Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson, source: wikimedia

My favorite Science Fiction author, Neal Stephenson blames the attitude of the likes of Kemper Freeman  and Tim Eyman for America’s “Great Stagnation“:

We’ve been talking about wind farms, tidal power, and solar power for decades. Some progress has been made in those areas, but energy is still all about oil. In my city, Seattle, a 35-year-old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares.

The whole essay is worth reading, though not transit-related.

32 Replies to “Neal Stephenson on East Link, Innovation”

  1. I completely agree. Kemper Freeman doesn’t think exactly like me, or share my views on things, so rather than debate the issues he and I disagree on (that’s too time consuming and difficult, I am going to demonize him.

  2. Sam, what’s to debate that hasn’t already been debated ad nauseum? Kemper Freeman thinks he can use his inherited and accumulated wealth to control the decisions of the people, indeed, to corrupt the democratic process.

    A person such as that deserves all the scorn, contempt, derision and demonization he has coming to him.

    1. Kemper deserves opposition, not comtempt. The problem is his narrow stances harm Bellevue and would make it stagnate and become even more dependent on a single high-energy and high-space-taking transportation mode. I’m sure he’s doing what he thinks his best for Bellevue, and he thinks that what’s good for his properties is good for Bellevue. The problem is more that he and many others grew up in an age where automobiles were seen as a wonderful thing, and that personal, on-demand transportation was the natural next step in America’s evolution. So now that they have it, they don’t want to give it up or modify it, in spite of the problems it causes.

  3. I read the article yesterday, and that “blocked” sounds like an overstatement. There’s a challenge against running Link on I-90, but I haven’t heard that there’s an injunction or a decision on it.

    1. Well, in the excerpt “blocked” refers to the latest Eyman initiative, not Freeman’s legal challenge. Still an overstatement as the initiative hasn’t passed and hopefully and probably will not, but…

  4. Kemper Freeman is also a good example of something else. Aren’t we seeing articles lately about other business interests in Bellevue weighing in on the side of light rail? Even in Mr. Freeman’s own trade, real estate and development, I think that much of the local business community answers to investors whose experience elsewhere tells them that their own next million likely depends on East Link and things like it.

    Considering the amount of money oil, coal, and automobiles have brought to some people, it’s only natural they’ll fight to keep what they have. But even rich people get old. And even greedy people notice more beneficial ways to make money. Right now, best comeuppance to persistent long-time adversaries is to see to it their political contributions are wasted. Other contributors will get the message.

    Mark Dublin

    1. What is highly amusing (if it weren’t so maddening) is that given Freeman’s vast holdings in downtown Bellevue, it is unfathomable that he could oppose a transportation system that will bring dramatic change to the city by increasing demand for housing in the downtown core which is visibly now becoming a vibrant walkable community. People will still flock to his properties but they’ll casually stroll over the few blocks from their high rise condos. Or if they’re in another part of the city, they’ll get on the light rail or a rapid ride line. It really shouldn’t be any skin off his nose how people get to his properties. It should delight him that people will come more frequently and should concern him less if they don’t bring their cars to fill up their trunks for once weekly shopping experience. Instead, they might come daily.

      And if as has been suggested he is concerned about the “type” of people that frequent his properties, there is still the factor of the average price of the merchandise that is sold in his malls will cause people to self select.

  5. Just finished reading his “Innovation Starvation” essay at the World Policy Institute site. He has some interesting observations and some ideas that I hadn’t thought about, but he seems to fail to grasp the fundamental barriers – greed/selfishness – that is inhibiting a collective action. Instead, simply alluding to a corporate/legal risk aversion. In my observation, that risk aversion did not arrive in a vacuum, but rather on the heels of a carefully inculcated progression of a culture of selfishness that extends the belief that we are only responsible for our selves and that any notion of “country” or “community” or shared sacrifice is immoral and to be fought against.

    Neal Stephenson has a rather complex relationship with the notion of Libertarianism. His many writings have indeed delved into alternative modes of society including affinity based collectives, mercantile based, monarchies etc. Here is a paragraph from his interview with “Reason Magazine” where he suggests the idea of a possible triangular relationship between statists, terrorists and libertarians.

    Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

    If you want to get to the stage at which we can do “big things” then, in my opinion, the way to do it is calling out the forces that stoke this culture of selfishness. Expose the lies, the false premises, the deliberate economic externalities that are created. But you also have to supplant the embedded MEMEs of this “false” culture with the MEMEs that will foster cooperation and community. Unfortunately, it will take either decades to undo this damage or it might take a catastrophe that reminds people that the notion of community is the best way to ensure the survival of our species. Our continued path towards resource depletion and climate catastrophe may be the strong medicine we don’t want to face. And we will face it both individually and collectively.

    1. Stupid and inept government is great recruiter for libertarians, terrorists, and, worst of all, readership for Ayn Rand, who in addition to being a ridiculous writer also influenced Alan Greenspan to help destroy our economy.

      In the particular case of public transit, advocates’,activists’, and union members’ best defense against privatization is to insist that systems run to the highest possible standards, and treat passengers like the owners they are.

      Probably main reason that government-haters have made so much political headway in this country for the last forty years is probably an age thing: hardly anybody in our out of public life is old enough to remember what life was like for the average person when the rich ran everything.

      Timber-, oil-, mining-, land-, and Robber- these people were called “Barons” for a reason. Everybody else was a serf.

      Worst thing missing from Democratic Party’s political delivery is failure to remind people of the main reason and purpose of liberal democratic government: to be the people’s own instrument for freely cooperating to accomplish their combined purposes.

      And also to protect their own freedom from the predation of the powerful. Think “Government bureaucrats” are tyrannical about health care? Compare your chances with for-profit boards of directors!

      There’s another, darker reason, though. Like any instrument, democratic government requires people trained and willing to put it to use. For the lazy and the responsibility-averse, the life of a baron’s retainer probably wasn’t that bad.

      Mark Dublin

    2. Amen. I’m no communist, but one should always be skeptical of theories that are too reductionist about human nature. Today’s culture is the legacy of the philosophical theories of the 17th and 18th centuries, when people could entertain the notion that humans had to restrain their own nature to keep from killing themselves because they didn’t have the theory of evolution to tell them how absurd that is, or that humans aren’t perfectly rational automatons, but are as adapted to their conditions as any other animal. Unfortunately, philosophy has been slow to realize this and in fact has either decided to stop saying anything about the real world, ceding that to fields like sociology, or dived in even deeper towards this dead end (Rand).

  6. Y’know, there’s also a failure to apply the technology we have. We could have built a 320 moh rail system across the country like Europe has, AND have airports and cars, because Europe did do it. (The airports would be smaller and fewer people would have cars, but the point is those who really wanted them would have them.) Likewise, our neighborhood centers could be radically human-scaled like Denmark’s and we could have more plazas, because again Denmark has done it. And we could have 20% of our energy coming from renewable power and growing, as I hear Germany is about to achieve. The fax machine was invented around WWII but only became commercially available in the 1980s. Currently there are experiments to grow organic food hydroponically in multistory office buildings and sell it on the ground floor in a store and restaurant. Amory Lovins has a hydrogen car with a hot-wastewater coffee maker, and extensive ideas for making commercial buildings and industrial processes waste-free (by minimizing the waste or finding markets for it). (I’ll mention Bailo here so he can search for his name.) Lovins’ book, Natural Capitalism, has its entire text free online, and is one of the top ten books I’d recommend.

    There must be thousands of similar products in research labs or dusty files around the world. So it’s not just a scientific failure but also a commercial/political failure to fully apply what we have. We don’t need radical scientific breakthroughs to significantly improve our quality of life. And for this part it’s not so much a lack of vision because there are people with vision and books about it. It just gets lost at the filter of political/media leadership. Either politicians won’t approve it, or the media won’t report on it so people don’t know about it, or both.

    Re the failure of recent sci-fi to inspire breakthroughs, I agree with Stephenson. I barely read sf or regular fiction anymore because so much of it is dark or disgusting. I keep trying to find new books but I read the first chapter and find it repulsive or boring. So much that I’ve gone from reading mainly sf and fiction to non-fiction. More positive-focused books would be a godsend.

    1. “We could have built a 320 moh rail system across the country like Europe has”

      I hope you meant either 220 mph or 320 km/h because A) Europe doesn’t have have 320 mph rail in revenue service and B) 200 mph or a bit more should be fast enough; any faster would waste energy and would not save much time.

      “Re the failure of recent sci-fi to inspire breakthroughs, I agree with Stephenson. I barely read sf or regular fiction anymore because so much of it is dark or disgusting. I keep trying to find new books but I read the first chapter and find it repulsive or boring. So much that I’ve gone from reading mainly sf and fiction to non-fiction. More positive-focused books would be a godsend.”

      Yeah, where is all the good hard science fiction? It seems like the science fiction section at the bookstore has been taken over by vampire books and sword and sorcery tales. Where is the newer Asimov or Clarke or Niven? About the only author in the genre I’ve found lately is Kim Stanley Robinson. If Stephenson does this kind of fiction, could somebody suggest some titles?

      1. I always get mph and km/h confused with European trains.

        Stephenson’s writing style combines mathematics-heavy intellectualism and a tough-guy earthiness that’s not common elsewhere. They’re also long. “Anathem” is set in an Earth-like world with monasteries devoted to geometry/philosophy rather than religion; the second half gets into string theory and a third-party view of several religions. “Cryptonomicon” alternates between WWII and the 1990s on a cryptographic theme, including Alan Turing, Enigma, and a 1990s Pacific island data haven. His older books, “The Diamond Age” and “Snow Crash” deal with cyberpunk, virtual reality, and a proto-Internet. His Baroque trilogy, which I haven’t read, is a historical view of the beginning of modern science in the early 1700s.

      2. BTW, I’m ambivalent about Stephenson’s own works. Anathem has several very interesting ideas (it almost makes you believe its philosophy and history are real), and Cryptonomicon also has some interesting ideas. But the mathematic-geek passages can get to be too much. Snow Crash and the Diamond Age get disgusting in places, with viruses in the former and an undersea drug-orgy commune in the latter. But they are all interesting if not perfect books.

    2. One thing I started doing is watching 50s and 60s sci-fi.

      When the space ships were clean, and the outlook optimistic.

      Before Aliens, etc, they seemed hoaky.

      Now they are refreshing!

      (Some recent sci-fi like “Moon” attempt to recreate that ambiance…)

  7. Having man walk on the moon was a BIG achievement, but I don’t know if it was an IMPORTANT achievement. It didn’t cure any diseases, it didn’t correct any social injustices, it didn’t end earthly suffering. The space program served more as a distraction from the problems of the decade than as a definition of the decade.

    I think that most political debate is a form of political science fiction writing. Everyone is selling a story of freedom, liberty, justice and great happiness for the masses. Freeman (isn’t that an ironic name?) is promoting an agenda that he believes will create the most just society. I disagree with him and his politics, but I can’t say that it’s his fault that we can’t do better than painting sharrows to solve our transportation problems.

      1. Yes, in some sense, if patent law were fairly applied, the American taxpayers of the 1960s and 70s (my parents) should be the richest people on Earth…since they would in effect have “purchased” all that intellectual property from PCs to Lasers to Walkmen.

  8. “plods along painting bike lanes.”

    You all realize that there is nothing really wrong with enabling bicycling for both the “last mile”, “trips to school & store”, and letting the athletic decide to commute via bicycle instead of organized mass transit.

    And paint is pretty cheap vs building dedicated systems. Although it would be nice to have the freeway equivalent for bicycles the Burke Gilman connected to all the other dedicated trails. Not that it’s the only place to ride, but having connected trails does improve things just like connected routes for other systems.

    1. I had this science fiction thought.

      What if we could bioengineer our bodies so running 1 mile in a minute were like walking 50 ft for the average person.

      Think of what mass transit would be like then.

  9. Typically a “Science” fiction write might be expected to know some Science. Specifically, how 3 methods of large scale power generation (wind farms, tidal power, and solar power) relate at all to a specific modality of transit (electric motor, mass, using rail).

    This is the kind of mish-mash that should send anyone with a rational mind up a wall, since the creme de la creme of the left intelligentsia haven’t the slightest ability how organize objects into categories rationally.

    As far as those technologies, I knew someone in college ( c. 1980 ) who was working in solar cells. Back then they were talking about getting to 6 percent efficiency on pure silicon. He was working on amorphous silicon cells that would be produced cheaper. But all through the past decades we’ve watched the efficiencies go up and up. There was no “conspiracy” we’ve just been waiting for the technology to be useable.

    The problem for all renewables (except hydrogen and fuel cells) is that they cannot provide regular baseload. They can be added into the grid, but you need a steady controllable voltage, or else everyone’s lamps would go dim and bright, and sensitive electronics like computers and LCD Tvs would turn on and off all the time.

    I notice the one technology that he does not mention, which is actually coming to fruition is the Hydrogen Economy with cars and power generation run on hydrogen…hydrogen which can be generated without CO2 by artificial leaves or now, bacteria.

    1. Got a link to a paper on that Hydrogen generation from bacteria? Last I heard the guys trying to do it with algae weren’t able to generate enough to do anything but use in nuclear reactors.

      On the baseload, if you have enough variable sources and a place to store the immediate excess power, like one of those vacuum sealed gyroscopes, or a dam with a pump to put the water back up, it works fine.

      The other solution is to sell interuptible power at a lower rate, ie, the power company can just at a moment’s notice decide to shut you off. Some things can handle that just fine. Other’s like data centers can’t.

      “creme de la creme of the left intelligentsia” isn’t if they can’t organize. You’ve got an oxymoron there.

  10. The coming generations are more pro-transit and progressive thinking Seattle will have a complex light-rail system and streetcar network… once Kemper Freeman quiets down. Kemper is hungry for publicity even if he does look like an idi0t.

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