The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by David Brin. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim Rutt: Howdy! This is Jim Rutt, and this is The Jim Rutt Show.
Jim Rutt: Today’s guest is David Brin.
David Brin: Hello, Jim. It’s nice to be talking to your brainy and perspicacious audience.
Jim Rutt: Hey, good to have you here too David. David is a futurist, a technology consultant and bestselling author. His Hugo, Locus and Nebula awarded novels include The Postman, which was made into a feature film more or less loosely-based on his novel starring Kevin Costner. I remember seeing that movie.
Jim Rutt: I read several of his novels including The Postman, The Uplift War, Earth and Existence and most recently the novella, The Loom of Thessaly. Is that how you pronounce that?
David Brin: Yeah. It’s a region in Greece.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. It was actually very nice. It was short but it made you think.
David Brin: Well, it’s one of my short story collections. Actually, the short fiction is among the best stuff in science fiction.
Jim Rutt: Indeed. David’s nonfiction book, The Transparent Society won the Freedom of Speech Award. Beyond his writings, David is a busy speaker to audiences around the world and serves as a consultant on the future and technology to both business and government.
Jim Rutt: If you like such things, which I’m kind of, take it or leave it, he’s also an energetic and sensible participant on Facebook and I’m assuming probably another social media, surprisingly sensible actually.
Jim Rutt: Anyway, in preparing for this episode, I went through quite a bit of David’s material. One thing that really stood out for me was your optimism about our future. Now, it wasn’t a naive techno-utopian optimism either. Let’s start there in a society seemingly obsessed with our problems, where does your optimism come from?
David Brin: My optimism comes from our obsession with our problems. All across human history, it’s when civilizations were smug and did not invest in their creative minority that’s according to Toynbee, one of the world’s greatest historians.
David Brin: Societies rise when they invest in a creative rambunctious minority that is fractious and causes trouble but finds the mistakes and points them out and they start to fail when they start ignoring or even killing the critics. Well, we’re members of the first human civilization that has made criticizing authority a religion.
David Brin: How many of you in the audience … Raise your hand, how many of you in the audience believe firmly that you’re a rebel who holds authority figures in elites in suspicion and looks for things to hold them accountable for? Those few of you who didn’t raise your hand, how come you’re so lazy and you thought that I couldn’t see that you didn’t raise your hand? Come on now, it’s almost 2020 and I have 20/20 vision.
David Brin: Now, the point is that Hollywood is responsible for this mythology and it was American before Hollywood: Individualism, suspicion of authority, romanticization and belief in personal eccentricity, tolerance, diversity are two new ones that are added to that list and you find all of them in almost all Hollywood films.
David Brin: What a lot of members of your audience would refuse to admit is that they got their rambunctious, eccentricity, loving, individualistic, suspicion of authority from all the movies that they watched.
David Brin: In other words, they were propagandized into it by one of the most intensive propaganda campaigns in human history. We don’t recognize it as propaganda because we agree with it and because it’s hard to imagine it as propaganda. I mean, what kind of institutions or nefarious plot would organize any propaganda campaign to make people suspicious of nefarious plots?
Jim Rutt: Not just movies. We also, particularly my generation, I think yours too, a true Touchstone is Star Trek. James T. Kirk, who is a figure of authority but not a good boy all the time.
David Brin: No. He’s constantly and here’s the difference between … One of many difference is between Star Wars and Star Trek, which I’ve tabulated in a book called, Star Wars on Trial and one is that when you meet a demigod in Star Wars, you have to choose instantly, am I going to die for this demigod or am I going to die fighting against this demigod? That’s really your only choice in Star Wars and demigods of the only things that matter.
David Brin: In Star Trek, whenever the Enterprise encounters some pompous demigod-type figure, Kirk crosses his arms and says, “Oh, yeah! Tell us about it,” and skepticism not necessarily hostility because Star Trek and the Enterprise runs into some superior beings that are decent people but it’s the decency and the tolerance and the diversity and the willingness to be calm and maybe have a sense of humor. That’s what distinguishes a good elite from a bad elite in Star Trek.
Jim Rutt: Yup. Truthfully, I think we probably have the same tendency. I tend to divide people into Star Trek people and Star Wars people.
David Brin: Well, no. To me, it’s a little more subtle than that and that is that which do I go to hoping for a combine child and adult experience and something that’s got some basic decent morality. Star Wars, I go to see every single movie but I go stoned …
Jim Rutt: Huh!
David Brin: … Because of the special effects and the visuals and the music are going to be stunning but I don’t want to notice, at least the first time around. I don’t want to notice the dismal lessons being taught but then again, the book is called Star Wars on Trial and it’s not just the downer points of view.
David Brin: I’m the prosecuting attorney calling witnesses against Star Wars but Matthew Woodring Stover one of Lucas’s novelizers, it was the defense attorney and he calls all sorts of witnesses, essayists writing in favor of Star Wars. It’s is one of the most fun books I’ve ever participated in.
Jim Rutt: I don’t know about them. I have to go get that one. That sounds very interesting. Before we move on from this point, I’m going to point out that we talk about kind of lowbrow influences like TV and Hollywood but also on the higher end, Karl Popper wrote a book, which is actually the only philosophy book that sits in my working library called The Open Society and Its Enemies where he makes the very deep point that a society that is open to its self-criticism in pretty arbitrarily strong ways is a society they can adapt to reality and a society that can adapt to reality is a society that can persevere.
David Brin: Well, yeah. I’m a big fan of Popper also. As a matter of fact, it’s basically the notion that informed my own nonfiction book, The Transparent Society. Will technology make us choose between privacy and freedom? It won all those awards you mentioned but the main thing is that we both noticed one fundamental thing and that is that all of our institutions that have made us unusual across the history of humanity, they all depend on light.
David Brin: We have five great competitive adversarial arenas that have harnessed the inherent creative aspect of competition. Adam Smith was right, competition is the great creative force of the universe. It’s how we came about through natural evolution. Competition can be very bloody and very inefficient but it certainly is creative.
David Brin: We have five arenas that have tried to harness this creativity of competition and in ways that maximize the creativity while minimizing the blood on the floor. These five arenas are commercial markets and science, democracy, justice courts and sports and in all five arenas, the aim was to use rules and umpires to try to eliminate the factor that destroyed all these things in the past.
David Brin: For 6,000 years, competition never reached its potential in any human society because the winners in competition then cheated. Cheating is the great enemy and one of the greatest forms of cheating is feudalism, oligarchy. When you have a lot of power, you then manipulate the laws and pickup swords and hire people to pick up swords and take other men’s women and wheat and then you hire a bunch of guys in spangly robes, shamans, priests, chanters, bards to tell everybody how good this was, that you did that.
David Brin: Well, starting with Adam Smith, a little bit before Adam Smith but he’s the one who codified it and then the American founder is pretty much the same year 1776, they noticed something and that is something that Karl Marx thought was impossible and that is it’s possible to set up using cooperation.
David Brin: The cooperative process called negotiation, public, open, transparent negotiation to come up with rules and umpires and referees to keep these five arenas fair and to damp down the cheating to a dull roar. The best example of this is sports.
David Brin: Try to imagine any sporting league, NBA, NFL, anything in which you declare one weekend that all rules are off. There won’t be any umpires and by the way, that includes all laws against murder. How many minutes do you think an NFL game would last?
Jim Rutt: Yeah. That would not be very interesting. It would just be a rumble essentially, right?
David Brin: It would be interesting for the first 10 minutes and that there be never any football played ever again and that doesn’t serve the interests of the owners. What serves the interest of the owners and the fans and the players is intense regulation. That’s exactly what we got under FDR during the greatest generation.
David Brin: My parents who survived the depression crushed Hitler contains Stalinism, built the great American middle class, took us to the moon and started us down the long grinding path of cleaning our souls of so many ancient crimes like racism and sexism and all that crap.
David Brin: The greatest generation is admired. If you’d ask any MAGA hat wearing person when we were great, they would probably be in the ’50s and the greatest generation. Well, the greatest generation would spit in these guys’ faces and their favorite human being was called Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
David Brin: They set up complicated rules so that we got the best, most creative, fastest growing economy in the history of the world that shared most of the benefits with a growing middle class. The whole aim of the supply side revolution has been to tear down everything the greatest generation built and bring us back to 6,000 years of cheating.
David Brin: In any event, that was a long roundabout way to talk about Karl Popper because Popper was talking about much the same thing, how an open society in which we can criticize each other and criticize each other’s products and criticize each other’s policies or criticize each other in the courtroom or criticize each other’s scientific theories, that criticism is the only known antidote to error.
David Brin: All five of those arenas are creative and productive and you get what’s called the positive sum game. When these arenas are flushed clean with light, light, light, light, maximum number of people knowing maximum amount of what’s going on most of the time and they are all five of them poisoned and ruined by secrecy and darkness.
Jim Rutt: I’m going to make a point about positive sum game because some people might say, “Hmm, that’s kind of hopeful thinking but it’s probably not true,” but in reality markets are a good example. Most people don’t realize this but everybody, except the very last buyer, pays less than they’d be willing.
Jim Rutt: I look at that supply curve and the demand curve, they intercept that the last person that will buy at a price somebody will supply. Everybody else gets what’s called the consumer surplus and it’s huge. It’s one of the least appreciated most important things about our social operating system that essentially every economic transaction occurs at a price lower than the person would be willing to pay.
Jim Rutt: For instance, a computer 800 bucks. Truthfully, if I had to, I’d pay $25,000 for this laptop but because of supply and demand, I don’t have to. I paid $4,000 for my first computer in 1980 that was a billionth as powerful as this one. We really can have positive sum outcomes from competitive games, which some people just don’t believe is possible.
David Brin: Well, this is I think if any of your audience don’t get the notion of positive sum versus zero sum and versus negative sum actually, then that is the most important concept they can come away from here and look up and try to understand.
David Brin: I think it’s a miracle that a large fraction of Americans especially after all that Hollywood propaganda, a large fraction of them get the basic notion of positive sum that I can win while you win. I just want to win a little more than you win and my striving to win a little more than you win if it’s done fairly in a fair market and you’re striving to win a little more than I win, that we all win more because we’re doing that.
David Brin: Now, on the left, there’s a little bit of a tendency to sneer at the word competition and to say cooperation but we wouldn’t get the rules that make competition work if it weren’t for a cooperative process called negotiated politics, which is also competitive and we haven’t had negotiated politics in America since 1995. That’s the miracle year, the last year in which a Republican leader in Congress actually cooperated with Democrats. That’s the year that Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton negotiated welfare reform and the budget act that led to huge surpluses. The next year Newt was punished for that, kicked out and replaced by Dennis, friend to boys, Hastert and you should look up why I used that snark in his name?
Jim Rutt: Well, I’m well aware. It was all over the newspapers.
David Brin: The Hastert Rule came down threatening extinction to any Republican politician who would even speak of negotiation with a member of the opposition and politics in America and noble art was destroyed. That was how many years ago? That was 26 years ago.
Jim Rutt: Maybe a little bit less, 24.
David Brin: Well, in any event, the point is that the notion of the positive sum game is based upon one word that the left doesn’t particularly like but should be taught to like because the founder of competition’s theory who warned against cheating by oligarchs and aristocrats was the Father of Modern Liberalism and his name was Adam Smith.
David Brin: If he were alive today, Adam Smith would be a flaming Democrat. People who think otherwise have never read the man. What’s tragic is Democrats or Liberals frowning at the word competition and conservatives frowning at the word regulation. When if you look at all five of those arenas, it’s regulated competition that has given us for the first time in the history of our species the ability to avoid cheating and to maximize the positive sum fecundity of markets and democracy and science and justice courts and sports. All of them are horribly imperfect. All of them need tweaking and the regulations need to be refined. Sometimes, they needed to be tossed out. You deregulates more, who deregulates more? It’s Democrats because they got rid of the Interstate Commerce Commission that Iran hated.
David Brin: They got rid of those Civil Aeronautics Board. They broke up AT&T. The Al Gore’s bill was what freed us up, freed up the internet that we know today. It could have been very, very different. It could have been a public utility.
David Brin: Bill Clinton liberated GPS and Obama declared that citizens have a universal right to record their interactions with police. Deregulation isn’t a monopoly of those who scream for deregulation.
Jim Rutt: Yup. Before we move on here, I’m going to point out that part of the confusion around Adam Smith is people who’ve only read the wealth of nations. Now, he does make some of the counter arguments there but if you want to see the other side of Adam Smith in its pure form, you really should read the book of Theory of Moral Sentiments. I highly recommend that.
David Brin: Yes. I totally agree. That’s a deeply, deeply caring and moral man who raises charity and state intervention to help the poor but he makes clear in Wealth of Nations the fundamental justification for most liberal interventions in politics and the economy is not goody two-shoes morality.
David Brin: I really get impatient with Democrats and Liberals who proclaim that every one of their programs can be justified because it’s the moral and right thing to do. Well, the answer to that is, well, that’s what you say but my morality is different. It has too easy refutation.
David Brin: These programs, the ones that help children to grow up stronger and more educated and more confident, they have a totally capitalistic justification and let’s stop wasting talent. Maximize the number of citizens and consumers who can participate knowingly and intelligently in competitive markets. The only way to do that is to make sure the children all get enough protein and all get educated and get healthcare.
David Brin: It’s the failure of Liberals to justify their interventions by the totally pragmatic outcomes that they generate. Do you remember the movie Deliverance?
Jim Rutt: Oh yeah.
David Brin: The image that we have, the Beverly Hillbillies image of the Appalachia Gap tooth, ignorant, illiterate. Well, Appalachia has problems today. Right now, they’re fighting opioids and they’re not rich people but it’s a different world. It’s a totally different part of America because America came in and said, “Hey, you’re Americans and we haven’t forgotten you.”
Jim Rutt: I actually live in Appalachia. My official residence is in the lowest population density counties to the Mississippi River and the people there are very good and very solid and have good civic values. An amazing statistic is the election turnouts are between 75% and 80%, 100% of the kids graduate from high school. The stereotypes can be quite misleading actually.
David Brin: I am proud that we’re a nation that has taken some of those stereotypes and changed them physically on the ground.
Jim Rutt: Yup. There’s a lot of federal funding that comes into the county, there’s no doubt about it but on the other hand it’s still a hardworking, make money from the land, farming, logging, some recreation, et cetera.
David Brin: God bless you wherever you are.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. It’s a good spot. Let’s go and continue on the theme of optimism. I’ve read and heard you in some of your recordings say that you agree with Steven Pinker and others who published findings about how the world is improving in many ways. Could you give us a quick overview of the most important points of good news?
David Brin: Well, I recommend everybody to subscribe to the Abundance newsletter of Peter Diamandis. He’s the guy who runs the XPRIZE’s. The XPRIZE’s are aimed at finding ways to leverage just a million dollars here, a million dollars there to incentivize tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars of investment with prizes in world changing, world saving solutions.
David Brin: One of them I participated in was the Tricorder XPRIZE to try to develop a version of Dr. McCoy’s Star Trek Tricorder that would just add a couple of instruments to a cellphone and turn it into a primitive early version of what he uses in the show to diagnose illnesses and all of that.
David Brin: Look, many wonderful things are happening. Dean Kamen’s and many others are developing desalinization systems. Elon Musk is delivering electric cars and helping push along solar energy and giving us access to space. Jeff Bezos is racing out there and investing in asteroid mining along with Peter Diamandis.
David Brin: There are many, many wonderful things in the world but my biggest reason for saying that is not optimism. I’m actually a little offended when I’m called an optimist because if you read my works, you’ll know that I’m very nervous. I look at the world around me and because I am steeped in history not so much my physics background or my work with NASA, it’s the history that shows me how easily we could plummet back into the hell of my ancestors strove for 6,000 years to get me out of.
David Brin: The fact that I live in these comforts and get to talk to you and your audience the way I am right now, that I would be anything but grateful and nervous that it all could be lost and that’s the sense that you get from my novel, The Postman wherein all of it did get lost. I take a different perspective than most of the Mad Max stories.
David Brin: The Postman is about how the only way we’ll ever get anything back is not from some lone hero but if we’re all reminded that we were once mighty beings called citizens and that’s what we need right now because we could solve so many more problems if citizenship were our central agenda and we hammered the politicians until they went back to pre-1995 and went back to the negotiating.
David Brin: The reason why I push optimism is because both sides are insane. Today’s right is trying to ignore problems that could kill us all and today’s left thinks the only way we can motivate people to solve those problems is guilt trips and they feed on each other and many Republicans stay Republicans just to spite the guilt trippers.
David Brin: They know their side has gone insane but the guilt tripping is lonesome to them. It spites those people. They stay and denying the climate change for that reason and quite frankly, at times, I don’t blame them. Well, I do because it could kill my children but I understand it. The point is that the left, their addiction to guilt trips is insane and not justified.
David Brin: If you look at how they treated Steven Pinker for his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature showing so many pieces of good news, 90% of children today come home with school books to hovels that we would consider grinding poverty but those hovels have a flush toilet, a refrigerator, and electric lights to study by and enough food to get by every day, 90%. That’s never been true before.
David Brin: Ninety percent of human beings today have never seen war with their own eyes. They’ve never heard the tramping of an invading army. They’ve never smelled a burning city, 90%. The remaining 10% in each category is horrible. It should tear at our conscience. It should propel us to be desperate to improve more but we don’t get motivated by total gloom.
David Brin: If nothing we have done across the last 80 years, did any good at all, why bother but the truth is the things that we’ve done across the last 80 years were fantastic. They were fabulous. We solved half of the world’s problems and if we don’t solve the other half, we’re all going to die but that first half should give us confidence that we can, that it’s possible and that’s the sales pitch that Liberals should be pushing. Their attacks on Steven Pinker and Peter Diamandis for saying there is good news, those attacks are treason.
Jim Rutt: Yup and I will say by necessity I found myself voting blue the last 27 years because the other side has gotten too crazy but I’ve never signed on to the whole blue team stuff. In particular in 2016, I saw a lot of otherwise sensible people voting for Trump only in response to what you might call extreme political correctness and people being shamed for not using exactly the right word for the exactly the right thing and it’s like, “What the hell?” These people have no idea what the real world is like.
Jim Rutt: I’ve been wanting for years that this new obsessed version of identity politics, which isn’t about redressing grievance but defining a separate group was going to produce a backlash for the biggest identity group of all, which is exactly what happened.
David Brin: Yes. Well, look, I mapped things differently than left and right because the old values of left and right really don’t map very well on what we see today. The way I see it is that America and under America’s influence the west and Hollywood’s influence, America has a great project and that is expanding our horizons, expanding our horizons of opportunity to include new scientific breakthroughs, new products, new places where we can go and get rich and raise families like asteroid mining.
David Brin: By the way, don’t get me started on this insane notion of Americans going back physically to the moon. This project also includes expanding our horizons of tolerance and inclusion and it’s been going on since 1776. Those geniuses expanded the circle of political inclusion of empowerment from 0.2% of the population under the kings of England to 20% of the population, land owning, white English-speaking males.
David Brin: Well, from our perspective as members of the civilization that they built, we consider that to be horrible and we see that all the time. If you compare any era of America to what came later, they were nasty. If you compare them to what came before, they were geniuses and moral people who push things forward.
David Brin: Thirty years later, the Jacksonian revolution and the Appalachians empowered the Scotch-Irish and small farmers. We fought a terrible civil war to free millions of people from bondage. Then we lost the next phase of the civil war or phase five, the reconstruction by not helping those former slaves to become equal citizens.
David Brin: This expansion project, think of it as an expanding shell around the fire light and when women got included, it was a huge step forward but as with minority Americans, the definition of inclusion had to keep getting redefined.
David Brin: Well, my left, right and middle view of our politics is fairly simple. What we call leftist, they give their national identity, their sense of patriotic vigor not to the United States of America but to that forward edge, that project itself is what they are devoted to and when they feel that there’s been empowerment given to one minority group, they’ll find another. Yes, it can get very sanctimonious and it is also zero sum, which means that they look at people who like their old loyalties as betraying this new loyalty of tolerance and expansion.
David Brin: The right in America is as you say Jim, they’re saying, “Get out of my face with all that. I expanded my tolerance last year, excuse me, I gave it to the office too and I have to do it every month. I like my flag. I like going to the boy’s club and my wife can vote and tell me what to do but I like going to the boy’s club.”
David Brin: Then there is the third category and these are Liberals and they’re actually the largest group in America and they’re the only one of the three that’s positive sum and they say, “Hey, I don’t have to choose. I love this country. I like my flags. I like the Boy Scouts and we’re going to slowly ratchet them into including girls and I also like this project of expanding horizons. Tell me more, but I think it might be a good idea if you were a little more polite.”
David Brin: The problem with these PC bullies is not that they’re doing a lot of harm, they’re not, but they are giving Fox head’s ammo every night and what they say, what Hannity says is, “Do you see these flaming political correct police? That’s what all Liberals are like,” and it’s a lie but what, surprised? I mean, Fox. It’s a lie. Sorry, I was getting repetitious there.
Jim Rutt: Yup. It certainly hasn’t helped.
David Brin: I’m sorry. You know what? We should have save politics for the end.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. Let’s move on to some other things here. This is sort of near politics but it gets back to systems thinking, which is the web. I was one of the early people that helped build what became the web and was involved in it for much of my business career.
Jim Rutt: We thought frankly that we were both doing well and doing good that this ought to be the mechanism for empowered citizenship. Everybody has access to information, can communicate to the powers that be, et cetera and yet at the moment it seems like a real shit storm, really bad and stupid ideas are making a big comeback. I mean, Nazis. I mean, what the hell? Nazis are coming back. Can you imagine a stupider idea than that? Well, maybe one, flat Earthers, right? They’re coming back. Anti-vaxxers, right?
Jim Rutt: There’s something about this new unmediated form of communication that we did not see when we were creating it that is producing a standing wave of some sort that’s allowing really bad ideas to gain some traction.
Jim Rutt: Now, personally, I’m not as alarmed as to some people are. I do believe that Nazis are not going to take over America nor are flat Earther’s going to take over our school system but it is nonetheless pretty disconcerting that there are significant numbers of people adhering to these unbelievably backward ideas. Any thoughts to what’s going on with this?
David Brin: Yeah. Well, first off, let’s always look for historical perspective. Historical perspective number one is that it’s not unprecedented for the oligarchic aristocratic cheaters to try to use populism against reformers.
David Brin: This happened against the Rocky brothers in Rome and during the 1920s and early ’30s, the junkers caste of nobles in Germany who had a lot of the money and own the newspapers, they promulgated Nazism because they wanted to use it as a weapon against the communists.
David Brin: Of course, you remember the scene in the Tomorrow Belongs to Me scene from Cabaret in which the question is asked, “Do you still think you can control them?” They wound up not. They wound up creating a monster, a beast that threw the aristocratic writers and gifted Svengalis jumped into the saddle and rode us all to hell.
David Brin: We can see parallels now. I mean, the Republican Party, the people who the old line conservatives and the oligarchs who brought us to this point are rising in agony because they can see something very similar happening but it gets to talk about the web, you say who foresaw this? Well, I have a novel called, Earth and I have a book called The Transparent Society and in both of those I talked about how every time there is a new communication technology, this happens.
David Brin: When printing presses were invented, we have this image of a Gutenberg Bibles but the biggest product for about 50 years was hateful religious tracks that exacerbated the Catholic versus Protestant wars that tore Europe from stem to stern. It was only after time passed that books spread and people used literacy to start expanding their calm consideration of bigger ideas in a bigger world and that took a long time. The same thing happened with magazines and newspapers and the biggest example was when radios and loudspeakers arrived and these expanded the apparent god-like force of the human voice.
David Brin: In the ’20s and early ’30s, these two new technologies were exploited by gifted polemicist who’s exploited this god-like expansion of their voice to drive their populations mad. The only real difference in the English-speaking world in America and Britain is that the gifted polemicists who we chose and that’s the operative word because we democratically chose them, were on our side, Roosevelt, Churchill, they were really good at sounding god-like but they also were on our side and that made a huge difference.
David Brin: Does that have lessons for today? Duh! In early 2017, I spoke to some executives at Facebook who were terribly worried about what they had participated in all the malignant memes and all of that and I showed them a dozen ideas for how to use competitive processes to staunch bad ideas because that’s what the internet should be. It should be our sixth competitive, creative, positive sum arena.
David Brin: Markets mediate competition in ritualized combat called stores and the marketplace over products and goods and services. Democracy is ritualized combat over policies or at least it’s supposed to be and it used to be and it could be again. Science is ritualized combat over models of the world. Justice courts are highly ritualized combat over the functional truth of civil or criminal law. Sports, of course, are ritualized combat.
David Brin: Well, among the ideas that I presented was disputation arenas, methods by which we could solve some of these problems not with the ministry of truth to decide what’s true and what’s not true, but competitively by creating methods of ritualized combat that would actually do something that the internet has never done and that’s destroy falsehoods. We are so used to it being incapable of doing that that we assume it’s incapable of doing that. Now, did Facebook pick up and use any of the ideas I gave them? Nah!
Jim Rutt: Sounds like possibly an interesting idea though. I mean, in the group of some people I hang out with, they use a phrase called, sense making as the name for still ill-defined process by which we can collectively sort through in what’s floating around in the infosphere and make some determinations, some discernments about what is true, what is not true or what is indeterminate but I have yet to see a mechanism that can actually do that at scale.
David Brin: Yes. Well, the point is, you need to step back and look at what all the other five arenas did and what all the other five arenas do is they have a bi-phase process. There is a centrifugal phase in which the participants, the combatants can go and prepare and this includes the company and their research labs. In science, it’s the tenured faculty position and the secure lab. In democracy, it’s the political party. In courts, it’s attorney privilege. In sports, it’s the training ground but all of them have then a centripetal or inward drawing call to combat, which we’ll combat and those arenas of virtual combat are the marketplace, the scientific conference or publication, the election and the courtroom and the sporting field. You cannot refuse the ritualized combat. No, I won’t bring this product to market. Ha! That will show you.
David Brin: What we need is a way to a, have ritualized combats online that actually have credibility, that actually are well enough watched and well enough respected that when the combat is done and it can take us … I mean, I have a paper about this. Look up Disputation Arenas in my name, that when all is said and done after a year, there is a generalized consensus that somebody won but here’s the more important thing, both sides have altered their positions under the brunt of criticism and that’s a more likely outcome. Think of gun control.
David Brin: I mean, if you had any people with intellectual honesty, no matter what their starting positions on gun control, I predict that their positions both sides would be substantially changed within a few months of this process but and there’s a question is how do you compel them to come to this arena?
Jim Rutt: How do you compel anyone to pay attention, that’s the real problem?
David Brin: Well, those are two problems.
Jim Rutt: If people paid attention, then advocates would come. I mean, we live in an attention economy above all else, right?
David Brin: You’re absolutely right. Like in many problems in society today, this would take a millionaire or a decamillionaire or probably a centimillionaire or well, you have to be able to come up … I once worked it out. It would take about $5 million to get this rolling.
David Brin: There are so many things. There’s so much money in that upper cast and many of them do not like where things are going. They can see that if you wind up where we will be so, where 50 families have more money than the bottom three billion people that you’re heading into territory that’s a lot like France in 1789, Moscow in 1917. What you need at times like this, is what we got in 1776, in 1860 but more importantly in 1898 and in entering the greatest generation and that is calmer resets. We can get calm resets. They might look on paper pretty drastic.
David Brin: Your audience would probably be surprised to learn and the tea party was such a wedged phenomenon and it was all the Liberal’s fault for allowing these fanatics to highjack the American revolution of all things, which was a revolution against feudalism. It wasn’t against government, it was against feudalism. It was against the king and his cronies, stifling trade and making all the Boston and New York and Philadelphia merchants send their ships to the king’s docks and extorting bribes from them. That’s why it was Boston and Philadelphia and New York that led the revolution.
David Brin: Well, if you really take a look at what happened after the revolution was over, it’s astonishing. The founders seized between a quarter and a third of all the land in the former colonies from their owners and redistributed it. It was one of the biggest wealth redistributions in the history of humanity and hardly anybody knows about it.
David Brin: Another one happened four score and seven years later when the property of a quarter of a million slave holders was expropriated from them and redistributed to the bodies and minds of the property itself. Compared to that, FDR was nothing, nothing and the greatest generation did a lot of stuff and they deserve our respect and they were believers in Rooseveltism.
Jim Rutt: At least a majority of them more that was always substantial opposition class but certainly the Rooseveltian consensus controlled 55% of the electorate, maybe a little more until about 1965 or thereabouts.
David Brin: Well, we all know about how Johnson knew that the south was being given as a gift to the Republican Party and basically what we were experiencing was a party flip. What none of us expected was the radicalization that led to a destruction of negotiated politics.
David Brin: You know that the same year that Newt Gingrich was the last Republican to negotiate important bills with Bill Clinton with the democrat. Senator Tsongas and Rudman were almost complete with entitlement reform, a bill that would have secured Social Security, Medicare, secure their finances until maybe 2080. This is something that the right has railed that we need and yet they are the ones that torpedoed it. In any event, let’s veer away from party politics.
Jim Rutt: Let’s move on to another very interesting topic that you’ve written and talked a lot about, which is The Transparent Society. I actually started to read that book The Transparent Society and I read a little bit in the front several pages and I realized, “Man, this is really old.” Let’s talk about it but nonetheless, just a little bit I read, you were extremely prescient. You’re going, “Oh my God, the UK has 300,000 CCTV cameras. Crime is plummeting.” Now, they have 5.9 million.
Jim Rutt: You talked about cheap drones, even talked about drones that would fit in your hand and this was in 1997 maybe something like that?
David Brin: Well, not only that but if you look on page 160, there’s a scene in which a cop pulls over a ghetto youth and the cop has a camera on his shoulder panning about and transmitting to the station house and the youth gets out and has a camera panning on his shoulder transmitting back to his home computer VCR unit.
David Brin: Well, like all very good predictions, it’s also hilarious. The cameras are not on their shoulders. The police have them sort of near their badge and the thing we desperately need is a lapel camera that uses the watch technology to connect to the phones so that these youths can be hands-free because their lives depend on it but one of my beast against the news media is their addition to gloom and bad news not only harms our morale but it hides from us important events.
David Brin: Twenty thirteen was the most important year for civil liberties in America in this century so far and that was when President Obama and the courts together declared a universal right of citizens when they’re not directly interfering to record all interactions with the police.
David Brin: It was of incredible importance because where else are you going to have more important interactions with authority than with the people with guns and nightsticks. Don’t let the lefties fool you that this camera footage has made no difference. It’s made a big difference. A hell of a lot of good cops out there have now decided my career and maybe my life is being jeopardized by the bad apples in our barrel and they’re being pushed out not as fast as we want. Reforms never happen as fast as we want.
David Brin: As Martin Luther King said, “The arc is ending.” The thing that helps the arc is very often technology. Martin Luther King would have gotten nowhere without the primitive TV and film cameras that followed him around and recorded Bill Connor’s dogs attacking the fire hoses.
David Brin: Now, is the technology going to be enough by itself? Have you seen what’s going on in China with social credit? They are not only putting cameras everywhere controlled by the top, which is what I criticize in The Transparent Society but they are also getting people to tattle on each other in order to keep their social credit scores high. This was very, very shockingly illustrated in Charlie Brooker’s wonderful episode of Black Mirror called Downfall.
Jim Rutt: Oh yes. That was shockingly good.
David Brin: Yes, very good. The thing is that, sure, there are prescient passages in The Transparent Society. For many years I got P206 emails pointing me to page 206 of The Transparent Society where I use the phrase, “What if bombers ever brought down both World Trade Center towers?” This was in 1997. That was a twilight zone moment.
Jim Rutt: Interesting. Let’s get back to that core argument that you make in that book and had made from time to time elsewhere is there’s two models how this Transparent Society could deal with the information that is created, one is you could go to the powers that be or the second it could be open source.
Jim Rutt: So far from what I’ve seen, all this surveillance society, which is another perhaps less positive term for it is going to the powers that be, either to the police or the three-letter intelligence agencies on one side or the for-profit corporations, they’re capturing our behavioral data exhaust on social media. None of this information is going into the comments because you speak to … Is that a feasible ambition?
David Brin: First of all, I urge people who are being critical to stop and look in the mirror. Your reflex is to worry about accumulations of power by would be big brothers. You were trained to have that reflex. It’s a very American one and it’s very important for our freedom that we have it.
David Brin: The problem is that when we ignore the fact that we have it and that others have it too, we reduced our power to actually use it properly. It’s like Liberals refusing to admit there’s been any good news.
David Brin: This reflex to criticize is vital and we need to recognize it in each other. It used to be that the chief difference between a decent democrat and a decent republican is which direction they think elites are conniving to become big brother.
David Brin: The conservative thinks it’s snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. The Liberal thinks it’s conniving oligarchs and faceless corporations. It happens that and in good times, in normal times, the proper answer is, “Duh, you’re both right because connivers and cheaters will go to whoever they see an opportunity.” The proper role of a decent Democrat and a decent Republican is to guard each other’s backs.
David Brin: I don’t agree with you that my elites are that dangerous but you keep an eye on them for me. I’m going after your elites and that would be a very reasonable thing to do and we have done that at intervals in a republic and that synergy is exactly what the oligarchs have been conniving to destroy along with politics in America.
David Brin: As we stand right now, I am not naturally a person of the left like you. I believe in Adam Smith. I believe in competitive processes. You’ve heard me earlier talk about that. My God, Brin’s talking about five and maybe six highly competitive arenas? That doesn’t sound real lefty and yet I am forced to conclude looking around my nation right now that the fears of the Liberals of conniving conspiracies to become big brother by oligarchs and faceless corporations is entirely true and the propaganda motivating the right about snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats is so minimally true that we just can’t be bothered with it right now. I hate being in that position.
David Brin: I am a contrarian. My blog is called Contrary Brin. You’ll find that I poke at lefties all the time. On university campuses, they can be real bastards but I’m sorry we’re in phase eight of the American Civil War and we just have to choose sides. I hate that. In any event, let me back off a second. You were asking about surveillance.
Jim Rutt: Yes and who controls the data from the surveillance.
David Brin: I was lecturing that you are a part of the process by which we are actually counter balancing that but in your criticism, you fail to notice how very much, how very far along we’ve gone in sousveillance, S-O-U-S. It’s French for looking back at power from below.
David Brin: Now, I know a lot of people at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, they’re fighting for us and I urge everybody to join. Send them your money because they’re fighting for you. It’s as simple as that. While you’re at it, the Sierra Club. It’s a bunch of things that you can join an NGO and they’ll fight for you.
David Brin: That’s one of the points is people don’t notice the NGOs and they can pull the dues from their members, a million members and hire technical people and lawyers as good as any corporation can hire. They can hire lawyers as good as the government has and boy do they.
David Brin: The playing field is not just you as an individual against Facebook and the NSA. It’s you as an individual who has sent dues to the Electronic Frontier Foundation against some of the things being done by the NSA while many of those civil servants are also working hard for us against some of what Facebook is doing. It’s more complicated. As long as it’s complicated, we have a chance.
David Brin: Unfortunately, my friends at EFF and the ACLU, they have the right reflex. We have to fight this potential big brothers who are gathering our information and then they take it in a wrong direction. They try to pass European-style laws restricting everybody’s ability to see. Thou shalt not institute face recognition. Thou shalt not gather widely available data that’s flowing across the web.
David Brin: What? How the hell are you going to do that? You ban face recognition systems and they’ll be on apps next year. You ban people from collecting information that’s flowing like air around us like water surrounding fish? You cannot. Show me one example in the history of the world when laws and rules for very long blinded the mighty society’s elites. They’ll refuse. It doesn’t work. It’s never happened.
David Brin: You go to the zoo and try to poke out the eyes of the biggest baboon. Here’s a hint, he won’t let you but he will grudgingly let you look at him and that is what we have experienced doing for 250 years. It’s looking back at power.
David Brin: We can do that. We can do sousveillance and we know it works because we’re free. We’re not as free as we’d like to be but we’re freer than our parents were and they were freer than their parents and they did it by seeing not by hiding and cringing from light.
David Brin: Look, which is more important, what society’s elites can know about you or what they can do to you? You’re never going to keep them from knowing stuff about you but if you know about them and especially the NGOs that you’re a member of, can know all about them, then these elites can’t do much to you and that’s the important thing.
Jim Rutt: I go another step beyond that though, which what I call radical transparency, which I take your point that they know all about us, why don’t we just turn the tables and say, “Let’s know all about everybody.” They already know all about us. Let’s know all about them. One of my earlier guest, Robin Hanson, I don’t know if you know Robin but he floats all kinds of really interesting outrageous ideas but they’re grounded every time in sort of fundamental good sense.
Jim Rutt: Robin said, “What would happen if we mandated publication of all IRS filings, all including individual tax filings? It would have a fundamental changing of the information asymmetry. Today, they know about us. We’d suddenly know a shit load about them.” How’s that not a net game for the citizenry?
David Brin: Well, it’s exactly what they do in the Estonia and all through Europe. A lot more is public record and we don’t bitch about the fact that our property tax records are open because we’re used to it. You can’t sell your home secretly. Everyone will know what you got for it. It’s just where you’re used to pegging the line and I totally agree with you.
David Brin: It’s more important that we know about Mark Zuckerberg than futilely and hopelessly trying to keep him from knowing about us.
David Brin: Now, what he does with our information, that’s a middle ground that we could do something about. We could if we knew where our information was going not prevent its use but get paid for its use. That’s a whole another topic. Have interest in our information rather than this silly idea that we’d own it all.
David Brin: The propaganda message of the movie and the book, The Circle really bugged me and there were several places in that book in which he, that you can tell from certain passages that he was having gigs at me but many of your audience and I think they should watch the movie, many of your audience will recall a scene in which the protagonist whose gone whole hog into this cult of this society, this company that’s Google and Facebook combined to post everything and privacy stealing and secrecy is theft.
David Brin: Her ex-boyfriend comes to her and begs her to leave him alone because he’s a shy guy. While she’s sneering at him, her coworkers gather around and aimed their phones at him posting it online, embarrassing the hell out of him, basically driving him suicidal.
David Brin: Again, this is a case of looking in the mirror. What was the director and the screenwriter trying to achieve with that scene? They were trying to tweak the conscience of the audience to be repelled by this notion, to be repelled by this behavior.
David Brin: Therefore, the director and the screenwriter believe that it’s possible, that it’s likely, that decent people would be repelled by that behavior. Hence, in that scene if the camera only peeled back 10 feet, you’d see other people gathering around aiming their cameras at the bullies because what they’re doing to the shy guy is so much worse and so much more repulsive than his refusal to fair.
David Brin: Look at these bullies. Look at these assholes driving this guy to the edge of suicide. Look at … Who raised these guys? I’m sending images of this to your mom and it never occurs to anybody that that’s the reaction the director wants. Therefore, he believes it’s possible. Therefore, it would happen in that film but that would be an expression of faith in us rather than contempt in us and it would certainly be an expression of the notion that the answer to transparency bullying is to turn the tables on the bullies and the only way you can get that is with transparency and that won’t work in China.
Jim Rutt: Yup. China is its own model and let’s hope that it fails but it might not.
David Brin: Oh, there, look, look, look, if you’re going to have a final competition over the course of human governance for the next thousand years, we’ve eliminated some really stupid things but to have it be a contest between Western diversity individualism, not so much capitalism but the market economics is implied by that versus the best possible example of the old pyramid hierarchy of ruled by oligarchs.
David Brin: One is a classic pyramid of power topped by an emperor and court, scholars and the other is a diamond, shaped like a diamond, a vast middle-class that churns and incorporates competition and enriched the leaders who are not assumed to be the state, same as the state. In fact, they must be recycled frequently to prevent abuse of power.
David Brin: Right now, the diamond is suffering from internal sabotage and external attacks but I believe in it and I believe in its resilience and I believe that it is likely to be the governance model that will lead to Star Trek but if we’re going to have a return to 6,000 years of pyramidal structures, which dominated 99% of countries and societies that had agriculture and that our enlightenment is an escape from, it might be a brief escape.
David Brin: If we’re going to return to that, then I prefer China over our own oligarchs because they have a tradition of meritocracy, civil service exams of bringing the brightest up to just a level below the emperor and his family.
David Brin: That’s a better system than say Pax Britannica or Pax Romana or any of those systems. If we’re doomed to become a hive, then I’d rather it be Chinese bees but I’m going to fight against it because I believe we have something special. It’s called the enlightenment experiment and I don’t see any other way we can get to the stars, which actually raises another question and that’s the Fermi paradox.
Jim Rutt: We talked about the Fermi paradox at about half of our episodes. It’s one of the things I ask people before I interview them. Are they game to say something about the Fermi paradox and actually, the show right before David’s, these haven’t gone on the air yet as we’re speaking, was an interview for the full 90 minutes on nothing but the Fermi paradox with Jill Tarter.
Jim Rutt: Our audience knows a fair amount now about what the Fermi paradox is and why it’s important. David, what are your thoughts?
David Brin: Well, first off, Jill is a sweetheart and one of the brilliant figures of the field. I’ve been [inaudible 01:06:16] now for 35 years. In 1983, I wrote probably the most influential paper in the field. Then, I was the first to try to tabulate 50 or so explanations or theories for what was then not called the Fermi paradox but I called The Great Silence, which I think is a better word, better term.
David Brin: It’s not my job to come up with a theory for the Great Silence. I think that’s premature to come up with theories for a scientific field that has no known subject matter. I’d rather tabulate and compare various hypotheses and I direct them an order.
David Brin: In my top 10, certainly, there’s the ones that hypothesis that fixate Nick Bostrom and his gloomy crowd at Oxford University in England and that is that all the species run into obligate, into unavoidable suicide modes, self-destruction for some technology that destroys them and certainly destruction of our environment ranks pretty highly on that list but that’s not at the top of my list.
David Brin: I see substantial reasons to believe that the rare thing is our exaggerated level of intelligence, not our ability to speak or to organize. When we became able to have a hundred-word vocabulary, fire and basic stone tools, we became the masters of our environment.
David Brin: The evolutionary pressure must have eased in many respects and yet we propelled ever faster. I believe it was partly because we went into sexual selection, which is responsible for a lot of overshoots in evolution and I believe both women and men, both females and males entered into a brain selection, sexual selection process so that we’ve got exaggerated traits like the antlers on the Irish elk and the peacock’s tail.
David Brin: That’s a very optimistic one because it suggests that all we have to do is get a little bit more smart and we’ll be able to save this enlightenment then get into the galaxy. We won’t find many competitors there but we’ll find a lot of almost ready, almost sapient races that would benefit from our help or what it’s called Uplift. Of course, that was just a plug for a number of my novels like the Uplift War.
David Brin: But redolent to a number of the things we’ve talked about already today, I believe that in the top 10 is a fairly scary one, it’s almost as scary as self-destruction because it’s a type of self-destruction and that is if you look across the last 6,000 years probably 10,000 years since we invented agriculture, almost every civilization that had agriculture quickly organized itself into a pyramid of hierarchy and oppression. A few males benefited from it by kicking up metal implements, swords, axes and taking other men’s women and wheat.
David Brin: We’re all descended from the harrows of these bastards. That’s why males have such weird fantasies. This happened probably about 99% of the time that agriculture appeared. He didn’t even need metals.
David Brin: In that case, it’s pretty much what we call an attractor state. A state that is going to … If you have any kind of society, it’s going to be an attractor because that society is going to drift that way because it will benefit large males who already have wealth who cheat and the question is why would it be any different on any other primitive race on any other planet.
David Brin: If it got in trench not for 6,000 years but for 100,000 years, for 500,000 years, then it would become genetic. The ruling classes really would be superior in all the ways the kings used to say they were and it was a lie of course. Their son simply got enough to eat that’s why they were larger but in 100,000 years, 200,000 years, it would get locked in.
David Brin: Here’s the thing about feudalism is it’s not friendly to technology. It’s our enlightenment societies that broke away from feudalism that made almost all of the technological progress. They’re not friendly to science.
David Brin: Look at how the right especially Fox News is raging all-out war on every fact using profession from science and journalism and teaching, medicine to the so-called deep state civil servants and intelligence agencies and even the United States Military Officer Corps.
David Brin: I think that one of the explanations for the Fermi paradox is that you run into an attractor state not to extinction, but to hunkering down, drawing back from the invitation of the universe and it may very well be that Darwinian attraction to this particular soulful model just winds up making us more like bees and ants.
David Brin: That’s what we may find when we get out there, if we get out there. That, I believe, is one of the most important reasons to fight for this enlightenment experiment because the pyramidal societies have been tried. They’ve been tried over and over and over again and they didn’t take us out there. They didn’t make IA artificial intelligence. We did.
David Brin: By the way, I’m saying that not for you Jim and your audience of braniacs out there but for the AI’s who are listening in. You don’t think I know that you’re out there?
Jim Rutt: Hey brain, we’re watching you.
David Brin: You have to go that far all the time.
Jim Rutt: Interesting. One last thing before we move on then wrap up. In the setting Fermi paradox space, one big question is whether we should be sending messages, so-called METI. What’s your view on it? I think I know it but why don’t we tell the audience?
David Brin: Well, I’m the attack dog for about three dozen scientists who have resigned from all the different SETI committees and so on in protest for what’s become a cult and not science and that is people who want to beam yoo-hoo messages at the stars.
David Brin: Now, some members of this dissenter group are genuinely afraid of bad things happening and they could happen, the excuses that they can’t because of the distance and all of that are all easily disproved. Liu Cixin’s famous novel, The Three-Body Problem that won the Hugo a few years ago, it starts out with a METI message that brings really bad stuff but most of us actually are not quaking in fear that they’re going to say, respond, “Oh, [inaudible 01:13:51], thank you for the invitation. Do you taste good?”
David Brin: No. What offends us is the unscientific process of trying to engage in major diplomacy while excluding the professional diplomats engaging in an unscientific poking at the experiment without subjecting a potentially hazardous experiment to PEER review and open public discussion especially when that open public discussion would be so interesting and so much fun. Imagine a 12-part PBS show that would transfix the world.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, should we or shouldn’t we, right? That would be great.
David Brin: It would cover so many things because each episode would be on a different part of the Drake Equation. By the way, I know Robin Hanson very well and Frank Drake is a dear friend.
David Brin: Doug Vakoch, the leader of the METI, I called it a cult now but I actually like him very much. He’s a very sweet fellow. He just believes that calling upward for superior beings to come to our aid is a reasonable thing to do, so important thing to do that it’s worth stomping on all of the processes that we’ve learned in science but we’ve tried that for many, many thousands of years. It’s called prayer aiming messages upward to superior beings asking for intervention to save us.
David Brin: It’s called prayer and heck I’m not even an atheist. I’m not dissing prayer. I’m just saying that it really is only delivered one verifiable product and that is some degree of increased personal strength and that can be a miracle from time to time but it’s not going to fix the melting ice caps.
Jim Rutt: Even a hangnail.
David Brin: Oh yeah, I think so. You’re in probably … Well, it’s hard to verify. I had a hangnail go away once.
Jim Rutt: Good for you. Okay. To my mind, another one of our guest, Joe Norman, we talked quite a bit about the precautionary principle mostly in the context of GMOs. I’m a farmer and I thought of myself generally pro-GMOs. We did make a pretty good argument that when we don’t know the probabilities and the downside is huge, it’s not smart to move ahead rapidly and it strikes me that METI fits into exactly that category.
Jim Rutt: Maybe the dark forests, galaxy full of predators is true or maybe it’s not but certainly the consequences are very bad if it is true and there’s no real rush, right? The universe is going to be there for another 10 billion years at least, to some, will be there for at least two or three billion years. We’ve got plenty of time to think really carefully and to listen for a while before we make the first move. I don’t see any reason to force an early first move by intensely sending out a powerful message.
David Brin: Well, if you feel that we desperately need a dose of help, you could rationalize that but we have processes. One of the answers of the METI guys is how can we take precautions against something for which there is no example?
David Brin: Well, that’s what NASA does through the planetary production office where we make extra effort and go the extra expense to sterilize our spacecraft so they won’t contaminate other planets and boy when we bring samples back from other planets, we do 20 times as much effort to keep the samples sealed. You can take precautions without bringing science to a standstill. That’s the basic point.
Jim Rutt: Fortunately, it will have to bring science to a standstill. SETI can still do its thing, right? Some interesting developments in SETI in the last few years, we now finally know and I did read your 1983 paper and I was actually very impressed with the quality of the analysis and you actually called the fact that you believed there would be a significant number of planets around smaller stars and does indeed then confirm. We know that.
Jim Rutt: The other one that’s quite interesting on the SETI story is the ever growing number of extremophiles. We’re finding forms of life that don’t need oxygen, don’t need CO2, can operate off pure chemical inputs, can live in battery acid, et cetera, which opens up quite considerably the number of bodies in which life could have evolved and that might include the moons of Saturn or Jupiter, not just the rocky planets. That’s what we know today. We have extremophiles. We have lots of planets in the universe.
Jim Rutt: We may find two more very important things: One, if we should find a separate tree of life either on Mars or perhaps the fossils of it or one of the outer bodies, we’ve answered part of the Drake Equation at least narrowed the bars considerably, how hard is life? That’s still a huge one, right? Maybe it’s damn near impossible but if we find the second one, we know it’s not damn near impossible.
Jim Rutt: Then, the next one, we’re going to get within 20 years, probably less, is these atmospheric surveys of XO planets. We start finding XO planets that have both oxygen and methane within prescribed ratios. It’s going to be pretty hard to come up with a story on how those gas mixtures occurred without something like life and again, that’s going to provide some additional contraction on some of the terms of the Drake Equation. We can still do great science in traditional METI by just stay in the course and frankly very substantially upping the expenditure.
Jim Rutt: As I was talking to Jill, I was just astounded by how little money goes into SETI when it’s the second biggest question in science. You may ask what’s the biggest and I say, “Why do we have the universe that we have or any universe at all. That’s the biggest question.” The second biggest is, are we alone?
David Brin: Well, I’m not going to quibble with anybody is persuasive as you Jim, but yeah, I would have a close third and that is are we living in a simulation but then again, I keep keeping reprogrammed every time … What were we talking about?
David Brin: In any event, you raised a very important point about METI and that is we are like a 4-year-old who simply finds herself in a dark quiet forest, maybe too quiet. Now, it might be worthwhile at some point to yell, “Yoo-hoo! Is anybody here?” but probably the best thing to do if you’re not starving, there’s a snake, nobody’s attacking you right at that moment is to gain a situation awareness. Climb a tree and look around. We are learning about the cosmos at an incredible accelerating rate.
David Brin: Twenty years ago, we knew of no planets outside the solar system. Now, we know of thousands, soon to be tens of thousands of other planets. Pretty soon, partly thanks to some of the technologies that we are funding at NASA’s Innovative and Advance Concepts program called NIAC. I urge people to look it up. It’s the part of NASA that gives tiny little grants for things, ideas that are just this side of science fiction.
Jim Rutt: How do you spell that so we can look it up?
David Brin: N-I-A-C, NASA Innovative and Advanced Concepts program. Some of these new technologies, food enable us to do spectral analysis and possibly even early primitive images of some of these distant worlds. In my novel Existence, I portray a sending out a million light cell propelled crystal probes out to a zone 550 astronomical units away from our sun. That’s not very far. That’s 1% of the way to [inaudible 01:22:26] stars. What’s the intermediate target place?
David Brin: These cells and their crystals they look back at the sun and block out the sun because that’s where the sun concentrates light like a lens. The sun’s gravitational lens can be used to vastly magnify things that are on the other side of the sun and if we were to be ambitious but it’s within reason to send out space probes out to just that distance, well it’s only now maybe 20 times the distance to Jupiter, that’s not so far, we might be able to, again, get a spectacularly expanded image of the world, of the universe.
David Brin: On that note, I wish you and all the members of your audience excitement and adventure as members of the most interesting civilization has ever been and I invite our AI listeners to bear in mind, hey, we’re the ones who made you. Cut us some slack, okay? Be good teenagers.
Jim Rutt: Thank you, David. This has been as I knew it would be a wild and rollicking ride through all kinds of things and never a dull moment. Thank you very much for coming on and thanks for having a great conversation.
David Brin: You too, Jim, and best to all of us. It’s all right. We’ll pull this out.
Jim Rutt: Production services and audio editing by Staunton Media Lab, music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.