve got to educate people better. He was interviewed on the BBC – he went on very eloquently about this problem and how our national competitiveness was at risk because of education. But if you take a closer look you see that … somewhere, somehow, kids are getting educated to a fare thee well in this country. They’re coming out of schools with exteremely sophisticated knowledge in their heads. They’re smart and they’re diligent. So how do you reconcile those two pictures? It seems paradoxical to have both those things going on at once. I think the answer is that there are these two cultures, the veg out and the geek out culture, and parents who geek out on educating their kids, they get results. These are the famous helicopter parents. You’ve seen it at the Olympics, these kids doing these incredibly demanding routines to perfect precision.

Q: Are there enough of those types to salvage what we’ve got, or are they just entertainment for the rest of us sitting in front of the TV?

A: I think geeks can have a disproportionate impact. Once they find each other, which is easy to do on the Internet, they can get a lot done. It’s a little unsettling – in the same way that you’re here in this building and it feels like the ground is falling out from under the whole newspaper industry in a way and you’re wondering is this going to exist 10 years from now. In the same way, it’s easy to wonder, it’s easy to feel like our usual institutions of learning and our institutions for preserving knowledge and culture are just going to go away. But I’m going to be sort of foolishly optimisitc and say they’re going to be replaced by new kinds of institutions. This is going to be the model of the future – no matter what it is you’re intrested in, whether it’s how to fix a bug in your computer or swordfighting or the history of some fine point of Christian theology – you are going to be able to find a cluster of geeks out there who just focus on that one thing and who all know each other.

Q: And they’ll keep that knowledge growing and alive?

A: Yeah, it’s just going to be in a different way from what we’re used to and it’s a little scary and unsettling.

Q: That’s a good rebuttal to the argument that Google’s making us stupid.

A: Yeah, well, so, anyway.

Q: In “Anathem,” you seem to be putting your microscope onto today.

A: William Gibson remarked that all science fiction books are really about the present and that’s certainly true about this one. It’s meant to be a good yarn and a story that you can dive into on its own merits. But if you want to go all interpret-y on me, there are clearly some connections between that world and the world we’re living in now. I don’t want to just sit here and rattle them all off and beat people over the head with them because that makes for a bad realationship beteen author and reader. But I think anyone who looks at it can see the points of similarity.

Q: You started working on the book at a low point in the U.S., around three years ago. Did that get you going?

A: I thought for a long time that literate, long-attention-span culture is diverging from mass culture, in a lot of ways. It’s just obvious when you see basically who gets to have a voice on talk shows or anywhere in the public media. People like me who tend to go on and on and delve into all the details and don’t like to gloss over things, they just frustrate the hell out of the electronic media – this includes Web pages, most people don’t want to scroll down on a Web page, they want to see one screen of material and then move on. If you can’t say something in a few seconds, you get edited down, you get cut off and sooner or later you kind of get disinvited. If you’re an analyst on TV, you’re an expert that the TV station calls up to talk on a particular topic. If you can break everything down into seven second utterances, then you’re going to get to say those at full length in your full seven seconds of glory. They’ll keep calling you back. If you’re more of a 14-second kind of guy, then they get frustrated, they stop calling you back, they edit your remarks so that it sounds kind of choppy and you’re going to get frsutarted and you’re going to decide not to do those gigs anymore. Those kinds of changes happening all through the media, everywhere all the time, will lead to a sitution where the only people who have voices are the sound-bite people. This is hardly an original observation on my part, but it kind of begs the question of where do those people go? I think where they go is they go to places on the Internet where they can exchange email and chat with like-minded people.

Q: I wonder how many long-attention-span people will be left. It makes me worried for the world of my children.

A: Things will be different somehow. Those people will be there, but they’re going to be configured in a different way. I haven’t quite figured out what that’s going to be. In the book, I posit this highly unrealistic, artificial way of dealing with those people which is to herd them all into a system of monasteries where they live like monks and they interact very little with the so-called secular world. That’s a fictional way of addressing that question. There’s kind of an engineered solution in that society where those people live where they live. When the secular power has a problem that it needs solved, it will reach in and pluck a couple of those people out and take them away – kind of harvest them for use in solving a problem. I don’t think that’s a plausible outcome in this world, but it’s a way of raising those kinds of questions. So if you’re asking yourself, how are things are going to work, what kind of world are my kids going to live in, well probably not this world, the world of this book. But it’s going to be a world in which the same issues have been somehow addressed and more or less successfully dealt with.

Q: It’s scary when the secular world becomes so disdainful of the monastery, but it’s an effective tool for politicians …

A: It is now, it’s become their cudgel – Dick Nixon’s Southern Strategy. There’s a really good book about this, the Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby. She gives a little tour of American history showing the roots of anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism, how it’s come and gone over the centuries. Eventually she gets to a place late in the book where she says, you’re probably expecting in this final chapter I’m going to lay out some solutions to all of these problems, well I’m not going to do that. She’s not offering any pat answers for how to fix this. But I think she’s missing the geeking out angle – self-organization of geeks and experts.

Q: When it gets too bad, do you need some sort of catastrophe to make the two sides respect each other?

A: That’s kind of a possible story you’re writing in your head there – there will be a catastrophe, we’ll come to an arrangement, things will be fine. That might happen but the other thing I think aout all the time is Afghanistan. How many generations would it take for the United States to become like Afghanistan? You can see it, the tendencies, if left unchecked, would turn this into a country that’s economically backward, heavily armed and stuck – stuck in a situation of economic and social backwardness.

Q: Will there be any movies based on your books soon?

A: When you write a lot of these books, they’re too long to fit into a movie. It kind of becomes beside the point.

Q: They’ve got fantastic characters.

A: Yeah, but a short story is the right amount of material to make into a movie adaptation. Even a medium long novel is way too big. When you’re talking about very long novels, it’s just impossible, there’s no way to do that adaptation.

Q: Would you be willing to let someone hack away and pull out a character?

A: I’ve thought about that, in the case of Jack Shaftoe. His story pulled out could maybe be a movie.

Comments | Topics: Microsoft, Miscellaneous


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