Mike: Welcome to the Future Thinkers podcast, I’m Mike Gilliland.
Euvie: And I’m Euvie Ivanova. This podcast is all about the future. We have a very special guest for you today. His name is David Brin, he’s a prolific and award-winning science fiction author, some of his works include the Postman, which was made into a major movie, and his non-fiction work the Transparent Society. David has a PhD in [00:00:30] space science and he actually started his career as a scientist. He’s also a futurist and a speaker and consultant for the CIA, Google, and many other future looking agencies and corporations.
In this episode, we talk about the transparency and privacy issues in our society, we talk about the different political systems, we also talk about the renaissances in human history and what drives them. Then we get into the Fermi paradox, or, “[00:01:00] Where are the aliens at,” which is one of David’s favourite topics of discussion. We had a lot of fun recording this episode and I hope you guys like it.
David: Now, you are visually more fuzzy, also your voice no longer sounds like you’re about to announce that you’re going to destroy all humans.
Euvie: That’s comforting.
Mike: I’m hidden for now.
David: Let us proceed.
Mike: Okay, what excited you right now? What are you interested in? I know you just released a new [00:01:30] book recently, maybe tell us about the book.
David: My new book, which was released this week from Studio Digital, is called Insistence of Vision. It’s my third short story collection. It’s pretty cohesive as far as theme is concerned, it’s about exploring obstacles that might stand in our way but also, I’m known as a bit of an optimist in that there’s reason to believe that civilization and human beings can rise to meet challenges. [00:02:00] Look at us right now, we are talking across media that Tolkien depicted the Palantir globe in Lord of the Rings as being somewhat similar to the flat crystal that you have on your desktop allowing lords and kings and wizards to see things far away and to converse with each other across great distances. We take ours for granted, maybe because it’s flat instead of a globe.[00:02:30] I think the bigger reason is because everybody’s got them and we tend to take for granted things that everybody gets. Isn’t that better? My third short story collection is Insistence of Vision, it just came out, and it’s got explorations of concepts, for instance bio engineering all the way to is reality a simulation, are we living in a simulation in someone else’s game. I just posted today a blog [00:03:00] posting, because I do a far amount of that, especially when things get political, about the whole notion of cop cams, whether or not the police would be wearing devices that record their interactions with the public and our own right to record them back with our own devices.
This is something I talked about in Earth, back in 1989 and I forecast that it would utterly transform the relationship between the citizens and their protectors. [00:03:30] In my non-fiction book, the Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? In the Transparent Society I believe lately it’s been discussed a lot, so I know the page number even, page 160, there’s a riff that in 1997 predicted that ghetto youths would come out from their car to talk to a cop who pulled them over and there would be a camera on the youth’s lapel and there would be a camera on the cop’s [00:04:00] lapel.
What would be the effects of this? Over the long run it would be to eliminate a lot of bad cops, it would be to make the good cop’s jobs easier by making convictions a lot easier when they recorded something that’s definitely bad. A decrease in the hidden breaking of civil liberties that we’ve seen for so long. One of the things that disappoints me about the Black Lives Matter movement is that they aren’t out there shouting in addition to justice and all these other [00:04:30] things they’re shouting, they should be shouting, “Give us more tech,” because it’s technology that has made the big difference now in them finally being believed in the stories that they’ve been telling of injustice all these years.
This posting was about how in this fight for the right of citizens to record their interaction with power, 2013 was the best year for civil liberties in America in a generation. [00:05:00] The news media is so addicted to gluten that they didn’t even cover it, but that’s the year we got this right to look back at power with our ell phone cameras. Well, that right is under attack now in Philadelphia. The lawyers are completely misunderstanding the argument they should be using, they’re making it a first amendment matter, the freedom of speech.
It’s not about that, it’s about the sixth amendment, which is the citizen’s right [00:05:30] to aggressively demand and offer proof of innocence. It doesn’t just say the citizen has a right, but the citizen may demand and I think the sixth is underappreciated. You ask me what I’ve done lately. The blog, I’ve been doing some science, I’ve been consulting with various agencies back in DC that are concerned about the future and I have a new book.
Euvie: I think the [00:06:00] idea of transparency, transparency versus privacy actually is very fascinating and you’ve talked about it in your Reddit AMA a little bit that a lot of people want privacy for themselves but they want transparency for everyone else.
David: This is very natural in human nature. When light is shining on you, you feel that it’s invasive. When light is shining on your opponents, well, that’s what they deserve, we need that in order to hold them accountable. The genius of our enlightenment [00:06:30] civilization of the last 200 years has been we have a diamond shaped social structure with a well off and empowered middle class that’s unafraid of the rich and outnumbers the poor. Is this perfect? No, in fact, it’s decaying right now, but that’s what you expect. Every generation, the mighty various types of elites will try to change this diamond shaped social structure back into the feudal pyramid of inherited oligarchy at the top lording it over [00:07:00] ignorant peasants.
The top priority of the oligarchy, the feudal oligarchy was to keep the peasants ignorant. This was 6,000 years, this was 99 percent of human cultures and we managed to escape to some degree across the last 200 years. It’s been a struggle not just to prevent it turning back into a pyramid but to make it more diamond like and to expand our horizons outward, horizons of inclusion, so we stop wasting talent. [00:07:30] That’s the pragmatic reason for2 civil rights and human rights is to stop wasting talent just because it happens to be in the body of a woman or the body of a person whose flesh is of different colour than yours. Most of the good human rights morality is easily defendable not in moral terms but in pragmatic terms, because we can’t afford to waste talent.
The thing that’s enabled us to do all these things is an innovation [00:08:00] that let us get past 6,000 years of these pyramids and it’s called reciprocal accountability. I don’t want to be held accountable but you won’t let me avoid accountability for the bad things I do. I don’t want you to escape accountability, so I’m going to shine light of accountability on you. It’s adversarial, it’s not the way we were preached at by priests for 6,000 years that we were supposed to get morality by doing what they preach, by feeling guilty. [00:08:30] It’s a different method, it’s competitive, because you can’t pierce your delusions but I can. I have my favourite delusions and even thought I’m trained as a scientist to dismantle my own delusions and I do it systematically and routinely and regularly, because I’m scientifically trained and because as a science fiction author I’m fascinated by my own mistakes, because then I can give them to characters.[00:09:00] Despite all those techniques – and I’m probably way above average in penetrating my own delusion – I am clearly a deluded jerk. I am clearly in love with my favourite delusions, including the delusion that by proclaiming I am deluded that I somehow get a pass, you see, because I’m so honest and I’m proclaiming that I’m deluded. I delude myself into thinking that [00:09:30] this means I’m wiser, you see. Notice what I did, I just riffed off on my riff, thereby proving that I’m wise, that I am capable of noticing the delusion that my willingness to discuss my delusions makes me wise. We could go all day. The fact of the matter is that the only way my delusions can truly be penetrated is by other people and that’s called reciprocal criticism. CITOKATE: [00:10:00] criticism is the only known antidote to error. You are in love with your errors, some of them. I am in love with my errors.
Here’s the great miracle of the enlightenment; we don’t get better by being preached to to be nice, that has never worked across 6,000 years. We get better by the fact that you are not willing to let me escape criticism and I am not willing to let you escape criticism, or at least [00:10:30] my adversaries. You give me the very thing I need in order to improve, which is criticism. If I look at it that way, as a gift from you, then I will welcome the criticism and I’ll get even better. If you look at criticism that way, guess what, it’s powerful, you will get better. You’ll find your mistakes, you’ll become more powerful. But the problem in human nature is [00:11:00] we hate criticism, we hate it. We have a visceral dislike of it, which is stupid. Your enemies are willing to give you for free what you need in order to get better. It’s a gift and you will be happy to return the favour, won’t you? You’ll be happy to give your enemies the gift of criticism. We’re such generous people.
Mike: This is great relationship advice, David.
Euvie: [00:11:30] Yeah.
David: Relationship advice for any male is get married, then you’ll get the criticism you need.
Mike: Going back to the hierarchy structure you were just talking about and the diamond shape, we’ve been looking a lot into decentralization, especially with platforms like Bitcoin and Ethereum. How does that fit into this new social organization structure you were just talking about?
Euvie: Where the power is being distributed among many different nodes as opposed to being held just a few entities.
David: Here’s a very interesting question, [00:12:00] always step back and always ask, “Why do I care about this?” Always ask about yourself. “What is my motive here? Why do I care about this?” One reason you care about distributed power and reducing the power of elites is because you’ve suckled propaganda for all your life. From almost every Hollywood movie you’ve ever watched, one of the central principle core messages is [00:12:30] suspicion of authority, SOA. You cannot name a popular film that you’ve enjoyed in the last 20 years that did not have SOA – suspicion of authority – messages as central themes, along with themes of tolerance, diversity, and eccentricity.
The principle hero in almost every film you’ve enjoyed shows some eccentric trait at the beginning of the film to endear herself to the audience, and always faced some kind [00:13:00] of a problem with an authority figure. I’ve puzzled for the last 40 years as to who is behind this propaganda campaign to teach everybody to watch out for propaganda, to teach everybody to watch out for accumulations of authority and I’ve concluded that it’s something visceral inside our civilization. We reward move makers for including these themes with our tickets. [00:13:30] In other words, we’re the ones who are in charge of this reprogramming process.
There are a couple of really bad messages in Hollywood films, as well, one is no institution can ever be trusted even though, if you were in danger, you would dial 911 and demand skilled professionals come to your aid. Those skilled professionals never come to the hero’s aid in the movies. Why? Because that would be a buzzkill for drama. The movies always show institutions failing. [00:14:00] Unless the villains are as badass as the Joker or in Independence Day, then the government is allowed to be okay. The other message is, “My fellow citizens are sheep.” Sure, all the evidence indicates that a large faction of your fellow citizens are idiots but the fact of the matter is you wouldn’t have this civilization if they were all sheep or if all the institutions were corrupt.
How does this relate to your question? Well, I’m sounding like I’m defending that status quo, [00:14:30] except I’m defending the instinct that you reflected in your question. The instinct is that if power is allowed to accumulate in pools, those pools will become poisonous, those pools will become big brother. Science fiction is very good at coming up with dire warnings. 99 percent of today’s dystopias and apocalypses are just lazy excuses to get your hero in jeopardy [00:15:00] by showing the president in Hunger Games wanting to kill everybody. But one percent of the science fiction dystopias are what are called self-preventing prophecies. Soylent Green help recruit hundreds of millions of environmentalists. We’re alive because Failsafe and Dr Strangelove alerted us to dangers of nuclear war.
The greatest of them all is 1984 by George Orwell and we all use the metaphor of big brother [00:15:30] to talk about accumulations of power that might clamp down and bring us back into that pyramid, only now augmented by technology so that we can never escape. A decent American conservative is worried about accumulations of authority by snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. A decent liberal is concerned about accumulations of undue authority by conniving oligarchs, aristocrats, and faceless corporations. [00:16:00] When you put it that way, they’re both right. We should be guarding each other’s backs and we would be if conservatism hadn’t gone crazy in the United States.
We’re hoping if they’re slapped silly that they’ll wake up and become part of the conversation again. I’m guessing because you have an IQ in three digits that you agree with me, but the fact of the matter is that there are some clever people who’ve let themselves be talked into, “Never mind, I won’t go there. I guess I already did.” [00:16:30] The main point is that we have a visceral instinct that authority figures on mountaintops have to be held to greater accountability and that, ideally, the solution would be to devolve as much of that down to the middle of the diamond. That gets back to your question. Do I approve of things that enhance the average citizen’s ability [00:17:00] to make her own deals, to hold accountable those who would harm him, as needing authorities as little as possible to do that?
This is the gradual devolution version of libertarianism, that libertarians have been going away from rather than going towards. That’s unfortunate. Yes, [00:17:30] complicated answer to say that I am all in favour of the instinct, the drive, the creativity that has gone into coming up with devolved and flattened methodologies. Do I think that these are always successful experiments? No, most won’t be. I think we are starting to see some of the reasons to believe that, for instance, the transcendentalist faith in Bitcoin [00:18:00] may have been misplaced.
Euvie: You touched on one that I wanted to ask you about – the role of science fiction not only being a warning for the kinds of trouble that we might get ourselves into but also being a plausible idea for what the world could be like. I think a lot of the popular science fictions that we’ve had in the past have come to be true and not by predicting the future but by people seeing the science fiction [00:18:30] as an inspiration to create the kind of future that we’re living in now.
David: A lot of technologists and scientists credit science fiction for inspiring them. I get nice mail about that fairly frequently. My fans keep a Wiki tracking my predictions, especially regarding that one novel Earth. I must have been picking up radio stations in my fillings. Weird levels of anomalists prediction, I tried to repeat that magic in my most recent novel, called Existence. [00:19:00] People can watch a three-minute video trailer for Existence with fantastic art by Patrick Farley. The most fun you’ll have in three minutes with your clothes on. The main point is we don’t actually try to predict the future. Preventing bad futures is more important than holding up the allure of good ones, because we’re charging into the future – we need to be poking our sticks into [00:19:30] the path that we’re about to run across so we can find the snake pits, the landmines, the quicksand.
Otherwise, progress will be the way Michael Crichton depicted it in all of his stories where he basically despised progress because he assumed it would always be done unwisely and in secret. All of his plots are based on secrecy, which is why I wrote the Transparent Society. When science proceeds in the open, it tends to make a lot fewer [00:20:00] mistakes. Your question had to do with a rare type of science fiction and that is optimistic. There’s a reason why there’s so little optimistic science fiction. One hand you can count the really relentlessly optimistic ones, Star Trek, Star Gate, Babylon Five, not many others that take an optimistic view of how we might in fits and starts and with a lot of errors [00:20:30] move toward a civilization that our grandchildren would be proud to live in, in which they would look back on us and say, “Thanks for having worked so hard in your crude only three digit IQ ways to build a civilization that was able to build a civilization that was able to build us.”
That’s what I’m hoping if this is a simulation right now, that they are watching and they’re saying, “These three people, those two bright young interviewers, [00:21:00] they later went on to do great things and help make us. This was one of the moments when their three-digit IQs were amused by some antediluvian troglodytic old fart.” That’s the best I can hope for.
Mike: Tomorrow you’ll hear I got hit by a bus.
Euvie: That simulation got shut down.
Mike: Yeah, that’s the wrong simulation.
David: I pity the robots.
Euvie: I’m wondering, back to our political bit, if we can [00:21:30] envision a political system that will work better than the one we have today, other than just pushing for more transparency? Is there any political system that could be better?
David: I am all in favour of theorizing, I do it in my novels, I do it to some degree in the Transparent Society. I think that it’s terribly important, do you remember I said earlier to step back and look at your own motivations and where they come from? I think it’s also terribly important to step back and look at history, you’ll notice [00:22:00] I’ve used the phrase 6,000 years quite a bit because if you step back and you look at history and this dismal pattern of pyramidal social structures where the rulers fetishistically repressed talent and utterly repressed the criticism that would have enabled them to rule better. Then you have to admit that, for all of its flaws, what we’ve got is pretty damn good.
Right now, [00:22:30] we are deeply worried about losing what we’ve got – the incredible levels of freedom we have, the safety of you sitting there knowing that you can express opinions and the worst that can happen is some political correct bully or some right-wing bully might spit on you tomorrow and you’d have them arrested. That’s about it. We’re scared of losing it, I’m scared of losing it, because the odds have always been against us, deep Darwinistic [00:23:00] drives push powerful people to take our diamond shape social structure and pound it back into a pyramid and that’s happening right now, it’s happening right now. My parents and the greatest generation fought World War II, the Depression, all that stuff. Their favourite living human being was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who reset the social contract so that it would become more like a diamond. It’s becoming more like a pyramid now but are we lesser beings than those, my parents [00:23:30] and the greatest generations, than your grandparents?
We can do it. No, the question is, do you have the morale to do it? You’re not going to have the morale to do it unless you have the gratitude to recognize that it has been done before. If you recognize that it has been done before, that the diamond was reset and recreated under Roosevelt, that every decade [00:24:00] since then we have expanded tolerance and diversity and the power of individual citizens to make alliances with each other independent of powerful entities, then you’re in no position to be able to talk about how to improve it. Sure, there are theories, I despair my libertarian and my left-wing friends with their incredible cloudy airy fairy proto-anarchist theories about everything will be better if we [00:24:30] just tear down this system.
Sorry, there’s a word for that and it’s ingrates. Ingratitude is one of the lowest of human traits. To benefit daily, hourly, minute by minute from this miracle that we’ve created, this enlightenment which has kept getting better and enabled us – the only time science fiction ever thrived. Can it be improved? Duh. Is it in [00:25:00] danger? Is what we’ve got let alone improved in danger? Duh. Is it going to be improved or saved by declaring everything that got us here to be corrupt? I’m sceptical. Maybe it’s because I do believe that ingratitude is one of the lowest of human traits.
Look behind me. I have a lovely home. It was paid for [00:25:30] thanks to sci fi fans. I’m going to keep telling them that we can move forward incrementally, aggressively, militantly. 2013 was the best year for civil liberties in America in a generation. It’s the media that refuses to even tell us such news.
Mike: What kind of conversations do you think are productive and counterproductive here, because we’ve already started with some interesting counterpoints to [00:26:00] thoughts about decentralization here. If you’re watching your Twitter feed or watching the news, what kind of conversations do you think are just not helping at all.
David: You have extrema. My blog is called Contrary Brin. It is my homage to my civilization that I’m willing to poke at everybody and I feel that I’m mostly safe. I poke in all directions. I despise the left right political axis, which nobody can [00:26:30] define. If your life depended on it you would not give the same definition if both of you had to write it down in an essay for five minutes. It’s lobotomizing. The problem is that you have to use left right, because it’s how people self-label. Obviously, to anybody in March 2016, the American right has gone insane and it is the larger of the threats to our freedom and civilization. [00:27:00] In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I don’t even consider it to be the right anymore, it has no overlaps with any valid conservative concerns. It’s the confederacy, it’s the reignited phase of the American civil war, it has all of the traits.
If you make that distinction, well, blue America is actually in pretty good shape. Most blue Americans think about the future, they’re concerned about trying to save the planet and their children. They’d like to negotiate [00:27:30] mixed solutions to problems that use some degree of the state but that emphasize competitive processes. It’s distressing to see so much oversimplification going on, that’s why even though I spend more of my time on Contrary Brin poking at [inaudible [0:27:50] of what I consider to be a confederacy. I nevertheless swivel and poke at my allies, because there are people [00:28:00] on the left who believe that they can prescribe dogmatic solutions to what they passionately believe are problems and, in a way that when you reduce it down, is highly oppressive and not persuasive. When you’re bullying people it’s not persuasive, instead you strengthen the other side. I don’t know if answered your question.
Mike: It’s interesting what you were saying about the gratitude issue with us but I would say [00:28:30] also with the millennial generation. I’m interested to know because, from this conversation, left versus right, I know a lot of millennials are not interested in participating in the conversation anymore of left versus right. They’re out of that. While I agree with you it’s an element of no gratitude, there’s also this feeling like there’s no point, there’s no way we’re going to contribute to this conversation because it’s under the wrong premise. It’s happening on someone else’s backyard and we don’t feel like we have a say in it. [00:29:00] What do you say to the millennial who maybe wants a different system of government, maybe wants a more decentralized government, because they feel they’re not represented in democracy, quote unquote democracy.
David: The last 40 minutes I’ve been attempting to shake up and reframe, you might guess who I would vote for from what I’ve said. I doubt you’d be able to find a clear category for me. If you did, I would then follow that with several sentences [00:29:30] of trying to shake up that opinion. I’m contrary and all of my prior lives ended before I was 16. I was throttled, my throat was cut. Most often, I was burned at the stake. The one thing that carries through in reincarnation is personality. I had this personality, therefore I died before I was 16. This is the first one that’s let me pass the age of 16 with children and comfort.
I am very, very loyal to this civilization. [00:30:00] When you [inaudible [0:30:01] that way, I think you can get loyalty, I think you can get a sense of vigour from millennials. The problem is that they are inundated with cynical messages. It is this cynicism that they are expressing when they’re backing away and it’s a reflex. As I said, the media are filled with suspicion of authority, tolerance, diversity, and eccentricity, but also no institution can be trusted and your neighbours [00:30:30] are sheep. You mix all those together and it just creates a stew that is perfect for being infected with relentless drops of cynicism. We need to take this scummy mat of cynicism off of the stew.
I get carried away with my metaphors because it’s deliberate. You honestly believe that Clear Channel and Fox have not been deliberately undermining the loyalty [00:31:00] of a third of Americans to the experiment and the republic that they’re members and the so-called liberal media is almost as culpable. I doubt it’s deliberate in their case, it’s just cynical. It’s partly because they get into a reinforcing thing where their market responds to this. Look at all the air time that Donald Trump gets. For heaven’s sake. Free air time, they estimate it’s worth something like one and a half billion dollars of free publicity.[00:31:30] We can decide to be members of a civilization that’s been very good to us. Yes, your individual vote doesn’t count that much, unless you decide, “Well, I liked Bernie. Hillary’s the nominee. I guess I’ll vote for her if my vote counts in this state. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to find a local state assembly race where the current occupant is a troglodyte bore and I’m going to help his opponent.” Your vote counts more there, [00:32:00] your activism counts more there and it matters. You could become an important person in the local state assembly race.
It’s all a matter of framing. Unfortunately, our news media frame things patronizingly. They wag their finger and say, “There’s nothing you can do. It’s all garbage, it’s all horrible.” This while you’re sitting amid the most glorious civilization the world has ever seen [00:32:30] with a full refrigerator, all the electricity you want and ability to use a flat Palantir to talk to anybody you want all over the planet and you use that time to moan, to whimper, and whine. Sorry, this old troglodyte boomer has very little sympathy for that. At least we were out in the streets.
Let me then riff off that and reverse it by saying that you guys are just [00:33:00] nicer than us. The generational common trait of boomers, baby boomers, is self-righteous sanctimony. We’re so good at it. I think it’s poisoning America because we’re all so old and crutchety and in pain. Not this 65-year-old but maybe next year, maybe in 20, 40 years. Indignation is our talent. [00:33:30] Here’s a clue: don’t be like us. You’re better than us. As a matter of fact, the biggest source of pride for the boomer generation is that we made you, we raised you and we’re better than us – ha, ha, ha.
Mike: That’s the perfect reaction. “We did it.”
David: Sorry, there’s one thing you can’t take away from us – we’re obviously very good parents.
Mike: So much pride. Thanks dad.
David: [00:34:00] Shaking his head. I got you cornered there.
Mike: Yeah, that’s true.
David: Got you cornered.
Mike: We are pretty good.
Euvie: You talk about human civilization having periodical renaissances where things are more or less than the same and then suddenly something shakes things up and things change drastically and there’s this uptake and then they level out again. [00:34:30] What do you think could be our next renaissance? Things are changing so fast right now, it seems like tomorrow is going to be drastically different.
David: We’re in it. We’re in a renaissance. Some people have given it a name called the singularity. The arguments are over whether it’s a soft singularity or a hard one, a big one or a moderate one. There’s no question that we’re in one and this is the sign of a renaissance. Sure, we’re in one, which makes it all the more depressing [00:35:00] that so many people are filled with gloom. Now, worry is a different matter. Worry is where you try to poke at the quicksand that might be right in front of your feet as we’re charging forward. To be able to continue the dance that we’ve had of noticing and leaping over the quicksand, dodging the landmines.
I was scheduled with all the males of my generation to die in a conventional World War III in the 1970s. [00:35:30] It didn’t happen because of Saint Bomb, because the bomb by spy satellites and some other technologies saved us from that war, so that we could build the world. That’s a very unconventional view, to make the bomb the hero. Then again, that’s what I am, I’m contrarian. I’m also grateful. Whatever it was that enabled us to grow up, barring some of my friends who were lost in Vietnam, [00:36:00] and a lot of nasty things have happened over the last 60 years but they are nastier on a smaller scale per capita.
Read Steven Pinker’s book the Better Angel’s of Our Nature and you’ll see it proved how much things have gotten better. Then read Gerard Diamond’s book Collapse to see how we’re teetering on the edge of another falling like the Aztecs did, like the Romans did. Then turn around [00:36:30] and get Peter Diamandas’ book Abundance, about how we might get so God-like rich that we could turn the planet into a garden. The only way of dealing with this is not to let yourself get trapped into one usually cynical perspective. Sure, you’ll have more friends because you’ll be able to isolate yourself in echo chambers of like-minded people. I predicted this in 1989 in Earth.[00:37:00] People in echo chambers eventually becoming so radicalized and so hateful of the people who don’t share their incantations that it becomes Nuremberg rallies. That’s what’s happened in America. I’m sorry, it’s very strange for me, a contrary germogen, to have to be in the position of being the cloud coocoo optimist. I am because I’m contrary and because everybody is wallowing in this ridiculous [00:37:30] exaggerated pessimism and cynicism, I am forced against my will to have to yammer optimism. Believe me, I know it’s more funny to shout cynical pessimism and I am denied that pleasure because you’re all wallowing in it. Somebody has to be the contrarian, so I’ve got to be the freaking optimist, it’s all your fault.
Euvie: [00:38:00] This is actually perfect because our last episode was so doom and gloom.
Mike: Yeah, it was. We were playing the optimists in this one, too, definitely.
David: I’m not saying we don’t have problems. For heaven’s sake, I’m out there on my blog and I’m out there public speaking and all of that talking about how insane it is, this war on science that many of our citizens are participating in and that is foisted on them by cynical oligarchic would be feudal lords, [00:38:30] not just American but also Australian and Saudi and all of that. They’re really trying to rebuild this pyramidal social structure and the odds have always been against our revolution. Am I saying that we don’t have big things to worry about – climate change and all of that, the war of science is not just a war on science it’s a war against every single knowledge profession on American life. Teaching, college professors, economists, journalists, medical doctors, you name it.[00:39:00] If it is based on skill and knowledge and the skilful use of data and argument then it is a target of this propaganda campaign. Are there reasons for pessimism? Sure, I wouldn’t give our odds at more than a third that we’re going to maintain this revolution, but a third is good compared to the odds our ancestors faced and they got us here and they were ignoramuses. [00:39:30] But they had guts and we have to find ours.
Mike: I think it often happens when I’m in conversations with boomers rarely as progressive as you are, there tends to be this, “You are being pessimistic, look how great it is, look how good you’ve got it.” But I want to clarify in my perspective – and I can’t speak for all – for myself, I’m looking at what’s here now and, while I’m appreciating it and also seeing what’s wrong with it, I just want to see the solutions for [00:40:00] going to the next step. I just want to be that progress instigator. How do you push forward reaching utopia in the future?
David: I don’t know about reaching utopia but I do know that some of the great innovations of the last 40, 50 years need to be augmented. We talked about privacy versus freedom – I’ve always despised that as a dichotomy. You notice I’ve taught a couple things – one is step back and look at the reaction you’re having, another is looking at [00:40:30] 6,000 years, look at the big picture. The one that I think is also terribly important – watch out for dichotomies. This insidious notion that there’s a trade off between security and freedom. Both sides avow that this dichotomy exists, for instance, you’ll hear liberals and libertarians quoting Ben Franklin saying, “Those who would surrender a little bit of freedom for a little bit of safety wind up getting neither.”[00:41:00] Yeah, Franklin was right, but the people using this aphorism aren’t paying attention to what it means. It means there’s no trade off. Across all of human history the proof of this is us – across all of human history no people have ever been so safe and no people have ever been so free. They go together. If you swallow insipidly persuasive dichotomies like that one then you wind up finding yourself in a trap where you are corned into [00:41:30] saying, “I must choose between safety and freedom, therefore I choose…” I’m sorry, no asshole is going to get me to choose between my children’s safety and their freedom. I refuse. I will not do it.
You look for the win-win. You look for the positive sum game. If there’s any concept that any of your viewers [00:42:00] have to go and look up and study, it’s the positive sum game versus the zero-sum game. Much of our self-righteous sanctimony today is about buying into zero sum or even negative sum games, that we must have these trade-offs and therefor I must sanctimoniously support this value against this one. It’s foul, it’s treason to us because we’re the ones who believe int the positive sum game, we’re the ones who believe [00:42:30] and have proved that you can have your cake, eat it, watch it grow larger, and aggressively share it with the poor all at the same time. More cake.
It’s the only way we can win. It’s the only way we can get out of these crises and have good stuff for our grandchildren – a planet worth preserving, that’s been preserved. While, at the same time, all the [00:43:00] toys delivered very efficiently with minimal resource use. Either you’re planning for a win-win situation or, no matter where you are on whatever stupid lobotomizing left right political axis you want to place yourself, you’re an enemy of Star Trek, you’re an enemy of the future if you buy into these zero-sum games. I don’t know if that rant answered your question.
Mike: It’s so necessary to have said that I think. I interpret it a few ways, too. [00:43:30] I watch what’s happening in the Twitter conversations and what’s happening online and it seems that people are focusing on what they don’t want solely and focusing on how the other party is wrong, how they’re right, and how there’s only the two options and, “I’m on the right side.”
David: Do they ever persuade anybody?
Mike: No, no, it’s just a constant argument, a flame war.
David: The word negotiation, we no longer negotiate. This was, in my opinion, the aim [00:44:00] of the right wing oligarchic push. The whole notion of the propaganda that comes across on Clear Channel and on Fox has been to destroy politics, to give politics a bad name, to hate politics, when that is how we negotiate. The result has been that of the last 22 years, 18 of those years have had republican congresses and they’ve been the laziest in the history of [00:44:30] the republic. Even in the 1830s, they issued more subpoenas, held more hearings, proposed more legislation, and passed more bills. Because the objective of the mad American right today is to destroy negotiation and destroy politics so that we cannot negotiate new solutions to problems.
Unfortunately, this attitude is infecting the left, as well. We’ve had method and politics does not have to mean [00:45:00] that everything has to be done by the state. Politics can mean, “These particular states and institutions are obsolete.” The interstate commerce commission, for example, was captured by the railroads. It was banished, it was deregulated and we got competition in the railroads. The Civil Aeronautics Board, CAB, did the same thing to airlines. Banished. GPS was a federal institution liberated and given to the world. ATNT was broken [00:45:30] up. The internet was given to the world in the most amazing jujitsu move any civilization ever did.
These were all done by politics. I know the guy who wrote the bill that Al Gore introduced that unleashed the internet upon the world. What science fiction author would ever have imagined such a bill would be passed by snooty, bribed, corrupt public legislatures? But it was. [00:46:00] By the way, all of those deregulations were done by democrats, totally belying the image that democrats are always the regulations and republicans the deregulators. I’ve define my republican friends to find one thing they ever deregulated except banking and Wall Street and insurance. Those, they deregulated. I don’t have to say anymore about that. I got overly political there, sorry [00:46:30] about that. If you libertarians out there want to be poked at, I can poke at you too.
Euvie: Please do.
David: I’ve spoken at a number of libertarian events, I’m the only science fiction author who’s ever keynoted a libertarian national convention. I always poke at them because they should have as their icon Adam Smith, they should be talking about how to get competition. Instead, they’ve been inveigled and suborned and persuaded and bribed by Rupert Murdoch into [00:47:00] making the core value of a modern American libertarianism personal property, defensive property above all else. When you’re defending that, you’re defending the creep toward a pyramidal social structure of feudal octarchy and that’s the enemy of libertarianism.
That’s the enemy that Adam Smith spoke of. Adam Smith knew that this competitive, lovely competitive [00:47:30] cornucopia we get from markets and democracy and science and law courts and sports, the harnessing of human competitiveness is destroyed when you empower cheaters – and humans will cheat. All of these markets can only survive when they’re regulated. Look at sports. Sport would not last one day – no sports league would last a day – without intense regulation. [00:48:00] I’m including in regulation murder. If you took away the regulations from a sports league for one day, the deaths, the cheating, and the value of the system to the team owners would vanish, because the public would be revolted and walk away.
For pragmatic reasons, sports are regulated and that’s the case in democracy, science, courts, sports, markets. We’ve achieved this miracle [00:48:30] through regulated competition and the left yammers at us that competition is a bad word and the right yammers at us that regulated is a bad word. Yes, regulation can be bad, regulation can go bad. So? Use politics to get rid of the bad ones. Excuse me, duh? Dogmas. You ask me to give a little rant, [00:49:00] I’ll give this to the libertarians; they love argument and they keep inviting me back. That? That is worthy of respect.
Mike: This may be a simple question but where do you feel that libertarians and their following of Ayn Rand go off the rails?
David: Ayn Rand is a screeching dogmatic harpy but she did a good job of creating solipsistic fantasies of lordship [00:49:30] for ineffectual betas who could not possible survive in the world that she describes. I have eviscerated Ayn Rand in a number of essays that people can look up online and she’s been a tragedy to libertarianism, because libertarianism should be about the thing that she demolishes in her books – which is legitimate, [00:50:00] fair, flat, open, creative competition. She claims to be in favour of competition but every single logical element of every single thing she says leads us back feudalism because her lordly winners, geniuses in her books, are busy doing exactly that – they’re creating a pyramidal structure in which their heirs will inherit without having delivered any of the goods and services [00:50:30] that she says justify the lordship of her characters.
As proof of this, she knew that this was the logical situation. That’s why you get the incredible screaming smoking gun about Ayn Rand. That is that none of her characters, none of her heroes, at any level, in any of her books, ever procreates. Not one of them has ever had a child. [00:51:00] Not one of them. There’s one page in Atlas Shrugged in which a lesser follower of John Galt has a couple of kids and talks about schooling. One page. The rest of the, while they’re screwing like mad, have absolutely no interest in progeny and reproduction – the central task of any generation. Why? Because if she shows a child procreated by any of [00:51:30] her alpha, [inaudible [0:51:31], lord, super uber heroes, then the reader will notice, “This child is going to be a lord and all they’ve done is recreate the pyramid.”
Mike: I never noticed that.
David: It’s stunning. It is simply stunning. Utterly appalling that generations of bright alpha, mostly male fantasisers who could not [00:52:00] make any of the inventions, the new type of steel or the new type of engine, none of the people who were doing those things are Randian. That’s several generations of these dreamy, “I would be a lord if only the government went away.” No. You would not be a top dog, you would be kibble. That these dreamy fellows who obsess on this woman [00:52:30] who’s incantations are extremely Marxist in their pattern if you work them out – her assumptions and incantations are totally Marxist with one twist.
None of them have noticed that none of her characters ever do the most core and essential human thing, yet she proclaims that hers is the philosophy that is life oriented. I didn’t mean to get on a rant about [00:53:00] Ayn Rand. There are people right now starting to look up Ted Kaczynski’s methods in order to get at me. Don’t do that. Okay, guys, I’m just poking at you. It’s what I do. I poke at liberals, too.
Euvie: I like your rants, I think it’s important to poke at everything.
David: They you are my children; go out forth and prosper and make a spectacular civilization while [00:53:30] irritating the hell out of any dogmatist. That’s now how we’re going to make Star Trek.
Mike: Do you want to venture for a little while into non-political areas Euvie? I know you do because I’ve seen your notes.
Euvie: Okay. Aliens.
David: Alright, you got me.
Euvie: Are we alone? If not, where are all the aliens at?
David: I explore a number of [00:54:00] possibilities. The notion of the alien has been central to my creative life all my life. I’m an astrophysicist, I’m engaged in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence – which is having a lot of debates these days over whether or not humanity should be beaming METI, messages, texts to extra-terrestrials. There’s a lot of fuss about that. I have some postings online about that. Look up David Brin and METI. The big context [00:54:30] of it all is what’s called the Fermi paradox, that is the notion, “Where is everybody?” Which Enrique Fermi asked around 1950. It looks as if the factors of the Drake equation – and I trust your audience to either know what that is or look it up quickly – they seem to suggest there ought to be a lot of intelligent life out there.
There was issues and questions over whether or not there were abundant planets. Well, 20 years ago we knew of no [00:55:00] planets outside our solar system, now we know of thousands and thousands. You live in such an era. You live in an era when, for pennies out of your pocket – excuse me, Brin rant – pennies out of pocket and taxes, you made a cheap space probe called Kepler and you discovered thousands of planets out there. Majestic, incredible, different, weir/d. You did this and you’re a cynic? [00:55:30] Last year, 2015, was the best year for human expansion and exploration into space in the history of our species, vastly exceeding the 1960s. Did the news media cover that fact?
Do you want to know the anthem of my generation? Go watch a great movie, one of the greatest ever made, called Network. There’s this scene in which Peter Finch is the crazy – he’s gone crazy – [00:56:00] network news announcer and he tells everybody to stand up and go to the window and shout the phrase, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” You guys have got to answer the boomers every time something cool happens, like landing an aeroshell that pops out and makes a parachute that lets out another parachute that then creates a hover crane that rockets and hovers and then lowers by crane [00:56:30] a van sized laboratory onto Mars that’s still there rolling around on our behalf.
We did that. I went to my window and I opened it and I said, “I’m proud as shit and I’m not going to take your damn cynicism anymore.” Sorry, no I’m not. The Fermi paradox, we’ve discovered that planets are common. Life seems to be easy to engender. Intelligence? We don’t know. [00:57:00] It may very well be, that’s on my list – I keep a list of 100 possible explanations for the Fermi question.
Euvie: What’s your favourite?
David: My favourite that would be best for everyone is water worlds. We may be exceptionally dry for a water world, that’s why we’re having problems with greenhouse effect because the earth skates the very inner edge of the goldilocks zone around our sun. If we’re drying than average, that may mean that there’s lots [00:57:30] and lots of intelligent life out there on water worlds but with very little land life that can make fire and have these. In which case, when our descendants go out forth into the galaxy, they would wind up being the starship makers, the postmen so to speak. Get it? Postmen. We get the best possible combination – lots of beautiful worlds to splash and play and alien life to meet, but none of them will be competitors [00:58:00] you see, because we’ll have the starships.
That’s probably the most optimistic of the 100. There aren’t very many that are optimistic. Most of them assume either that there’s a filter that’s keeping the number of intelligent life species low before where we are. Life may be rare, intelligence may be rare. They may all kill themselves off with nuclear bombs. Or, there’s a filter after, some [00:58:30] inevitable mistake they all make. Nick Bostrom thinks that if we ever discover any signs of life out there that it means we’re doomed, because it means life is easy, everything up to this point is easy, therefor there must be a filter that kills everyone and that will probably get us. I think, just like everyone else who talks about this field chooses one explanation, as [00:59:00] he did. I don’t see the point in that, we don’t know enough – so, I catalogue 100.
Mike: I like the optimistic ones – optimistic from my perspective, which is they went into some VR bathtub and never came out.
David: That is a strong one. The notion that there is an attractor mode, a vast expansive intelligence that you can only get when you’re inside simulations. Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University, has a new [00:59:30] book that’s going to be out very shortly called the Age of Em – or emulated beings – which deals with the economics that will drive such a universe if 99.99999 percent of humans are living in software and only a few rustic types are on the outside with farms or supervising the robots who are maintaining the gigantic hot computers. That’s [01:00:00] a very interesting book that I recommend to people as well as one that I just came out this week called Insistence of Vision, which also deals in Fermi paradox issues.
Mike: Is the audiobook coming out yet?
David: For that one? No. But Audible has got my first two short story collections.
Mike: Cool. I’m listening to Existence.
David: I helped the three different narrators they have for Existence to pass out their roles. We [01:00:30] worked fairly closely together and it’s a wonderful reading.
Mike: It is actually. I love the one woman who does the autistic character, it’s excellent. It’s so jarring, that performance.
David: One of the cool things that I enjoyed is when I sent a pre-reading copy of Existence to Temple Grandon, who’s well known to be probably the most famous high functioning profound autistic in the world, because she’s on NPR all the time. She’s the one transformed the American [01:01:00] meat industry so that slaughterhouses are much more humane now. She gave me a beautiful blurb for this book. My reaction, I admit, wasn’t, “Yes, I’m going to sell more copies,” rather, it was, “Yes, nobody’s going to give me any crap for my autistic characters.” There are several in the book and she seemed to think I did a good job. I was very pleased with that.
I was also pleased that the [01:01:30] Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan style character that I portray in the future who happens also to be a ganja smoking, Jamaican, science empresario, that apparently several Jamaicans have told me that I did it. I was very surprised by that, I was very surprised. People who want to follow up, Contrary Brin is my blog, my website is davidbrin.com. Buy my [01:02:00] books, because I have expensive children.
Mike: Perfect. Thanks so much David, great to meet you. Great to talk.
David: Into the future.
Today’s podcast guest David Brin is an American scientist, futurist, and award winning science fiction author, whose books have been New York Times bestsellers. He also consults and speaks for various future-focused entities like Google and the CIA; and is a fellow at the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies. David Brin started his career as a scientist (he has a PhD in space science), and science is still a big part of his life – although now he has a lot more freedom to speculate through science fiction.
Transparency and Freedom
Brin’s classic non-fiction book, the Transparent Society, is concerned with the issues of privacy and transparency. Most people want privacy for themselves, yet demand transparency from others – namely, their leaders. Transparency and privacy often end up on the opposite sides of political debates, where we are forced to choose a side. But do we really have to choose? The truth is, the average citizens of most Western countries have more transparency AND more freedom today than at any other time in human history. And in many developing countries, things are also improving quickly. Many of the recent years were the best ever for civil liberties. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make as entertaining news as terrorism or twerking, so few news agencies are talking about it.
Don’t Get Cynical – Be Grateful
People have a tendency to get used to the things they have, especially if everyone else has them too. We have a tendency to get cynical and complain about the things that are going wrong with the world. Not to say that there aren’t issues worth talking about, but we also have to consider how far we’ve come in such a short time. A sub-saharan tribeswoman today has better access to information via the Internet than world leaders did just a few decades ago. That’s huge.
It’s important to take a step back, take a deep breath, and be grateful for what we have. And then get back to work in creating an even better future for all of humanity.
In This Episode, We Talk to David Brin About:
- His new short story collection, Insistence of Vision
- Transparency and privacy: can we have both?
- The pyramidal vs. diamond-shaped social structure and cultural renaissances
- Why reciprocal accountability and criticism are necessary for self-improvement
- Is suspicion of authority ingrained in us by the media?
- The decentralized society: is it really better than what we have now?
- The role of science fiction in inspiring our future
- The importance of gratitude, and why cynicism isn’t helpful
- Why it’s important not to get attached to any particular idea or group
- The difference in attitudes between baby boomers and millennials
- Why we need to watch out for dichotomies
- Positive sum game, and why this concept in central to healthy societies
- Should we be sending out METI – messages to extraterrestrial life?
- The Fermi paradox, and David’s favourite solutions to it
Mentions and Resources:
- David Brin’s blog and website
- Davis Brin’s article on cop cams
- Future Thinkers featured in Brin’s list of future looking websites
- A prediction wiki of David Brin’s book Earth
- Network (movie) clip
Mentioned & Recommended Books:
By David Brin:
- Abundance by Peter Diamandis
- The better angels of our nature by Steven Pinker
- Collapse by Jared Diamond
- The age of Em by Robin Hanson
More From Future Thinkers:
- Blockchain: Building Blocks for a New Society with Vince Meens (FTP033)
- Global Phase Shift with Daniel Schmachtenberger (FTP036)
- Basic Income with Scott Santens (FTP031)
- Cyborg Buddha: Transhuman Enlightenment and UBI with James Hughes (FTP025)