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A Chat with David Brin
March 2013
by Catherine Book
I’ve always admired David Brin’s work so it was a pleasure to meet him at the Tucson Book Festival this year.

In this day and age, authors are more and more dependent on social media to promote themselves, and, by extension, their books.  I asked David what he thought of that.  His response was that social media would not be as important if book stores were still thriving and were still the principal method by which people buy their books.  Of course, David was already a respected, established author and has been for years; however, even he still has to scramble these days to self-promote as being an established writer is only a small advantage.  New authors, he observed, are lost out there without social media.  For example, this year, to promote Existence, he created a video trailer with some gorgeous artwork in order to generate a ‘buzz.’  He spoke at length about the great progress we’ve made in opportunity in literature; an ever higher percentage of the population is educated, articulate and passionate about writing and literature.  Never before in human history have such a large percentage of both teens and adults felt liberated to express themselves in all the arts, but especially the written word.  Today, there is an unprecedented opportunity for would-be writers to express themselves and have their work be seen.  That’s the good news; the bad news is that there are so many people out there expressing themselves that most are lost in the vast ocean and it’s hard to stand out.  It’s an example of ‘be careful what you wish for.’

David once said that science was a ‘higher calling’ than writing fiction.  I asked him why he left science.  He then discussed at length how it is that civilization has always had artists; “art fizzes out of us” he said.  That even at moments when kings and leaders tried to suppress it, people would create an underground society in which to practice their art.  Today we have a unique culture wherein people can practice their art without restriction and with unlimited access to support and critique.  But back to the question:  he related how he was born into a family of writers and always knew he would be one as well although he did go on to get his PhD and had some significant successes.  And all the good scientists he knows have creative outlets, as well.  So when he figured out that civilization would pay him more, and let him sign more books, and be interviewed more on TV in the fiction field than in the science field….well, who was he to argue with civilization?  He still does publish scholarly papers.  He enjoys picking a topic that he feels is under-noticed and then he raids all the available information.  It is true today that readers, including scientists, no longer judge a piece on the merit of the author’s credentials.  Even though David’s Ph.D. is in physics he’s written on addiction science, human psychology, anthropology and human evolution.

So, since David seems able to expound on just about any topic, I asked him what he saw as the most possible devastating apocalypse that would destroy mankind, not necessarily the planet.  He sees us as tougher to kill than cockroaches and thought it probably would take planetary destruction to totally destroy us.  But what he fears is the fragile nature of enlightened civilization. Our current civilization is unmatched in its ability to create vast wealth, opportunity, equal opportunity for minorities, leveraging creative potential but it could be knocked back to the pattern most human cultures followed for 6000 years:  inherited oligarchy.  One can understand the Darwinistic reasons for inherited oligarchy but David sees that as a grotesque lifestyle that suppressed human capability to get out to the stars.  We could do it to ourselves with a nuclear war, it could even be an asteroid.  It is possible that an asteroid the size of Texas could completely destroy us but if it didn’t, we could still lose all those advantages and regress to feudalism…forever.  That’s why it’s important that we never forget how we got to where we are today.

I then wondered if he thought mankind had grown too much too fast?  Should some of our toys be taken away until we’re old enough to play with them responsibly?  David quoted a common cliché:  it’s too bad our wisdom hasn’t kept up with our technology.  He talked about how just within his own lifetime, society has taken on so many moral paths that no previous culture ever had the guts to tackle.  Racism, sexism, societal propaganda that tried to force people to believe something they didn’t naturally…this filthy habit has infested all our history, even the great ones.  These ills still exist and liberals are right to criticize that we haven’t taken it far enough; but, he maintains forcefully, those same liberals are crazy not to brag and recognize how far we have come.  Racism and sexism, for example, have been driven into ill repute to the point that their practitioners are forced to deny it; they have to claim their racist agenda is something else.  When the evil people in our civilization have to pretend they are not, that’s what’s called spectacular progress!  He sees the left as insane when they fail to recognize these successes; constantly chastising us for not doing more, which actually hurts their campaign.  Instead of still maintaining we haven’t done enough to promote a liberal agenda, they would be better served if they glorified the successes and then challenged us to continue.  Then he did point to the internet as an example of too much, too fast.  That it is has the potential to do more to educate us while, at the same time, lobotomizing us with Twitter.

I then asked him what human characteristic would he like to see developed, or what trait should we do away with?  He stated that our penchant for self-righteous indignation really, really makes him mad.  But seriously, he thinks this trait in particular destroys our ability to be a problem-solving people.  He sees it as a sometimes-useful trait but our addiction to it has poisoned American politics.  We demonize each other instead of negotiating with each other and benefitting from our differences.  He’s hoping that recent scientific advances in increasing human intelligence will make a difference.  He notes that while Poul Anderson’s “ Brain Wave“ does have warnings about the problems, he’s willing to risk it.  We could really use more intelligence.

What about our children – are they learning to think or is the internet encouraging them to just mimic each other?  You have to remember Sturgeon’s Law, he said, “Ninety percent of everything is crap”.  The biggest use of the internet is pornography and most of the rest is cat pictures. This is, of course, disappointing to those of us who look forward to a more advanced civilization.  But the fact is – human progress rises out of manure.  Our children are becoming more agile-thinking and those who do learn to think, and choose to think, will become the most agile human thinkers ever.  Maybe they will be the ones to overcome those self-righteous ones.

David once characterized himself as a Futurist.  I asked him what that meant to him.  He said that due to the negative perception of that word, he tends to use it sparingly.  David explores trends and helps people contemplate; some businesses and government agencies pay him to explore questions.  This process, he explained, uses the pre-frontal lobes.  We use them as Einstein described in his Gedankenexperiment or thought experiments.  This activity allows us to extrapolate events, or put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, so to speak.  What happens if I do this?  We know this because people who have had pre-frontal lobotomies lose interest in doing thought experiments.  Which is why, David finished with: he’d rather have a free bottle in front of him than a pre-frontal lobotomy.  This is what Futurism is about, exploring our possible errors before we make them.  And this is what David is so good at. 

Visit his website for loads of fascinating and interesting essays and information:

Thank you, David, and keep those Gedankenexperiments coming.

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