A Potpourri of Questions from Reddit

Yesterday I did a grueling 8 hour Reddit AMA: Ask Me Anything, archived here.  Shall I go ahead and post some of the questions and my answers?

What advancement that will happen within our lifetimes do you most look forward to? Why?

Reddit-AMAI talk to a lot of the “Singularity” guys and I get to be the grouch toward their expectations of looming imminent immortality. Not that there won’t be advances; I hope for some! But I think the human enlightenment projected is vastly more important than any one person’s greedy clutch at life extension! Hence, what I yearn for is improvements in PROCESS. The Enlightenment processes of markets and democracy and science have been spectacular! Guys like Clay Shirky claim the Web is making us hugely smarter in real time. But ….  I don’t see that. There are many tools still missing and lobotomizing conversation to 140 words won’t do it.

I show some of those possible improvements… in EXISTENCE!

The web transcendentalists are one side, then you get cyber-cynics like Nicholas Carr. You might like my article showing what both sides miss:  My Salon Magazine feature comparing the technology pessimists to those who think the Internet is turning us into gods: Is the Web Helping Us Evolve?

What advancements have the potential to change everything?

  • Better online methods of discourse
  • Brain/intelligence augmentation
  • Artificial Intelligence… assuming we prevent it from emerging from predatory high frequency stock trading programs (if it does we are so screwed; and yes I know you are reading this, Goldman-Sachs Pouncer 234s!)
  • Getting all to realize that self-righteous indignation is a real, bona fide drug-high self-doped addiction! One that we baby boomers are expert at!

What can we citizens do, to overcome governmental resistance to transparency? The issue ends up buried under all the other partisan concerns — yet every aspect of government would be so much better if transparent. How can we overcome the static friction and get the ball rolling?

You expect the mighty to willingly let themselves be kept accountable? Look at the last 6000 years. We humans (especially when powerful) always come up with reasons why WE (and our friends) need privacy while our foes need accountability

Those 6000 years show how obstinate the problem is, but they also show reasons for optimism! The Enlightenment’s 250 year experiment has been amazing. Adam Smith said break up power into smaller chunks so the mighty will help us to hold EACH OTHER accountable, and we did!

The time to worry? When the mighty conspire against this solution.  As they are doing now.

Always watch out for the next layer you missed. I am “Contrary Brin” and hence I must point out that all the power consolidations you are mentioning (government bureaucracies) are old and have not changed much in decades, yet you fret them as if they are skyrocketing.

Taxes are near their lowest rates in 80 years, Federal and state shares of the economy are plummeting and historically low. So why your fixation on that center of power? Might it be because far more aggressively rising accumulations of power want you focused that way?

I am a Smithian-Heinleinian libertarian. I distrust ALL accumulations of power! Look back across 6000 years and tell me who was oppressed and who were the oppressors?

What group of conspiracists worry you the most? Political, economic, military, scientific, insert group here?

We all do selective perception. If you are “progressive” you notice conspiracies of the right and vice versa. (Personally, I find the “left-right axis” to be lobotomizing.)

I am Contrarian — so my libertarian friends get poked by me and they think I am liberal. My liberal friends hear me rave on and on about Adam Smith. But yes, I do believe that one conspiracy – HG Wells’s mutant/cannibalistic “murdochs” – is the worst.

Technology is lowering the barriers to entry in writing and publishing books, particularly through the ebook phenomenon. Do you think that large publishing houses will still be playing a major role in 10, 20, or 50 years? Or will we have completely switched to a grass-roots self-publishing system?

Think of human society. 99% of those before ours were pyramid shaped, with oligarchs atop — and we may be heading back that way. But the West invented the diamond-shaped society in which a thriving middle out numbers the poor or rich.

It turns out some professions are naturally diamond-like. Like engineering. You engineers MIGHT be rich or poor but are likely to have a house/car etc.

The arts will ALWAYS be pyramidal. For every Steven King there are ten of me who are doing great but who envy him (he’s a nice man actually.) For every author who is comfy there are ten squeaking by. And so on down. What has changed is the PATH to climb the pyramid. You can still get plucked up to the top by mavens and pros (editors) OR you can climb the Ramp of Merit with online pubs and fanzines and e-books.  These aren’t either-or paths.  They are complementary.  Both will endure and we’ll get good art in both ways.

In your Uplift series, there are several earth species which eventually achieve sentience. What are your thoughts on developing the intelligence of these species? Should we interfere or leave them to go on as they have? Or, rather, should we expand our ideas surrounding sentience to encompass these species?

The left will say “they have their own nobility and style of intelligence!” And the right would decry meddling in God’s plan.

But I have met the dolphins and spoken to their researchers. ALL agree the creatures would love to be smarter than they are. They seem frustrated and are desperately eager and get awfully miffed they can’t figure out a problem they know that a human child can easily suss.

I consider it criminally selfish to hold onto the top position – all for ourselves – if we could help others up that last and obviously very difficult few rungs. LOOK at how many other races are stuck at nearly the same level! Dolphins, parrots, apes, sea lions, possibly octopi. Something about the next step is HARD and I think maybe we should lend a hand.

Many will call EXISTENCE a prequel to Startide Rising in that it shows one possible beginning to the Uplift Project. And it shows that it won’t be easy!

Oh, thousands of folks have written to me jazzed by the notion that we might someday spread the diversity of intelligent civilization on Earth – a worthy goal! We’ll make other minds! AIs! Uplifted dolphins and apes! Heck we might even manage to uplift our children!

But then people realize that uplifting apes or dolphins would take 200+ years and along the way? Pain.

Since writing The Transparent Society, have you changed your opinion about the potential for transparency to improve society? Do you track projects related to implementing the concepts presented in that book (and if so, do you have a list of active and/or defunct projects)? Are you interested in being involved in such projects?

I grow increasingly convinced that the four great innovations of the Enlightenment: Democracy, Markets, Science and Justice, absolutely depend on most of the participants knowing most of what’s going on, most of the time.

All four languish, sicken and die if secrecy prevails.

I am a moderate! The Transparent Society is filled with discussion of exceptions where secrecy can pass a burden of proof and privacy is important!

But ironically it can only be defended if we see well enough to catch the peeping toms.

What sparked the idea for an entire civilization built upon uplift? Do you see this as the inevitable progression of intelligent species or was it just a thought experiment?

Illustration by Patrick Farley

GREAT question. Almost all I do is informed by the Fermi Paradox. EXISTENCE lays down dozens of hypotheses (amid a rollicking, idea-drenched adventure!

In the Uplift Universe I wanted to do space opera with LOTS of alien races. Only how can that happen and be stable if everyone is colonizing and warring like mad… the galaxies would go to hell.

But the progenitors set up this cycle, see, in which your status depends on how many “offspring” races you raise up. This means everybody becomes fanatical to protect Nursery Worlds where candidate species can rise up. Wars are limited and potential protected… see? It is not a friendly cosmos, but it does limit the worst failure modes…

Do you think humans as a species could survive in a world where there is no scarcity?

I think Star Trek is the most wholesome sci fi ever and it portrays a somewhat post-scarcity world. Look we already live in such a world. Our cave ancestors would call us gods.

Do you know where your own contrarian streak comes from?

A sense of how desperately little time we have to get things right. And that everybody who enslaves themselves to a simpleminded dogma is betraying their own agility of mind or ability to learn from one another.

Even if your side is 80% right, it desperately needs its faults questioned!  Criticism is the only known antidote to error.  So thank your foes for providing lots of it!  To help you improve.

Then return the favor!

1 Comment

Filed under science

One response to “A Potpourri of Questions from Reddit

  1. I agree that working on uplift for Dolphins and our our relatives on this planet. Yet there is something much more fundamental, and it is the reason why we might fail unless it is done first. And that is to understand Consciousness itself: what is it? where does it come from? how does it manifest in the physical universe? is mind different from consciousness (i.e. is it only one aspect of consciousness)?

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