The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Not A Failure Of Imagination

Posted on | October 4, 2011 | 10 Comments

by Smitty

Pardon my under-whelmed response to Neal Stephenson’s Innovation Starvation.
Neal comes near a breakthrough here, emphasis mine:

Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem. Communication among them can become a mare’s nest of email threads and Powerpoints. The fondness that many such people have for SF reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision. Coordinating their efforts through a command-and-control management system is a little like trying to run a modern economy out of a Politburo. Letting them work toward an agreed-on goal is something more like a free and largely self-coordinated market of ideas.

The Apollo Program put a man on the moon while I was still, in the eyes of modern feminism, a busy insurgent within my mother’s flesh. That link I just provided juxtaposes the Cold War and the Space Race nicely. From little bits of scuttlebutt I’ve heard in some odd places, the Apollo Program was really just so much cover story along the road to Really Big Missiles. This explains why, once the technology for Trident was in the pipeline, we got. . .the Space Shuttle. Not to mock the program; it has done much good. But really: can you match Neal Armstrong with a spiffy Hubble image? “One small NITF for man. . .one giant JPEG for mankind.”
Back to the quoted Stephenson above, now: people don’t scale. The significance of the external threat of the Soviet Union was as crucial to the success of Apollo as Nazi-ism and Imperial Japan were to WWII. Without the threat of the fertilizer hitting the air circulator, that Iron Law heads its ugly rear. Lacking an external bad guy putting the back against the wall, the engineers turn into intellectually flabby bureaucrats, launching applications instead of cutting edge projects. They can navigate the artificial intricacies of a travel claim more readily than deal with orbital mechanics. However, that engineering genius does not support people moving paper from point A to point B, now does it?
Many, like the Instapundit, strongly favor privatizing space efforts. Fair enough, but there are significant national security implications for allowing Stacy McCain to have a go at “Gonzo in Space”. Barbara Espinosa would just have installed on the main computer. Stacy’s head, and, subsequently, the spacecraft, would ‘splode, triggering some major repercussions. We don’t need that.
Maybe some credible national leadership could help. If you put Carmack at NASA, and gave him a free hand and an Apollo-style budget to git ‘er done. . . But no, that would just be more opportunity for Congressional graft. Perhaps the best government role is, in fact, command by negation.
Flabby bureaucrats have a highly socialist diet. They feed on regulations with the aforementioned high iron content. Fe males, they are. The creative, exceptional American vigor that should drive actual improvement (would have said ‘Progress’, comrade, but how liberally gay can the English language get and retain meaning?) is perverted to ensconce weaknesssocial justice.
So the useful question to ask is: How do we liberate the creativity of the people from the dismal prison of Socialism? Restated, just how hard are we going to work in 2012 to elect conservatives? How much pain are we going take to regain liberty? Sci Fi writers can spin all manner of tales, but the real failure is not of imagination: rather, over-regulation.

Update: linked at Daily Pundit. In response to:

Nobody is really interested in original or inspiring thinking, not when it threatens one of their sacred cows, whether socialist or socon. And that is the real problem, not regulations.

Let me say that I, personally, am not threatened by ideas as such. Ideas live on a failure/success spectrum. My task is to argue the successful ones in a positive way. Having served in the military, let me flog the drum: drenching the troops in hormones isn’t advancing the military strategy one bit. An election strategy, perhaps. That is all.


10 Responses to “Not A Failure Of Imagination”

  1. JeffS
    October 4th, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    Lacking an external bad guy putting the back against the wall, the
    engineers turn into intellectually flabby bureaucrats, launching
    applications instead of cutting edge projects.

    I confirm this statement from professional experience, .  However, I believe that an external human adversary is not the necessary motivation, although it is an excellent one.  Perhaps it’s better to say “external threat“, where the survival of a nation and (by extension) one’s family is at risk.  Or even simple competition for survival.

    But the key word is”survival”.  That motivates innovation to no end. 

  2. Jack Woodward
    October 4th, 2011 @ 1:23 pm


    Glad you’re back, BTW.

    It really not an either/or proposition.  SpaceX, for example, will be at the magic price point of $1000 / lb into orbit with their Falcon Heavy.  They have a healthy backlog of commercial customers aside from their contract with NASA to supply the ISS.  But exploration and military applications are a different matter.

    I flew to Florida a few weeks ago on a private airline, not Government Airlift.  We seem to be at a similar point to the early days of aviation, when the government contracts to carry the mail helped jump-start commercial aviation.


  3. Joe
    October 4th, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    Maybe these mega wealthy guys could make a “prize” say 40 billion dollars for a Mars mission, to claim it for what would be a new Hudson Bay or East India Company?  That is the old school way of exploration. 

  4. Garym
    October 4th, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    John Carmack would spell Doom to the space program. He just wants to create the UAC, get to Mars, and visit the ruins that are there. ; )

  5. Anonymous
    October 4th, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    Jerry Pournelle has been pushing that for 20 years; calls it the “X Prize”.

  6. Daily Pundit » Socialism, SoCons, Science Fiction, and Sacred Cows
    October 4th, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    […] Not A Failure Of Imagination : The Other McCain So the useful question to ask is: How do we liberate the creativity of the people from the dismal prison of Socialism? Restated, just how hard are we going to work in 2012 to elect conservatives? How much pain are we going take to regain liberty? Sci Fi writers can spin all manner of tales, but the real failure is not of imagination: rather, over-regulation. […]

  7. Andrew Ian Dodge
    October 4th, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    How about supporting non-leftie fiction writers like me for instance.  And Glory is my latest cyberpunk limited government epic.

  8. Tennwriter
    October 5th, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    The best way for Daily Pundit and the rest of the so-called liberty lovers (who hate socons more than they love liberty) to advance the space race and freedom would be to go inside, lock their doors, draw their curtains, disconnect from the Internet, and watch football for about twelve years.

    Then the socons would have a much better chance of knocking off the RINOs and taking out the liberals, and the result would be a more moral, more properous, more free society.

    Neal Stephenson is talking about a lack of technological innovation brought on in part by over-regulation, and a lack of bold imagination.  DP’s quirks are not going to get us out of that, and will in fact, slow that down.

    Furthermore, his ‘ideas are totally central’ idea is amusing.  As a professional SF writer he should know that.  How many times have you had guys come up to you, volunteer you their ‘brilliant idea’ and offer to let you write it, and they’ll only take half of the profit?  I’ve heard this used to be quite common, and it illustrates the point that good ideas are a dime  a dozen.

    And Smitty hits on that with his point about Really Big Missiles.  Its not neccessarily the sort of point  that fits inside a simple political theory, but it is reality.  Implementation is more important than Idea.  Or as Pournelle occasionally quotes….men seldom need to be told what to do, they often need to be reminded.

    As to Smitty’s actual arguement with Stephenson….hmmmm.  I’m sympathetic to Pournelle’s idea (or something even more libertarian….do away with Gov’t Space except Direct Military Use entirely).  And I do see the Ginormous Need for the creation of a set of mental furniture to explain the world and make stories for it from a conservative perspective.

    And such would yield a unified vision which would be very helpful.

    But yes, over-regulation is obviously more of a problem than lack of imagination.

    And I don’t think a unified vision will come without two things.
    1. Investment in Conservative Culture.
    2. Defeat of the Left.

    Right now, the best we can hope for is a kind of self-sustaining partial Ecology of Dreams that provides the builders in their out of the way factories a vision.  But both writers and builders, bards and warriors, will be on the fringe for now.

  9. Richard Cranium
    October 5th, 2011 @ 1:11 am

    Well, I’ve managed to get banned from Mr. Quick’s site.  That’s fine; he’s paying the bills.

    But he only wants stupid opposition that he can bat around like a cat with a catnip mouse.  Point out that the ever-to-be-praised-Singularity just *might* require things to happen in meatspace and it just harshes his mellow.

  10. Anonymous
    October 5th, 2011 @ 6:21 am

    Another koan-like article from Smitty.  Maybe I gotta read it twice.

    I read through Stephenson’s article, and I think he’s a bit off course in a few areas.  One small one is the comment from his Future Tense thingy, where folks think SF inspires folks to go into engineering and Science.  If that were true, I’d think we’d see a lot more American citizens going into those disciplines.  I know people who teach at a major engineering school, and they lament the dearth of American kids who participate in the hard sciences.

    Also, he perceives the information mining and analyzing capacity of modern business as a quest for certainty, and that such certainty is an illusion leading to stagnation.  Or something.

    We have a world where governments around the globe have grown so massive and regulation so constraining, that our industries have become like giants who cannot manage a step without having trodden on their own gloves.  Businesses need this information analysis capacity just to navigate the regula-sphere. It’s like having to learn to swim  harder, not only to beat your competitors, but to carry the extra weights officials now require.

    It is true that innovators in the past have occasionally poisoned a water source or irradiated a village.  But we’ve become so afraid of those risks we have managed to make even the most minor risks damned near illegal.

    Imagine if the X-prize winner or the Galactic/Virgin space effort has a tragic accident where a falling spacecraft kills some folks.