This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 17th, 2012.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney.
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It’s rare that I can say about a guest that I read his books when I was a kid. But David Brin is that guest. He’s the celebrated science fiction author of the uplift novels, The Postman and many other books. Most recently, existence I read is Uplift Books. When I was tearing through science fiction as a teenager. But on top of that, Brin is also a trained scientist and a prominent public policy commentator. And in his commentary, as in his novels, he’s concerned with a lot of the same themes that motivate this show. How can we protect science from the forces that want to do it in? And can people really be rational? So we’re really excited to have him on the show. David Brinn, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
I it’s it’s great to be on the show, Chris. And and let’s explore the world.
Let’s it is it’s a it’s a real honor to have you on. I just want to say you probably get this a lot. And I don’t intend to sound like a gushing fan or anything, but my little brother David and I read your uplift novels when we were kids. So it’s it’s really cool to actually be speaking to you now.
Oh, that’s that’s great. Although, you know, life is so weird, I still feel like I’m in the 60s and 70s. So it can be weird to have someone say, I read you when you’re when I was a kid. Yeah. You know, that’s just the way life is.
Oh, yeah, I know. And I think if I read it as an adult, I mean, it’s not recent now, but if, you know, I think I would find a lot of things in there that I didn’t find then.
But nevertheless. So it goes.
Now you’re bringing Vonnegut into it.
Oh, yeah, I am. Without consciously doing it. That’s right.
He would say the phrase. So it goes.
But the apple of the universe is, of course, the you know, the the more distant future that’s, you know, two, 300 years from now after we’ve modified dolphins and chimpanzees and made them members of our civilization. And we could talk about that if if the conversation heads in that direction. But my more recent books have been more a little more close to home set on Earth and and closer to our time.
Well, you know, let’s let’s let’s start in right there. I don’t often do this on this show asking open ended questions, but, you know, your mind travels across so many things. I just wanted to start with, what are you thinking about now?
Oh, well, you know, it’s nice to have the election behind us, because that was a nervous time for both you and me and we were both. We’re both waging a similar fight. And that’s not so much for one political side or NA or any side of these stupid Left-Right political axis, which nobody can define. It is probably the most lobotomize thing. Metaphore in human history. And forcing all issues to lump together. And we should abandon it if for no other reason because it’s French. But the in addition to that, you know, it’s that behind us, you know, mostly what I I’m interested in is the next novel, although, you know, I do a lot of consulting about technology in the future. I fly back east to Washington once a year. And, you know, a number of science fiction authors are on this circuit of, you know, what do you guys think about the future? And yesterday, I consulted on similar things with blizzard entertainment. You know, the makers of World of Warcraft. So we’re living in an era in which people are very interested in the topic of change. And change is, of course, the main topic of the literature called science fiction, possibly misnamed because science is really the main character only in certain fraction of science fiction novels and stories. I would have preferred speculative history because it’s about speculating about how how the great adventure of human history keeps transforming and altering and and how we might extrapolate where it might go in the future and possibly thereby using what Einstein called the Gaudin can experiment. Our thought experiment, which uses these precious organs above our eyes, called the prefrontal lobes or what the Bible called the lamp’s on our brow to look ahead into the future. This is are the organs that no other animal on Earth has. And the prefrontal lobes. Let us think about what if I do this? What if I try to run this yellow light? What if I propose this at the meeting or where this day or or or say this to my spouse or or any number of things that we shouldn’t do that get edited out. Because we do these thought experiments and decide not to do them. Which is why, of course, I’d much rather have a free bottle in front of me than a prefrontal cathartically.
But that’s that’s the that’s the core task of the best science fiction is to poke helped people poke into the quick sand pits or the minefields that lie ahead of us before we actually step into them.
And the best examples are the self percent preventing protheses, the great self presenting prophecies like Turn Hyd 451 and Dr. Strangelove and Soylent Green. And the greatest of them all. 1984 by George Orwell. All of these were prophecies of science fiction that so frighten people.
But instead of just getting depressed, they girded themselves.
They gritted their teeth. They decided they would be involved in the fight to prevent those failure modes from ever happening. And arguably, we’re alive and we’re free. Because of those magnificent self preventing prophecies, and I don’t claim to have written any of those, my thought experiments like birth and existence are, you know, a little more complicated. They deal with a whole lot of different possibilities. And if I make a hit here or make a hit there, it doesn’t have the incredible resonance that that the late Ray Bradbury had enforces 451.
And yet, at the same time, I mean, yeah, I think of you as a very prominent political and social commentator, as well as a science fiction novelist.
And it seems like that’s not out of the norm. Right. That’s so common in in science fiction. Broadly speaking is to also be on the pulse of world events and future events, talking about them.
Yeah. Well, you know, to be to be interested in such things is very common for the high. What you know, if you’ll excuse the arrogance, the high end science fiction authors. You don’t you don’t have to be scientifically trained. Only 10 percent of us have a scientific background. Mine was in astrophysics. But some of the best are hard near future and politically interesting. Science fiction is produced by a couple of English majors, Greg Baer and Kim Stanley Robinson, also Ian Banks and Nancy Kresse, all English majors. But they are in love with a civilization that’s been so good to them. The greatest example being Ray Bradbury, who couldn’t have solved, you know, X equals to his life, to life depended upon it, but nevertheless rooted for science. He only he says he only once wrote one science fiction story ever. Fahrenheit 451. All the rest were fantasies. But he adored science fiction. He grew up on it. He considered to be the the great literature that explores where we might go wrong in order so that we won’t go wrong. And this is one of my complaints about this fad of dystopias out there where they are not written in order to say here’s a failure mode. I don’t I don’t need happy endings, happy endings, you know, good Lord, you don’t need happy endings. But to have your unhappy story actually teach us something.
Say this is a failure mode and it didn’t have to happen and come away from this and knowing that it won’t happen.
Because I’m the author or the director. That movie studio and all that helped you to gird yourself.
By the way, I want to remind our listeners that David Bryn’s most recent novel Existence is available through our website Point of inquiry outtalk. But while we’re on, you know, contemporary movies, contemporary.
Stories, you know, this interview is airing just after The Hobbit movie hit and I did an article, one of my first articles was called Kicking The Hobbit, which I’m very proud of.
It was very popular. But I understand that you are actually something of a token critic. I mean, there’s some black and white stories.
Yes. Well, people go to the David Brin dot com Web site.
They can look up my my essay about tokin and also about, well, some of the essays about Star Wars that led to my being the coauthor of a an anthology of essays about Star Wars called Star Wars on Trial, in which one of one of one of Lucas’s novelized is Matthew Woodring’s. Stover was the defense attorney and he called witnesses, experts, literary experts and all that to defend against some charges that I, as the prosecuting attorney, leveled. And a lot rightway, fun between between the essays, haven’t I ever Matthew Media, the postured and snapped our suspenders for a joint judge and all that great fun. I have to distinguish, however.
I know that human beings are essentially world mantic. It is the fundamental quandary of human nature that we are romantic and that we are extremely have an extreme talent for delusion. And I operate on this. I, I cater to illusion. I create stories that people enjoy. They come back again and again. But I was also raised as a scientist and I know which of the two dominated 99 percent of human cultures for 6000 years. And in those 99 percent of human cultures you had kicked, the seed has wizards, you had priests, all the furniture of fantasy, the pyramid shaped social structure with a few at the top lording it over those below. And in every single case, the Kings would do what you and I would do, and that is they would avoid criticism. They would repress criticism. The criticism is the only way we can penetrate our personal delusions. It’s the only known antidote to error. And we not only started making progress as a species, not just scientifically, technologically, but in demolishing old injustices like racism and sexism and all those things. We only started making progress. When we started creating enlightenment systems that ensured that no single person’s delusion can reign supreme. But instead, everybody, including the mighty, is subjected to reciprocal accountability, to transparency, to openness, to criticism. This is the fundamental point that is in both my novel Earth and in nonfiction book I published back in 97. It’s one of the only public policy books from the 20th century still in print, still selling more every year. And that’s called the Transparent Society. Will technology make us choose between freedom and privacy? But my fundamental point is this. All the other 99 percent of human cultures, they were feudal, they had wizards, they had kings and wizards, which had knowledge, but they kept it secret. That’s why we lost the Baghdad battery. We lost the antique capture device. We lost the steam engines of hero of Alexandria because the people who invented things kept them secret. And when we got the Enlightenment, we shifted direction and we got science and we got technology and we got democracy. And then the questioning of old evils, like racism and all that. And my point is this.
The Romantics don’t like modernity. And Tolkan was the most legitimate representative of the romantics. If you and I had been like Tolkan and we had gone to World War One and watched the flower of our generation mowed down at the Battle of the Somme, then either you or I would have. Possibly turned against modernity. I don’t blame token. I think he’s the most honest of the romantics in the middle of Lord of the Rings. And his also his essays about it. He was pause and point out that everything that goes on in that story is the fault of the elves. Mm hmm. He’s extremely honest and I respect him immensely as the best representative of a movement that artistic and theoretical movement that I despise. Whereas Star Wars, George Lucas has none of those excuses. He did not. He was not at the Battle of the Somme. This enlightenment, technological civilization has been extremely good. Yet. The moral lesson in throughout his epic is magical. It’s romantic. Its emphasis on demigods and everything he says about the Republican democracy in science is to spurn them, to call logic and openness failings. And and I just don’t care for that.
I think Yoda is one of the most evil figures I’ve ever seen in the history of literature.
Oh, say that. Do not.
Well, I challenge people to name one thing that he ever does or says that’s actually wise.
Is it Mace Windu, the archetype of a really solid, good Jedi? He’s constantly saying we should tell the Republic about this danger and Yoda is constantly vetoing him secret. We must keep it Yoda. Lucas never once, ever shows a single institution or act of the republic actually functioning and that that level of consistency. Cannot be accident.
Yeah. Well, I’m not going. I’m not going. I actually defend Star Wars as being something very profound. But I mean, I. I feel you. It’s amazing that so much literature is so romantic in the way that you describe it. But but maybe it’s not amazing. I mean, I think I think that’s what’s so important about science fiction. I mean, it’s almost like science fiction has its own ideology a bit.
That’s trying to reject that.
Yes, absolutely. And the thing is that without all science fiction, because the biggest reason why romanticism is pursued in the plots of stories and I do it. I mean, there’s a lot of romance that lies in my fiction. The biggest reason is because you need you want a story with characters that will tug at your heart. You want a story with adventure. You want your characters to be imposed pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of film or four or five hundred pages of a novel. Or as I as I said to the guys at Blizzard the other day for, you know, endless, endless hours of your video game in order to keep your heroes in pulse pounding Jack with Jeopardy! You have to avoid the worst buzz kill of action and adventure. And what’s the buzz kill? The buzz kill is if you get into danger in this real life world of ours and just civilization in which you’re a citizen, you will dial nine one one. And guess what? Skilled professionals will leap to your aid. Now, that’s exactly what you want to have happen. That’s exactly what you demand to have happen in real life. And it is a total buzz kill for drama. And that is why in most films, the hero, if they even think to call nine one on A, nobody comes. B, they come late. See if they come on time, they’re incompetent. D, if they if they come and they on time and they’re competent, then obviously they’re in cahoots with the bad guy.
And that is that’s that’s just the way it. I mean, the listener knows that. That’s the way it is. That’s the way. That’s the way it always is. Except for the rare exception when the writer and the director of the film actually decide that they’re going to work for a living and see if they can come up with a way. To keep their hero in jeopardy despite being a member of a decent civilization. I love those movies, you know. Nine one one comes. The cops are competent. And despite that handicap. They still managed to keep the heroes in jeopardy. I mean, a great example of the easy way to do that is with the fugitive. Tommy Lee Jones is a U.S. marshal, is hyper competent. And that’s part of the danger that the hero faces, is being captured by a hyper competent number of of civilization, representatives of civilization because a mistake was made. So all of that all of that comes into this whole business of is it necessary to create scenarios that undermine the confidence of. Civilized people in a wonderful civilization, or can you give them the adventure that they want and they they need while at the same time saying fuck up, have some confidence, you’re doing some great stuff here?
I think that’s I think this is a great way to put it. I want to just remind our listeners again, David Bryn’s most recent novel Existence, available through our Web site. You’ve got me wanted to ask all these questions about literature. I’m an English major and three cheers for them.
But I actually want to ask something about, you know, some of your political commentary, too. And there’s so many places to go with this. But I think I’ll just I’ll talk about the Internet and rationality, because I think you really have a lot to say on this. You write, you talk about and you’ve written about, you know, the Web when it channels all these voices in all these exchanges. It doesn’t actually lock in better thinking somehow. Right? It actually the bad ideas. Don’t go away. I think is how you’ve put it. Why does that happen? And what. Is there anything that can be done about it?
Well, yeah. I mean, a lot of things can be done if we’re going to really talk our billionaire pals into funding a few little million dollar endeavors. No. One, and we both know a lot of those guys. The the one thing Sergei Brin gave me was a card that’s good for one hundred free Google searches.
But whatever will invent stuff. He does that stuff.
So in any event, the point is that, look. You can link on your website to one of my more scholarly articles called Disputation Arenas. It was the lead article in the Journal of Dispute Resolution.
No, I read it. Yeah. And that’s where this question comes from.
Yeah. And and that and elsewhere in some lighter articles, I talk about this as well. And that’s the fact that you have for over accountability arenas for older arenas that were invented by the Enlightenment that brought about a cornucopia of what are called positive son games. Now, if there’s any concept that your listeners absolutely need, it’s that of the positive sum game. Oh, Robert Wright wrote a book called Not Zero that you can refer to from your website. The positive sum game is where we compete with each other, but our competition is now harnessed. Competition is the great creative force of the of the universe. And it made us through true evolution. But it beat us in ways that we do not want to replicate in society because it was mostly deaf.
Our ancestors of the few who managed to reproduce survive. And and that’s not so nice. And so we invented arenas where competition can bring about this positive sum game where new things are invented and new discoveries are made and things get improved. But the result of the competition is not blood on the floor, not corpses all over the place. And these for accountability arenas are markets, democracy, science and justice courts. And all four of them are incredibly competitive, especially science, which is why which is why what Fox News says about scientists, that there are neat little grap grubbing little cowards. Her followers have never met a scientist. They are the most competitive and ferocious people you’ve ever met. But. The point is that these four accountability arenas harness competition to create these positive some games. And we’ve been refining them for 400 years. And what they do is there’s a two phase process. First, you have a place where you can safely refine your product, your company, your political party, your scientific lab and tenure, attorney client privilege. But then there is a call to battle ritualized battle. Very tightly controlled, regulated battle in what are called markets, democracy, elections, the marketplace, the courtroom, the scientific conference and these highly ritualized combats result in a growing consensus of models of what’s good, what’s accurate. And the main thing is that there is death. Bad products die bad scientific series, die bad policy. Well, we were fighting that.
I don’t know anybody.
But that is what democracy does work. And we’re not poacher war. Then bad policies die. The Congressional Research Service just showed that across 65 years there is not a single case of supply side economics ever actually having come true or worked. It should then die. The point I’m getting at is this the transcendentalists of the Internet, like Clay Shirky and others, they say that when we all get more connected, this is automatically going to result in more creativity and more truth. And Clay has recently admitted that he was wrong about that. That it doesn’t automatically follow because what we have on the Internet is phase one. Everyone can safely. Create zones where he and his friends can act however they want, say whatever they want, concoct whatever image of truth they want to believe. But there’s no combat. No real combat. That’s ritualized, just like markets, science and democracy in such a way that bad ideas die. And the Internet generates ideas with such fecundity that the manure pile is growing and growing and growing every day. And you can utterly received this thing on a blog. Or in the comments section underneath the block and five people have read it and gone, huh? You really demolished that. And does a bad thing die?
No, not ever. I mean, you know, there’s even I know if you’ve seen these these sort of network linkage studies that basically visualize how people are linking. And what you see is digital tribalism. I mean, you can actually sort of see it if they color it. And here’s where conservatives are linking, for instance. Then you can see that they’re not linking to, you know, things that might actually challenge and upset some of their world views.
Actually, I can claim I claim credit for this.
I have to answer some of my fans, keep a wicky tracking my successful predictions from just one book, Earth. And one of the things I predicted back in 1989 was that on the Internet, people would form these little Nurnberg rallies, these these little places where everything is just completely everything is as they would agree with, and therefore they do not have to ever see things that they don’t agree with and suffer that discomfort. Of course, it’s not just the Internet. There is a place called Fox News that does that. But in an honesty, MSNBC tries to copy that very successful commercial model. And that’s where you if you can hypnotize 25 percent of the population to be your utter, you know, mindless follower, ditto heads, then you’re going to get make a lot of money. And MSNBC has tried to follow this model, but the most liberals simply aren’t leftists and they watch them at MSNBC for a little while. They get abused and then they move on to someplace else. Whereas there is the Fox followers are a different matter. They they they really, really want the incantations. And that’s a pity.
But what this all gets to is, I mean, we’re, you know, including the theories of the Enlightenment, which you have extolled extensively. And I agree with you. But we we like to deny how tribal we are. We don’t really like to look at ourselves in the mirror. And that’s why there were all these optimists of the Internet is because they sort of didn’t really look at what we actually know about human beings. I mean, you know, if you if you look at Al Gore was another one who is sort of a rogue Internet will save us book.
Yes. Well, you know, I give Al Gore a lot of credit because, you know, he got ridiculed for saying that he invented the Internet. And he never said that. But I know the guys who served on his Senate committee before he was vice president drafting the bill.
Well, he contributed greatly. He was there.
He was probably the greatest piece of legislation in human history that did what you would never have expected powerful men to do. And that’s to take an incredible instrument of power, the Internet, and surrender all control of it and simply hand it to the world. That’s what that bill did. And actually, Newt Gingrich was involved in that. Not as much as Gore, but there was a window of time there when people did something miraculous that people just don’t even think about. They don’t think about it. What what happened then?
But I’ve been thinking about it lately in the context of that U.N. meeting of the Postal and Communications Commission, that in which Russia and China and several Third World countries tried to get the Internet put under U.N. control. It was very worrisome that for a little while, apparently, the dangerous past for this year. But they’re gonna be back.
Well, you know, we’ve got we’ve got a lot of places here. And I didn’t even get to ask you many of the things that I wanted to ask you.
But, you know, as someone who thinks so much about the future and, you know, has predicted things. Well, I just want to ask you kind of a closing question. What when you look outward and you’ve given talks about this extensively and think about other things that could happen to us, the big things that could happen to us. What are the big things? Are the big thing that you’re reasonably sure will happen to us?
Oh, I’m not really sure of anything. I believe that the biggest choice we’re going to have to take is whether or not we’re going to keep the diamond shaped social structure of our scientific enlightenment civilization going or do what is very natural, and that is allow it to fall apart. The way the Athenians allowed the Parrot Clinton experiment to fall apart because all the odds are against it and I’m involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as you as you know, I’ve written a lot of the major papers about that field.
I still have my hand in astronomy. And people who go to David Brin dot com can see about some of the controversies that have caused me in some of the others to resign from the city committees in protest about some things that are happening.
But the fundamental thing is called the family paradox. And that is the question. If life seems so easy to develop in the cosmos and planets, 15 years ago, we knew if none outside our solar system. Now we know of over a thousand to live in such times. Wow. And that our fellow citizens don’t appreciate living in such times. The question is, why does the universe appear to be empty of others saved his life. And this I’ve just I’ve just stir the hornet’s nest just now by saying that. And I’m sure many people are just howling right now. They have their own particular answers. I’ve cataloged hundreds of these. And the fact of the matter is that one of the things failure modes that human beings could fall into is that the civilization, the mode of government that dominates human society for our future may be a return to the pyramidal social structure, elite oligarchic world’s top down, because that’s the standard one. That’s the standard human civilization. The Chinese are right now trying to build the very best version of the top down controlled pyramidal social structure based on Confucian models. That’s possible. And if we wind up being in such a situation, if that governance of the world. I hope it’s a Chinese model because there’s a lot of noblesse oblige there. But I am loyal to the civilization that made these positive some gains that empower transparency and reciprocal accountability and and competition with compassion. That empowered science section. That’s that’s crazy. And then the word crazy is not a an insult.
Heck, I live in California. I live in the southwest corner of California, where everything, everything loose in the continent is rolled up down there.
I think the point is this. If it’s so natural for us to fall into that feudal pattern that 99 percent of human cultures follow. And it resonates in our hearts, in our romanticism. That’s why we love Token Lord of the Rings and all that kings and wizards and all those things. We love that because we’re all descended from the Herron’s of the guys who managed to become the Kings. And I find it so ironic that the great great grandchildren of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and and Adam Smith and George Washington and and all the Abraham Lincoln, the great great grandchildren of these heroes, and Mary Shelley, who invented science fiction. The great great grandchildren of those heroes of the Enlightenment who saved us from that beastly way of life. Should all go running off saying, oh, I wish we lived under kings. And I believe in answer to the Ferebee paradox.
I believe that one of the answers is that it’s possible that most civilizations out there have the same Darwinian dynamic and that most of them become top down oligarchies who are hyper conservative and repress scientific advancement and never go out to the stars. And I think this is the level of the choice that we’re making it. I talk about this less pedantically amid a very rollicking adventure story that people think is is exciting and not a lot of things blowing up. But I talk about this in existence where it may not be just the fate of humanity that’s at stake in the decisions we’re going to be making over the next 50 years. We may have a chance to be the exception.
And if we keep enlightenment going, the Enlightenment civilization going and get militant and get involved in doing it, all of us, then there’s a chance that we may be the exception who build starships and we might be the ones who go out and rescue everybody else. And what a task. What an incredible task for our grandchildren to have. We have a grittier task, and that is to prepare a civilization that can create such grandchildren. Create grandchildren who were capable of creating a civilization like Star Trek. That’s a task. And I think that you take it very seriously, very clearly. Chris and I take it I take it very seriously, too.
Well, I mean, I think I think that’s very moving. And I guess I would say don’t count us out.
Well, you’re there in the fight and the kinds of the kinds of people who would listen to your show and who especially have hung in here all the way past by acres of blather to get to this point. These are the kind of people who are like you and me are the kinds of people who are going to be involved, do whatever they think. They and I have some suggestions at my blog and that David Brin dot com, if you scroll down about five entries on my blog, you’ll you’ll find something about how you can help save the world in any event. These are the kinds of people these are the kinds of people who are going to be looked back upon by future generations as the ones who made the world. And, you know, there’s gonna be a reward in that in future generations. See you, the listener, as having been involved through the organizations you joined, through the things you posted, through the just the activities you do. They’ll simulate you. In wonderful, realistic simulations, and you’ll read experience in simulated form. Things like that wonderful day when you’ve spent listening to a podcast from Chris Mooney.
Well, that’s a legacy.
And so and so, you know, I want you all use simulations out there to turn to the left wall and wave at your distant descendants.
Okay. I think that’s about enough of a mindblower for today.
Yes, actually, that is enough of a mind load today. But I think it might prove actually amazingly inspirational.
So I want to thank you for that. And generally, I want to thank you for being with us on point of inquiry.
It’s my pleasure. And onward, all of us be militantly moderate. Save the Enlightenment.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry during the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry dot org and leave your comments. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. Just a reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, please remember these shows are made possible by donations from listeners just like you. Whether you can afford ten dollars or 100, please go to our website point of inquiry dot org and make a contribution today. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations.
One of is bruised by Atomizing and AMR’s New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney.