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Do you want to change the world, or write spam filters?

Posting in Science

Soaring science or silly apps? You decide. Neal Stephenson prefers the former.

Author Neal Stephenson has written a lot of dystopian science fiction novels, but these days he wants to inspire humanity towards great technological accomplishments that could propel mankind into a brighter future.

He regrets that science fiction generally doesn't motivate people the way it used to do back in the days of Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke.

And he thinks we're wasting a lot of brainpower. As he told the BBC in an interview:

"I was at a conference a few years ago where I ran into an incredibly bright man who in another age would have been laying a transatlantic cable or building the first aeroplane or something. And he was spending all his time writing spam filters.

"I'm sure it was incredibly demanding mental work and quite valuable - but it just struck me that in a way it seems as though our scope has been reduced quite a bit when the brightest people of the generation are writing silly little apps or spam filters or what have you."

I hear echoes of something Apple's Steve Jobs once said to John Sculley, when he was luring the Pepsi executive away to run the computer company in the early 1980s: "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?"

Stephenson himself has been tinkering with a few innovative ideas, such as a 12-mile-high tower. That project is hitting snags. But I like the big vision, and the move away from "silly apps" - a syrupy beverage of our age.

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Photo from Max Photography for GDC Online via Wikimedia

More big thinking:

— By on September 17, 2013, 9:17 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure