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. 

government-moral

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?

Citizen Power - Part II: Those Cop-Cameras...

We do need to insist that souseillance-co-veillance and accountability march ever forward!  We need our eyes!  

body-mounted-camera-policeEven groups that would normally be skeptical of authorities videotaping everything support the idea of camera-equipped cops. The American Civil Liberties Union published a white paper last year supporting the use of the cameras. “Everybody wishes right now there was a video record of what happened,” says Jay Stanley, the author of the ACLU’s paper, referring to the Ferguson shooting.

Yet the cops — heck all elites and all authorities… including ourselves — must be supervised, whenever we assert power over others. True accountability will come only when supervisors and Internal Affairs divisions and defense attorneys get reliable access to cop-cam records…and yet, perhaps we do not require youtubing of everything to gain the benefits of accountability. Can we back away from utter voyeurism?

Citizen Power - Part I: using our cell cameras for safety and freedom

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. There will be tussles over the details for years, as discussed here. And here.
 
EFF-CELL-PHONE-GUIDE-PROTESTThose tussles could be hazardous! The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a guide to using cell phones if you are going to a protest or other zone of potentially tense interaction with police.
 
Good, practical advice. I have long urge folks to join EFF as one of their dozen or so “proxy power associations.” I do not always agree with them! But that doesn’t matter as much as ensuring that they — and the ACLU, etc — remain out there and untrammeled.

 

Asteroids, Super space drives, and Io volcanoes!

Are we a target? 

Did you hear that a solar storm spewed forth a major spray of energetic, charged particles that passed very close to the Earth, a while back? Read up on the 1859 Carrington Event that fried telegraph systems — if it struck today, our electronics-dependent civilization could suffer real damage. Contemplate that… then consider this. There may have been a truly monumental coronal mass ejection around the year 775 that hit the Earth with a strength that was about 20 times the 1859 Carrington Event.

And yes, the solution is to get out there!  Members of Congress introduced a bill to protect property rights for commercial exploitation of asteroids. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), is called the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act. Alas, during our current civil war, there is no chance of an actual political process in the USA.  But when this phase ends, as it must, the bill will be ready for action by a restored, scientific and forward-looking nation.

More Science: Microbes, Pathogens & Parasites

By some estimates, your body houses ten times more bacteria than cells with your DNA.  But that is only the start of our humiliation! DNA surveys now suggest that humans have thousands of viral species in and on us. Most of them likely coexist within our gut in peace and harmony. This notion - of relatively harmless viruses that therefore have escaped notice by science - has been around a while. It features prominently in my short story “The Giving Plague.

AfterManyThe importance of the micro-biome - the vast array of symbiotic bacteria living in human bodies, especially the gut, was portrayed vividly in a 1930s novel by Aldous Huxley — After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. But only now are we truly dialing into the importance of what Huxley then called “intestinal flora.” Now read how scientists are at last uncovering hints of huge communities of viruses that lurk below our notice, possibly affecting our health. We have a lot to learn.

Seems that that engineered probiotic bacteria (“friendly” bacteria like those in yogurt) in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. “Of course it’s hard to speculate from mouse to human.”   In fact, we are finding ever more longevity-related mouse results that have no bearing on humans! Still…

Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD For a generation, we’ve been taught that the best way to deal with our problems is to get mad as hell! Recent science exposes this as a scam that has produced the largest and most disastrous addiction in civilization. Sometimes problems merit indignation! But are we abandoning our greatest gift – the ability to actually solve problems.

Our next big crisis...Would you believe phosphorus?

== The crisis you never heard of… unless… ==

 phosphorus-crisisAn inspiring TED talk attempts to bring to world attention a coming “phosphorus crisis” — the rapid depletion of this elemental resource that is vital to life — a crisis that I revealed to many of you in EXISTENCE. This TED talk by biologist Mohamed Hijri (in French but with excellent sub-titles) not only clearly elucidates the problem, but also puts forward one element of a solution that could save several billion lives, when the phosphorus deposits dry up. 

Commencing a bio-science miscellany-fest…

biology-r-usIt seems brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence.
 
You’ve heard about this second hand… now the science of how the adolescent brain differs and grows. This fascinating article, Dude Where’s My Frontal Cortex, by Robert Sapolsky tracks the last part of us to develop, the prefrontal lobes responsible for planning and impulse control. A thorough, insightful, compassionate and well-written piece.

Ways to make civilization robust

The resilience of our entire civilization is increasingly reliant on a fragile network of cell phone towers, which are the first things to fail in any crisis, e.g. a hurricane or other natural disaster… or else deliberate (e.g.EMP or hacker) sabotage.
 
I have been nagging about this for almost two decades. My recommendation — offered to national and corporate leaders since 1995? That our pocket phones should have a backup communication mode that is peer-to-peer, that could pass messages from phone to phone through any afflicted area until they reach a zone with cell service, at which point the messages would spill into the continental network.
 
This would be frightfully easy to accomplish, especially for simple text messages. In fact, the technology has been incorporated in Qualcomm’s latest chip sets. Though the major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc — have all refused to activate it. This despite the fact that they would be perfectly free to bill for any P2P-passed messages — that’s easy. For years I asked national officials to require this backup, as a matter of overall robustness and public safety. Access to working phones made the biggest difference between two disasters… 9/11 - “the Day of the Citizen,” when average folks were able to self-organize and step up - vs the calamitous collapse of civilization during and after Hurricane Katrina.
 
P2PNow comes terrific news. “Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.”

A challenge story! Just 140 words long. Action! Mystery! Romance!

I’m a sucker for a challenge. I’ve done stories that were precisely 250 words. And precisely six words long. (One of those 6-worders had three separate scenes, action, conversation and pathos!) Heck, I’ve even written in second-person, future tense, though that one is problematic, because some readers obey.
Now comes a silly-ass dare from that meme-wallow, the Internet. GISHWHES (pompously promoting: the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen) is a charity fundraiser by Supernatural star Misha Collins. This year, one item on the list (#78) is a sci-fi story –140 words in length, or under - written specifically for the hunt. Alas, according to one source“overwhelmed sci-fi authors aren’t too happy about it.”
GISHWHES-elopusOh, in 140 words or less you are supposed to mention Misha, the Queen of England, and an ELOPUS… a hybrid between an elephant and an octopus. (See image.) Which is doubly ironic, since in several stories I have already portrayed ELEPENTS, future-modified pachyderms, adapted for work in space, with crude gripping hands, a prehensile tail and a trunk for fine manipulation! I think my gene-mod-uplifted creatures are far more likely to come about than Elopusses! (E-lopi?)
But here we go. Misha… the (or rather “a”) queen… and a symbolic elephant-octopus. Yeesh. Despite these handicaps, I tried to pack in a lot of events, drama and back story. (Oh and I did it in exactly 140!)…..

 

The True Origins of the American Revolution

The American Revolution serves as a Rorschach test that reflects the obsessions of each succeeding generation. In the 1920s, Marxist notions of class struggle dominated and thus even anti-communist historians viewed the rebellion as a phase shift from monarchal domination to empowerment of the bourgeoisie. In the forties, literalist scholars started instead taking the Founders at their word — that the Revolution was an idealistic exercise in limiting the scope of government.

During the cynical 1960s, fashions changed again, to viewing the rebellion as a manipulative putsch that allowed local gentry — the caste of Washington and Jefferson — to displace others at the top of the heap. A lateral coup, with just enough populism to keep the middle class placid.

Peoples-historyWhat these generations of scholars all seemed to agree upon was that the colonists weren’t rebelling over the raw magnitude of taxes. Indeed, many expressed puzzlement that there were any grievances worth fighting and dying over! Certainly it all seemed rather far-fetched, given how comfortable life had been for most American colonists, especially compared to the mountain of crimes committed against the people of France, by the Bourbon ancien regime.

In fact, despite the hairsplitting obsessions of academic scholars — and the puerile tendency of textbooks and politicians to mention only tea and stamp taxes — it is pretty clear in historical records that the colonists revolted for a host of genuine grievances:

Science that threatens… and promises wonders

George Dvorsky has a piece on iO9, How Artificial Intelligence Will Give Birth to Itself,  summarizing many of the worrisome aspects of a possible runaway effect, when self-improving artificial intelligences (AI) get faster and faster at designing new and better versions of themselves. A thoughtful reflection on how the Singularity might (or might not) go out of control.

Alas, George left out a process issue that makes all the difference. That issue is Secrecy, which lies at the root of every Michael Crichton science-goes-wrong scenario. (Not one of Michael’s plot drivers would have taken place, if the “arrogant scientists” had done their innovating in the open - as most scientists have been trained to prefer - exposing their new robots/dinosaurs and so on to truly public, error-correcting criticism.)

secrecyEfforts to develop AI that are subject to the enlightenment process of reciprocal scrutiny might see their failure modes revealed and corrected in time. Those that take place in secret are almost one hundred percent guaranteed to produced unexpected outcomes. And most likely dangerous ones.

The worst example of AI research that is secret and extremely well-funded, while creating AI systems that are inherently amoral, predatory and insatiable? It’s a danger that I explore here: Why a Transaction Fee Matters to You. Automated investment programs… of which High Frequency Trading is only one example… represent probably the most dangerous AI research on our planet today.