Seattle author Neal Stephenson’s works of fiction often play off the potential for future facts — for example, the virtual world described in “Snow Crash,” the nanotechnology at the heart of “The Diamond Age” and the millennium-scale thinking that’s embodied in “Anathem” (and in the real-life 10,000 Year Clock bankrolled by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos).
His latest novel, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” kicks it up a notch with ruminations about what it would take to create an artificial afterlife, powered by computerized replicas of human consciousness.
Stephenson acknowledges that his vision in the afterlife in “Fall” plays loosely with the facts of neuroscience. But his books touch on other technological themes that are closer to reality, and he discussed several of those themes this week during a talk at Town Hall Seattle. Here’s a roundup of five ideas well worth thinking about — with recommendations for further reading:
Augmented reality: Stephenson serves as the chief futurist for Magic Leap, which is developing an innovative headset for augmented reality, so you’d expect him to be bullish on AR. He makes clear that the technology described in “Fall” is distinct from what Magic Leap is working on, but says AR is definitely in our future. “Part of this book takes place 20 years or so in the future, and I think it’d be silly to write a book 20 years in the future where people are still running around staring at little glowing rectangles in their hands,” he said (at 31:00 in the YouTube clip below).
Quantum computing: Microsoft, Boeing and other companies are exploring the possibilities of using quantum physics rather than the traditional one-or-zero digital paradigm for future computers. Computer scientists say that quantum computers should be able to solve certain types of problems much more quickly than classical computers. In “Fall,” they’re essential to reconstructing consciousness — but Stephenson acknowledged that he doesn’t know a lot about the technical details. “I’m sort of waving a magic wand” to address a narrative need, he said. “Don’t take any of that too seriously.” (48:14).
Fake news: Some of the action in “Fall” focuses on a made-up crisis that is kept in the news through a stealthy online campaign, boosting a religious-right political movement in the process. There are clear parallels to the fake-news environment that’s such a point of contention today. Stephenson said fact-based discourse was one of the key concepts to emerge in the 16th century, as documented in “A Culture of Fact” by Barbara Shapiro. “It turned out to be an incredibly valuable and useful thing to have in a society, and now it’s being destroyed,” he said. The good news is that Shapiro’s account “gives us hope that there’s a way to rebuild the culture of fact going forward” (41:20 in the clip).
Amistics: One of Stephenson’s best-selling novels is “Seveneves,” a space story that speculates about what would happen to humanity if the moon were destroyed. And one of the book’s plot twists has to do with “Amistics,” the idea that segments of society can voluntarily forswear types of technology to preserve their own well-being. The word’s origin goes back to observations about Amish sect members, who avoid using electricity and automobiles for religious reasons. In “Seveneves,” society decides to swear off high-frequency social media tools because of their ill effects. For more about Amistics, check out “Amish Hackers” by Kevin Kelly, and “The Art of Amistics” by Tom Chatfield. (43:45).
Coming attractions: Speaking of “Seveneves,” Stephenson says that story may be coming to a screen near you. “There’s work under way to do a television adaptation. … There’s nothing imminent,” he reported at Town Hall (37:00 in the clip). “Snow Crash” has also been under development as an Amazon-Paramount production, but the latest word is that the project is in Hollywood limbo. While waiting for those projects to bear fruit, you can make your way through the 880 pages of “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.” And to learn more about simulating the universe and other far-out ideas, Stephenson recommends reading “The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications,” by David Deutsch.