Futurists Reflect On The End Of A Decade
DOUG MYRLAND (Host): Good morning. I’m Doug Myrland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh These Days in San Diego. What are the most significant things that have happened over the last decade? Did the 2000s live up to our expectations? And, what are the predictions for the next decade? Well, the new year is traditionally a time for these kinds of questions, and this end of the decade thing causes even more such speculation and reflection. And today we have two guests who spend a good deal of their time imagining what the future may be like. We’re pleased to welcome, first, David Brin, futurist, consultant, science fiction novelist whose books include “The Postman,” “Earth,” “The Transparent Society.” David, we’re very glad you could be with us.
DAVID BRIN (Author): Great to be here, Doug.
MYRLAND: And we’re also pleased to be joined by Vernor Vinge, professor emeritus of computer science at San Diego State University, award winning science fiction author whose recent book “Rainbow’s End: A Novel with One Foot in the Future” was the 2007 Hugo Best Novel winner. Vernor, welcome back to the campus.
VERNOR VINGE (Author): Ah, thank you, Doug.
MYRLAND: And we want to start with kind of a big picture question and, well, I’ll start with you, David. What do you think were some of the most significant things that happened over the last decade?
BRIN: Well, everybody was going to turn to 9/11 as the great trauma. I think the trauma happened a year earlier and I can get to that later. But I think the most significant event historically was the decline of Pax Americana, the American peace, the notion that America was the arbiter in world affairs. I, you know, I’m a moderate, I go neither extreme left nor extreme right on this issue. It’s neither a source of joy or total catastrophe but I think it’s the most newsworthy item in probably the last 100 years.
MYRLAND: One of the things that you said to our producer, in his notes, had to do with the coming of the Y2K and the double zeros and I’m curious to ask you your thoughts about this numerology of the decade.
BRIN: Well, first off, we have to get pedantic here for a second. You know, Vernor and I both were college professors so I have to wag my finger and remind everybody, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, that the decade doesn’t end until December 2010 because you count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. And this was the same pedantry that made everybody want to slap guys like me across the face back in 1999, pointing out that January 2001 was the beginning of the 21st century. Putting that aside, I just recently met Alvin Toffler and I think he was one of the great geniuses of the last 30, 40 years because he predicted that we would enter a period of psychological malaise, as Jimmy Carter called it, a period when we would turn away from the notion of the future because of future shock. And it wasn’t the technology, it wasn’t the science. Sure, in the last 15 years, Craig Venter and some of the people in biology have broken the next theological barrier for science by actually making life in a test tube, things like that. I don’t think that’s the reason. I think that Y2K was the wrong version of Y2K; it wasn’t a computer glitch. It was those double zeros showing up in the middle of our date, and just a mélange of everything. I think even before the 9/11 terror attacks, people were just averting their eyes from the notion of the future. And Vernor and I have noticed this because science fiction has faded from people’s thoughts except in cheap movies and…
MYRLAND: Or expensive movies.
BRIN: …or expensive movies. But even those movies, as we can go in later, even those big budget sci-fi movies have their eyes turned away from the future, away from the possibilities. It’s just not a topic that interests people. And despite all the talk, justified talk, that the right has gone maniacally against the future, there is a substantial threat of this on the left as well.
MYRLAND: Well, Vernor Vinge, I gather from my producer’s notes in talking with you that you’re a little more optimistic about both the recent past and the upcoming future. Is that a fair characterization?
VINGE: I think, like most science fiction writers, including David, that we deal not so much in predicting the future as to imagining scenarios. No one knows what the future is really going to be and predictions of the form that we used to think of in the 1900s are things that are kind of dead on arrival type things since they’re almost all quite unlikely. But scenarios where you think of various extreme things that could happen rather than predicting one particular trajectory, that’s actually, I think, much the more practical approach to thinking about the future because if you have several scenarios that are quite different, including some that may be quite pessimistic and some that are quite optimistic, you can work toward the ones you want and you can also watch for symptoms in the world around you that indicate that one or another of those scenarios is moving along successfully and alter your behavior accordingly. So while I think that that actually the greatest threat to humanity is the same as what the greatest threat to humanity was in the late 1900s, nuclear war, while I think that those threats are still there and those scenarios are still possible, that there are enormously optimistic things that are going on. Perhaps the single most spectacular thing has been the penetration of cell phones into an enormously high percentage of the entire world. People that we regarded as totally cut off are now having cell phones, not necessarily talking to you and me every day, but talking among themselves, getting their markets to work better, able to coordinate their aspirations better. Things like this actually, to me, are the best contraindicator to the people who talk about the digital divide. When you have billions of cell phones out there in all these people’s hands, perhaps the most spectacular social technological event of this decade, that’s very, very good reason, I think, for optimism.
MYRLAND: So if you believe that the widespread use and adoption of cell phones is the most significant technological…
VINGE: Social technological…
MYRLAND: …social technological activity of the last decade, how does that compare to other decades that we’ve all lived through in terms of rate of change, amount of significance of change. And here’s what I’m getting at. It seems like at the end of every decade, everybody always says, well, we’ve had more change in the last decade than we’ve ever had before. Is that true or does it just seem that way?
VINGE: Ah, you can look at particular examples going one way or the other but one thing to realize about the buzzword exponential growth is the fundamental defining characteristic of exponential growth is that the percentage rate – the percentage change per year is constant, which means that you can always make statements about how things are spectacularly better than before and you can also always make statements if you’re looking at percentage growth that things are like they were before. But I think that in the case of issues like cell phones that there is a significant difference and that is the level of penetration, the amount of inclusion that it has made possible for the entire human race, not just the techno-geeky American types or the Europeans but everybody.
BRIN: And, if I may, the empowerment of people. What I’ve pointed out is that the lesson of 9/11, of the tragedies on that day, both Vernor and I consult extensively with some of our government agencies, Homeland Security, and Defense and all of that about possible future threats. And actually it’s interesting how our roles have been set up today because I’m not usually this gloomy. I’m usually considered quite an optimist. But the thing that I point out is the thing that our professionals often try to squelch and not pay attention to, is that every single thing that was done on 9/11 that worked, from getting the buildings evacuated to recording the events to fighting back against the enemy, every effective measure that was taken on 9/11, including even fighting the fires, was done by amateurs, was done by citizens because the firefighters died running into those buildings. The rebellion on Flight UA93, it was the day of the citizen and it could – and it was empowered by the cell phone so we’re not just talking about third world people being empowered, we’re talking about American citizens being empowered to actively act in a resilient and robust way, technically technologically empowered to stand up as virally as the – their ancestors did for the Civil War or the Minute Men.
MYRLAND: Okay, well, now I’m going to put you on the spot then. How do you think this empowerment, this lesson that was learned in this last decade, is likely to manifest itself in the coming decade? Let’s talk about a couple of scenarios where that citizen empowerment might manifest.
BRIN: Well, in the transparent society and in my novel “The Postman,” I’ve tried hard to push this notion that it’s foolish to rely only on a protector caste, a caste of people, a clade of people out there who we pay with our tax dollars to anticipate. We have these organs above our eyes, just above our eyes, called the prefrontal lobes and these are the parts of our brain that let us do what Einstein called the Gedanken experiment, the thought experiment, projecting ourselves into the future. This is what Vernor and I do for a living in our science fiction, doing these thought experiments about what might happen next. Well, everybody does this. What might happen if I try to run this yellow light? And these thought experiments about the future are what empower us and this is the thing – this is the aspect of life that I think is both empowered by technology and yet has been somehow – people have been pulling back from it. This is what bothers me, is that there’s just less interest now than I saw back in the ‘90s in what – in the question you asked, what might happen next. One hears it asked less.
MYRLAND: Vernor Vinge, do you agree with that?
VINGE: I think actually, as David mentioned, our roles are kind of reversed from when we usually debate each other that I am more optimistic on this, although in terms of what could be good, I think David and I are in very great agreement. Basically we’re in a situation now where there’s a possibility of having hundreds of millions and even billions of people who are relatively comfortable, knowledgeable in many, many myriad different ways, and possessing greater talent than any government or any corporation could ever scare up for its own control and that these people now are able to communicate and that they have database resources and data computation resources and this is the single most likely thing to get the human race through the next few decades in good shape, the fact that the goodwill of millions of smart and brilliant and interested people outbalances both the – some of the negative forces we see as well as the bad actors.
MYRLAND: Well, that gives us something to think about for the next couple of minutes over the break. And one more thing I want to talk about is a quote that I have of yours, Vernor, which is reality is becoming its own database. And I want to ask you what you mean by that but we need to take a break. Our guests are David Brin and Vernor Vinge. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego.
MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Our guests are Vernor Vinge and David Brin. We’re talking about the decade just past and the decade to come. And before the break, I quoted you, Vernor, reality is becoming its own database. And I want to ask you what you mean by that?
VINGE: Ah. First of all, I’m not sure what it – who is the origin of that quote. I personally regard it as a very cool quote and would love to be able to claim it. The notion comes from the fact that computation and computers, very small computers, not powerful computers, are becoming ubiquitously part of the things that we regard as machines and some things that we don’t even regard as machines. This – The reason for this is economic. It is far cheaper to have the logic of a machine defined by the software than it is to try to make complicated moving parts. Just compare typewriters, how complicated the moving parts in a typewriter are now—that is, a printer—compared with the typewriters of the 1900s. So this pervasive entrance of computation into the environment has led us now to the point where these devices are themselves networked so that you have sort of an internet beneath the internet. And it leads us to the place where the average object in the environment, at least machine object, has a certain amount of—intelligence is too big a word—has a certain amount of smarts. It knows where it is often, it knows what it is. Oftentimes, it has its own manual onboard. And it can sense its surroundings and it can communicate with nearby objects and, by extension, then it can communicate with anything in the connected universe. This is a contrast to the notion of having huge computer centers and server farms that have databases inside them that are built by collecting data from all over the world. The contrast of having all these small devices in the world, besides independence, is that those small devices together contain far much more information, in potential, than the server farms. So summing that aspect of information up into the phrase ‘reality becomes its own database,’ I think, is actually very appropriate because we are in awe of the amount of information that’s in Google’s databases but if you compare that to the amount of information that could be available if you had sensibility about everything in the real world, that would be even larger and much more up to date.
MYRLAND: Is it fair to say that during the last decade we saw the major dispersal of these small devices and these very small databases? And also, I guess, is it fair to say it was completely unintentional in terms of how we really planned for it?
VINGE: Ah, there were people who had a very clear idea that it was going on but as far as there being some central institutional motivation, I don’t think there was. Basically, it started from the wen of just replacing moving parts with software, that wen, then networking those things. That’s the stage that we’re at now. And it gets you – and in a sort of very organic way, it gets you into a rather extreme situation which, if we want to be pessimistic, has its own terrible risks.
MYRLAND: Well, let’s talk about that. So it’s – So I guess you both would assert that this is not entirely a good thing.
BRIN: Well, it all depends on how agile and assertive we are as citizens, bringing back the old concept. Taking Vernor’s progression a step farther, we now have these RFID chips that are showing up in our products in order to help Walmart to do its inventory. Now it will know each box on its shelves, will identify itself, and they’ll be able to just scan their warehouse and know where everything is. Well, soon these chips will be everywhere and this will combine with Google Maps and other information sources so if you are walking around, you’re even seeing commercials about this now, it was a wild and crazy idea just two years ago, you’re walking around with these goggles on or even your sunglasses. Your sunglasses, a camera on the corner will scan people’s faces, their biometrics as they’re going by, look them up and supply nametags to everybody who’s walking by. What are we seeing here? You know, not only being able to map your environment and have a little yellow arrow take you wherever you want to go. What we’re talking about here is the return of the village. In the village, you knew everybody.
MYRLAND: So the end of anonymity.
BRIN: Well, yes but…
MYRLAND: And we’ve kind of voluntarily given up our anonymity anyway. I mean…
BRIN: We carry…
MYRLAND: …I’ve got a Ralphs card. You know, I’ve given up my anonymity in order to get a discount on a block of cheese.
BRIN: And we carry around prosthetics in our pocket for the old reputation that we used to rely on that Shakespeare’s characters used to die for their reputation. We have these prosthetics in our pocket that – a driver’s license, credit card, all of these things will be floating in the world like reputation used to, so we’re returning to the age of reputation and the village. What I point out in “The Transparent Society” and in my novel “Earth” is that this can lead to the bad village or the good village. All of us have both of these villages in our mind. The good village of Andy Hardy movies. The bad village that 99% of villages were. They were oppressed by the local gentry, bullied by thugs, oppressed by the local gossips. We do not – we all, viscerally, worry about both Big Brother dominating us from above and a million little brothers bullying us from the side in – if the village comes back. And we’re scared of it for good reason, and the way to make sure it’s the good village and not the bad village is to become assertively part of this process.
MYRLAND: So we have a paradigm here where we have this wonderful opportunity of citizen empowerment and, at the same time, the dark side of that empowerment which brings oppression on an individual level rather than a state level.
MYRLAND: Is that a fair characterization?
MYRLAND: Umm-hmm? Yes?
BRIN: And that is why science fiction has probed ahead in some of these concepts. You know, Vernor says we don’t try to predict the future but sometimes we try to prevent it. The most powerful science fiction stories were the self-preventing prophecies.
BRIN: The greatest of them all being George Orwell’s “1984,” providing the metaphor of Big Brother so that now the rightwing accuses the left of trying to be Big Brother. The left accuses the right of being Big Brother. And they never pause to say, hey, look, we both fear essentially the same thing, we just differ over the process, that Big Brother might arrive. And so there are a lot of other – I mean, it was in science fiction that the ecological movement got its start, and we’re hoping that “Soylent Green” was a self-preventing prophecy.
MYRLAND: Now we’ve seen great societal and political change in the past decade or, again, it seems like we’ve seen that. Do we think that there’s actually been social progress made in the world? That in the long view, a hundred years from now, you know, historians and those who make such pronouncements will say the naughty oughts actually brought along some positive progress? Or have we just sort of been spinning our wheels for the last 10 years?
VINGE: I think that there has been positive progress. The – some of the examples that we’ve already talked about, I think, illustrate that. Ten years is short enough and there are other trends that are big enough that on the scale of 100 years, to look back at our time is probably going to be one of those retrospective definitions, well, it’s obvious in retrospect that the first decade of the 21st century was ‘fill in the blank’: a prelude to disaster, blind people walking into a disaster they should’ve been able to foresee, or the magical turning point where finally we began to get things straight as the entire human race found its way to maturity. You can see all of that is obvious in retrospect depending on what happens in the teens and the twenties.
MYRLAND: Is it true that we’re seeing a melding of technological change and social change or have we always had social and technological change go hand in hand?
BRIN: Well, I totally agree with that. And when it comes to progress, there are more than enough good things to point at. The fraction of humanity, the percentage per capita that is suffering from violence and oppression has gone down relentlessly since 1945 every single decade. We’re more aware of oppression and violence because of our media and, ironically, that’s the very awareness that has helped to cause it to go down. As far as the fraction of the human race that live in a, at least a slightly middle class degree of comfort and able to send their kids to school instead of sending them to work, that fraction has been skyrocketing. And the ironic driver of this goes back to 1946 when the great genius of the 20th century, George Marshall—everybody knows about his because of his generous Marshall Plan by which America was generous to its defeated enemies and helped them restart their industry—but a lot of people don’t realize that a far bigger thing that Marshall did as Secretary of State of the United States was to set up a countermercantilist trade pattern in the world. All other empires, Pax Britannica, Pax Romana, the Roman Empire, Persia, China, they always set up mercantilist trade patterns that would bring gold back to the imperial capital. Marshall and Truman were the first to set up a countermercantilist pattern in which the industries in other countries would get to sell things to us and we would send gold to them. And we – Americans went on a buying spree that only ended—and it’s only somewhat ended, we’re still in the Christmas season—it only really ended this last year in which our splurge of purchases basically drove the economic revitalization of Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Europe, and now China and India at the same time. This is a prodigious feat, in my opinion, the greatest accomplishment of America but it outweighs all foreign aid combined.
MYRLAND: Well, now do you think then, you mentioned China and India, are they going to take up where we left off? Are they going to kind of pick up that mantle of being consumers?
BRIN: Being the new Pax – Well, gosh, I hope not because I don’t think that they have the wisdom of George Marshall to look that far ahead and to say how can we manage our turn as the great paramount power as well or better than America? I don’t hear that conversation going on over there.
MYRLAND: Vernor, what do you think about this concept?
VINGE: I think, looking at the last – making the scale larger, I think, in many ways should lead to greater optimism. And that is on a scale of 500 years or a 1000 years, it has just been a miraculous series of improvements of people recognizing where the – that their self-interest is at a farther horizon than it was before. And, to me, the history of the U.S. and George Marshall at the end of World War II is a high point examp – sort of a crystallization of that. But overall, for this to succeed, an enormously high percentage of people have to realize these facts about how their welfare depends on everybody’s welfare. And I think, in fact, that that dispersion of understanding has come wider and wider and that there are millions of people in these – in all over the world who understand this stuff now. The question of whether this is going to be stronger than 18th century and 19th century and 20th century nationalism, that’s really a critical question because those attitudes are still there and given the actual machinery that exists, those attitudes can cause an enormous amount of harm.
MYRLAND: I’m thinking of someone who has quite a nationalistic focus. If they heard what you were talking about, they’d be saying, well, that has the potential to undermine some of the positive social structures and national structures that we have in place. Are you suggesting that this is a natural progression or that it’s a series of upheavals?
VINGE: Actually, I’m suggesting both. I think in biology and in astronomy and in social progress, we’ve noticed that there is a combination of things that happen over long periods of time, centuries of things getting gradually better because people understand things better and understand where their self-interest lies. And at the same time that’s coexisting with punctuated things, events that change the whole scene that may only take four or five hours. Actually, we’re in that era now but even in the 20th century and before, there were things that could happen in just a few days that could turn the applecart over. And so the goal, I think, is to try to recognize how to be as resilient as possible to the applecart turning over events.
BRIN: And resilience and robustness are themes that both Vernor and I have been trying to push on our government but it’s very hard for them because the government professionals, their instinct is to use those prefrontal lobes to anticipate. They want to protect us. So they want to anticipate every problem so they ask Vernor and me and our peers anticipate this, anticipate that, anticipate this, come up with scenarios. And that’s not our instinct. Our instinct is to say, no, you’ve got to make our civilization more robust because we can’t anticipate them all. We can come up with a whole bunch of scenarios and you can try to deal with this and this and this and this. You know, people are creeped out by this whole 2012 nonsense. But what creeps me out is that two or three of the last centuries actually had their major transformation in which everything changed within a few hours, as Vernor said, in – at the 14th year. It was in 1814 that you had Waterloo that transformed European politics. 1914 was the start of the World War I that ended this incredible future oriented vigor of European civilization. And so I want to point out that Vernor is the author of this concept called the Singularity. That’s the opposite notion, the notion that we, together with our machines and our science, might learn so much so fast in an exponentiating way that – We all have friends who have taken this idea far more farther than Vernor ever meant it to go and in crazy directions but they honestly think that they and we are going to be indistinguishable from gods within 30 years.
MYRLAND: Hmm. Well, that’s a great place to stop and contemplate for a couple of minutes while we take a break. And when we come back, I want to bring this down from this worldview level to an individual level and talk about some of the experiences that we, as individuals, have – some of the ways we’ve changed and experienced change in the past decade and what some of these changes are going to mean for us as individual human beings. And we’re speaking with David Brin and Vernor Vinge on These Days in San Diego. We’ll be right back.
MYRLAND: You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Vernor Vinge and David Brin. We’re talking about the past, present and the future. And I want to talk about what happened to all of us in the past decade and what we may have learned, what we may not have as individuals. We all got 10 years older and, hopefully, we had some experiences unique to that decade. But, you know, we ended our conversation just before the break talking about the singularity and how we may be facing an extraordinary increase in ability and knowledge. But we also are much the same as we were 10 years ago as individual human beings. Vernor, I know that you’ve expressed some surprise about the lack of progress in areas like medicine.
VINGE: Medicine is a very interesting thing, I think, for folks who are wildly optimistic about technology. If you look at research in the biological sciences, I think it is living up to very wildly optimistic assessments about the progress of science. On the other hand, the translation of those results into medicine for people has not met with at least the science fictional aspirations and personal aspirations of most of us. And, in fact, that’s such a striking phenomenon that I think it’s the reason why, in the last 10 years, there’s been a renaming of specialties. There’s now a specialty called translational research or translational medicine, which basically just recognizes that there is a very big issue when it comes to translating research results into clinical results.
BRIN: Well – I’m sorry, Vernor. Go on.
VINGE: And so that’s a reason for being – for feeling frustrated. I think that actually there is an enormous overhang of research results that are – is going to come crashing down on us in a very good way, that we’re going to see particular things, unpredictable which ones they are, but that all of a sudden there’s going to be a lot of these promises that are going to be fulfilled in not according to any order that we may ask for but I think that’s one positive possibility for the next 10 years.
BRIN: Well, I – Vernor, I just love these panels with you because you put me – I’m known as the crown prince of optimism but you put me in this contrary reflex of being the pessimist and it’s delightful because as people on both the left and the right know, it’s more fun to be cynical. The thing is that what we’re run into was actually predictable as soon as we understood what DNA was about. DNA looks like it’s a binary code. It looks like our computers ought to be able to read it and we can now read it to a large degree, and that’s been huge progress. And we can read it well enough to be able to actually arrogate to God’s power and we’ve made viruses and we’ve made bacteria, an incredible theological leap. But what happens when you start translating the genome into the phenome of our bodies and all of that, it’s non-linear. Everything is vastly, vastly more complicated than we ever imagined and I do not expect that the medical parts of things, except prosthetics – I think we’re about to have a huge breakthrough in prosthetics. People who were – had been amputated – People who’ve lost their eyes are now starting to see. People who could not hear are starting to be able to hear. People are going to be walking around who could not walk around before. We’re going to see some organ replacements because these are things that we can tinker and learn how to do with machines. But when it comes to actually messing with our cells of our bodies, I think we’re another 10 years away before the computers are going to enable us to really do that on a big scale.
MYRLAND: I think the other thing that people often talk about when they look back at the last decade is the extraordinary change that we’ve seen in the way we communicate with each other, in the way we get news. The other day we were talking about social media on this program, people talking to each other. Do you think that this is just a late 20th century trend where we see these kind of changes in the way we communicate? Or again, is that going to be an exponential change? Is the next generation going to be speaking a completely different language, if you will, and communicating using tools that would be, to us, completely foreign?
BRIN: Well, you pressed a real hot button for me because one of the things that I find very dismal and it may be because I’m almost 60 now and it’s time for me to start yelling at kids to get off the grass. But I think that – I go back to – Vernor and I, we do this circuit back east and I go back to the MIT media lab and talk to all these guys and they love to hear from us about our scenarios but at the same time, I go back there every time and I find out that the grad students are doing more having to do with expressing emotion on the web or connecting to people in networks on the web or tweeting, impulsively expressing themselves. There’s been almost no investment in teaching people how to argue better, in a more mature way, in a way that actually solves problems, that actually kills bad ideas dead. You never see this. It’s not even considered possible. So what we’ve gotten lately in the so-called improvements in communication is just more self-expression, people being able to Google, quickly grab an unconnected fact, and express themselves as quickly as they possibly can. And what’s needed is for people to, over this next decade, learn to engage in what’s called discourse. Now that may sound very pedantic and preachy of me but if we’re going to be the citizens who stand up and take ahold of this incredibly complex, hopeful civilization and decide between the good and the bad village, decide which of the technologies are going to be wise, we’ve got to be able to do that.
MYRLAND: So teaching this skill, this curriculum of being able to use – is that the function of this Big Brother kind of state? Or is this something that we should do as collective individuals? Vernor Vinge.
BRIN: Definitely us.
VINGE: Yes, I think if it were done by the government, it would almost, by definition, not have – not involve everybody in the way that the present networking situation can involve everybody. Overall, I think that we are on the ground floor of great opportunities. In fact, that’s one interesting feature of exponential growth; you’re always on the ground floor. You can make that any year you want to talk, you can make that statement. But what it means is that we have these enormous opportunities and, in particular, opportunities to figure out ways to make it possible for large numbers of people to cooperate in a focused way. In other words, as David is saying, not just to exchange their opinions but to communicate in such a way that answers come out and solutions are found. In my novel “Rainbow’s End,” as a matter of drama, I have it suppose that that has been figured out and that in some cases it operates on such a large scale you aren’t really quite aware of what’s going on. Answers just sort of materialize when you need them. On a smaller scale, for instance on emergency operation or a military operation, you have the people in the field may only be 5 or 10 or 20 people in the field but they are backed up by hundreds of thousands of people, which is actually the case right now in large scale operations. But these hundreds of thousands of people are intellectually involved in the same way as if they were there. So if you’re one of the point people on the ground trying to deal with a fire or some other threat, it’s as though you have the knowledge and support of all the relevant human wisdom that there is and all that – all those resources on a minute-to-minute basis to solve your problems.
MYRLAND: So that’s sort of David Brin’s good village. You know, that’s the volunteer fire department in the good village according to David.
VINGE: Yes, indeed.
BRIN: And Howard Rheingold coined a term for it called smart mobs. I never really liked that term but it stuck. And in my new novel I have, for instance, a woman and she’s aboard a Zeppelin oceanliner kind of thing and she suspects something’s wrong. Well, her own eyeglasses are showing. She calls up a smart mob, and her own eyeglasses show about 2,000 people and it’s growing every moment, what’s she’s seeing, and one of them happens to be a Zeppelin mechanic, one of them happens to be this or the other, so all she has to do is wonder what is that? And her irises of her eyes are expressing wonder while she’s looking at it. The smart mob simply whispers. That is this device, that’s this, that’s this. And so she is able to act like a secret agent even though she’s not one. So…
VINGE: It’s finally making us science fiction writers and our melodrama suddenly totally grounded in reality because melodramatic writing has always been like that. The hero always knows everything about everything. Well, for – it’s now going to be true.
MYRLAND: Well, I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that everything that’s in your speculative fiction is something that you really believe is a likely scenario because what you do in your speculative fiction is to create some unlikely scenarios that we find entertaining as readers, too. But it does seem to me that both with “Rainbows” and with your new novel, David, you really do have a suspicion that these – this ability, if you will, to do an extremely sophisticated Google search is going to become second nature to us, that information is going to be available to us all the time and sort of in the atmosphere. Is that a fair characterization?
VINGE: I think it is, David.
BRIN: Well, what we need to do is look back, all the way back to the invention of glass lenses and moveable type. This is 400 years. And what happened was there were people then who were saying human beings can’t deal with the flood of information, they can’t deal with the expansion of their senses through glass lenses and they can’t deal with the expansion of the amount of knowledge that they can know through movable type. And since then, every generation has seen these prodigious expansions of what we can see and what we can know and what we can pay attention to. And it’s been like clockwork every generation. And every generation reliably, curmudgeons have said, human beings weren’t meant for this. But our grandparents were already dealing with vastly more information, orders of magnitude more than cavemen ever did. And so we’re now dealing with orders of magnitude more quicker than our grandparents did.
MYRLAND: But – but you don’t…
BRIN: There’s no end in sight.
MYRLAND: There’s no end in sight but there must be a theoretical limit. I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t know the – don’t remember the term but there’s a term for the theoretical limit of the speed of computers. I mean, isn’t there also a…
BRIN: Yes, a halt.
MYRLAND: …theoretical to…
BRIN: No question that Vernor and I are very aware of the potential downsides. There are stories that we ourselves have written about potential downsides and it may be our only way out of this will be when our prosthetics become smart themselves, artificial intelligence, which we can’t get into with this waning hour. But the point is that after 400 years of western civilization always betting on the come and man and woman, being able to handle it, and despite the fact that sometimes they weren’t, like falling prey to Nazi propaganda when radio was arrived and all of that. Nevertheless, over the long run, every generation of men and women in the free west at least has always come to terms with this and become bigger.
MYRLAND: You’re smiling, Vernor Vinge.
VINGE: Oh, I’m agreeing with all of this. I think that we could do our downside riff. I mean, there’s all sort of terrible things…
BRIN: Oh, if you want.
VINGE: There are all sorts of terrible things that could happen and, in fact, as David was saying, one good thing about science fiction is you do read stories about that stuff. I think the importance of science fiction is not prediction but it has something the function that dreaming has for an individual human. It has the function of dreaming for society as a whole. So oftentimes when you have a bad dream, it’s your subconscious telling you, hey, look, there’s something about this good stuff that you’re doing that could go terribly wrong and maybe you ought to put – maybe you ought to be thinking about such and such a threat a little bit more than you’re thinking about. And I think there actually are all sorts of things about each of these developments – You were talking about technology aiding the rise of Nazism. You can get – If we get a fragmented or isolated internet, you could see nationalism using the internet in order to become very focused and to raise a generation of – impress a generation of young people into having group powers but in a very negative way. So I think it’s really important to look at all of this stuff and imagine the ways it can go right and the ways it can go wrong and then track that.
BRIN: And if you’ll notice, we’ve completely reversed. I started out chiding our fellow citizens for not looking at the future and being grouchy about that, and Vernor was ebullient and now Vernor’s wagging his finger at us, warning us to be more attentive to the problems and I just – and now I’m just in a great mood. I think we’re going to handle it so…
MYRLAND: Well, I think we’re all in a great mood, having been able to take this last hour and really, you know, sort of float above the decade and see if we can see some patterns and some – and create some scenarios. And it’s been a real joy talking – talking to both of you. Our guests on These Days have been David Brin. He’s a futurist, a consultant, science fiction novelist. Books include "The Postman," "Earth," "The Transparent Society." David, glad you were with us. And Vernor Vinge, professor emeritus of computer science here at good old San Diego State University, and award-winning science fiction author. His latest book, "Rainbow's End: A Novel with One Foot in the Future," was the 2007 Hugo Best Novel winner. I’m about a third of the way through it, so I’m enjoying it. Thank you very much. And thank you for joining us. I’m Doug Myrland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh on These Days in San Diego.