Very interesting piece by ubergeek Neal Stephenson over at Slate, where he wonders why it is that we’re still stuck in the rocket paradigm of space launch tech. In two words: path dependency.
To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:
1. World’s most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman
2. Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time
3. A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator
4. Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system
5. Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability
6. Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline
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.
Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.
It’s this sort of thinking that makes Stephenson’s novels so fascinating to me… and, I fully expect, what makes other people bounce right off them. To Stephenson, everything is a system, and a system is a sort of story. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Anyway, the point is that for all our talk – and worship – of innovation, we’re mired in a whole interconnected set of path dependencies, a kind of civilisational stasis where we don’t do amazing new things so much as we find new ways to do the same things we’ve always done, only bigger, faster and with greater consequences of failure.
… the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance. Those are places we need to go if we are not to end up as the Ottoman Empire of the 21st century, and yet in spite of all of the lip service that is paid to innovation in such areas, it frequently seems as though we are trapped in a collective stasis. As described above, regulation is only one culprit; at least equal blame may be placed on engineering and management culture, insurance, Congress, and even accounting practices. But those who do concern themselves with the formal regulation of “technology” might wish to worry less about possible negative effects of innovation and more about the damage being done to our environment and our prosperity by the mid-20th-century technologies that no sane and responsible person would propose today, but in which we remain trapped by mysterious and ineffable forces.
A fascinating and provocative read: go see the whole thing.