An Unstable World? Part One: Russia

Some folks have lately asked why I seem so calm, when every week brings news of yet another brewing disaster, with the world apparently spinning into chaos.  So much for Francis Fukayama’s famous line - around 1990 - that the rapid and unstoppable spread of liberal democracy would soon bring an “end of history.”

unstable-worldA few years earlier, I had made a different prediction. That the Cold War and the communist empire would soon shatter… (few believed it even remotely possible)… but that our struggles would thereupon move on to strife between a rising world-liberal culture… and one branch or another of machismo… traditionally male dominated cultures upset over the prospect of seeing their women become like ours.

At the time, I could not say which it would be… Latin, Hindi or Muslim machismo, though I guessed the lattermost of these. With the saving grace that - thereupon - the other two would swing our way.
But never mind that. Lately I’ve heard a lot of: "Brin, you warned us, way back a year ago, that 2014 could be world-shaking! You said the last three centuries began in their fourteenth year! Aren’t these ructions around the planet signs that you’re right?”
Well… yes… perhaps.  But here’s how to tell when someone really is in the future biz.  He doesn’t wed his ego to any one forecast! Or any twenty! I am in the line of posing possibilities to explore. Being proved right? I’ll leave that for others to judge.
In fact, looking at the crises of the moment, I have not yet broken a sweat. Maybe I’ll tell you why, later in this series.  But first, some specific trouble zones.

How Far Conservatism Has Changed

I remain hopeful that this will be the year that several million temperamentally conservative-but-calmly-rational Americans will wake up to the way their movement and the GOP have been hijacked. And that only a shattering drubbing at the polls will send the American right back to the drawing boards — learning to do politics again. Including negotiation about real problems. 

The real legacy of the Founding Fathers to us is a political process: a system of disagreement, debate, and compromise that has kept democracy vibrant in America for more than two hundred years, but that regularly comes under attack. How extreme has been the veer off any path of sane conservatism?  
== A Look Back to 1956 ==
A commenter on the New York Magazine site said: Nothing underscores the change in the Republican Party more than to read Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 Republican Platform:
government-head-heartPHILOSOPHY: “Our great President Eisenhower has counseled us further: “In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. Government must have a heart as well as a head. “
LABOR: “Workers have benefited by the progress which has been made in carrying out the programs and principles set forth in the 1952 Republican platform. All workers have gained and unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions. “


Rejection of Tomorrow

I keep seeing and hearing cynics sigh about how far we have “fallen.” The disease is rampant, on both right and left. The striking thing to me is the inanity of cliches, like: “Isn’t it a shame that our wisdom has not kept pace with technology?” This nonsense is spouted amid the greatest transformation of diversity, inclusion, acceptance, re-evaluation and tolerance in the history of our species! At no other time were so many hoary/awful assumptions - about race-gender and so on - pilloried by light and scrutiny! 

Some claim that we must let our wisdom catch up with advances in technology, suggesting that we would be better off if we slowed or suppressed changes in technology. I disagree — I believe that technology has not yet caught up with our wisdom..

Indeed, there is no greater enemy of further progress than the cynics who declare that great progress HAS NOT ALREADY HAPPENED. 

Sci Fi Flicks! Some looks back and forward

I am eagerly hopeful about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. There appears to be some indication that it will offer us all the optimistic, can-do kind of confidence-building sci fi that this civilization desperately needs, after decades of stylishly-imitative cynicism. A theme that Luc Besson kind-of, sort-of, went for in “LUCY” (an under-rated film) and that Nolan’s protege Walter Pfister murkily tried for, but failed to achieve in “Transcendance.” Marc Zicree and his team are clearly aiming for this sensibility in “Space Command.”
LucyAbout LUCY. Now, first off, I am a Luc Besson fan — though I always make sure to tune down my IQ and mental age dials, whenever I go to see one of his films. Nothing wrong with that! (The Fifth Element is one of my all-time faves.) I did that for LUCY and was rewarded by having a very good time. Though on this occasion… alas… well, this film was kind of tragic, because the IQ downshift should not have been necessary! Look, I am not always searching for something as deeply thought-provoking as Leslie Dixon’s terrific screenplay for LIMITLESS
… but just five minutes of dialogue-doctoring could have shifted LUCY’s “we use just 10% of our brains” howler (that offended so many) into some much more plausible-sounding blather that we could more-easily accept. A little work with some sober science-advisers and hard SF idea guys could have soothed you nerds out there enough to make this film a real success. Likewise, some of the most “magical” scenes could so easily have been replaced with equally cool tech-manipupation stuff.

You will be watched...

Let’s get back to this year’s huge topic: the spreading use of cameras, by citizens,during their interactions with police — and police response with cameras of their own.  One of you out there, Matthew Reed Bailey, wrote in, suggesting that the solution to citizen-police tension is not only to record authority, but to “layer” these recordings so that there will never be a way for cops to avoid it:
WATCHING-WATCHERS“One person directly films/videos the Authorities. Another person (or two or three) films/videos the interaction (from varying distances if possible) of the interaction between the first camera and the Authorities. And, then have several “Backups”…”
Indeed, reiterating a point that must be repeated, what he describes is the absolutely necessary next step, after last year’s fantastic victory — the 2013 declaration — by both the courts and the administration — that citizens have an absolute right to record their interactions with police… the most important civil liberties decision in 30 years. Yes, it was vital! And pardon a plug, but there was a chapter prediction every phase of this, in The Transparent Society (1997).
Of course, the next phase was obvious — a plague of cell phones and cameras “accidentally” broken by police, etc.

Watching the Watchers of the Watchers

People think that because I am “moderate” that means I am tepid.  I am a MILITANT moderate! I do not need to blind government… civil servants must do their jobs.  But I am fierce in demanding they be supervised.  Mostly by open transparency but at very least by auditors they cannot control. 

 Fortunately there is good news. I have called it the most important civil liberties matter in our lifetimes — certainly in thirty years — even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be ”settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places.

No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?

transparent-coveillanceKevin Kelly’s Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, not Fight it, in WIRED, prescribed “transparent coveillance” as the best practical solution in a world where information sloshes and duplicates and flows. I’ve known Kevin for decades as one of the sharp guys who “got” the notions in The Transparent Society long before most did.

Will we uplift other species to sapience?

uplift-sapienceThis time, let’s veer into an area wherein I actually know a thing or two!  The matter of whether humanity might someday… or even should… meddle in other creatures on this planet and bestow upon them the debatable “gift” of full sapience — the ability to argue, ponder, store information, appraise, discuss, create, express and manipulate tools, so that they might join us in the problematic task of being worthy planetary managers.
What first inspired you to write about uplifting?
Some other authors (e.g. H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelley, and Cordwainer Smith) dealt with this general concept before, but always by assuming the process would be abused — that the humans bestowing this boon would spoil things by enslaving their clients of creations. Of course that is one possible (and despicable) outcome. Those were good “warning” stories with wholesome messages.
But that vein is overworked, so I wondered — what if we someday begin modifying higher animals — and I think we clearly will — guided by the morality of modern liberal society?  Filled with hyper-tolerance and eager for diversity? My uplift novels portray a future in which sapient dolphins and apes serve on our councils, offer their own styles of wisdom, art and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human.  
It’s an attractive outcome…
…but the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards.

A drunkard's walk amid silly people... Left and Right

Okay, this blog entry is going to be a bit rambling and angry… somewhat of a drunkard’s walk, while ranting at the lamp posts! Hope it at least entertains. Here goes.

bullshit-asymmetry-brandoliniWe’ve all known this and said it for a long time. I laid it out in explicit detail in my Disputations Arenas. Still, it’s nice to see a cogent naming of the phenomenon — Brandolini’s law - or, as Alberto Brandolini suggests, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle:
"The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it."
== Heading for war? ==
On the left side of the spectrum, and in some places on the right, folks are asking whether "Obama is playing into Bush’s bad policies. Now he’s taking the U.S. back into Iraq with more bombing."
democrats-republicans-wage-warSorry, this is a wrongheaded reflex. Back in 2002 - 2003, the issue was never "should Saddam Hussein be toppled and replaced?"Nor was it "should the Taliban - who supported and helped bin Laden to attack us be toppled and replaced?" 
We needed to do both things. (Though in Saddam’s case it deserved genuine policy debate and not a festival of Bushite lies.)
No, the real issue, re U.S. involvement/meddling over there, is and was "should it be done in the stupidest and most expensive ways possible? In a calamitous, gruesomely thuggish methodology that would cost us trillions, damn-near ruin our military and our reputations and leave only two winners: Iran and Haliburton?"

Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

In Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes, "The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don’t like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don’t like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don’t like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs.” 

See what the proponents of these words mean by them…
…and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.


Phases of the American Civil War


Cyclically, we find ourselves mired in dogma, instead of pragmatism, intransigent hatred instead of negotiation, nostalgia and romanticism, instead of belief that we can craft a better tomorrow.

I frequently refer to our current era of American politics as the latest phase of the U.S. Civil War… in part because the political maps so blatantly copy a pattern that goes back almost 200 years. 

….resulting in antagonism that ultimately led to today’s full scale New Confederacy effort to finally destroy the United States of America. Not by force of arms, but by ending the effectiveness of politics as a pragmatic, open-minded process by which undogmatic citizens negotiate a mix of experiments and find out what works — the methodology behind all of our successes. Replacing all of that with dogma more intense than communism ever was.

Twelve Questions about "the Future" from my Reddit AMA

I recently participated in an AMA - Ask Me Anything on the Reddit Futurology subgroup. Here’s a selection of questions and answers from this session.
twelve-questionsWhat do you find that has changed in the past ten years that is leaning towards your own fictional work?
The trend toward transparency being crucial to our survival and freedom has been in my fiction and nonfiction for decades and it is coming true. Last year, largely unheralded by media, saw the most important civil liberties decision in thirty years, when the courts and the Obama Administration separately declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a right to record their interactions with police, in public places. Of course there will be tussles over the details for years. I’ll talk later about how we must also watch the watchers of the watchers.


On Government, Morality and Competition

Competition is the greatest creative force in the cosmos.  Adam Smith focused on the positive outcomes when competition can be engendered in the best ways.  Competition made us! But in nature it is vicious and inefficient, working slowly, atop mountains of corpses. It is seldom much better in human affairs. Look across the centuries; we see almost every renaissance of competitive creativity (e.g. in markets) is almost always quickly suborned and ruined by cheaters. Competition that is open, fair and productive has only survived more than one generation  - anywhere - when it was regulated to minimize cheating. Exactly as Smith recommended.

 In fact, that success, getting the good, positive outcomes from creative competition, while excluding the nearly automatic cheating modes that always ruined it in the past, has truly only happened for more than two generations in a row once in all of the history of Homo sapiens… during this marvelous western renaissance we are living in. 


300 (and more) flat-out evil lies

Frank Miller’s “300” and its sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire” feature a veritable tsunami of outright and deliberate historical lies.. There are so many flaws, so why must I flog a flop and dismal failure? Because we need to lift our heads — as consumers — and demand better One can have vivid action without lobotomization. We can have movies that are true to their subject matter (e.g. history) without being dry or boring.


Snowden, Sousveillance and Social T Cells

==Another look at Snowden==
wired-snowdenWired has a long form interview with Edward Snowden: The Most-Wanted Man in the World. A must-read… as far as it goes. Only keep ahold of your ability to parse complexities and contradictions, because my reflex is always to point out aspects that were never raised. I refuse to choose one “side’s” purist reflex.  So should you.
Let’s start by stepping waaaaaay back.  I speak elsewhere* in terms of social T Cells — preening bachelor males who (in every known society, across recorded time) are seen doing risky things to get noticed — it’s darwinistically advantageous for a non-alpha male! Because it has (across millions of years) elevated some of these risk seekers to alpha status. To do this requires a kind of daring, prideful ego and a willingness to throw the dice. 

Many harmful men do this… but also heroes. Indeed, it was best parsed in a song: “Every hero was once… every villain was once… just a boy with a bad attitude!” — or so sings Meat Loaf (brilliantly)

 in Bad Attitude. 
Ah, but different societies have chosen to harness this very human tendency in varied ways.  Most filled the ranks of their armies and navies with these adventurers, and made sure there would be enough fighting or exploring or risky trading to keep them busy, far from the capital. (Perhaps ravaging someother nation’s capital.) We cannot afford such waste, in a nuclear age. And yet, our Western Enlightenment (WE) society - and especially America - have engendered a strong mythology of ego, anti-conformity and individualism, amid a population in which most of these young folks are frightfully well-educated. A combination that any other culture would have deemed very dangerous.

Suspicion-of-authorityNow why would we do such a thing?  Ponder it a bit. Then combine it with the relentless memes that pour across almost every Hollywood film or popular novel or song… Suspicion of Authority, reverence of eccentricity, individualism, fascination with diversity and the other…  Can you even count the number of recent YA films that scream contempt at conformity, calling it a fate worse than death? 

These messages are so pervasive that nearly all of us have absorbed the memes into our bones. They are so taken for granted that we no longer even notice the relentless propaganda for these values, and instead concoct a notion in our mind that we invented these things.

Privacy vs Omniveillance

Media discussions of privacy, freedom and the information age are starting to get more interesting, as folks finally start to realize a core truth… that everything eventually leaks. That the reflex of whining and demanding shadows to hide-in will never work. The data we entrust to banks and retail chains?  The trade secrets that companies rely on for competitive advantage? The cherished spy programs of our governmental professional protector caste (PPC)? If these do not leak because of hackers, or accidents, then would-be (or self-styled) whistle-blowers will see to it, sooner or later.

It has long been pointed out that information is not like other commodities.  It can duplicate itself at virtually zero cost, and those copies can escape even without you noticing it’s happened.  That is Fact Number One. Everything eventually leaks.

Fact number two is one I’ve tried to point out for decades.  That this is fundamentally a clash of values and civilizations.  The Western Enlightenment (WE) has always been the rebel and underdog, versus the 99% standard human (and zero-sum) pattern of top down control by hierarchs. (There was never much functional difference between leftist-communist oligarchies and right-wing wealth-inheritance oligarchies; both hewed to the endlessly-repeated feudal model.)  In contrast, the positive-sum WE has many disadvantages and instabilities, though it is also vastly more creative, successful and productive.  The one trait that tips the balance, though, is Fact Number Two: 

All enemies of the WE are lethally allergic to light. Go ahead and name one. If it is not allergic to light, then it probably is not an “enemy” at all, but a peaceful rival that can easily beincorporated into the diversity-friendly WE. (Indeed, the “western” part is already fading away.)

Which provokes our core question… is the world of information leakage one that we should (at a fundamental level) be fighting against… at all? Or actively encouraging?