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Neal Stephenson on cyber warfare and our self-fulfilling sci-fi future

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Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson

Legendary cyberpunk prophet Neal Stephenson is an author well known for his eerie imaginings of the future. With high-concept thrillers like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, he's anticipated with haunting accuracy the emergence of technologies like Google Glass, and concepts like information warfare, data mining, and more. But at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas last week, Stephenson pondered how many of those bleak visions are truly prescient, and how many are self-fulfilling prophecies.

"In a way I'm more surprised by the things I got totally wrong," Stephenson told The Verge during a brief interview after his Black Hat talk. He recalled how his idea of the Metaverse as a kind of centralized virtual locale fell through, yielding instead to a richer and more widespread world wide web. "It's more interesting to see the way things turn out differently from what you were expecting," he said. "That's where the fun part is for me."

"If all of our depictions of the future are incredibly depressing, it doesn't give us a hell of a lot of incentive to go out and build a future."

During an on-stage interview given by security researcher Brian Krebs, Stephenson noted the cultural changes that have occurred since sci-fi's "golden age" in the 1950's, when the invention of radio, computers, and nuclear power inspired our outlook on the future. "Since then, everything kind of looks the same," he said. "The cars look different, but they're still cars ... The space program tanked, and a lot of stuff just didn't happen the way we were expecting."

But in the grim sci-fi narratives that followed those disappointments, Stephenson wonders how deeply the dystopian abyss stares back into us. "If all of our depictions of the future are incredibly depressing, it doesn't give us a hell of a lot of incentive to go out and build a future," he said. "It kind of gives us an incentive to do the opposite."

Regardless of whether Stephenson predicted the future or caused it, some of his more popular themes, like cyber warfare and malware, are now very real concerns — not just for computer nerds, but for governments, businesses, and the general populace as well. His newest novel, Reamde, concerns a computer virus that spreads through a widely-played online game, and the mission to track down its creator.

"Malware used to be just people screwing around," Stephenson told us after the talk. His novel closely coincided with the real-world discovery of Stuxnet, the US and Israel-sponsored cyber weapon that infected industrial control systems in an Iranian nuclear facility. "On one level the most fascinating thing about that to me is that governments are that hip," he said with a subdued grin. "We don't expect them to be so hip and cool enough to hire people to write those kinds of programs."

For Stephenson, the idea that those attending conferences like Black Hat and its sister event Def Con might be fighting wars in the future isn't a question of when. "They're fighting them now," he replied, quickly surveying the crowded hallway of computer security professionals. "As far as I can tell, this is the kind of place they would go."