Path Dependency and Lock-in via Nuclear Arms and Space Races

This Slate piece by Neal Stephenson was mentioned at the “Here Be Dragons” event I attended yesterday, co-sponsored by New America, Slate and ASU under their joint Future Tense initiative.

Stephenson clearly illuminates some of the sticking points of technological progress, in particular path dependency and lock-in, with his accustomed flair. His examples, much like in his seminal “In the Beginning Was the Command Line…” essay, are unexpected but all the more apt for their unusual juxtaposition with his main thrust.

The above circumstances provide a remarkable example of path dependency. Had these contingencies not obtained, rockets with orbital capability would not have been developed so soon, and when modern societies became interested in launching things into space they might have looked for completely different ways of doing so.

He maintains this is not an outlier, hinting at a similar trajectory from whaling for lamp oil through to our modern dependence on petroleum. He leaves the second example much more to the reader’s imagination but it doesn’t take much mental muscle to connect the dots he quickly sketches out.

He does an equally enjoyable job of explaining how and why we are locked into the raft of rocket centered technologies at the heart of the narrow band of commercially feasible space ventures. I enjoy that he relates it to being trapped in a local optimum for a hill climbing algorithm. Well worth giving the whole thing a read, bearing in mind that Stephenson has recently been advising entrants into the burgeoning private sector space targeting ventures.

The implication is pretty clear in terms of general lessons for innovation. The sheer scale of economic forces within the space industries is immense, as are the risks. In lower risk spaces, these historical trend lines should better serve to steer clear of the kind of innovation stalling phenomena that have put notional jet packs ever out of our reach.

Space Stasis, Slate

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