Why do you have such a good track record as a prognosticator?
When prediction serves as polemic, it nearly always fails. Our prefrontal lobes can probe the future only when they aren't leashed by dogma. The worst enemy of agile anticipation is our human propensity for comfy self-delusion.
Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for "honey-pot ideas" drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever is fashionable, try to poke at it! Maybe 1 percent of the time you'll find a trend or possibility that's been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels — even sober business forecasts — seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time. Never capable of actual discourse.
A contrarian trick that has served me well is to ponder a coming technology and then imagine, What if everybody gets to use it? In really smart ways? Most of those imaginings have come true.
Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future — and why?
I am known widely as an optimist. This is not quite true. What I am is a contrarian. And hence, when I see cynics and despair junkies all around me — around all of us — screeching simpleminded whines, I am naturally drawn to poking at their lazy models of the world.
Even if the pessimists and cynics were right... and they aren't... they are totally not being helpful. Their attitude is the quintessence of laziness and voluptuously smug self-indulgence.
Dig it. All hope has been achieved by problem-solvers. We need more of them. All the can-do pragmatic problem-solvers we can get.
Is there hope for the future?
I foresee a 60% chance that we'll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic over-exploiters. One when we have passed over the critical choices before us and passed most of the harsh tests.
I don't view those odds as "optimistic" at all! Not when the alternative is horrible. Such probabilities are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world.
I think we'll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilization that may emerge after a century of hard times may be missing some fine treasures — manatees, blue whales, krill, the Amazon Rain Forest, and every human being who wasn't immune to Virus X.
I had a thought, lately. Heaven and Hell may not be such bizarre thoughts, after all! Consider our godlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to 'call up' simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including photos, video, skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books, etc. What will they do with that power?
Those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of Purgatory have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader.
What concerns do you have about the future?
I am concerned about one thing, above all: Understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment. One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I've come to see that openness — especially being receptive to free-flowing criticism — has been key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse than it would have been. It is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty.
Your writing touches on the impact of technology on humanity, and its power to change our daily lives. Can we now predict the future?
Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? Once upon a time, these were exactly the powers of gods! So why don't you feel like one?
Because we gave these powers to everyone, that's why. Ironically, the moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared it. The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace, risking arrest, in order to view them. Or if we had to crack open a wizard's secret grimoire.
Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal orb on Gandalf's desk with which he can explore ideas, gather information, communicate instantly across great distances. There are only three differences between the palantir and your laptop: (1) The wizards and elfs kept that wonderful thing for themselves, and (2) the result was calamity and horrible war and near-loss of everything, and (3) it sure makes a romantic story, captivating millions.
If only you and a dozen other folks were allowed to use the internet, to see far and access knowledge, the rest of us would be in awe of you, too.
As for the future? Get ready to be even more godlike! If we're lucky, it will be shared with everybody and so you won't notice. But hopefully we'll be wise enough to do so.
Are we headed for a dystopian or utopian future?
People tend to call me this huge optimist, because I occasionally portray society as not totally stupid... or our fellow citizens as something slightly more evolved than sheep. In fact, I am an optimist only by comparison to the reflexive contempt-for-the-masses that you see in most knee-jerk fiction these days.
Actually, I'm kind of a gloomy guy. History shows how often and how easily bright beginnings failed, giving way to darkness once again. We have a genius for snatching failure from the jaws of success. It will not surprise me if our present renaissance collapses, if we betray our values for short-term expediency. It has happened countless times before.
But Science Fiction fights that trend! Our dark warnings poke the ground, finding pitfalls and quicksand just ahead. The best warnings turn into self-preventing prophecies that vividly affect people, ensuring that a particular mistake won't happen. Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, The China Syndrome, Silent Spring, Soylent Green, and so on. These drew attention from millions of people toward doomsday scenarios. Millions who became active, fighting for a better future. Were those efforts futile? Or are we here today because of them?
The greatest self-preventing prophecy was surely George Orwell's chilling Nineteen-Eighty Four. Who does not feel girded, inoculated by the metaphors of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth? If we manage to preserve freedom and hold all the big-time liars accountable, it will be in no small part thanks to science fiction. (See my essay on the topic.)
I just wish more authors would notice what they are a part of... a vast process of error-discover and error-detection. By all means write warning-dystopias! But try to be original and helpful. You did not invent black leather. Or mirrorshades. And the people may not all be fools. Who knows? They might actually listen to you... heed your warnings... and thus make you a false prophet.
Read the story of Jonah. And then snap out of it! Your job is to be credible. To scare folks with plausible failure modes. To make folks worry.. and then help make it not happen.
What is humanity's greatest flaw?
Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors... though it hurts. In his poem "To a Louse," Robert Burns said:
"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion..."
("Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many a blunder free us, and foolish notions...")
Or, my own aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end....
Would you rather be living 100 years from now, when we'll presumably have access to so many more answers?
Is it better to sow than to reap? Jonas Salk said our top job is to be "good ancestors." If we in this era meet the challenges of our time, then our heirs may have powers that would seem godlike to us — the way we take for granted miracles like flying through the sky or witnessing events far across the globe. If those descendants do turn out to be better, wiser people than us, will they marvel that primitive beings managed so well, the same way we're awed by the best of our ancestors? I hope so. It's poignant consolation for not getting to be a demigod.
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!). Learn More
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. Learn More
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. Learn More
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. Learn More
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. Learn More
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. Learn More
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.Learn More
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 appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others. Learn More
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