Interview with Neal Stephenson about his new novel and the state of the internet

Tyler Cowen of Reason used the occasion of the release of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell to interview him about what he thinks on a wide variety of topics, including surveillance, clothing of the future, and the rise of algorithmic decision making.

In your books, you saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did. What's the worst-case scenario, and why do many people think they're screwing things up?

I think we're actually living through the worst-case scenario right now. I think our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality. And that's now been dissolved out from underneath us, and we don't have a mechanism to address that problem.

But what's the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

The problem seems to be the fact that it's algorithmically driven, and that there are no humans in the loop making editorial, curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks. So it's very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there's also a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people's faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.