An Interview with David Brin

Our guest David Brin is an astrophysicist, technology consultant, and best-selling author who speaks, writes, and advises on a range of topics including national defense, creativity, and space exploration. He is also a well-known and influential futurist (one of four “World’s Best Futurists,” according to The Urban Developer), and it is his ideas on the future, specifically the future of civilization, that I hope to learn about here.   

Ilene: David, you base many of your predictions of the future on a theory of historical conflict between two models of civilization -– the diamond and the pyramid. Can we start with a brief explanation of these?

David: In somewhere like 99% of human cultures, the stable attractor state was feudalism or some variant, a pyramidal society with owner lords controlling ignorant masses. This structure was a huge success for the topmost males, who got harems, reinforcing the system… but it was lousy at governance because it inherently suppresses criticism and ferment and creativity from below. Whenever human males get a lot of power, we feel within us a temptation to consolidate that power and re-create that pyramid.

The Enlightenment diamond-shaped society, with a huge, prosperous, socially-mobile, empowered middle class, is by far the most productive and creative system the world has ever seen. In 200 years, we accomplished more than all other societies combined, and not just in physical endeavors. Also in attacking age-old assumptions about race, gender and environmental blindness. Adam Smith showed us how to use competition open and fair to create fecund arenas markets, democracy, science, etc. that in turn spawn cornucopia.

But the diamond is unstable. The very same wealth that we use to attract creative people to take risks and foster new goods, services, etc. starts to build a new caste of owner-oligarchs, whom Adam Smith knew to be the inherent enemies of the very system that engendered them! Marx was also aware of this basic “contradiction of capitalism.” Capitalism’s winners are tempted to become cheaters, using wealth to suppress new competition. And cheating kills capitalism, perverting it and giving it a bad name.

Ilene: Lately, it seems like there are a lot of winners who are also cheaters… are we going backwards?

David: Amid 6,000 years of feudal despotisms, a few brief moments of illumination happened when citizens rose up to rule themselves. Periclean Athenian democracy was spectacularly agile and creative, but only lasted about one human lifespan, before it was crushed by neighboring oligarchies. The Florentine Republic was shorter lived. But we’ve managed about 250 years of an amazing experiment.

So don’t be myopic. Other generations of Americans faced crises and attempts by would-be feudal lords to smash our diamond back into the old pattern. Generally, these phases of the American Civil War (we’re in phase eight) have ended surprisingly well, as we extend freedom and rights and dignity to ever more kinds of people. But at the time, each crisis seemed impossible to overcome.

We need confidence. Alas, that is why many voices in power and media try to spread gloom.

Ilene: You said above that we are in Civil War, phase eight? What were the previous seven phases of American Civil War?

David: I describe them elsewhere (e.g. Phases of the American Civil War). Simplistically speaking, there have been two Americas. One is dynamically forward-looking, obsessed with trying new things and taking on new challenges. It respects pragmatism, negotiation and science, admires the self-made man or woman, and tends to keep widening the circle of those who can play. The other side of our character is romantic drawn by mythologies and nostalgia for the past – its rituals and symbols and hierarchies. One might call this our “confederate” side, but indeed, those traits were official doctrine in most of those older societies wherein our ancestors dwelled. Moreover, you can see romantic leanings all across the spectrum, in the incantations of Karl Marx and the conjurings of J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas. The Nazis were an extremely romantic movement, as were the Stalinists.

What of those phases of our recurring civil war? Well… Phase one took place in the South, during the Revolution, when the British found their strongest support among Loyalist/Tory militias in Georgia and the Carolinas.  It was Scots-Irish hill settlers, fighting for Daniel Morgan, who tipped the balance in that struggle, toward what would become the American Experiment.

Phase two featured a period when southern politicians grew ever stronger in control of the U.S. federal government.  True, Andrew Jackson clamped down on John C. Calhoun’s secessionism, in the 1830s, and kept the nation together. But Jackson’s overall sentiments were what we might call “confederate.” Indeed, southern control over levers of power only grew until, by 1860, five of nine Supreme Court justices were slave-owners.

There’s no time or space here, to go into great detail, so I’ll leave the others as an assignment!

Ilene: Thank you, I’ll check that out. I’m curious, if, as you’ve suggested, our imaginations cause us to be delusional, how do we still manage to advance?

David: Human beings are inherently misled into subjective fantasies, but there’s a saving grace. We all have different delusions. Other people don’t necessarily share yours, and hence they will help you penetrate yours through the miracle of criticism! Others will tell you about your delusions.  (And boy, will you be eager to return the favor!)

The greatest discovery of our recent, enlightenment revolution was reciprocal accountability, a method that allows adversarial competition to work its magic in flat-open-fair arenas, the greatest of which are markets, democracy, science, justice courts, sports. All five are regulated to limit cheating and monolithic domination. In all five, the core principle is that empowered participants keep an eye on each other.

Competition by itself always leads to cheating by the powerful, who try to establish pyramids of power, like feudalism. Yet, competition is the great creative force! So how do we save it from its own contradictions? By cooperation! By cooperating with each other, via politics, to make rules and prevent cheating, so that competition can thrive!

This is clear in the fifth arena — sports. Without tight rules and regulations and referees, any sporting league would collapse. As it happens, something similar is why our other four arenas democracy, science, courts, and markets work better now than they ever did, in any previous society. But cheaters will innovate, and all of our creative-competitive arenas are currently under attack by rogues, seeking to re-establish pyramids of inherited power.

Ilene: Do the arenas for competition that you describe have different ideal amounts of rules and rituals?

David: Markets need creativity and can afford a high error rate, so their ritualized combat is loose. Science can regulate itself largely because practitioners are watching each other, fiercely. Courtrooms need very little creativity but a very low error rate, hence they are meticulous, slow, patterned and structured. Of course, this starts to break down when the judges become political shills.

Ilene: Do you think there is still a long way to go to reach satisfactory balances in the marketplace and other arenas?

David: Markets are the filthiest competitive arena, but produce the wealth that keeps the others going. The left denounces “competition” and the right denounces “regulation” when it is only regulated competition that has ever prevented inevitable human cheating and allowed our creativity to flower.

All the five competitive arenas feature ritualized combat – in the marketplace, elections, science conferences, the courtroom, and playing field – where “truth” is determined in terms of best products, policies, theories, cases and teams. But there is no similar way for us to adjudicate between ten million rumors, stories, lies and fake news items that spread each hour on the web. I predicted this would be a problem 25 years ago, in my novel EARTH. Alas, no one heeds science fiction authors!

Ilene: Perhaps we should! How did you know?

David: I don’t know why some things seem obvious. In the twenty years since I published The Transparent Society, almost every single page has come true, in one form or another.

Ilene: This quote of yours made me wonder whether insatiability might be like a design flaw, hardwired into us. Do you think it is?

The question of satiability is crucial here. Among the elites in any society, there are those who measure their status and contentment by their relative wealth — the degree by which they appear to be elevated over the majority. Others measure their sense of success in terms of personal goals — items they want to own and things they want to do or achieve. To these latter individuals, it is immaterial whether millions of others get to own and do the same things. In fact, the more the merrier!

Distinguishing between these two motivations for seeking wealth can be profoundly significant, not only psychologically but also philanthropically. Many political and social disagreements among members of the monied elite arise from tension between these two views of wealth — whether it is a means to achieve status above others, or a means to achieve specific and tangible goals. What seems to determine the balance is satiability, having to do with an individual’s ability to draw genuine satisfaction and a sense of completion from the achievement of his or her previously stated goals.

David: Well, well. Whoever wrote that sure had a strong point of view! I hope he got plenty of critical scrutiny to penetrate or interrogate delusions! It would also be nice if he got to test that theory. By getting rich.

Ilene: Sign me up too! You’ve been saying that we are in the midst of a culture war.  Now, if anything, this culture war has been getting more intense. Science is under attack; even basic human rights principles are under attack. Sometimes it feels like we’re losing.

David: It’s a mistake to get distracted by matters like symbolism, or “left vs right,” or even racism, as appalling and deadly evil as it is. The main issue today – underlying all others is the destruction of our ability to use facts, to refute rumors and to demolish lies. To provide a basis for grownup negotiation.

And it’s not just in science!  Can you name for me one profession of high knowledge and skill that’s not under attack by extremists on the far left or today’s entire right? Teachers, medical doctors, journalists, civil servants, law professionals, economists, skilled labor, professors… oh, yes and now the intelligence community and military officer corps, which are being denounced as a malignant “deep state.”

We could get past the surface problems of culture war – and yes, finally crush racism and sexism and environmental neglect if facts were still weapons that moderates could use against fanatics. Or that sane adults could use for negotiation. The destruction of fact has been the top priority of those re-igniting civil war.

Ilene: And they have been pretty successful! A substantial portion of our population distrusts scientists and rejects science. Climate change denial is a good example. In spite of tremendous evidence, many people believe climate change is a hoax. They believe thousands of scientists are part of a conspiracy which sells climate change for its own purposes. Why has this “War on Science” been so effective?

David: Science had to be attacked first. Most Americans do not buy into the “War on Science,” but a large enough minority has that they now will believe any cult incantation can substitute for facts or evidence.

Think about how this fits the model of an oligarchic coup. The New Lords will never be able to take complete control so long as fact-people like journalists, teachers, economists, doctors, the FBI… and yes, scientists… can stand in their way saying, “the facts don’t agree with you.”

Ilene: And in the arena of democracy, an anti-science minority now has enormous political power…?

David: The core objective of the enemies of the Republic has been achieved the total destruction of politics as a problem-solving methodology for the American Republic. The very word has been trashed. And the “Hastert Rule” promises damnation for any member of one party who dares to offer to negotiate with the other.

Ilene: What are your predictions for the US and the world in 50 years?

David: About a century ago, John M. Keynes prophesied that rising industrial production would pour forth so much wealth with such automated efficiency that the forty hour week (just then coming into fashion) would be reduced to thirty hours, then twenty, as jobs were shared and the working class got more leisure time. As it happened, there was a vast world out there that still needed to industrialize, and the West’s appetite for ever-more goods kept factories and mines etc. humming hard for all of those decades. And the two were related, for the developing world was uplifted primarily out of the spending of Americans and others, on trillions of dollars’ worth of crap we never needed.

But there’s a light on the horizon. A century forestalled, the era foreseen by Keynes appears about to dawn, with automation seeming about to render most kinds of human industrial employment wholly or partially obsolete. Indeed, many white-collar jobs and even creative tasks seem prone to takeover by AI systems. Local production of goods and food may end the long chains of container ships carrying cargoes across oceans, an ecological godsend, but sending the world economy into convulsions.

If the Keynes era dawns, then we’ll be faced with many decisions:

  • Who will own the means of production and the cornucopia that pours forth. If it is a classic, feudal pyramid, then exploitation and unfairness are guaranteed, followed by revolution. But it needn’t be that way.
  • Will paychecks be replaced by UBI or Universal Basic Income? Or else by giving every citizen a “share” in these urban factories and farms, so they can live off dividends?
  • Either way, how will folks spend their time?  We are already in an under-appreciated era of hobbies, pastimes, avocations and amateur sagacities. There are more blacksmiths and sword makers in the U.S. today that in the Wild West or European middle ages.  In my novel Foundation’s Triumph… and separately in EARTH… I posited an Age of Amateurs, and it is already here.  But… will that suffice for all people?
  • If all of this happens under the guidance of Artificial Intelligence, will they help us to design better ways for a better era?  And will we agree with those super-minds about what is “better”?

Ilene: When do you think AI will surpass us and what will “they” do with us?

David: For this, let me refer you to my big talk on AI, before a packed house at IBM’s World of Watson congress in Las Vegas, October 2016. A punchy tour of big perspectives on Intelligence, as well as both artificial and human augmentation. (Innovation Talks: David Brin.)

Ilene: Do you think there is more to a human being than what can be replicated by AI? Something non-reproducible, maybe non-material?

David: Brain science suggests we may be harder to emulate than the AI optimists and “singularity” zealots claim. First we thought we’d need the same number of computer binary “flops” as there are neurons in a brain – in the hundred billions range. Then folks said we’ll need to emulate the number of inter-cellular synapses, in the hundreds of trillions. Now we know that each synapse flash is accompanied by “calculations’ taking place inside the neurons and surrounding tissues… perhaps a hundred quadrillion murky, nonlinear bits of info processing. Oh, we are marvels, all right.

Still, I wager within just a few years computer emulations will seem intelligent enough to cause us real uproar.

Ilene: If attacks by cheaters which destabilize human society are a consequence of human insatiability, perhaps we could create AI that is less insatiable?

David: Watch that video of my IBM talk. I describe six approaches to making AI. One of them – “machine learning” – is really taking off.  One of them – secret Wall Street trading programs — could end our species. But one of them, portrayed in EXISTENCE and some of my short stories, could offer us a soft landing into a world of AI beings who are decent folks. If we raise them as our children. As humans.

****

To learn more about David, please visit him at his website and blog

Originally posted at Phil’s Stock World.

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay.

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