David Brin: Predicting the future (frequently asked questions)
By David Brin
(Continuing this compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…)
Q: Your writing touches on the impact of technology upon humanity, and its power to change our daily lives. Can you expand upon that?
Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? Once upon a time, these were exactly the powers of gods! So why don’t you feel like one?
Because we gave these powers to everyone, that’s why. Ironically, the moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared in the experience via TV.
The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace, risking arrest, in order to view them. Or if we had to crack open a wizard’s secret grimoire.
Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal window on Gandalf’s desk through which he can explore ideas, gather information, view far-away events and communicate instantly across great distances…there are only three differences between the palantir and your laptop:
- The wizards and elves kept such wonderful things for themselves
- The result was calamity, horrible war and near-loss of everything
- It sure helped make a romantic story, captivating millions.
If only you and a dozen other folks were on the internet, able to see far and access all knowledge, we’d all be in awe of you, too! But then.. it wuldn’t work so gud…..
As for the future? Get ready to be even more godlike! If we’re lucky, future advances will also be shared with everybody and so you won’t notice!
Too bad. But hopefully, we’ll be wise.
Q: What is your record as a prognosticator?
Our pre-frontal lobes can probe the future only when they aren’t leashed by dogma. The worst enemy of agile anticipation is our human propensity for comfy self-delusion.
Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for “honey-pot ideas” drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever is fashionable, try to poke at it! Maybe 1 % of the time you’ll find a trend or possibility that’s been missed.
Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels—even sober business forecasts—seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools.
This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as only a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time. Never gifted with the ability to engage in actual discourse.
All right, maybe that does describe most of our fellow citizens! (Especially the extremes of both right and left.) Still, people will surprise you. And over the long run, their collective wisdom rises. And in small groups they can be positively brilliant.
A contrarian trick that has served me well is to ponder a coming technology and then imagine, What if everybody gets to use it? In really smart ways? Many of those imaginings have come true.
Q: Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future – and why?
What I am is a contrarian. And hence, when I see cynics and despair junkies all around me — around all of us – screeching simpleminded whines and playground sneers, I am naturally drawn to poking at their lazy models of the world.
Even if the pessimists and cynics were right… and they aren’t… they are totally not being helpful. Their attitude is the quintessence of laziness and voluptuously smug self-indulgence. A rationalization for indolence.
Dig it. All hope in the world has been achieved by problem-solvers. We need more of them. All the can-do pragmatic problem-solvers we can get.
Q: Which future are we headed for: dystopic, or utopian?
Again, people tend to call me a propagandist for optimism, because I occasionally portray society as not totally stupid… or our fellow citizens as something slightly more evolved than sheep.
In fact, I am an optimist only by comparison to the reflexive contempt-for-the-masses that you see in most knee-jerk fiction these days.
Actually, I’m kind of a gloomy guy. History shows how often and how easily bright beginnings failed, giving way to darkness once again. We have a genius for snatching failure from the jaws of success. It will not surprise me if our present renaissance collapses. If we betray our values for short-term expediency. It has happened countless times before.
But Science Fiction fights that trend, even in (the best) dystopias!
Our dark warnings poke the ground, finding pitfalls and quicksand just ahead. The topmost warnings – those that seem vivid and convincing – turn into self-preventing prophecies that deeply affect great numbers of people, ensuring that a particular mistake won’t happen. Consider stories such as Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, The China Syndrome, Silent Spring, Soylent Green, and so on. These drew attention from millions of people toward possible doomsday scenarios. Millions who became active, fighting for a better future. Were those efforts futile? Or are we here today because of them?
The greatest self-preventing prophecy was surely George Orwell’s chilling Nineteen-Eighty Four.
Who does not feel girded, inoculated by the metaphors of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth? Determined to fight to prevent them ever from coming true?
If we manage to preserve freedom and hold all the big-time liars accountable, it will be in no small part thanks to science fiction.
I just wish more authors would notice what they are a part of…a vast process of error-discover and error-detection that constitutes part of our society’s immune system against terrible mistakes.
So by all means write warning-dystopias! But try to be original and helpful. You did not invent black leather. Or mirrorshades. And the people may not all be fools. Who knows? They might actually listen to you… heed your warnings… and thus make you a false prophet.
Read the story of Jonah. And then snap out of it! Your job is to be credible. To help us notice and avert. It is not your task to prove right.
Scare folks with plausible failure modes. Make them worry… and help make it not happen.
Q: Is there hope for the future?
I foresee a 60% chance that we’ll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic over-exploiters. One when we have found solutions to the critical choices before us and passed most of the harsh tests, raising new generations who are both mighty and wise.
I don’t view those odds as “optimistic” at all! Not when the alternatives are horrible. Such probabilities are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world.
I think we’ll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilization that may emerge after a century of hard times could be missing some fine treasures… manatees, blue whales, krill, the Amazon Rain Forest, privacy… and every human being who wasn’t immune to Virus X.
I had a thought, lately. Heaven and Hell may not be such bizarre thoughts, after all! Consider our godlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to ‘call up’ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including photos, video, skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books, etc. What will they do with that power? (See my short story, Stones of Significance.)
Those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back.
At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of Purgatory has some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader. (See more articles on: Creating the Future.)
Q: What is humanity’s greatest flaw?
Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors… though it hurts. In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns said:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion…”
(“Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many blunders free us, and foolish notions…”)
CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error.
Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end… so that most of us never even thank our enemies for pointing out our mistakes for us. Think about that. If criticism is the only way we catch our delusional errors, why do we resent those out there who willingly, eagerly, give us what we need, in order to do better and to be better?
It is a gift economy! After your foe as heaped upon you a laundry list of things to fix, you should thank him or her… and then return the favor! Purely (of course) out of the kindness of your heart.
(A side note: look at the end of every book I publish. There are 50+ names. Pre-readers and critics who helped find errors or slow-patches or inconsistencies. I don’t mind praise, as well. But it is a lower priority than quality control. Looking at criticism that way is a great tool for success.)
Q: Would you rather be living 100 years from now, when we’ll presumably have access to so many more answers?
Is it better to sow than to reap?
Jonas Salk said our top job is to be “good ancestors.” If we in this era meet the challenges of our time, then our heirs may have powers that would seem godlike to us — the way we take for granted miracles like flying through the sky or witnessing events far across the globe.
If those descendants do turn out to be better, wiser people than us, will they marvel that primitive beings managed so well, the same way we’re awed by the best of our ancestors? I hope so. It’s poignant consolation for not getting to be a demigod.
Q: What concerns do you have about the future?
I am concerned about one thing, above all, understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment.
One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I’ve come to see that openness – especially being receptive to free-flowing criticism — has been key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse than it would have been.
It is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty.
And that is what we’ll talk about next time.
(Originally appeared at Contrary Brin.)