There is an old military maxim that only defeat teaches new doctrines. When you've been vanquished and driven into the wilderness, it's time for reflection and re-evaluation, perhaps even a willingness to ponder fresh ideas.
At least, that was the philosophy promoted by one liberal interest group, the Service Employees International Union, when in late 2005 they set up a contest at the SinceSlicedBread.com website. The notion — offering a $100,000 prize for ideas that might help bring about a Democratic Party victory — was in part a grudging tribute to successful Republicans who, over the course of several patient decades, reversed their fortunes from political impotence to mastery over nearly all American levers of power.
In fact, the Since Sliced Bread exercise turned into a silly waste of time, rehashing some utterly unimaginative ideas which only served to demonstrate just how difficult will be the task at hand: Persuading the liberal and modernist communities to actually begin thinking fresh, to start a process of genuine renewal.
One can understand their almost visceral reluctance. Such a process can be long and agonizing. Still, a good start might be to study those who achieved exactly such a renewal, quite recently in American political life.
Republicans began their own long journey of re-appraisal in the wake of Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964, then intensified their efforts after the debacle of Watergate. William F. Buckley, during the 1964 campaign, recognized the dominance of liberalism at that time. He urged that conservatives see themselves as "well-planted seeds of hope, which will flower on a great November day in the future, if there is a future."
Soon, concentrated efforts began, at places like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, to forge networks of expertise in theory, policy and political operations, filling in every component for a vigorous new age of conservatism.
And there were many other centers of patient determination on the right. For example, activist intellectuals of the Cato Institute strenuously redefined libertarianism, transforming the movement's core fixation from transparency and populist citizen empowerment over to relentless rationalization in support of monopolistic corporations. Followers of the emigre platonist, Leo Strauss, moved away from traditional conservative isolationism, instead looking ahead toward an era when America might be transformed into a true imperium, led by an aristocracy of reason. Meanwhile, careful plans were developed in other parts of this new coalition, to alter the shape of religion in America. Old-line churches, perceived as too liberal in opposing the Vietnam war and favoring activist civil rights, started losing millions of members to aggressive evangelical sects that used wedge issues and purges to powerful effect, weaving rightwing politics so tightly into their pastoral mission as to make both aspects inseparable.
For more on the rise of neoconservatism — especially the Straussian new imperialists, see my article "The Real Culture War." Of special note is the development of what Jerry Falwell has called the "assault ministry" — which is designed to continue the radicalization process ad infinitum. Without denigrating the sincerity that many devout Christians bring to these issues, it is nevertheless interesting to see all of this in the context of the grand strategy of neoconservatism, which began taking shape long ago, when powerful men like Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist were bellicose undergraduates in Campus Republicans. Indeed, Ralph Reed has been quite forward and honest. Had there been no unifying partisan moral issue as strong as the anti-abortion crusade, he and his comrades would have had to invent one.
Nor have we seen an end to creativity in this broad-fronted campaign. There are strong signs of a new and especially worrisome front — an assertive and coordinated effort to alter the makeup and political philosophy of the traditionally-neutral United States Officer Corps. This campaign, that some have liked to a gradual political "purge," involves not only culling the high end — the hyper-educated ranks of professional flag officers — but also a concerted drive at the other end, using Congressional appointments to stock the military academies with cadets whose chief qualification would be political-religious zealotry. At any level, it amounts to a deliberate reversal of the traditions established by George Marshall, which led to the Officer Corps becoming the third-best educated and intellectually gifted clade in American life (just behind professors and doctors.)
This process was abetted by the left in strange and unexpected ways. For example, campus leftists often derived local satisfaction (while blithely ignoring the global cost) by making university grounds unfriendly territory for conservative intelligencia. Sometimes, this was achieved using shamefully repressive tactics — methods that not only rationalized a double standard toward free speech, but also backfired over the long run.
In response, conservative thinking moved away from the grounds of regular academia, where it might have been engaged in moderating give-and-take with students and colleagues. Instead, while shifting off-campus, conservative thinkers transferred to the aforementioned private institutes where — lacking formal tenure — scholars of the right became increasingly beholden to large-scale private donors.
One unexpected side effect was that conservative think tanks acquired unprecedented ferocity of focus. Those donors were only somewhat interested in theory, after all. To a much greater degree they wanted — and demanded — new pragmatic strategies for the acquisition and utilization of power.
Not even glory days under Ronald Reagan slaked this increasingly adversarial hunger for ever-greater influence. For example, the chief lesson that the neocons learned from the Iran-Contra scandal was not the one that moderates might expect — that open accountability is a good and desirable corrective force in American life.
No, the lesson learned — with fierce determination — was that genuine power must encompass all branches of government. When the opposing party controls even one house of Congress, their investigative committees and subpoenas can prove irksome, impudent, even dangerous.
It is actually a very old lesson, taught by Machiavelli, Plato and countless other rationalizers of monopolized power, spanning 4,000 years. Only now it was rediscovered and clasped with great enthusiasm. The firm belief that accountability is best when it can be served in only one direction — unidirectional accountability.
Hence, it turns out that investigative committees and special prosecutors are just fine, when Democrats have the White House — as when the Clinton Administration faced relentless scrutiny amounting to a billion dollars worth of public and private investigations. Investigations that — after promising "hundreds of indictments for malfeasance in the performance of office" — finally delivered... zero, a fact that bears reiteration. We were promised platoons, battalions of "smoking gun" indictments, only to get none at all. Well, at least that scrutiny gave the Clintonians exoneration and a clean slate, right?
Alas, what is good for the goose is most definitely NOT good for the gander. The GOP-controlled House Government Reform Committee, having issued about a thousand subpoenas for Clinton Administration officials, has issued only two for the Bush team — those having to do with a Nevada representative's pique over the nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain. Likewise, no president since William Henry Harrison has cast fewer vetoes than George W. Bush. (Harrison died within days of entering office.) No two statistics could better illustrate the irrelevance-by-design of today's legislative branch.
Most dangerously, members and supporters of the Bush Administration have also expanded the use of secrecy to a degree never seen even during the Cold War, back when we faced the towering enmity of a mighty Soviet empire. What is the rationale for this unprecedented dive into shadows? The vague and amorphous threat of "terrorism" — a foe that has killed fewer Americans in the last decade than routinely die of car crashes in a month.
This push for secrecy is, of course, what elites have always tried to achieve, in every previous society, but never so relentlessly in our democracy. One result; it effectively quashes almost all prospect of accountability.
Elements of this prolonged campaign of neoconservative renewal spanned a broad front, ranging from honest disputation and cogent criticism all the way to tactics that can only be called downright disreputable — from endowing vigorous new conservative think tanks, dedicated to exploring and explaining fresh ideas, all the way to spectacularly successful endeavors in manipulating the electoral process. (For example, gradually, the companies that manufacture most of the nation's voting apparatus and software came to be controlled by dedicated right-wing activists; a correlation that, when piled upon hundreds more — like the revolving door between state election officialdom and manufacturers — puts shame to any protest of coincidence.)
This surge of fresh Republican thinking merits grudging respect, for its determination, innovation and relentless focus on achieving tangible goals. Indeed, some conservative policy moves must be acknowledged as good for America. Take the bipartisan consensus to reform Welfare — a rare Gingrich-Clinton collaboration — which achieved substantial success in the nineties. (It does not hurt liberals to concede that conservatism can offer good ideas, from time to time. Indeed, nothing could better help to improve liberal credibility.)
Equally impressive has been the GOP's adept willingness to take advantage of opposition mistakes. For example, it was never necessary for the left to alienate members of the military, or the nation's churches, demonizing groups that had once been allies in the battle for desegregation and civil rights. Even if the cycle of growing hostility was tit-for-tat, who ultimately benefited? Nor was it somehow required that rural America be written off from the Democratic Agenda.
(Ponder this: It is not "liberal" to write off whole swathes of people simply because of who they are, or some broad group label. Isn't that the very same (all-too human) tendency that liberalism was originally invented to oppose?
Even worse, a growing battery of left-wing ideological litmus tests — e.g., excluding anyone who sincerely disagrees over abortion — fostered an ever-narrowing definition of liberalism. Any person who failed to measure up in even one category might face ejection from the movement, or at least categorization as somebody whose opinions can be dismissed. Naturally, this fed into opposition propaganda that "liberalism" was a monolithic movement, deliberately hateful to every traditional value.
Above all, the worst mistake of the left has been to make up excuses for its own long decline into irrelevancy and defeat — excuses that almost always boil down to the people are fools. Or, at least, that is the way — true or not — the left has been successfully portrayed.
These self-indulgences were gifts that conservatives felt happy to exploit.
Is it a reflex for intellectuals of the left to hold average people in disdain? Is there any truth to this calumny, hurled by mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh with devastating effectiveness, costing the Democratic Party votes in every recent election? So much so that the word "liberal" itself has a patina Democratic politicians scramble to avoid? A large fraction of Americans, especially portions that are white, male, suburban or rural, seem to have swallowed a notion of liberals as snooty, superior, and remote from the concerns of everyday people.
Certainly, almost any liberal activist will vehemently deny the accusation, claiming instead to be a person of the people — in opposition to the plutocrats, imperialists, fanatics and kleptocrats who own the GOP. If this notion of liberal snobbery is commonly-held, then it must be the result of despicable right-wing propaganda.
Seldom spoken is the implication, heavy and burning within that excuse — an implication that middle Americans derive their opinions from propaganda, instead of from the same complex mental processes that motivate liberals.
When you tell people that they believe what they believe because of propaganda, doesn't that come across as... well... contemptuous? And even more contemptuous because you do not expect them to notice? But accusations of willful blindness can be cast in every direction. Alas, I know some people of the left who would not be able to parse the meaning of this very paragraph, even if they were to read it a hundred times. Not because of unintelligence, but because the chain of reasoning is impermissible. It cannot be allowed. (To test this phenomenon, try taking a Questionnaire on the Roots of Ideology.)
In any event, this quandary only serves to set in stark contrast the behavior of the other side. One of many political methodologies that have been adopted by neocon politicians is this iron rule: Never tell the voters that they're stupid. Always flatter them. Leave it to others to berate them.
Yes, that is patronizing in its own right! Especially since such flattery is seldom sincere, or accompanied by any benefits, real or tangible.
Still, it makes one wonder — might there be a middle path that liberals could choose to walk? One that does not patronize with feel-good nostrums... but neither does it chide, scold, disdain, look down the nose or generally make voters feel like fools? (Hint: this is the path that Bill Clinton chose. And he never lost a fight.)
In areas of methodology, planning and skilled execution, one side of American political life has become dominant simply because, in the purely Machiavellian sense, it deserves to be. Because the right-wing has rationally come up with a wide array of agile moves — both licit and illicit — in order to grasp control over this civilization's reins of power.
Meanwhile, the left seems bound and determined to do everything it can possibly do, to lose.
Take the phenomenon we touched upon earlier. In contrast to the liberal trend of ideological exclusion — creating lists of rigid positions that any decent liberal must hold — the greatest Republican accomplishment has been coalition-building — something that Democrats once prided themselves upon.
Indeed, the current GOP leadership has impressively managed to unite dozens of disparate forces that have very few values in common. These groups range:
From apocalyptic fundamentalists to atheist-libertarians.
From traditionally reticent isolationists to aggressive neo-imperialists.
From protectionists and nativists to those who want our borders thrown wide open, exporting mid-level jobs while importing cheap, undocumented labor.
From budget balancers to wastrels who bring astounding new heights of chutzpah to pork barrel chicanery.
From those who define healthy entrepeneurialism according to the rate of small business startups to those who judge capitalism healthiest when it maximizes the bonuses of top corporate CEOs.
The unification of all these contradictions — and so many others — under a single Big Tent is a remarkable accomplishment and testimony to consummate political skill.
How was it achieved?
The answer is remarkably simple. To every possible interest group, the leaders of the right say this:
You hold one opinion that may loosely be called 'conservative.' Therefore please feel free to consider yourself a member of our camp — and vote with us — no matter how many other, contradictory opinions you might also maintain.
Think about how different this is from the typical reflex on the left:
"You hold one opinion that doesn't fit what we call 'liberal.' Therefore you must be a conservative, no matter how many other, progressive opinions you might also maintain."
This point cannot be reiterated often enough.
It has suited elements of the left to define "liberal" rigidly, while leaving the word "conservative" vague, encompassing everything they dislike.
This tendency has suited their opponents just fine.
Take, for example, the renowned futurist and former Jerry Brown advisor, Stewart Brand, who recently called for progressives to re-evaluate four crucial positions that (Brand contends) have become obsolete in a new century. Among these four flawed but 'politically correct' positions is the near-automatic reflex to oppose nuclear power, even as a stopgap to help fuel economic growth and fight poverty while reducing emission of greenhouse gases. Brand contends — with supporting evidence — that much good might arise from new uranium-cycle plants that are made in America, and which will therefore be subject to intense scrutiny, rather than abdicating this critical role and etting the next generation of nuclear power design standards be established in less open societies.
Yes, many problems would have to be overcome. But careful application of fission technology might offer a possible bridge to the true, long-term solution — sustainable, renewable energy sources combined with high efficiency and conservation.
You can well imagine how this proposal was received on the left. Even though Brand's overall goal remains as progressive as anyone could ask, he was excoriated as a tool of the establishment. This only illustrates that, to many on the left, any deviation from a standard list of requisite opinions must automatically mean that you are on the other side.
No doubt some liberals will object, claiming that they don't do this sort of party line exclusion. And yet, it's easy enough to test. Just take a set of divisive issues from both sides of the horribly insipid but standard left-right divide.
For example, a person might:
Believe in woman's total right to abortion but still favor parental notification for minors.
Support public schools and teachers and vouchers for private schools.
Favor generosity over immigration yet want tight control of borders.
Oppose drilling in Arctic Wildlife Reserve and favor test drilling in ANWR.
Support unions & minimum wage and still believe the market should decide wages.
Want to repeal the PATRIOT Act and still support greater powers of vision for the FBI.
Believe in limiting foreign intevention while supporting active exercise of Pax Americana.
Want to restore taxes on the wealthiest and let the market solve deficits.
Desire the complete separation of church and state yet believe schools/kids need faith-based morality.
Concentrate on alternative energy sources and/or oppose nukes, yet still want to restart the nuclear power program.
Of course this list is incomplete. It might go on and on, reciting one oversimplified conflict after another. But I just didn't have the heart to write any more, so deeply do I loathe these standard and rigidly calcified positions, which seem designed to thwart negotiation and incremental problem-solving. So, let's make do with what we've written down so far.
I think you'll agree that these ten dichotomies between "left and right" suffice to make a point.
Now, squint and imagine a person who holds all of the positions listed on the left side of the list. Sounds like a stereotypical liberal, hm? (A dismal scarecrow of a sterotype, but one that too many Americans buy into.) So far, it's all party line. And obvious.
Okay. But now imagine just one out of these ten positions switching, abruptly, to the other column. Pick any one. Only make the switch strong. Opinionated. Vigorously felt, articulately argued and passionately pursued.
Can you honestly picture such a person being welcome at any gathering of liberals? Probably, you have anecdotes of your own, illustrating what happens to anyone who has one or two quirky, off-list points of view.
In fact, so strong is this impulse on the left, that activists routinely disparage the moderates in their own movement, disdaining them as "light" conservatives or DINOS (Democrats In Name Only).
This dogmatic/purist tendency goes back a long way. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes the self-destruction of the left amid bloody infighting, during the Spanish Civil War. Moreover, it continues doing harm today. In a very direct way, the obstinately indignant candidacy of Ralph Nader — based upon pointless ideological nitpicking — inarguably helped to usher in the Bush-Cheney Era. Yet, this unpragmatic, destructive impulse is defended as idealistic and morally superior over those who would seek practical power, in order to do pragmatic, incremental good.
In contrast, you won't see that kind of self-immolation on the other side. Look back at that list of ten standard political positions. Again, envision a person who holds eight or nine views on the left side but one or two strong and vociferous views on the right. Haven't you seen plenty of "conservatives" who are just like the person you just pictured? Don't you see plenty of people like that included in the conservative "big tent"?
Oh, this model I am presenting is clearly an oversimplification. Just as leftist activists accuse liberal moderates of being DINOS — or "Democrat in name only" — so the acronym RINO has been hurled at moderate Republicans who try for a little compromise, from time to time. Especially the few GOP congressional members who struggle for old fashioned deliberation with their Democratic colleagues. In another place, I talk about how the real divide in America today seems to be one of personality, rather than dogma, between indignation junkies of all stripes, on one side, and would-be problem-solvers, on the other.
And yet, that is not the issue here. For, despite the fact that many right-wingers are as frenetically dogmatic as you'll ever see — even to loony excess — they in general do not practice "splitting" when it will hurt their side's access to power.
Again, picture a complex American. A person who refuses to fit every belief into the standard, either-or choice-list. Someone holding a mish mash of indiosyncratic views, some classic left, others classically right, and some truly unorthodox.
Isn't such a person — more often than not — defined by whichever personal tenet happens to be on the "right"?
And then, doesn't that sense of definition, or identification, have great influence over how they vote?
Sure there are exceptions. As described by one blog-correspondent: "... if you're in South Dakota, the Democrats are much more moderate and inclusive than their Republican counterparts. The SD Democratic party will gladly welcome a pro-lifer, an anti-gun control NRA member, or a fiscal tightwad as a candidate — whereas you'd be hard-pressed to get on the ballot as a pro-choice, pro-gay, or pro-gun control Republican.
Likewise, while Montana went strongly for Bush in the last presidential election, its citizens also elected a Democratic governor, 3 of 5 of their constitutional offices went to Democrats, as well as one house of their legislature.
It wasn't always like this. If you look back to the era of greatest liberal power and success, stretching from FDR to LBJ, coalition-building was a key element of Democrat success, with various groups tolerating each other for the good of the party. But alas, that is not the general pattern on the left, today.
What emerges is a clear view that pragmatism has switched sides. Despite the fact that many on the right are ideological in the extreme, they have schooled themselves to live and work by one iron rule:
Power comes first.
Make alliances with anybody you have to. Make promises and deals. Give lip service to every contradictory dogma.
But take power.
Sure, it is easy to see — in abstract — the political strength of inclusiveness. Unfortunately, till now, leftist activists have been addicted to the opposite path. The path of righteous, indignant and perpetual defeat.
How were right wing ideologues able to do this? Especially since purist ideologues are traditionally among the most unpragmatic of people?
Elsewhere I ruminate about historical roots for this transformation. As mentioned already, I believe it was forged at places like the Heritage Foundation around the adamant desire (make that command) of wealthy donors to achieve practical ends. A need to keep these donors happy kept in rein the natural tendency of dogmatic intellectuals to schism and split. The tendency of ideologues to create litmus tests.
If this hypothesis is true, and neocons owe their recent pragmatic focus to the fierce comandments of aristocratic patrons, then liberals will need some other centripetal force to overcome the natural splitting tendency of dogmatic purists. Only this can turn around liberalism's death spiral, resuming instead the venerable tradition of coalition-building. Lacking a core coterie of aristocrats to command this reversal, liberals will have to find some other unifying methods, approaching pragmatism from their own direction.
In all honestly, I do not know how this will be possible. History shows that few pulls are stronger than the allure of smug dogma. But some new ecumenical focus must be found... perhaps emulating the way honest liberals of the ADA and AFL-CIO, in 1947, gathered the will to make the "L" word stand for reform, in a uniquely American way, with little owed to the traditions of European Socialism. (See details in a later section.)
We have spent some time analyzing the most effective tool used by the neoconservative movement, in their march to almost-total power over the government and institutions of American life. That trick — almost never discussed in press or punditry — has been to maintain a broad "big tent" coalition of wildly disparate, even contradictory, interest groups. This has been achieved through a fiercely practical policy of inclusiveness, in contrast to increasing left-wing dogmatism and litmus-tested exclusivity.
This impressive accomplishment is reminiscent of earlier political alliances built by Franklin Roosevelt. It has also involved an incredible dance of vagueness, abetted by a media that will not report on how little some of these interest groups are actually getting, other than lip service.
Indeed, let's explore this point. Note how this winning coalition is maintained, despite the fact that half of the "conservative" constituencies never get a single thing that they actually want!
At best, the budget balancers and prudent internationalists, the supporters of small business and responsibly-managed borders, have been paid lip service. Even the hardcore anti-abortion community, loudly cheered by the Bush entourage, has yet to receive a single tangible and effective action from the neocon leadership. Not even one.
And yet, they remain loyal! For two basic reasons:
Because lip service is often far more satisfying than incremental action.
Because no other camp will welcome them.
Talk about a win-win situation for the masters of the GOP! Many of these constituencies simply never ask the Republican Party to be "paid" for their loyalty. No deficit cutting, abortion restriction, border-guarding, or international restraint need ever be delivered. Small business can languish, while aristocratic CEOs rake it in. Still, with a few balming words, here and there, these core groups can simply be taken for granted. What a deal!
Copyright © 2006 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
Despite the title of this article, what you will read here is nearly as critical of liberal activists as it is of the neoconservatives. Indeed from one point of view — political effectiveness — can anybody seriously claim that Democrats can't learn a lot by analyzing the techniques — both admirable and despicable — that helped today's neocons to take over a major party, most of the media, and all three branches of the US Government?
Strictly in terms of practical realpolitik, that accomplishment merits respect, the kind that any foe ought to give — if grudgingly — to opponents who have reinvented themselves, adopted new messages, recognized and seized new opportunities. The kind of respect that precedes an effective effort to fight back. One thing is guaranteed: Zealots of both the far left and far right will not be amused.
"The Republican Party's Neocon Re-Invention" is published in full here.
This article is part of a series of economic and political essays that offer cantankerously tilted perspectives on the United States. The fight to restore and re-invigorate a confident nation requires that we speak up against every sort of dogmatism — even those toward which we feel kinship.
I do not intend to compare the relative merits of liberal or conservative worldviews. Rather, the matter that now concerns me is the profound differences in political methodologies that have been employed by left and right, during the last two decades of political struggle. While I make no effort to conceal my preference for one side over another, any one person's political preferences should not be the issue.
For too long dogmatists have oversimplified and poisoned our political and social discourse. Discourse should be about solving complex problems, not preening and shouting that "My ideology is better than your ideology!"
Elsewhere, I go into detail about the problems facing the Libertarians and Democrats, but this series is one where I unabashedly take sides. There is no doubt that the fate of American democracy demands a major change in our political and economic strategies and tactics. Our ancestors fought down attempted tyrannies in order to keep their miracle alive. They demand no less from us, when faced by a pack of proto-tyrants and monsters. Allowing this to happen has been a terrible mistake.
David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"
David Brin, "Betraying America's State of Readiness"
David Brin, "Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'?"
David Brin, "How Progressives Can Win Back America"
David Brin, My Questionnaire on Ideology
David Brin, "The Real Culture War, Part 1: Defining the Battlefield"
David Brin, "War in the 21st Century"
Grist Staff, "One Step Backward, Two Steps Back"
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (book)
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.
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