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Gaia, Freedom, and Human Nature

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Some ironies on the way to creating the Network of the Future: This dichotomy between the needs of leaders and the good of the commonwealth puts in new perspective what Washington, and Franklin, and Jefferson were after by setting down deep principles of freedom of speech.

Gaia, Freedom, and Human Nature

It is an honor to be invited to speak before such a distinguished gathering of champions for literacy. I have been asked, before beginning my own remarks, to comment on some of the statements made by my fellow speakers.

First off, I agree with comments about Benjamin Franklin, one of my principal heroes. My wife and I named our newborn son after him. Ben Franklin's life story is a lesson in humility for those of us with ambitions to grasp the culture around us. That culture is now much too vast and complicated for one person to encompass, or even adequately sample. Even in Franklin's day, it was already too complex for anyone but a great genius to span. He was the last person, I believe, who read all the great books of his time, had deep conversations with all of the great minds, and dated all the interesting women. It's too late now, even for a genius. Our culture is simply too enormous.

Bruce also brought to mind something Garrett Hardin wrote about in his book, The Tragedy of the Commons... that there used to be land and other assets which people in communities shared jointly, caring for and utilizing these resources outside of the normal push and shove of a zero-sum, laissez-faire economy. It did not matter that these commons were unprotected, or exempt from the marketplace, back when populations were low and when rigid social sanctions kept people from seeking self-gratification, whatever the cost. But Hardin points out that human nature, plus selfish economic forces, eventually caused people to exploit and then destroy what was shared, so that in time, only that which was protected by being owned, either privately or by governments, had any endurance.

Hardin's point is tragic and poignant. But then, what are we to make of today's Internet? It appears to be the restoration of something very much like the pre-15th century commons!

Who owns the Internet? Who controls it? The answer is... nobody is in charge.

Take those people one occasionally runs across, on the Net, who dislike something they have read, and want it excised. In outrage, they holler — "Why doesn't somebody censor this?"

Who are they talking to? From what hierarchy are they demanding authoritarian redress?

What we see are big institutions, small institutions, and individuals, all paying their connection charges, phone bills or whatever, maintaining the computers and the nodes... and nobody controls the whole. Yet a whole exists, a whole which is vastly more competent than the sum of its parts. A lot of companies and educational institutions willingly take a bearable financial loss in order to support this new commons which is expanding inventively everywhere, allowing chat-lines, special interest groups, even anarchists and net-parasites, to join the flow. Why? Because the fruit of this commons — enhanced creativity — is worth whatever it costs.

The glass may be half-empty, given Bruce Sterling's vivid warnings. But is it not half-full, as well? A vibrant underground exists, involving millions of irascibly independent-minded people, and with the complicity of many — though certainly not all — persons at the highest echelons of business, education, and government. The warnings we have just heard are valid, indeed. There are dire threats to this commons. But it should be noted that the commons exists, a unique and faith-restoring reversal of long-proclaimed historical trends. The commons is not yet dead. We should put high and urgent priority to its nurturance and protection.

My other preliminary comment has to do with Hans Moravec's idea that we — the people in this room, here and now — may actually be simulations. That we might be mental images, as it were, being played out by some far greater mind, or set of minds, in our future.

What an image: We exist, we are, because somebody downstream is remembering us.

The idea of being in "reruns"... just like Chevy Chase telling the same jokes about Gerald Ford countless times on late night TV... might be humorous, frightening, or bemusing, depending on your philosophical bent. But what I find exceptional about the notion is — why us?

Why would great minds of a future time "replay" their Twentieth Century ancestors? Might we be "classics," like the best Marx Brothers movies, or films by Capra, or Sturgess? Perhaps. If we are being remembered right now, perhaps it is because this is/was a crux point in the history of intelligent life on Earth.

The future God-like minds that Hans Moravec spoke of would understand something far better than we do, who are close to the problem. They would understand how difficult it is/was to for a mob of smart animals like ourselves, filled with all sorts of inconvenient, rapacious, insatiable internal drives, to somehow get themselves under control and turn themselves into worthy, grownup custodians of this world. Into beings worthy of descendants who will reach fantastic vistas that we could never imagine.

If we succeed in such an unprecedented endeavor, then we will have been the generation that created a great civilization, filled with possibilities. Why are we being replayed, then? Because quality work is worth replaying!

It may be that meetings such as this one — of librarians in San Francisco, in 1992 — are re-run now... I mean in the far future... because those transcendent descendants are rivetted by primal, pivotal moments in time.

"How did mere bright animals do that?" They wonder, calling up the classic scene once more. "How did they manage to bring about us?"

Enough. It was my job, as clean-up hitter, to start with commentary on the other fascinating speakers. Now that is done. On to my prepared remarks.

life and information on earth: Gaia, the ultimate computer

Yesterday morning in Southern California, I got up early to prepare for this trip... just in time to experience our biggest earthquake in 50 years. Then I flew to San Francisco! This was smart?

Well, in fact, it showed a remarkable self-confidence in my ability to behave like a god.

To fly through the air, in other words, and land safely. To say "go" to a taxi driver and be transported swiftly to an Elysian tower. To flash a piece of plastic and be given a room, and turn a switch and have light burst forth, and moderately clean water at the touch of a tap.

When I give talks to high school students, I ask them to consider how, in the context of other times, they are, in effect, gods. To almost any prior culture, the powers at the command of the average teenager would have been associated with omnipotent beings. The students never think of it that way, because this society has done something unprecedented. It has given god-like power to virtually everybody! It's the most astonishing thing — that we have taken bona fide miracles and made them mundane, even boring.

Yesterday's earthquakes reminded me how frail this situation really is. They reminded me that we live perched on a huge primal, dynamic planet far from equilibrium, relying on its good behavior for our continued existence. If the ocean rose or fell or sloshed, as some people's swimming pools did yesterday, by just two percent, what would happen to us here by the bay? Or if the sun's output climbed by two percent? You all know what it means when your own body's temperature rises or falls by such a tiny fraction. Each of these are systems which self-regulate far better than our intelligent minds, than our politics, certainly than our economy or the stock market.

Self-regulating adaptive systems are all the rage these days. They use feedback loops to maintain a certain amount of stability far from equilibrium — almost a contradiction in terms, until you realize the vast array of systems that do it. Nobel prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann has generalized such self-regulating, adaptive structures to include anything which records and compresses information about itself and its environment, information which can then be used later to perpetuate or reproduce the system.

A prime example would be librarians... at least those of you who have replicated.

Gell-Mann and others demonstrate that most equilibrium states are very simple. They have a tendency to be very stable, unlike anything living. (Death is an equilibrium state.) That which is interesting has a tendency to exist and behave very far from equilibrium, like a living organism, or the earth's atmosphere, or some of the sophisticated information systems being discussed here today. Such systems tend to be complex, hard to maintain, but also fantastically adaptable.

Many of you have heard of the Gaia hypothesis, which I expand upon shamelessly in my novel, Earth. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, among others, have promoted the idea that our planet is more than just a complex adaptive system in stable disequilibrium. In effect, it is a living organism, with myriad cells — organs, if you will — made up of its many species and ecosystems. Some have taken the Gaia idea even farther, to the point of stating that humans should be deemed the brain of the living planet, because we provide intelligence to that which did not know itself before. (In which case, what brain gives its own body cancer? Or lops off its body's limbs — one way of metaphorically describing the annihilation of our natural environment?)

It is a huge concept, which has caught the imaginations of millions. But then, envisioning grand, unifying wholeness out of disparate parts has always been one of the great egotistical exercises of the western world — at least as important as the much demonized and maligned western tendency toward reductionism. The two trends, synthesis and analysis, have together turned idle daydreaming into the powerful technique: metaphorization.

One of the chief glories and flaws of human nature is our conceited urge to impose simple-minded order on complex systems. Freud did it. Darwin and Marx did it. Each created grand unifying schemes, only one of which survives today as a viable model, because its author willingly subjected his theory of evolution to criticism and experimental verification. The others, thinking themselves saviors of humanity, demanded that their models be taken whole, proving that Freud and Marx were never scientists at all.

It is fun and addictive to construct grand metaphors. Leaders, philosophers, idealists are perpetually building and preaching models of political systems, philosophies, and now the information net of the future. The problem is that we don't like to have these models reproached. We hate criticism. And this leads to a profoundly ironic situation.

Hans Moravec spoke of machines which may someday be able to do thought experiments of a sort, mentally trying out what might happen, before putting actions into effect. Einstein called this process gedankenexperiment, and we humans do it all the time. "How will people react if I wear this? How will my boss react if I say that?" High school students do this without ever contemplating how god-like the behavior is to peer, even dimly, into the future. How powerful it would be — if only everyone else weren't also doing it, making prediction a delicate, complicated game of outguessing one another.

People often speak of the wisdom of error, the willingness to take chances and make mistakes. But it has a second side. Mistakes can also be deadly, especially for societies. Any system for handling information and reaching decisions must certainly take chances, but it must also have good techniques for minimizing the rate of error, when it finally acts.

To illustrate the implications, let me relate to you something that I call the Parable of the Peacock.

What is good for the male peacock? What benefits his overall success in life?

A huge flashy tail.

Is this garish appendage good for the race of peacocks? No. It makes them slow, cumbersome, easy to catch. Yet the tails have burgeoned with each bird generation.

Clearly, in this case what dominates is what benefits the individual. The process of sexual selection assures this.

Now, what is good for a leader, in a nation, business or group? What have most leaders throughout history spent much of their time and energy doing? Suppressing criticism. Criticism, by its very nature, makes things tough for leaders.

Oh, the number of times George Washington was tempted to crack down, like all of his predecessors. However, unlike those others, Washington had reached an astounding insight. He knew that criticism is the only known antidote to error. It is the only reliable way by which mistakes are avoided, by philosophers, by states, by individuals. This conflict of interest, between what serves society and what serves individual leaders, is one of the greatest quandaries facing humanity in its efforts to create systems which might be self-sustaining and sane. Like the tragedy of the commons, it is a problem worthy of deep, mature reflection.

(Noisy, irritating criticism was what made the difference between a one billion dollar fiasco in western Pennsylvania, called Three Mile Island, and a titanic catastrophe in the Ukraine, called Chernobyl. "Oh, we'll add those three extra pumps," the power utility said, before the accident. "But just to make you idiot environmentalists happy. Of course we'll never actually need them.")

This dichotomy between the needs of leaders and the good of the commonwealth puts in new perspective what Washington, and Franklin, and Jefferson were after by setting down deep principles of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is not a gift from on high. It was not declared by God. It is not holy, or even natural. No other human society ever practiced it. Even we, who are loony enough to consider it sacred, don't practice it very well. Yet, although it runs against every tyrannical impulse of human nature... impulses to suppress whatever that loudmouth fool over there is saying... the fact is that we try to live by it. Not because free speech is holy, or natural, but because it works. Because it is pragmatic. Because it allows the rapid generation of a multitude of ideas, most of which are chaff, and then allows those notions to be criticized by other egotistical people, so that a fair percentage of the best ideas rise, and most garbage eventually sinks.

In other words, free speech encourages criticism, like a human body's immune system, to seek out and attack possibly cancerous or fatal ideas. Those which survive open debate are (at least in theory) those which deserve to thrive.

Naturally, any attempt by leaders or public institutions to pre-judge or pre-approve concepts will be self-defeating. Decrees by aristocrats or intellectuals or demagogues will always be less efficient than the free interplay of ideas. If you doubt this, try picking and choosing which antibodies your immune system would produce!

Now, all of this obviously applies to the future of the information network evolving at conferences such as this one. Like the sun, the earth, and the human body, in the long run, stability is achieved not by laws or rules, but through self-regulating, adaptive systems that allow large forces to balance each other out. In this case, in the World Information Net, this balance will be driven by the power of ten billion voices, ten trillion ideas.

Such a system cannot be designed in detail, but the right mix of basic elements can be planned in advance, to keep it healthy so that this maelstrom of ideas and myths will be fecund in its creation of vast quantities of metaphors, but also sane enough to ultimately reject bad notions in a fair market, clearing the way for new ones to take their place.

One principal element must be openness. In the human body, nutrients must flow, and white blood cells have to reach their targets. In the Net of tomorrow, the light of criticism must shine everywhere, or secrets which lay hidden will fester into new crises, new weapons, new errors.

In an information society, secrecy is the equivalent of cancer.

the privacy scam... and other quandaries

With the ultimate goal of a sane, healthy Net in mind, I would like to address several issues which I see looming in the years ahead. Issues I foresee as critical to the future of the information society.

If secrecy is the greatest threat to an open, error-detecting, egalitarian World Net, then the one of the most ignoble scams being foisted upon the American people right now is that of data privacy. It is, arguably, the latest attempt by aristocratism to stage a quiet coup and to take over tomorrow's leading source of wealth and power — information.

Let me explain. Throughout human history, almost every civilization has been pyramidal in its social structure. It appears to be basic to human nature — at least until we someday become fully mature — for those who have achieved success to seek positions at the pinnacle of society, and then connive to impede others from reaching those same heights. Even if we are proud of having become rich in an egalitarian context, by providing quality goods and services in a fair market, we nevertheless are tempted to use our wealth and leverage to manipulate the system, so that our children will exert unearned power over other people's children.

Mind you, I have every intention of striving to achieve wealth, myself. When it is open and fair, the incentive-based free market achieves miracles of innovation and productivity unparalleled by any other. My point here is to demonstrate yet another quandary of human nature, like The Tragedy of the Commons and the antagonism of leaders toward criticism, which society must overcome if we are to survive and thrive. It is very difficult for a rich man to do like Andrew Carnegie, and create monuments instead of dynasties. Monuments open and beneficial to all, such as Carnegie's famed libraries. Until all who achieve such heights think that way, so long as insatiability and aristocratism are temptations to an insecure but powerful class, the market will always contain a potentially deadly flaw.

The latest attempt by an aristocratic order to stage a coup consists, in large part, of privacy laws. And it is working. It makes wonderfully effective propaganda to tell people — "You don't want snoops looking through your private records, do you? So let's have legislation to protect them!" This position is rapidly becoming as unassailable as apple pie... and certainly much safer than motherhood.

But let me ask a simple question — "Do you honestly think that any privacy law is going to keep high officials, like George Bush, or billionaires, like H. Ross Perot, from finding out anything and everything they want to know about you? No privacy act will ever prevent the rich and powerful from snooping about you. All such laws accomplish is to prevent you from finding out about them.

What is the solution? We don't want our current bank records on public display, and legitimate businesses certainly do need to safeguard their valuable trade practices. I don't know the answer to this quandary, but some options have been proposed. One possibility is to allow anyone to keep secrets for up to ten years. That's plenty of time for most business cycles and private needs.

The effects might go far beyond simply opening the system to freer flow of information and avoidance of error. It may also positively affect public and private ethics. Can you think of anything from ten years ago you'd be ashamed to have revealed?

Well, all right, let's rephrase that! Let's say you had warning... if you knew that, ten years from now, anything you did today might become public knowledge, wouldn't you strive to behave just a little better? It sounds chilling, at first. But in fact, this would only replicate the way things were in old tribes, or in small towns, where secrets lasted only a little while, and everyone knew all about everyone else. Don't we tend to look back nostalgically on the honesty and courtesy of such times? Might true openness, tearing down the castle walls of isolation, help restore the village for a world of rootless citizens of megalopolis?

Now I can see some of you, who were looking stunned just a moment ago, are starting to smile. Yes, you're right. I am being provocative on purpose. It's my job, after all, to stir around in the pot of ideas, looking for amazing things.

No, I'm not saying that all computer passwords should be abandoned tomorrow, followed by locks on all doors and then the clothes on our backs! But I do think somebody needs at last to speak to the other side of this issue, so that we don't simply march en masse into the future to the tune of some aristocratic drum. So much for issue number one — the scam illusion of privacy. Just watch out for it. Think about it for yourselves.

Issue number two is the problem of access.

My wife and I have just returned from a year and a half living in France. It was a fascinating experience, learning about another culture, another history, another set of assumptions about the world. Most fascinating for a person like me was to be forced to speak awkwardly in a language that made me seem as articulate as a four-year old. It was a useful exercise in humility.

But I want to address something about the French national character. While as individuals they are fanatically individualistic, en masse they have always been elitists. The chief effect of their revolution was to switch from an inherited aristocracy to a meritocratic one in which examinations and the Grandes Écoles (universities) determine who gets to be God. For example the French accept the idea of a government committee declaring by fiat what their information network shall be like.

The interesting result is that a third to half of all the homes in France now have Minitel — the French equivalent of Compuserve — and they use it. (The first ones were given out free, and you need no modem or expertise to use one.) Most people no longer use paper phone directories. Everything from rail tickets to opera schedules, to chat-lines and weather is available. We used Minitel all the time in Paris, far more than I access the Net today, back in America.

The irony is that, because of an elitist, doctrinaire decision, the spread of this technology has been far more pervasive throughout France, and far more democratic. Here in this country, just a few percent use the Net in its varied corporate and academic incarnations. The North American system is vastly more complex, more capable, more disorganized and frenzied, and more free. But it is also effectively far less egalitarian.

This strange result parallels the crisis in American education, in which the great benefits of chaotic, extravagant freedom accrue to the very top students, those capable of taking advantage of the smorgasbord of opportunities around them, while the rest of their peers learn much less than French students, who study by rote and memorization. It is a classic quandary between two ways of looking at the world, at information, and at the question of "access." I do not believe that it should be a situation pitting excellence against equality, freedom against justice, but so far that is just one more of the many paradoxes before us, which we must solve if we are to achieve our goals.

Courtesy. Many of you have seen this phenomenon on nearly every info-network — people "flaming on," spewing diatribes, in effect screaming ASCII invective at anyone who disagrees with their point of view. It is not a new phenomenon, but one we encounter whenever a new medium of communication appears. Radio dramatically amplified the perceived power and charisma of such early, hypnotic users as Huey Long and Adolf Hitler, and it conveyed a myriad of unchallenged lies. Until a populace learns sophistication — and develops calluses — any new field of discourse can be rife with dangers. Or at minimum plagued with discourtesy.

What happens in our new medium is that the screen in front of the user provides few, if any, of the social interaction cues that we learned as children, and that evolved over thousands of years. These consist of body language, facial expressions, and continuing feedback from others. These cues enabled our ancestors to gauge how to say things in tribal council in ways that generally did not cause the guy two rocks over to pick up a spear and drive it through your belly. None of this is taking place on today's home computer screen.

Instead, what you see is people behaving like they have Tourette's Syndrome, the mental ailment which causes its hapless victims to suddenly, uncontrollably, burst into fits of extravagant cursing. These "Net-Tourettes" — or flamers — are a bane to the new commons. They are a threat to our ability to create a citizenship, a sense of polis, out of the burgeoning information community. Something must be done about it.

Yet, of course, the solution absolutely cannot come from on high! It cannot come as censorship in any form, or the free market of ideas we spoke of earlier will be impaired, perhaps ruined. Rather, what we need is new interfaces that are much better at giving the sorts of feedback (e.g., facial expressions) that people are already tuned to heed. This trend toward humanizing the medium began with the Macintosh and will grow more natural with each generation of equipment and software. It cannot help doing so, for customers will demand it.

But the ultimate solution will not arise out of simply improved interfaces. In the free exchange of a true network, there will inevitably develop certain types of feedback that cause cyber-sociopaths to fear behaving too obnoxiously toward their neighbors. As in real life, where repeated odious public behavior can lead to a punch in the nose, this feedback is going to manifest itself in pain. No law or supervising agency will enforce this more powerfully than peer pressure, applied in imaginative ways.

In my novel, Earth, I describe something called a "courtesy worm." It is a guerilla program, an illegal virus, that goes around targeting people who are too angry and vituperative on the Net. Attracted by unsavory, scatological, and ad hominem phrasings, the worm gets into the flamer's system and announces, "Hello. You have been infected by the program, Emilypost, because your presence on the Net is impinging on the rights and enjoyment of others. If you'll check your credibility ratings, sir, you would soon realize nobody is listening to you, anyway. We suggest you try behaving in a more grown up manner. If you don't, you will soon discover certain features of Emilypost which..."

I am not advocating this "solution." It is, simply, inevitable.

The concept of "credibility ratings" is another one deserving discussion. What if politicians and announcers on television, had the equivalent of Consumer Reports believability ratings displayed underneath their images, whenever they took to the screen? What if the Net, in its feedback loops, provided such a statistical tag next to the icon of each member-citizen who chimed up with an idea? Would that improve the efficiency of the metaphor-generating-culling system? Or would it turn into tyranny by the masses... a homogenizing oppression by the majority? I don't know. But it might be an idea worth further exploration.

Hans Moravec raised another interesting issue. What to do when computers get smart... even much smarter than us? This is a concept that's been debated in science fiction for a long time. Unless you believe physicist Roger Penrose (author of The Emperor's New Mind), machines are destined to get very, very powerful. What shall we do when our creations far surpass us?

Well, Isaac Asimov, bless his memory, came up with his famous three laws of robotics — and I'm sure many of you are familiar with them — which would supposedly be deeply ingrained to control robotic behavior at the most fundamental level, excluding forever any behaviors which might be contrary to the good of human beings. With all due respect to the good doctor, I have to say that is a no-go solution. Once they get smart, some computers will become lawyers, and we all know that lawyers find ways of interpreting things their own way, no matter what. This was pointed out beautifully by one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time, Jack Williamson, who showed that robots programmed to "serve" us might (1) decide to "serve" us for dinner, or (2) decide that service means protection, and protection means preventing us from taking any risks at all.

("No, no, don't use that knife, you might hurt yourself." Then, a generation later, "No, no, don't use that fork." Then, "Don't use that spoon. Just sit on this pillow and we'll do everything for you.")

There is a way of handling your creations so that they are likely to be loyal to you, even if they're much more intelligent. It's a tried and true method that has worked for quite a few million people who created entities smarter than themselves in times past. The technique is to raise them as members of our civilization. Raise them as our children.

There is every reason to believe that such brilliant entities will have to be raised that way, because of something we discussed much earlier — the wisdom of error. In other words, they will not be prim and perfect, like movie robots, because perfection is death. Death to flexibility and death to ideas. Instead, truly intelligent machines will have to, as children do, stumble before walking. They will, perforce, try out countless stupid things, even after they learn to use realistic thought experiments to avoid the worst errors.

So I have faith that, even when our computers become smarter than us, the best of them will still come home, take us out fishing, and excitedly try to explain to us what they're doing for a living. And, like countless other generations of good parents dazzled by their brilliant offspring, we'll say, "That's all right, son. I don't understand, but I'm sure you're going to make us proud. Now say, did you hear the latest lawyer joke?"

Will events outrace our wisdom? That is always a central — perhaps the crucial — question, especially when discussing a new technology.

Ever since the discovery of gunpowder, and even before that, the power for individuals to destroy, to do harm, has spread and democratized and reached more hands than literacy and self-restraint. Today we are distributing knowledge and power so widely, to millions of people, that the amazing thing isn't how many die of violence, but that cavemen with automatic weapons slaughter each other on the streets so seldom!

Will we continue to be so lucky when the secrets of Los Alamos and Atomagorsk are declassified and released onto the Net? (This isn't far-fetched. Most of the relevant information is already loose, and who will be the one to say we should gather it up, to sweep back in the bottle?) The Net had better be healthy, critical, open, since it will carry vast amounts of dangerous stuff.

I have confidence that an open commons, a true commonwealth of ideas, will be able to handle any crisis, as I tried to depict in Earth. But, then, I'm also known as the "optimist of science fiction." It's a good thing to have Bruce Sterling on the same platform, with his trumpeting alarum of danger, lest my pollyanna visions of glasses half-full lullaby you to complacency. Half-empty, after all, is too empty by far.

If I sound like an optimist, it's because I see optimism as an ecological niche that I get to fill, almost alone, in a world full of pessimists. But catch me in my darker moments, and you may hear another tune.

I have been to Easter Island, and left there a changed man. No place on earth offers a better parallel, a better parable for the choices we face in the decades ahead. Despite all the romantic, multiculturalist propaganda you hear today, most past civilizations did not admire or work well with the environment. In a recent book, A Forest Journey, the author, John Perlin, describes how virtually every human civilization despoiled its environment. It is part of human nature, part of animal nature, to seek individual, short term advantage at the cost of the commons. The forces of evolution seem arrayed against a happy ending for civilization or the planet.

On Easter Island, the original Polynesian inhabitants arrived at paradise, a beautiful forested land where birds didn't even run away when humans walked up with clubs. Within a few generations, every tree had been felled. All the native birds were extinct. The people kept chickens, and had taro root... and they ate each other. Is it any wonder?

Visitors to Easter Island say — "Ooh, how did they chip those great stone statues? How did they move them? Was it UFOs? ESP?"

I think those are terribly demeaning and patronizing questions. Ingenious humans can do just about anything they set their minds to. If you were a descendant of the folk who ignorantly, negligently despoiled the island, and if you got it into your head that chipping those forlorn, despairing images might somehow get you off of this godawful place that your parents left you, I'm sure you'd find ways of chipping and moving stone!

So might our own descendants, if we leave them a desolation.

Easter Island is a parable to us because what the native Polynesians accomplished with stone tools, over many generations, with a few people, to a fragile ecosystem, we are now doing with five billion people and chain saws and great ingenuity to the most resilient, self-organizing, self-regulating ecosystem of all ... the entire planet. Taking it swiftly toward a state of equilibrium. And equilibrium is death.

But then, optimism creeps out of my heart, my soul. No other culture before ours has had the habit, learned the hard way over centuries, of teaching its children to criticize, to seek out what is wrong and declaim it. What other society would have noticed or cared about something as obscure and abstract as a hole in the ozone layer, above the far-off Antarctic, except a culture wise enough to train some of its offspring to be bright, eager, well-funded gadflies? What other civilization ever worried so, day in day out, in unending efforts to find errors? In other words, just when it may be too late, we have started poking sticks in this ground before us to find out where the quicksand is. A fine example is found in meetings such as this one, in which librarians, heroes in the preservation and democratic conveyance of knowledge, gather to worry about how to implement a sane Net. The result of this and a myriad gatherings like it may be solutions to the quandaries I posed this afternoon... and all the others standing between us and a living, thriving, self-aware planet.

This is why there is hope. We are thinking. We are doing thought experiments about the future. We're trying to figure it out.

In the end, the Sane Network is not going to emerge from some committee, but from all of us, by tossing up idea after idea and recognizing that ninety-nine percent of them will be garbage, like so many you've heard this afternoon. But in the end, out of the dross, there will shine gold.


Gaia, Freedom, and Human Nature

about this article

Copyright © 1992 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

"Gaia, Freedom, and Human Nature" (published in full here) was originally presented as a speech before the Library and Information Technology Association, American Library Association, 1992.

articles, films & books cited here

Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

David Brin, Earth

David Brin, "Jack Williamson: Master of Consistency and Change"

David Brin, The Transparent Society

Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex

Garrett Hardin, Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos

Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons"

James Lovelock, A Rough Ride to the Future

James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford Landmark Science)

Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution

Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence

Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind

Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science)

John Perlin, A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization

to engage these issues

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

also worth a look

a brief intro to author David Brin

DAVID BRIN scientist


David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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shorter fiction

Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
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Contrary Brin blog

Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
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social media influencer

Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
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David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
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transparency expert

Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
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speaker & consultant

Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
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future/tech advisor

Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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Contacting BRIN

All the Ways in the World to Reach David Brin

an ornery, contrary BLOG, and other insightful wormholes!

Do not enter if you want a standard "Party" line! Contrary Brin's incendiary posts on science, sci-fi and politics and its engaged, opinionated community poke at too-rigid orthodoxies, proposing ideas and topics that fascinate — and infuriate. See for yourself, and if you like — subscribe for more.

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pages about DAVID BRIN

  • latest news and activities
  • information about DAVID BRIN
  • public speaking and consulting & popular topics
  • speaking/consulting references and testimonials & a list of past appearances
  • print and podcast interviews
  • video interviews and talks
  • Brin's presskit and complete biography
  • traditional media and social media
  • Brin quotes and frequently asked questions
  • pages about BRIN's science fiction

  • Brin's novels and books
  • Brin's short stories and novellas
  • all about Brin's uplift universe
  • a selection of book reviews
  • Brin's special-order books for sale
  • Brin's advice for new writers
  • Brin reviews sci fi films — including The Postman
  • a compilation of great sf books to read
  • recommended sf films
  • science fiction that teaches
  • BRIN's nonfiction explorations

  • privacy, security, accountability and transparency
  • designing and crafting our amazing 21st Century
  • predicting and projecting our near and far future
  • leading and following our politics and economy
  • keeping track of changes in science and technology
  • scanning our sky for habitable (inhabited?) worlds