Path dependency: why we still use rockets

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.

5 thoughts on “Path dependency: why we still use rockets”

  1. I can see Stephenson’s reasoning for systems. However, I would go for something even simpler…people hate change. You get one big theoretical change from the big thinkers (create theories, but never useful items) every now and then that gets picked up by the engineers (create useful items). The engineers then re-engineer this one theory constantly for years. They and society do not like big changes. So, from my viewpoint, the lack of innovation is basically the fear of change.

  2. Before I go and read the original source all the way through, I’m going to note that between Robert Goddard and innumerable SF writers, the idea that Rockets = Space Travel was well-established long before the Cold War or even World War II.

  3. In my experience, fear of change is a euphamism for fear of losing or destabilizing one’s cash flow. Humans like to think big picture and long term, especially us snooty educated ones, it’s a dopamine rush to feel enlightened and altruistic. But when the rubber hits the road, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we really only care about the next paycheck. Securing the nest. We only begrudgingly emerge from our (nuclear) bunkered down homeostasis to “change” our ways when our livelihood becomes unacceptably threatened, when the bottom line quarterly cost-benefit analysis flips strongly in favor of change over stasis, when we are forced out with no alternative. For example, everyone and their Facebook friendlist knows that we’ve got to get off the fossil fuel teat and into renewable energy, for national security, climate security, and for the sake of future generations. We know it’s the greater good. However, it was not until power companies were thrown into a balance sheet crisis during the summer 2008 oil bubble, jolted awake by red ink blaring like emergency lights, when Big Energy’s relationships with consumers entered a “dark time” and they found themselves helpless, did alternatives like solar, wind, biofuel, actually find its way up onto the table of the board meeting as a serious consideration, out of necessity. And these effects work on the system-wide macro-scope as well as the kitchen-table level. Similarly, we don’t see renewable energy usage reaching a tipping point in a given area until people find their checks bouncing, unable to pay for this month’s disposable income-milking iBling gadget or dining on ramen for a week because of spiking gas prices, and/or because it becomes cheaper and easier to switch to a renewable utility or electric vehicle. To put it another way, Sunday afternoon chat is trumped by Monday morning business.

  4. You make it sound like humans were accountants on the savannah, balancing their books as they watched for lions in the tall grass.

    This does fit pretty well with my theory that we could transform society and human nature, ushering in utopia, by discovering the right accounting standard.

  5. It’s not about accounting, but simply securing day-to-day livelihood, standard of living.

    On the savannah, that means where the next day’s Mastodon meat and batch of mongongo nuts was going to come from.

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