Tag Archives: future

Science Fiction and the Future

In honor of Isaac Asimov’s birthday a few days back — and National Science Fiction Day (see below) — let’s have our first sci fi roundup of the year.

Century-Begin-2014First.  My New Years gift to you all is a little scary story  What if the 21st Century Actually Begins in 2014? about the real meaning of the “Fourteenth Year.”  That each of the last few centuries appeared to have had its “true start” at that point in time. Especially 1814 and 1914… and if this pattern holds, w may be in for a very very interesting stretch of road, ahead.  This piece is syndicated on the Bloomberg Network!

Second, I was interviewed by New York’s NPR station WNYC for broadcast in January, about the influence Science Fiction has had on society and creativity.  Someone let us know when it plays!

Third, catch this great anthology!  Twelve Tomorrows. Inspired by the real-life breakthroughs covered in the pages of MIT Technology Review, renowned writers Brian W. Aldiss, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, and Greg Egan join the hottest emerging authors from around the world to envision the future of the Internet, biotechnology, computing, and more. This collection features 12 all-new stories, an exclusive interview with science fiction legend Neal Stephenson, and a full-color gallery of artwork by Science Fiction Hall of Famer Richard Powers. (Now available on Kindle.)

Fourth… as mentioned above… January 2 is National Science Fiction Day….also Isaac Asimov’s birthday. Spread the word!  Agitate!  And let’s discuss in October how to make this the huge deal that it ought to be!

Oh here are articles on Isaac Asimov’s 50 year predictions of the world of 2014: Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014, writes Asimov fifty years ago, writing in the New York Times, after having attended the World’s Fair of 1964.

== Has sci fi provided the “great political writer” of our time? ==

Shaman-RobinsonTim Kreider gives a lovely paean to my bro and colleague Kim Stanley Robinson, calling him one of the greatest political and social writers of our era… before going on to give lavish praise in a review of Robinson’s new book: “Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age.”  Kreider at times seems a bit unctuous in his admiration, but makes a credible case for Robinson’s importance.

My politics are just enough separated from Stan’s that I can enjoy occasional, fraternal digs at his utopiansim, which involves a wee bit more deliberate planning than I consider likely or plausible. In my opinion, humans are too ornery and delusional to reach consensus on the logical-seeming redesigns that Robinson demands, and which – by the way – will inevitably contain more unexpected drawbacks than any Grand Designer has ever been willing to admit.

Still, many of the good things that he calls for (and that I desire too!), like a much longer and broader set of Consequence and Inclusion Horizons — will come about. Partly from a mix of utopian finger-waggings by brilliant thinkers… but also via the trick-and-tool that has worked for us, so far… the reciprocal accountability that comes from a truly open, flat and transparent exchange of ideas and criticism, in a society that is always open to pragmatic and far-seeing endeavors..

It is that flatness and openness and transparency — plus the need to perpetually believe we can aspire and become better — where our overlap is complete, and where I am proud that our civilization gives full voice to Kim Stanley Robinson.

== More Cool SF’nal items ==

An interesting run-down by Charlie Jane Anders of iO9 on her personal list of recommended books for 2013.

Lee Barnett (aka ‘budgie’) is embarking on a challenge to write twelve 200 word stories using a title and a word provided by 12 writers. First off is Jamais Cascio, who suggested ‘The Misanthropic Principle’ with ‘shenanigans’, and got a take on the Big Question. Drop in on the Budgie site and follow this cool/fun exercise.

SixWordStoryThese “drabbles” — or super short fictions with very harsh rules — can be way-fun. One of my best short-shorts is “Toujours Voir” or “Always to see”… an answer to Deja Vu. Though the best one I ever saw was the very first story ever penned by Robert Sawyer. At the same site see my entries in WIRED’s contest for SciFi stories containing just SIX words.  The story of mine — Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love. — is the only one with actual events and a plot, in three scenes!

I only just realized… it is precisely the story arc of — GRAVITY.

gravity-movie-posterThe space drama, starring Sandra Bullock, was directed, co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Alfonso Cuarón, who earned from all of us the greatest respect. Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence-homage-‘borrow’ by a standard of percentages, of fractional point-by-point overlap. So, can you see even a single point of my story that does not overlap with GRAVITY?

==Dream Worlds==

Indistinguishable from magic: A fun essay by Jason Snell in MacWorld looks at comparing technology forward and back in time… via science fiction!

MyDream is a nascent gaming world and system that purports to offer individual players of group games the ability to craft and set up  realms that follow rules and patterns of the player’s choosing.  They’ve come a fair distance but are asking for crowdfunding support.  Seems worth a look.

In fact, there would seem to be some partial overlaps or potential synergies with the Exorarium Project that I partly developed with Sheldon Brown of the UCSD Arthur Clarke Center for Human Imagination.  A cool potential system that would achieve what SPORE promised, but better and with fantastic educational potential, as well.

A lovely little essay about a parent who reads to her daughter and occasionally switches character genders.  Cute… and still helpfully necessary.

== Is TED Sci Fi? ==

TEDx San Diego has released the first four videos of a dozen interesting talks from last month, including my colleague Benjamin Bratton’s controversial indictment of TED itself!  Watch his tak … or see Ben Bratton’s written essay, We Need to Talk About TED, calling into question the whole TED/Chattauqua approach.

What one piece of science do you wish everyone knew? Make a short film about your favorite bit of scientific knowledge and you could win the GuardianWitness Science award – and an iPad Air. A Guardian contest.

== Movies of 2014 ==

SInce we’re on the topic of movies: I’d love to watch this Russian film, if possible! The Irony of Fate.

Edge-tomorrowSee Tom Cruise in the preview of his future sci fi combat/shooter flick Edge of Tomorrow.  Apparently they took “All You Need Is Kill” — a Japanese military science fiction light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka that was up for a Seiun Award… and slapped onto it the title of a story+nonfiction book by Isaac Asimov. (I hope Janet and Robin were paid!)

The plot involves re-living the same failed invasion over and over again… thing “Groundhog D-Day.”  And hey, I am happy to see something actually made from an actual book and not a tedious remake!  Looks like fun.

But of course, the Big Deals will be twin attempts at serious and non-cliche films either directed or produced by Christopher Nolan.  Interstellar bodes to be exactly what we need in the transition year of 2014… a call for us to shrug off the pessimistic funk and get back to being human. Which means bold explorers.

transcendence-movie-trailer-poster Transcendence deals with the emergence of AI amid a singularity.  The first teasers suggested it might be another damned cliche-downer.  But I should have had more faith in Nolan’s team and community. This trailer may be a bit of a spoiler. But it suggests we aren’t in for a dumb-ass dystopic yawner, after all.  Oh, sure there will be warnings.  But as I squint, I foresee tomething that moves through that space and into… well… maybe something truly interesting, like Brainstorm.

Transcendence Official Trailer #1 (2014) – Johnny Depp Sci-Fi Movie HD

Jiminy… at least we can hope.

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News about Space and Science Fiction

First a series of important announcements for the month of May:

I’ll be on the show “STAR TREK: SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE” on Wednesday at 10pm PT on the History Channel.  A fun romp through the range of speculative sci & tech that help propel the fabulous Trek franchise to realms of vast imagining and hopeful possibility.

starshipcentury-300x297Then — May 21 and 22 — the “Starship Century Symposium” at the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD will be devoted to an ongoing exploration of the development of a real starship in the next 100 years. You can watch live streaming of the event — speakers include Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Neal Stephenson, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford and David Brin.

And rounding out a busy month:  Where are we heading next in space? Register to attend the Global Collaboration in 21st century Space Conference — or International Space Development Conference — May 23 to 27 in San Diego. Speakers include: Buzz Aldrin, Mae Jemison, Robert Zubrin, Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Chris Lewicki, Natasha Vita-More….   Just after UCSD’s Starship Century Symposium earlier in the week.

== Existence is on the ballot ==

CampbellNomineesExistence is on the short list for the John W. Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of 2012.  Have a look at the competition!

It was – in fact – an exceptionally fine year, with excellent works by Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, M. John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, China Miéville, Hannu Rajaniemi, G. Willow Wilson, Terry Bisson, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts and John Varley.  Wow. The field is alive… alive!

== Is there hope for the future? ==

I’ve reported before about the group in Oxford studying Existential Risk of human extinction… cheery blokes.  Here is another interesting article about them.  Of course the Lifeboat Foundation (I am a fellow) discusses many of the same things… a myriad potential threats to our… existence. Alas, for too many citizens and authors, doom scenarios are not interesting topics for exploration and prevention, but rather opportunities for endless, voluptuous relish and hand-rubbing over our inevitable human failure.

There is push back!  Neal Stephenson has joined Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, Catherine Asaro and me — along with several others — in urging the renewal of a science fiction that talks about hope. (While of course(!) delivering great action, peril and adventure.) Read about Neal’s positive-thinking and uplifting Project Hieroglyph

…and my own reasons why readers and viewers should turn away the sheer laziness of those who cannot think of any way to propel a lively plot, except by calling humanity and civilization worthless.

BerleantSome people are active trying to chart a path forward.  The best thought experiments are (of course) in top science fiction!  But occasional nonfiction has a stab at it.  Arising out of our discussions at the Lifeboat Foundation, there is a new book about the future that may be worth discussion.  The Human Race to the Future: What Could Happen – and What to Do, by Daniel Berleant. Who doesn’t wonder about the future… what things will be like some day, how long it might take, and what we can do about it?  I’d welcome comments and reviews from some of you, and do comment also on Amazon.

== Our SFnal World! ==

Our sci fi future may be visible in Korea, where all of the Miss Korea finalists appear to be converging on the same face… almost literally.

Dark Eden, the story of an alien planet where the incestuous offspring of two stranded astronauts struggle to survive, has won the UK’s top science fiction prize, the Arthur C Clarke award. Author Chris Beckett, a part-time lecturer in social work, beat some of science fiction’s best-known writers, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Ken MacLeod, to take the prize.

Why would aliens come all this way just to invade earth? Charlie Jane Anders explores some of the parameters on ion (io9).

Cracked.com links you to  “5 Badass New (mini) Sci-Fi Movies You Can Watch on Your Lunch Break.” The tech is moving along and there are fine artistic sensibilities in this vividly visual small flicks.  Alas, there are so many stories that could be told with these methods.  Cool and ORIGINAL short stories instead of old, old, old tropes, but these fellows apparently consider that to be their very last priority.  Still. They are visually stunning and worth a watch.

While we’re exploring sci-fi ish shorts… This is an amazing music video! A live-action film of a first person shooter game. Nicole says: “Actually, this is just a regular day in Bad-Ass Russia!”

As if the homogenization of Hollywood scripts hasn’t already gone too far, now there are services that computer-scan scripts to make them conform to what has statistically made money from audiences in the past. Well, it is a useful service, one supposes. Moreover, there’s my charismatic and talented niece, right there in the cover photo.

== Brin in media ==

TechnologicalSingularityTwo panels from the latest LosCon that I participated in have been uploaded. One with David Gerrold and others, on “A Quiet Place to Write,” plus one with Vernor Vinge, Phil Osborn and Mitch Wagner on “The Technological Singularity.”

Tam Hunt did a well-organized and cogently-done interview with me in The Santa Barbara Independent.

James Moushon interviewed me about how a novelist uses social media, book trailers, etc and how I allocate time, in a well-put-together profile and interview : HBS Author’s Spotlight.

==  More Space and Sci Fi -related news ==

EuropaReportEuropa Report.  A sci fi film for grownups? Is this for real?

Old Spock vs new Spock in a cute commercial.

Amazing elevators from around the world.

A terrific (if incomplete) flowchart of time travel in movies.

== A sub-continent awakens to SF ==

India will be important to the world and Science Fiction will be important to any forward looking civilization, especially in fast-rising India.  Here are some links provided by the fine SF writer Professor Vandana Singh that may enlighten folks about that rise… And news of a new Indian SF magazine, recently launched.

== More serious ==

Proposed legislation for compulsory science fiction in West Virginia schools?

Republican state delegate Ray Canterbury says this move would inspire pupils to use practical knowledge and imagination in the real world.  An article in the Guardian probed this possible education reform, spiced with commentary by legendary sci fi author and educator James Gunn… and by yours truly.  A fascinating move that could help reverse our current slide toward timid thinking.

“As long ago as Future Shock, author and visionary Alvin Toffler called for exposing young people to science fiction as ‘a sovereign prophylactic’ against ‘the premature arrival of the future’. Today in an even more rapidly changing world, it is even more important for Toffler’s purpose but also for “making the kinds of informed decisions about present issues that will lead to better futures,” said Gunn, who is founder of the Centre for the Study of Science Fiction at Kansas University.

ExpansionHOrizonsContrast this with recent proposals and measures in the outrageously and dogmatically anti-science House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology.  This truly is a war — though not between all democrats and all republicans (note that W. VA delegate Canterbury is Republican).  Rather, it is a battle for survival between future-oriented and curiosity-drive progress…and a bitter habit of hateful nostalgia. A vile habit that certainly does fester on the far leftQ Almost as destructively as it spews damage from Fox-central.

Heck, while we’re being serious, here are some unique takes on the philosophical aspects of my novel Existence, from the Center for Human Consciousness.

Oh but let’s end with a swing toward joy.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Sci Fi and Horror Music.  Need I say more?

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Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part IV) Prediction and the Future

Continuing this compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…

 == THE FUTURE== 

–Your writing touches on the impact of technology upon humanity, and its power to change our daily lives. Can you expand upon that? 

Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? Once upon a time, these were exactly the powers of gods! So why don’t you feel like one? 

Because we gave these powers to everyone, that’s why. Ironically, the moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared in the experience via TV. The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace, risking arrest, in order to view them. Or if we had to crack open a wizard’s secret grimoire. 

lordoftherings_wideweb__430x244,1Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal window on Gandalf’s desk through which he can explore ideas, gather information, view far-away events and communicate instantly across great distances…there are only three differences between the palantir and your laptop:

(1) The wizards and elfs kept such wonderful things for themselves,

(2) the result was calamity, horrible war and near-loss of everything, 

(3) it sure helped make a romantic story, captivating millions.  

If only you and a dozen other folks were on the internet, able to see far and access all knowledge, we’d all be in awe of you, too! But then.. it wuldn’t work so gud…..

As for the future? Get ready to be even more godlike! If we’re lucky, future advances will also be shared with everybody and so you won’t notice! Too bad. But hopefully, we’ll be wise. 

–What is your record as a prognosticator? 

self-deceptionWhen prediction serves as polemic, it nearly always fails. Our prefrontal lobes can probe the future only when they aren’t leashed by dogma. The worst enemy of agile anticipation is our human propensity for comfy self-delusion. 

Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for “honey-pot ideas” drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever is fashionable, try to poke at it! Maybe 1 percent of the time you’ll find a trend or possibility that’s been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels—even sober business forecasts—seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. 

This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as only a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time. Never gifted with the ability to engage in of actual discourse. All right, maybe that does describe most of our fellow citizens! (Especially the extremes of both right and left.) Still, people will surprise you.  And over the long run, their collective wisdom rises. And in small groups they can be positively brilliant.

A contrarian trick that has served me well is to ponder a coming technology and then imagine, What if everybody gets to use it? In really smart ways? Many of those imaginings have come true. (Readers maintain a Predictions Registry page that tracks hits and misses for my novel Earth.)

–Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future – and why? 

tomorrowsworldI am known widely as an optimist. This is not quite true. What I am is a contrarian. And hence, when I see cynics and despair junkies all around me — around all of us – screeching simpleminded whines and playground sneers, I am naturally drawn to poking at their lazy models of the world. 

Even if the pessimists and cynics were right… and they aren’t… they are totally not being helpful. Their attitude is the quintessence of laziness and voluptuously smug self-indulgence.   A rationalization for indolence. 

Dig it. All hope in the world has been achieved by problem-solvers.  We need more of them. All the can-do pragmatic problem-solvers we can get. 

–In your opinion, are we headed for a dystopic or utopian future? 

Again, people tend to call me a propagandist for optimism, because I occasionally portray society as not totally stupid… or our fellow citizens as something slightly more evolved than sheep.  In fact, I am an optimist only by comparison to the reflexive contempt-for-the-masses that you see in most knee-jerk fiction these days. 

Actually, I’m kind of a gloomy guy. History shows how often and how easily bright beginnings failed, giving way to darkness once again. We have a genius for snatching failure from the jaws of success. It will not surprise me if our present renaissance collapses. If we betray our values for short-term expediency.  It has happened countless times before. 

on-beach-nevil-shute-paperback-cover-artBut Science Fiction fights that trend, even in (the best) dystopias! Our dark warnings poke the ground, finding pitfalls and quicksand just ahead. The topmost warnings – those that seem vivid and convincing – turn into self-preventing prophecies that deeply affect great numbers of people, ensuring that a particular mistake won’t happen. Consider stories such as Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, The China Syndrome, Silent Spring, Soylent Green, and so on. These drew attention from millions of people toward possible doomsday scenarios. Millions who became active, fighting for a better future. Were those efforts futile? Or are we here today because of them? 

1984The greatest self-preventing prophecy was surely George Orwell’s chilling Nineteen-Eighty Four. Who does not feel girded, inoculated by the metaphors of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth? Determined to the cause of preventing them ever from coming true? If we manage to preserve freedom and hold all the big-time liars accountable, it will be in no small part thanks to science fiction. 

I just wish more authors would notice what they are a part of…a vast process of error-discover and error-detection that constitutes part of our society’s immune system against terrible mistakes. So by all means write warning-dystopias! But try to be original and helpful. You did not invent black leather. Or mirrorshades. And the people may not all be fools. Who knows?  They might actually listen to you… heed your warnings… and thus make you a false prophet. 

Read the story of Jonah.  And then snap out of it!  Your job is to be credible. To help us notice and avert. It is not your task to prove right.

Scare folks with plausible failure modes. Make them worry… and help make it not happen.

 –Is there hope for the future? 

I foresee a 60% chance that we’ll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic over-exploiters. One when we have found solutions to the critical choices before us and passed most of the harsh tests, raising new generations who are both mighty and wise. 

I don’t view those odds as “optimistic” at all! Not when the alternatives are horrible. Such probabilities are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world. 

I think we’ll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilization that may emerge after a century of hard times could be missing some fine treasures… manatees, blue whales, krill, the Amazon Rain Forest, privacy… and every human being who wasn’t immune to Virus X. 

UNIVERSEFAKEI had a thought, lately. Heaven and Hell may not be such bizarre thoughts, after all! Consider our godlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to ‘call up’ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including photos, video, skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books, etc. What will they do with that power? (See my short story, Stones of Significance.)

Those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of Purgatory have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader. 

See more articles on: Creating the Future.

-What is humanity’s greatest flaw? 

Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors… though it hurts.  In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns said: 

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as others see us! 
It wad frae monie a blunder free us, 
An’ foolish notion…” 

(“Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many blunders free us, and foolish notions…”) 

CITOKATE3Or, my own aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end…  so that most of us never even thank our enemies for pointing out our mistakes for us.  Think about that. If criticism is the only way we catch our delusional errors, why do we resent those out there who willingly, eagerly, give us what we need, in order to do better and to be better?

It is a gift economy!  After your foe as heaped upon you a laundry list of things to fix, you should thank him or her… and then return the favor!  Purely (of course) out of the kindness of your heart.

(A side note: look at the end of every book I publish.  There are 50+ names. Pre-readers and critics who helped find errors or slow-patches or inconsistencies.  I don’t mind praise, as well.  But it is a lower priority than quality control. Looking at criticism that way is a great tool for success.)

–Would you rather be living 100 years from now, when we’ll presumably have access to so many more answers? 

Is it better to sow than to reap? Jonas Salk said our top job is to be “good ancestors.” If we in this era meet the challenges of our time, then our heirs may have powers that would seem godlike to us — the way we take for granted miracles like flying through the sky or witnessing events far across the globe. If those descendants do turn out to be better, wiser people than us, will they marvel that primitive beings managed so well, the same way we’re awed by the best of our ancestors? I hope so. It’s poignant consolation for not getting to be a demigod. 

–What concerns do you have about the future? 

SecrecyI am concerned about one thing, above all, understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment. One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I’ve come to see that openness – especially being receptive to free-flowing criticism — has been key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse than it would have been. It is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty.

And that is what we’ll talk about next time.

==

Part 1: Questions on Writing and Science Fiction

Part 2: Questions on Science Fiction and Fantasy

Part 3: Questions on Brin books, Uplift, and The Postman 

David Brin

http://www.davidbrin.com

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What big-unexpected problem we will face in coming decades? (Contest winners)

UnexpectedProblemMy latest novel Existence shows humanity confronting many challenges forty years in the future — some expected and some unforeseen. Indeed, finding, revealing and exploring unexpected threats… this might be considered one of the most valuable services of good, thoughtful science fiction.

I recently crowd-sourced a question to my Facebook followers: What do you view as the biggest unexpected problem we will face in the next few decades? Many insightful and thought-provoking responses poured in, from profound to comedic, ranging from political instability to economic collapse, civil unrest to over-reliance on machines, social disruption to psychological plagues. Others dealt with problems of over-population and life extension, shortages of water and biodiversity, severe climate change, collapse of our information systems, growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even meteor impacts.

Here I’m posting the most intriguing responses that got the most fan votes (the top two won fee copies of the brand new paperback edition of EXISTENCE! Note that I do not necessarily agree with all of the cited entries and will respond to a few of them in comments. But all of them show verve and a willingness to peer ahead:

1. What form of government will replace capitalism? This system is devolving at FTL speed, and the world is still unaware of a viable solution to it, while world situation is becoming more erratic and explosive daily. We will find ourselves in need of new ethno-national definitions very soon. Also, what will replace religion, for the same reasons. However, I feel that space exploration and the focus towards space will, at least partially, contribute to the latter. –Margie Lazou

2. Political and economic pressures from spacefaring nations to keep others from having the ability to access the almost infinite resources off-planet; extremely low cost for resources – material and energy – for the space-capable, and artificially high prices for everyone else. –David Christensen

3. Longevity due to augmentation and medical advances will create a need to migrate off planet for resources but those left behind must deal with massive social strain and change along with the burdensome question of what it means to be human. –John Berry Gosnell

4. A plastic-eating bacterium with resistance to all known antibiotics. –Martha Dunham

5. The unexpected loss of a sense of humor in people of European extraction, leading to mass suicide and the end of sit com laugh tracks. –Rhonda Palmer

6. The consequences of a universal lie detector machine. Politics and virtually every other field of human endeavor will be changed by everyone having to tell the truth. The rules that will evolve to deal with social and business situations will rapidly change society. –Kevin Settle

7. The biggest unexpected problem we’ll face will be psychological. A depression plague is going to begin to eat away at modern society. We lose a sense of personal control over the modern world (i.e. external locus of control), where people believe that things happen to us, rather than “we make things happen”. Apathy and self destructive behavior will no longer be the domain of emo-kids. It will threaten the viability of all societies worldwide, fueled by environmental impacts (historically, we rarely see them coming) and a growing disparity in wealth, power, and liberties. Long term ramifications will include economic collapse, famine, civil unrest and finally social atavism. –Richard Carter

8. Fresh water supplies. –David Caune

9. Biggest unexpected problems? Aren’t the expected problems enough?  Biodiversity depletion, climate change, class warfare, outright warfare, the depletion of basically every resource: food, energy, fresh water, a whole whack of strategic minerals including helium, orbital debris. Hell, the only thing “unexpected” capable of killing us more quickly than we’re killing ourselves would be a meteor impact or giant-ass solar flare. –Gabriel Emilio Zárate

10. The replacement of skilled and unskilled labor by automation combined with an ever-increasing population could have drastic effects on unemployment levels and civil unrest. –Eric Berman

11. Clinical near immortality will create beyond Malthusian population growth, further stressing Earth’s resources. The moral question of when life “ends” will arise, for while they are able to keep the body alive, the mind still fails within 90-120 years. Discussion begins around planned obsolescence being introduced as part of gerontological treatments. –Wes Edmunds

12. The social (A movement away from sexism and tribalism. Along with an exponential expansion of global leisure and tourism.) and economic (Explosive demand and shifting of manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries.) ramifications of the children of 1/5th of the world’s population growing up as a ‘spoiled generation’ with two living parents and four living grandparents focusing all of their energy, hopes and dreams for the future, and their own personal life choices and mistakes on a ‘state mandated’ single child. –Richard Praser

13. A growing number of disruptive technologies and culture’s difficulties in adapting. The biggest problem here will be the growing rift(s) between the people who use the technologies and those who don’t. (Either by choice or access.) We may find that our culture is not the quickest to adapt, and the United States may be left in the wake of the world, wondering where it went without us. –Luna Rebecca Flesher

14. Collapse of our information systems due to overwhelming amounts of information from untrustworthy sources and the inability to verify sources and filter information effectively. –Eli Roth

15. Fresh-Water Scarcity and the many consequences thereof! Including massive dust-storms that will cause air-quality problems and which will contribute to erratic weather patterns in some of the most populated areas of the World ( especially in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa and the US South-West ). And this will lead to food scarcity and pest-control problems; hence a massive increase in the risk of life-threatening/lethal disease epidemics! Hence social instability in countries that have nuclear and/or chemical weapons! ( OK: all this is actually expected…BUT…).

But what is unexpected about this: failed states with nuclear/chemical arsenals and the dire need for the Super-Powers to cooperate on direct military interventions: so as to limit overall harm to general populations and mitigate the risk that those very same Super-Powers from going to war with one-another! Hence: a dangerous trend of ever-reduced civil liberties, freedoms and personal security! Hence: an ever-more dangerous, further erosion of trust between the general public and their respective governments! Which will lead to a massive increase in psychological breakdowns and the social disorder and related violence that will further harm our very need for social cohesion based on warranted trust: hence a whole new phenomena: psychological profiling and related witch-hunts! Hence the risk of a new dark ages. And given the kinds of dangerous technologies now in existence: a very real risk of total social meltdown and the subsequent high risk of a final, near-total, if not total, civilization collapse! –Jean-Pierre A. Fenyo

16. The development of mind-machine connections. While they will remain primitive in 30 years time, they will create a rift between those with the resources to afford their implantation and those who cannot. –Bradley Brown

17. I think the next crisis of truly global proportions will come from technologies that prolong life or even eliminate natural death. These technologies will inevitably and necessarily be restricted to a few. Not doing so would result in overpopulation, which would lead to forced birth control or mass starvation. Those who have these technologies will not want their enemies or those of whom they disapprove to live forever (would you allow a Hitler or a Stalin or even just a Castro to live forever?). Nations would want the balance of power that this brings to shift in their favor. But even in the unlikely case where none of this would happen, such technology would have to be deployed gradually and even if the intent were to make it available to everyone, those who are not at the front of the line would perceive it as hoarding and a denial of what they will surely claim is a “god given right”.

And then, of course, religions would get in the mix, calling this an evil and in opposition to the “clear” will of their god. However it happens, there will be two camps: those fervently in favor of it and those furiously opposed to it. This will lead to social unrest, widespread acts of sabotage, probably a few small wars, wildly disrupted economies, famines, plagues, rains of toads, cats sleeping with dogs, and Republicans and Democrats agreeing on something that has yet to be identified. –Claudio Puviani

18. A combination of events, which will result in over-population, lack of natural resources, an under-abundance of food stock, supply and sources culminating in a ridiciulously strained attempt to reach the stars, taking up more time, effort and money than it is really worth. –Stephen Ormsby

19. I see two upcoming problems, actually:

–The need to overhaul the global economic system. In an increasingly globalized world, “capitalism” tends to become associated solely with the U.S. model of industrialized society, while technological progress accelerates, along with obsolescence and resource depletion. This leads to disruptions due to environmental, cultural and legal differences between various countries/blocs; we will also see the need to overhaul the patent system and property rights, as well as redefine individual/collective responsibilities.

–A global religious crisis. With two of the three main Abrahamic religions in full recession – mainly in the highly-industrialized West – relegating proselytism as a secondary (less important) goal, fringe groups and extremist movements are likely to increase their public presence. The crisis of faith experienced mainly in the West will expand across the globe as more people under moderate regimes in developing nations will follow similar paths of questioning, enabled by technological progress and more discoveries in fields such as of bio logy (genetics) and astrophysics. While a truly global jihad seems unlikely, the tensions between believers and agnostics/nonbelievers will continue to grow, and this is bound to lead to cultural upheaval, with hard-to-foresee consequences. –Alex Savulescu

20. Shortages of critical materials for technology, pharmaceuticals, etc. Every environmental and problematic issue boils down to human population, however. We’re trading quantity for quality, and there is nothing to stop it. You can’t even bring the subject up without a volley of insipid, formulaic, unthinking responses, one of the first of which will be “Why do you want to murder people, you monster?” Given that every path to a survivable future involves some sort of conscious, deliberate action on population, like NOW, I don’t see any path that saves us.  –Hank Fox

21. The biggest problem? There are two, I think, and they are intertwined. Climate change and the death of the oceans. –Michelle Connor

CITOKATE2

Thank you to my many bright readers for their wisdom and insight! We will need a generation of creative, ambitious, and far-seeing problem-solvers to face the unexpected over the next few decades. While not every suggestion was exactly “unexpected,” all conveyed the passion of people who think seriously about our path ahead.  The kind of folks who read the literature of tomorrow.

My best-known aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error. Here, we have attempted to shine light into possible (potentially dark) scenarios for the future, foreseeing various obstacles and stumbling blocks we may encounter along our path to creating a brighter future.

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The Odd Way We Design Our Destiny – A Contrary Brin Classic

ODDWAYHere’s a classic bit of blather about the future, written way back in the early nineties, when the web was new and when pioneers like former JPL director Bruce Murray were trying out these new conversational methods utilizing a brand new breakthrough called the “world wide web.”  (New… except portrayed earlier in EARTH.) In conjunction with the TV show Closer to Truth, I had suggestions for Bruce’s Hyperforum experiment that included some innovations still never seen on sites like Facebook and so on.  Enjoy. – DB 12/12/12

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What will tomorrow be like?  Human beings are fascinated by the future.  We project our thoughts into unknown territory, using the brain’s talented prefrontal lobes to explore and envision, sometimes even noticing a few errors in time to evade them.

moses1People acquired these mysterious nubs of gray matter — sometimes called the “lamps on our brows” — before the Neolithic.  What has changed lately is our obsessiveness at using them.  Citizens of the NeoWest devote large fractions of the modern economy to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come.  Indeed, our civilization’s success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as the successes that we plan.

Do we live in a special time?  In an episode of his science-interview show Closer to Truth, Robert Lawrence Kuhn warned against temporal chauvinism… the ever-present temptation for any observer to believe this particular moment is unique, the crucial fulcrum around which destiny will turn, decisively transforming all future ages. That claim has been made by thinkers in every generation that ever recorded its thoughts.  And yet, Bruce Murray maintained that this era truly does face unique challenges; unprecedented crises confront the world’s social, scientific and ecological networks.  Why else would average citizens find shows like Closer to Truth so fascinating?

1984If we face a time of crisis, it isn’t with our eyes shut!  Consider George Orwell’s groundbreaking novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published fifty years ago, it foresaw a dark future that never came to pass, perhaps in part because Orwell’s chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight “Big Brother” to the last.   Since then, other “self-preventing prophecies” have rocked public awareness. Did we partly avert ecological catastrophe thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green?  Did films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe help caution us against inadvertent nuclear war?  Above all, every power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, gets repeatedly targeted by Hollywood’s most relentless message… to stay suspicious of all authority.

No, if our prefrontal lobes fail in their crucial job of predicting/exploring/preventing, it won’t be for any lack of trying.

closer to truthThis episode of Closer to Truth touched on many contemporary worries. For example, what kind of human population can be sustained by the planet?  Citing the high-densities that today thrive in countries such as Holland, Graham Molitor projected that sixty billion humans may someday share the Earth — assuming powerful symbiotic technologies arrive in time.  Bruce Murray seemed rather more worried about the planet’s near-term ability to support even today’s seven billions.  Which of them is right?

The panel also discussed the fate of nationalism, long a controlling force in human affairs.  Today, some countries are creaking and splitting into ethic sub-units while others seem just as busy amalgamating — eagerly surrendering bits of sovereignty to supra-national groupings like the European Union and the World Trade Organization.  And I should draw attention to a third anti-national trend.

CollapseAbout a hundred years ago, people all over the world began drifting away from priests, kings and national flag-totems, transferring their loyalty instead to fervid ideologies — models of human nature that allured with hypnotically simplistic promises.  Often viciously co-opted by nation states, these rigid, formulaic, pseudo-scientific incantations helped turn the mid-20th Century into a hellish pit.  But ideology may at last be passing from its virulent phase toward a more commensal one, as millions of educated people pin their righteous passions to more narrowly-focused agendas — from child labor to animal rights, from privacy to dealing with land mines. In a third de-nationalizing trend, thousands of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, now must be heard and accommodated whenever great powers meet.  It is a chaotic trend, noisy and self-righteous… yet also full of promise.

Even if NGOs offer hazy outlines for a distributed style of world governance, it won’t happen overnight. Meanwhile, there remains the perennial question of war.   Robert Kuhn suggested — and Bruce Murray agreed — that we haven’t seen an end to conflict.  In fact, Pentagon officials are deeply worried that future foes won’t ever again let us meet them with our strengths. Instead, adversaries will try to exploit the inherent weaknesses of a complex, interdependent civilization, using inexpensive — and possibly uattributable — modes of attack.

One key to our survival will be agility in dealing with whatever the future hurls our way. That means not relying on assumptions just because they worked in the past.  As the late Richard Feynman put it —  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The panel raised another important issue: how to manage technological change so that it benefits all people, not just those living in the NeoWest.   They also touched lightly on the problem of preserving both freedom and privacy at a time when cameras seem about to prodigiously expand human vision and databases exponentiate human memory. Worthy topics that merit further discussion in our followup hyperforum.

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512One more aspect of the fast-approaching future has become a fixation among some of our best and brightest. It is the possibility of a sudden break in the balance of intelligence and power on Earth.   For example, many foresee the imminent arrival of human-level — and then transhuman — artificial intelligence.  Optimists expect this transforming event to result in a “singularity,” when all humans will share access to all knowledge, advancing together toward a sublime, godlike state.  Pessimists, including Sun Computers V.P. Bill Joy, view the prospect of hyperintelligent machinery with dread akin to what Homo erectus may have felt, upon glimpsing the first fully modern man.

Similar scenarios are offered by those who see either salvation or ruin in some looming breakthrough of biology, or in physics.  Such wild speculations may  all prove to be smoke.  But if any of them — optimists or the pessimists — turn out to be right, we will see astonishing changes in far less time than it takes to wreck an ecosystem.  Or to teach a new generation how to cope.

It means we’ll have to handle things on the fly, improvizing as we go along.

A final topic always gets raised, whenever we talk about the notion of “progress,” and this episode of Closer to the Truth is no exception.  Why has human wisdom not advanced as rapidly as our technology?  How can we hope to deal with all of these new dangers and opportunities, if our moral character stays mired in primitive brutality?

I’ve heard this question asked so often that a strange thought occurred to me.  Yes, it’s a cliche.  But could it also be a lie?

51gDDxs-xlL._SL500_AA300_Consider the famous Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it appeared in 1967, two monumental new projects transfixed the people of the United States — conquering outer space and overcoming deeply ingrained social injustice.  Now compare the world depicted in the film with the one we live in.  Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow — yet by 2000 we’d refute so many cruel bigotries that citizens once took for granted, back in 1967?

We still don’t have the fancy space stations of 2001, but our astronauts come in all sexes and colors.  And kids who watch them on TV feel less fettered by presumed limitations. Each may choose to hope, or not, without being told you can’t.  At this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won’t preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?

ProgressQuoteProgress doesn’t always go the way we expect it to.

It is sometimes wiser than we are.

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And now a glimpse at the sort of thing we were doing around 1996… online polls that were then collated and intelligently discussed in something Bruce Murray called a “hyperforum”, some of whose characteristics have yet to be achieved even now, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, alas.

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A HYPERFORUM POLL: (An updated version is available on my website.)

Which of the following fields of human endeavor will bring about the greatest positive changes in the next 25 years?

a.  Advances in physical science (e.g. allowing access to the resources of space)

b. Advances in biology (e.g. extending human lifespan or intelligence)

c. Advances in cybernetics and related fields (e.g. creating intelligent or hyper-intelligent machines)

d. Advances in human sanity, behavior and understanding

e. Something else (write-in) __________________________

Which of the above will have the greatest Negative impact? (Answer a-e, or write-in) ___________

SOME FOLLOWUP QUESTIONS:

1.  What is the sustainable human population of Earth, assuming that technology keeps advancing?

Less that one billion.

One to three billions.

Three to six billions.

Six to twelve billions.

Much more than twelve billions.

2.  Will nation states continue to be important, fifty years from now?

As important or more so.

Less important but still valuable for organizing largescale efforts.

Unimportant because of World Government.

Unimportant because power will devolve to individuals and self-organizing groups.

Some combination of the above.

3.  Click which statement you agree with.

My own favorite ideology is a good approximation of what it will take to make a better civilization.

It will be enough to raise a next generation that is measurably saner and better educated than ours; it’s none of our business to prescribe their model of utopia.

4.  Scientific advances suggest that:

Destructive powers will become available to ever-smaller groups of angry people.

Error-detecting and problem-solving tools will become available to ever more numerous groups of sincere people.

Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may enable humans to redesign themselves in fantastic ways.

Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may enable new forms of “life” to overtake or replace humanity.

All of the above.

QuestionnaireN5.   Click which statement you agree with.

Human decency and justice haven’t kept pace with technological progress.

Wealth and technology have helped us start to address ancient injustices, maturing enough to face new challenges.

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One outcome of this exercise was my Questionnaire on Ideology that is still taken by hundreds, every year, poking at some of the assumptions that underlie belief and things that we take for granted.

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The near future of manned spaceflight

MannedFor a recent interview I was asked:

Where is manned spaceflight headed in the near term?

GOLDENSPIKEThere certainly is a lot of buzz about big changes in manned spaceflight in the news. From space hero-pioneer Elon Musk ruminating about self-sustaining colonies of 80,000 people on Mars… to a startup called Golden Spike  that seeks to purchase government and commercial vehicles to offer flights – and even landings – on the Moon (two tickets to the moon, yours for $1.5 billion). Then there’s Mars One, a Dutch company that hopes to launch a series of robotic missions to Mars that will construct outposts on the surface. Humans will follow by 2023. Part of the funding may come from reality media  — filming the astronaut training and interactions. Big Brother on Mars?

Okay — let me say that I see two drivers and two paths ahead for human spaceflight, one slow and plodding, the other quick and exciting.  Both will be needed. Each will benefit from the other.

Ever since Challenger blew up, NASA’s meticulous approach to manned spaceflight has been to redouble caution. To fill in each missing step, then the sub-phases between each step. After Columbia, this fill-en_0805_blackstone_480x360in-every-gap method has led to such flawless undertakings as the recent Curiosity lander’s spectacular (and spectacularly complicated) landing on Mars.

But that was just a robot.  When human lives are at stake, the process becomes so carefully mature that – in effect – nothing gets flown at all. At minimum, human-rating every component multiplies costs by as much as two orders of magnitude, in some cases. Let’s be plain. If this were humanity’s only path to human spaceflight, countless thorny problems and sub-problems would be vanquished!  But nothing would ever actually fly with people aboard.

Fortunately, through this process NASA keeps developing new technologies.  So do the civilian world, foreign governments and the military.  These improvements trickle – or gush – and spread. New thresholds have been reached in computers and sensors, in equipment capability and reliability. And in plummeting hardware prices.

One result? We are ready for the dawn of a new era, one of private space ventures. And, fortunately, the politicians seem perfectly ready to welcome non-state activity.  Instead of raising obstacles, the present administration seems bent on clearing a path.

694662main_logo425From the Rutan/Branson Spaceship to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, there are dozens of private manned and unmanned missions being planned. Some of them leverage upon the desire of the rising caste of super-rich for unusual experience, starting with sub-orbital jaunts.  Plans are in motion to extend this market, leading downstream to space hotels and – eventually – private moon landings. The new Planetary Resources company plans to access the vast wealth of asteroids.

All of these things can be done now because technological thresholds are falling… and also because they can allow higher risk ratios, because private ventures aren’t answerable to the same levels of enforced care as public ones.  The cost effects of allowing part failure rates in the one-millionth probability – instead of on-billionth – is nothing short of astronomical.

== A New Barnstorming Age? ==

We may, at last be ready to embark on the equivalent of the the great age of barnstorming aircraft development, that our grandparents saw in the 1920s, when risk – and even some loss – was considered part and parcel of courage and exploration. When the new frontier was legitimate territory for tinkerers (albeit, today they would be billionaire tinkerers).

FrontierIf so, it will have come about from a mix of government investment in meticulous process and checklisting a myriad details… meshing well with the unleashing of private ambition. No example so perfectly disproves the idiotic canard that everything must be all-government… or else that government is evil and wholly uncreative.  We are a complex people in a complex age.  But we can rise above comforting nostrums to realize, a careful mix was how we got everything we see around us. A mix that is negotiated by goal-driven grownups – that is how we’ll get farther ahead.

== What are pros/cons of each approach? ==

SpaceShipONeThe Branson/Rutan “Spaceship One” approach, and others like it, have the advantage of paying for themselves incrementally, improving their methods and capabilities in the same way. Those offering suborbital jaunts won’t have to answer to taxpayers or budget committees. If Branson and Rutan and the others deliver a safe and peerless experience, the wealthy will thrust money at them, hand-over-fist doing us all a favor by recycling some of it into something useful and cool. (Like oxygen, water, food… too much accumulated anything becomes toxic.)

Some of us will also go too, through prizes and lotteries (and gifts to favorite authors?) Calling Fantasy Island!

And their next products will emerge in a matter of due course.  Orbital hotels and – quicker than you now might expect – private moon landings. These missions will be of very little scientific value.  But they will leverage technologies developed by NASA and others, transforming them into off-the-shelf tools and something that today’s NASA is ill-equipped AME_0003to do — actual, risk-taking human crewed expeditions. (All of it perhaps presaged by the Robert Heinlein novel The Man Who Sold The Moon.)

In time, this will transform into own-your-own sub-orbital rocket kits, as I portray in an early chapter of EXISTENCE.  (See this portrayed via some cool images in the vivid preview-trailer.)

SpaceX and others are counting on winning contracts to deliver commercial and government payloads into orbit, predictably and reliably. This will soon include human crews for the Space Station.  The Dragon capsule will not be optimized for paying private customers seeking a “yeehaw” experience.  But I expect there will be some such, as well.

Way back in 1982 I headed a team at the California Space Institute that outlined an alternative space station design, using Space Shuttle External Tanks, that would have been soooooo sweet.  Just five launches would have led to a station larger than the present one and far more capable.  Ah,well.  The tanks are gone.  (But sample the wondrous possobilities with my short story: “Tank Farm Dynamo“!)

Still, some of the new inflatable structures and composites being developed at L’Garde as well as UCSD’s new Structural and Materials Engineering building may lead to new, commercial stations that offer hotel experiences in the sky.  And even though the moon is sterile scientifically and for physical wealth (and offers almost no benefits as a “way station”), it may (as said earlier) be enough of a tourist allure to propel us back to that sere, but romantic (if largely useless) destination.

== What about the Old Dream? Missions to Mars? ==

SpaceXOh, we will poke away at the big stuff.  Certainly the shift away from a return-to-the-moon boondoggle, which almost no scientist on Earth supported, was a step in the right direction.  And with private capitalists salivating over asteroids, it does look as if the choice to look that was was a correct one.

NASA will keep developing the technologies we’ll need for missions to asteroids, to Phobos (potentially one of the most valuable rocks in the Solar system), and eventually Mars.  We could afford to spend twice what we do and pick up the pace.  The payoffs – just for remembering we’re a scientific civilization – would be overwhelming.

screen_shot_2012-03-09_at_9_25_48_am-4f5a10c-intro-1Oh, and of course other nations than the self-centered US will be part of this mix, in ever-greater force.  In EXISTENCE I portray manned spaceflight getting a nationalist impetus when the Chinese start flexing their competence and muscle out there It could help propel interesting times.

Still I was asked about just human spaceflight in the near term.  And the near term to me looks commercial, private, bold, close-to-home, rather lavishly exclusive…

…but fun.

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Last-minute breakthroughs and remembrances, before the “end of the world”

== Can we predict the future? ==

AlternateWorldsFirst, the National Intelligence Council has issued its quadrennial 160 page Global Trends report, this time peering ahead toward the year 2030.  My favorite territory. This set of world forecasts and scenarios appears, at last, ready to break from the transfixing obsessions of the past — vast blocs of supranational ideology or else ideology-driven terrorists.

Instead, the NIC examines deeper drivers that might affect whether Earth Civilization prospers or not, and what role the United States and the West will continue to play, as Pax Americana gradually eases out of its historic mission. Indeed, it looks as if some folks who have attended my Washington talks about the future may have heeded or cribbed-from my report from almost a decade ago, to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency DTRA, about non-state and non-terror threats.

Compare the NIC Global Trends document to those earlier slides DangerousHorizonsattempting to get folks to think more broadly about the future.

Meanwhile, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is being co-launched by astronomer royal Lord Rees, one of the world’s leading cosmologists. It will probe the “four greatest threats” to the human species, given as: artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear war and rogue biotechnology. Lord Rees, who has warned that humanity could wipe itself out by 2100, is launching the centre alongside Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn.

Interesting that the four threats they chose happen to be chief topics featured in Existence.

102548961Also of interest: a rebuttal on the Da Vinci Institute site takes on Nassim Taleb, author of the bestseller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, who ridicules the idea of predicting the future. Instead, he argues that the world is dominated by the impact of rare, unforeseen, random, highly improbable and yet influential events. “These Black Swans, he says, happen abruptly, coming from outside the range of our vision.”

I found the rebuttal interesting- at times on target – yet in the end just as quasi mystical as Taleb’s book.  Because neither of them offer challenging ways to assess and appraise and improve (pragmatically) the process of prediction.

At risk of (typical) self-promotion, I do believe there’s an approach that — if even marginally PredictionsRegistryfunded — could help move the whole field forward via means of predictions registries and fora. How I am tempted, after all these years, to try to fund it myself… if college bills weren’t such a big deal .

More efforts at prediction can be found in the annual forecast list of the World Future Society.  The plausible ones seem rather likely… new dust bowls, a rapid rise in commercial space tourism, eyesight-restoration, teaching based in games, deep-geothermal power,   Others, like garbage purifying robot earthworms and lunar colonies, fall more into the sci fi zone and are not as near future as they seem to think. Have a look and join the WFS.  Though… alas… I’d still expect just a few “futurists” to survive long under scrutiny of a registry. Whereupn, the best would learn and adapt!

== Genetic “variability” and our future evolution ==

Recent studies indicate that humanity is now very, very rich in genetic variability, the grist of future evolution. (Exactly opposite to the problem faced by inbred cheetahs, for example.) “Humans today carry a much larger load of deleterious variants than our species carried just prior to its massive expansion just a couple hundred generations ago,” said population geneticist Alon Keinan of Cornell University, whose own work helped link rare variation patterns to the population boom.

mastersFrom the article: The inverse is also true. Present-day humanity also carries a much larger load of potentially positive variation, not to mention variation with no appreciable consequences at all. These variations, known to scientists as “cryptic,” that might actually be evolution’s hidden fuel. Indeed, the genetic seeds of exceptional traits, such as endurance or strength or innate intelligence, may now be circulating in humanity. “The genetic potential of our population is vastly different than what it was 10,000 years ago,” Akey said. How will humanity evolve in the next few thousand years? It’s impossible to predict but fun to speculate, said Akey.

 A potentially interesting wrinkle to the human story is that, while bottlenecks reduce selection pressure, evolutionary models show that large populations actually increase selection’s effects. 

My own comment: In nature, evolution is based not only upon genetic variability (in which this research suggests we are rich) but also on death, culling some and allowing others to breed.  A crude, brutal method that is inherently un-interested in “fairness” … but time tested by nature. This will change though. We will choose instead to steer the process via culture and technology while continuing to develop our capacity to collaboratively evade death – the old engine of evolution. What replaces death? The article’s authors suggest that widespread use of reproductive technologies like fetal genome sequencing might ease selection pressures, or even make them more intense.  But in his novel Beyond This Horizon, Robert Heinlein showed us how to grab ahold of our variability and use it in a campaign of self-improvement that has none of the creepy aspects of direct genomic meddling.

Ponder that finding… that humans have max’d-out genetic diversity… and nowhere more so than in my California… almost as if we were a flower, getting ready to cast forth seeds…

Meanwhile, there’s an interesting article with huge implications for the future of anthropology. In an essay by George Dvorsky: Over at the Edge there’s a fascinating article by Thomas W. Malone about the work he and others are doing to understand the rise of collective human intelligence — an emergent phenomenon that’s being primarily driven by our information technologies.  Malone, who is the Director at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, studies the way people and computers can be connected so that — collectively — they can act more intelligently than any single person, group, or computer. Good stuff, but I’d have liked more attention to the older methods that have leveraged individual intelligence into group intelligence. The positive-sum enlightenment methods of markets, science, democracy etc.

== Wondrous and Puzzling Science ==

713354main_pia16197-226x630NASA’s Cassini orbiter spots river system on Titan … but filled with liquid ethane and methane instead of water. The Titanic Nile shows up on a black-and-white picture from Cassini’s radar imager, which can look through Titan’s thick, smoggy atmosphere to map the surface features beneath.

A U.S. start-up has turned to nature to help bring water to arid areas by drawing moisture from the air.

71clHxRC73L._SL500_AA300_Ah, progress. Soon anyone with a good home-maker unit will be able to print the parts to make their own firearms. Reminds me of Van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops.  I guess we’ll find out if John W. Campbell was right that “an armed society is a polite society.”  I imagine we’ll all get more polite… after twenty generations of culling.

Speaking of which, a use of such devices that will be both more useful and creepier, illustrated cartoon style! Frankentissue: How to print an organ on your inkjet.

Weird…time reversal research: When a signal travels through the air, its waveforms scatter before an antenna picks it up. Recording the received signal and transmitting it backwards reverses the scatter and sends it back as a focused beam in space and time.

Bothered by negative thoughts? Throw them away.

Large scale melting of Permafrost may be underway.

Some recent studies indicate glucosamine (used by millions for slight joint pain reduction)  was associated with a significant decreased risk of death from cancer and with a large risk reduction for death from respiratory disease.

Late last year, a Russian team drilled through to Lake Vostok, an even larger lake covered by some 4km of ice. But preliminary analyses of lake water that froze on to the drill bit showed scant evidence for the presence of living organisms. Now researchers at the shallower McMurdo lakes have found a diverse community of bugs living in the lake’s dark environment, at temperatures of -13C. Some think this a possible analog for ice-roofed water moons like Europa.

Ten things that will disappear in thirty years.

== Space!!! ==

Know the difference between radioisotope nuclear power for spacecraft and nuclear reactors for spaceflight? The distinction is fascinating. Have a look at DUFF, a new reactor for space travel.

CoolthingsSome parodies are better than the originals! A takeoff of “Dumb Ways to Die” … starring NASA’s Curiosity rover…”Cool Things to Find.” —

Water ice discovered on Mercury. NASA’s Messenger spacecraft has spotted vast deposits of water ice around the shade-protected poles on the planet closest to the sun. Not unexpected, since radar beams from Arecibo in the 1990s had suggested this, confirming a hypothesis made by my doctoral advisor, Dr. James Arnold, that comets would have delivered volatiles to safe dark areas at the poles of both Mercury and our Moon.  Still, Messenger’s neutron spectrometer spotted hydrogen, which is a large component of water ice. But the temperature profile unexpectedly showed that dark, volatile materials – consistent with climes in which organics survive – are mixing in with the ice. And waiting for us?

NASA seeks concepts for two Hubble-sized telescopes. Last year, two big space telescopes, equivalent to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in aperture, but designed to have a much wider field of view, were transferred from one of America’s super secret spy agencies to NASA. “Because there are two telescopes, there is room for projects that span the gamut of the imagination,” and indeed, NASA is now seeking suggestions what to do with these gifts. (Viewed from another angle, one has to realize and ask: was the Hubble itself primarily a way to provide cover for a program to develop spy devices?  I’m not complaining… or even asking! I wouldn’t be told, despite my clearance.  Still, one wonders. If these are now cast-offs… what do they have now?)

How NASA might build its first warp drive.

== And finally … ==

Late puzzler!  The earliest large life forms (ediacaran) may have appeared on land long before the oceans filled with creatures that swam and crawled and burrowed in the mud.

ProxyActivismFinally… followup in the spirit of giving: My friend Lenore Ealey —  a sage in the field of philanthropy theory – kindly wrote about my “proxy power” proposal — that middle class folks can maximize their future impact on the world by joining perhaps a dozen groups/organizations that pool dues and numbers to pursue specific positive goals.  Lenore’s appraisal compares my approach to those of Boulding and Cornuelle with some Baconian philosophical perspective thrown in! Also, she adds a list of favorite NGOs of her own for consideration.  Go Proxy Power.

=====

Late addendum: The Friday 13th tragedy in Connecticut has us all horrified.  If only we could mature enough to have a society that foremost looks to help the troubled to get the help they need. Alas, this will become another frenzy over “gun control” that sheds no light, only heat. I once attempted to offer a non-partisan, off-angle compromise that would satisfy both those wanting sanity and those seeking to preserve a fundamental American right. It is as cogent as ever. See “The Jefferson Rifle.”  

 NamesInfamyBut at this point, there is something even simpler.  A matter of cause and effect.  Not one mass shooter was ever brought down by an armed bystander, but most were tackled by heroic citizens who were UNARMED, who waited till the SOB had to change clips or magazines, then bravely tackled the guy. That is the window of heroism! Hence, there is no excuse for legally allowing the sale of giant ammo clips. You do not need em for hunting or self-defense. There is no slippery slope, so please check your reflex. See the reason in this.  Join us and don’t make that a fight.  Just give it to us, this one small but crucially pragmatic reform. Now, show us this much flexibility.  For the victims.  Please, just be reasonable this once.

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Has 21st Century Science Fiction gone cowardly? Or worse… nostalgic?

In a bit, I’ll tell you about some way cool interviews and podcasts about science fiction and the future.  But first —

Jonathan McCalmont is a critic of popular culture and science fiction whom I’ll be watching. Not because I especially liked or agreed with his lengthy and rather incoherent screed: “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future.” In fact, I found his arguments dyspeptic and chaotic, cherrypicking examples in order to complain about this or that pet peeve.  

Nevertheless, while constantly aggravated I was also amused or fascinated often enough to keep reading and enjoying a chain of insightful snarks, some of which are extremely on-target. 

“Contemporary science fiction is not interested in science, culture, history, ideas or real human psychology. Not really. To be interested in such things requires engagement not only with the world but also entire bodies of knowledge generated by hundreds of fevered human minds. Incapable of taking anything seriously and unwilling to risk disapproval by writing anything that might be deemed in any way political, genre writers spend their days like performing dolphins; pushing a load of battered toys around the pool while undemanding audiences roar their approval. Occasionally, a particularly well-trained dolphin receives a celebratory bucket of fish heads in the ballroom of a beige mid-Western hotel.”

Hm… dolphins.  Yes, that reminds me.  Any exceptions Mr. McCalmont?  But save that thought.

Disappointing: McCalmont is very poor at creating a clear picture of his complaint. Yes, overall, 21st Century SF is heavily warped and crushed under a burden of nostalgia and anomie toward the future. He says — and I agree — that this dismally destructive and demoralizing trend controls most of the top magazines and most of the Best of the Year anthologies… oh and the awards.  McCalmont illuminates how this is not only manifest in the omphaloskeptic (navel-contemplating) short story community of SF but in sub-genres that proclaim themselves to be bold, like Steam Punk and the surge of Skew Cultural science fictional novels  (many of which I find admirable)  by non-male, non-western or interestingly-origined authors. 

I might have hoped that McCalmont would have cited the work of SF scholar Judith Berman, who published a devastating decryption of Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, showing that its pages almost never portrayed problem-solving, progress, or even very often the future, but instead (sometimes artfully) wallowed in endlessly repeated themes of loss, regret and passive acceptance of limitation. The most frequently repeated lesson?  Ambitious endeavors often have unexpected side effects. (Duh?) Ah, but the lesson is, therefore, banish ambition. 

As you might expect, my biggest disappointment was McCalmont’s reluctance to ponder exceptions — authors who are trying to engage with the future and its myriad possible decision points, ranging from technological and social to political, scientific and transcendent.  No mention of Vinge, Robinson, Bear, Kress, Haldeman… or me. But beyond that, even when he takes on bold and eager authors, it is mostly in order to take jaundiced views of very narrow aspects of Iain Banks, Hannu Rajaniemi, Michael Chabon, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter Hamilton, without at least avowing that they try and try hard, to offer the grand vision he desires. 

Nevetheless, in this review of a review-survey of some reviews, I do recommend McCalmont’s screed. Don’t get all in a twist where you disagree (you will!) He offers a different perspective and an ornery/contrarian one that challenged me! It got me sputtering and grinding my teeth.  That’s the sort of fellow I like. I’d rather argue all night with a fellow like than, than spend an evening being flattered. 

== Br-interviews and podcasts galore! ==

A collection of three videos from UCTV…on the seriousness of Science Fiction as literature, Positive Sum games and more. Very professional and nicely done!

For your commute, one of the more interesting and well-done interview shows is the Roundtable Podcast.  Catch this episode in which a number of top sci fi authors were asked a particular question at the recent World Science Fiction Convention (Chicago 2012): “Describe your ideal protagonist.”  Providing short, pithy and fascinating answers were Elizabeth Bear, Alan Dean Foster, Howard Tayler — and yours truly — along with many more.  Good stuff.

Many of you know that I’ve been somewhat critical of the Star Wars universe (which I started out adoring, after The Empire Strikes Back.)  My indictments of this down-spiraling mess include infamous denunciations in Salon Magazine, which led to my being the “prosecutor” in the wonderfully fun debate volume STAR WARS ON TRIAL. (Defense counsel was one of Lucas’s novelizers, Matthew Stover. We had a terrific time calling witnesses and cross-examining them… one of the most hilarious nonfiction books in years!)  Now see a fresh perspective on the dismal condition of humanity and the Republic, by Ryan Britt, who maintains from evidence in all the movies — and the novels as well — that Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate. Indeed, what likely happens in Episode Seven?  (After Return of the Jedi.) Simple.  The droids get tired of working for morons and do what they should have done from the very beginning.

Another Br(interview) of me on Genre Online by Mark Rivera.

== Sci Fi related miscellany ==   

“Over the last few decades, miners in South Africa have been digging up mysterious metal spheres. Origin unknown, these spheres measure approximately an inch or so in diameter, and some are etched with three parallel grooves running around the equator. Two types of spheres have been found: one is composed of a solid bluish metal with flecks of white; the other is hollowed out and filled with a spongy white substance. The kicker is that the rock in which they where found is Precambrian – and dated to 2.8 billion years old! Who made them and for what purpose is unknown.”  Okayyyy.  (1) probably a hoax. (2) Huh… grooved metal spheres. Drat. In EXISTENCE I portrayed them as holographic crystals. But of course they’d have an outer metal shell for surviving atmospheric entry….

Fascinating lists of politically-redolent science fiction! Fifty Fantasy and Science Fiction Works that Socialists should read — a brief (and very incomplete) survey of authors who write — or wrote — from a leftist or socialist perspective, ranging from oderate (Kim Stanley Robinson) to feminist-liberationist (LeGuin or Butler) to ourtright communist.   

Then browse through the lists of the libertarian Prometheus Awards.

A professor appraises the political liberalism of Captain America 

== …and… == 

Wish I noted the URL. Otters eat the sea urchins that devastate kelp forests… that appear to be the fastest removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Otters otter get more appreciation, I guess.  Sorry, I couldn’t kelp it. 

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The Near Future of Manned Spaceflight

I’ve been feeling a bit inspired about our prospects in space, lately.  Foremost (of course) by the incredible competence displayed by the makers of the Curiosity probe that landed on Mars, last week, and the JPL controllers and the citizenry that backed such a wonderful venture.  If we must preen about “american exceptionalism” then let it be about Curiosity – and other admirable traits – that truly are exceptional.  Also recently, I met one of the great astronauts of our time, Story Musgrave, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, where another topic was the greatness displayed during pioneering days in space – in light of the passing of Neil Armstrong.

For a recent interview I was asked — Where is manned spaceflight headed in the near term?

First off, these responses are not given in my role as a member of the board of external experts for NASA’s NIAC program that grants seed funding for new and innovative advanced concepts. The comments that follow are off-the-cuff speculations about the longer range, in an area NIAC scarcely covers.

Having said that, let me add that I see two drivers and two paths ahead for human spaceflight, one slow and plodding, the other quick and exciting.  Both will be needed. Each will benefit from the other.

Ever since Challenger blew up, NASA’s meticulous approach to manned spaceflight has been to redouble caution. To fill in each missing step, then the sub-phases between each step. After Columbia, this fill-in-every-gap method has led to such flawless undertakings as the recent Curiosity lander’s spectacular (and spectacularly complicated) landing on Mars…

… but that was a robot.  When human lives are at stake, the process becomes so carefully mature that – in effect – nothing gets flown at all. At minimum, human-rating every component multiplies costs by as much as two orders of magnitude, in some cases. Let’s be plain. If today’s NASA constituted our only path to human spaceflight, countless thorny problems and sub-problems would be vanquished!  But nothing would ever actually fly with people aboard.

Fortunately, through this process NASA keeps developing new technologies.  So do the civilian world, foreign governments and the military.  These improvements trickle – or gush – and spread. New thresholds have been reached in computers and sensors, in equipment capability and reliability. And in plummeting hardware prices.

One result? We are ready for the dawn of a new era, one of private space ventures. And, fortunately, the politicians – those in power at-present – seem perfectly ready to welcome non-state activity.  Instead of raising obstacles, they seem bent on clearing a path.

From the Rutan/Branson Spaceship to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, there are dozens of private manned and unmanned missions being planned. Some of them leverage upon the desire of the rising caste of super-rich for unusual experiences, starting with sub-orbital jaunts.  Plans are in motion to extend this market, leading downstream to space hotels and – eventually – private moon landings. Even more boldly entrepreneurial, the new Planetary Resources company plans to access the vast wealth of asteroids.

All of these things can be done now because technological thresholds are falling… and also because they can allow higher risk ratios, because private ventures aren’t answerable to the same levels of enforced care as public ones.  The cost effects of allowing lethal failure rates in the one-millionth probability – instead of one-billionth – is nothing short of astronomical.

== A New Barnstorming Age? ==

We may, at last be ready to embark on the equivalent of the the great age of barnstorming aircraft development, that our grandparents saw in the 1920s, when risk – and even some loss – was considered part and parcel of courage and exploration. When the new frontier was legitimate territory for tinkerers (albeit, today they would be billionaire tinkerers).

If so, it will have come about from a mix of government investment in meticulous process and checklisting a myriad details… meshing well with the unleashing of private ambition.

No example so perfectly disproves the idiotic canard that everything must be all-government… or else that all government action is evil and wholly uncreative.  We are a complex people in a complex age.  But we can rise above comforting nostrums to realize, a careful mix was how we got everything we see around us. A mix that is negotiated by goal-driven grownups — that is how we’ll get farther ahead.

== What are pros/cons of each approach? ==

The Branson/Rutan “Spaceship One” approach, and others like it, have the advantage of paying for themselves incrementally, improving their methods and capabilities in the same way. Those offering suborbital jaunts won’t have to answer to taxpayers or budget committees. If Branson and Rutan and the others deliver a safe and peerless experience, the new lords will thrust money at them, hand-over-fist (doing us all a favor by recycling some of it into useful and cool things.)

Some of us will also go, through prizes and lotteries (and gifts to favorite authors?) Calling Fantasy Island!

And their next products will emerge in a matter of due course.  Orbital hotels and – quicker than you now might expect – private moon landings. These missions will be of very little scientific value.  (The moon’s only likely use for a generation will be as a tourist attraction.  There are no other near-term features of any value.) But they will leverage technologies developed by NASA and others, transforming them into off-the-shelf tools and something that today’s NASA is ill-equipped to do — actual, risk-taking human crewed expeditions.

In time, this will transform into own-your-own sub-orbital rocket kits, as I depict – with pulse-pounding action! –  in an early chapter of Existence.  (See this portrayed in some early images in the vivid preview-trailer. )

SpaceX and others are counting on winning contracts to deliver commercial and government payloads into orbit, predictably and reliably. This will soon include human crews for the Space Station.  The Dragon capsule will not be optimized for paying private customers seeking a “yeehaw” experience.  But I expect there will be some such, as well.

Way back in 1982 I headed a team at the California Space Institute that outlined an alternative space station design, using Space Shuttle External Tanks, that would have been soooooo sweet.  Just five launches would have led to a station larger than the present one and far more capable.  Ah,well.  The tanks are gone.  (But sample it with my short story: “Tank Farm Dynamo“!)

Still, some of the new inflatable structures… and composites being developed at UCSD’s new Structural and Materials Engineering Building… may lead to new, commercial stations that offer hotel experiences in the sky.  And even though the moon is sterile scientifically and for physical wealth, it may (as said earlier) be enough of a tourist allure to propel us back to that sere (but romantic) destination.

== What about the Old Dream? Missions to Mars? ==

Oh, we will poke away at the big stuff.  Certainly the shift away from a return-to-the-moon boondoggle, which almost no scientist on Earth supported, was a step in the right direction.  And with private capitalists salivating over asteroids, it does look as if the choice was was a correct one.

NASA will keep developing the technologies we’ll need for missions to asteroids, to Phobos (potentially one of the most valuable rocks in the Solar system), and eventually Mars.  We could afford to spend twice what we do and pick up the pace.  The payoffs – just for remembering we’re a scientific civilization – would be overwhelming.

Oh, and of course other nations will be joining this mix, in ever-greater force.  In Existence, I portray manned spaceflight getting a nationalist impetus when the Chinese start flexing their competence and muscle out there. It could help propel interesting times.

Still I was asked about just human spaceflight in the near term.  And the near term to me looks commercial, private, bold, close-to-home, rather lavishly exclusive…

…but fun.

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State of the Union: Things Obama Did Not Have to Say — But Did Anyway

The president’s State of the Union Speech was – at long last – the one I wanted him to give. It went after the very poison that has so sickened the United States of America. His call for us to shake off the Cult of Future-Hatred, indulged in by both right and left, was about urging us to start looking forward again, instead of to some mythically better past.

Clearly, Barack Obama does not expect that to happen through a sudden coming-together in unity and courtesy.  (He did ask for those things, but we know that asking will not make them happen). For those those demanding accountability for the greedocracy of a looming oligarchy he had only incremental steps toward transparency. And, while the President pointed out the hypocrisy of Teaparty “deficit fighters,” who plunged the nation into tsunamis of red ink during their watch, in the name of disproved Voodoo Economics, he did so in fairly gentle terms. For one simple reason.

Because none of these side-skirmishes are where the real battle lies.

As I’ve said for months, for years, the real agenda of the neoconservative movement – its one consistent theme – has been to wage bitter war against nearly all centers of American expertise.

You may have only heard of one part of this campaign — the relentless and undeniable Republican War on Science, now so blatant that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have all taken to deriding “scientists” as a universally-damned caste, no longer even applying qualifiers or conditionals! It’s become so flagrant that – whereas twenty years ago thirty percent of U.S. scientists registered republican – now, according to the AAAS and the Pew Research Foundation, only 5% cling to their old political loyalties with the GOP. Many remain “conservative” over matters of fiscal or foreign policy, but none can any longer abide an all-out, Know Nothing campaign against fact-based reason.

Is this why I applauded, so heartily, the president’s repeated references to science, technological leadership, innovation, education and bold entrepreneurship, in his State of The Union address? To renew that post-Sputnik spirit — the fierce dedication-to-curiosity that forged the keel of our prosperity and success?  Of course it was.

It reminded me of the moment I liked best, back on election night in 2008, when Obama’s victory speech resonated in so many ways… but I kept aloof from the regular, ringing rhetoric, listening not for the words that he had to say, but those that he inserted wholly on his own account.

(Try to develop this habit. It can be illuminating!)

We expected him to endorse all the requisite motherhood and apple-pie phrases… some of them universal, or pan-american and some blandly liberal.  You know, likeunity, brotherhood, responsibility and – yes, hope. Yada. Good things. And totally expected.

But when he spoke of a nation propelled forward by curiosity… that was what I had been listening for.  It wasn’t a word on anybody’s requisite political litany or list of necessary catch phrases. It was not compelled by politics, polemic or audience expectations, nor by tradition or dire need. Nobody even commented on it, in all the speech postmortems. It was there simply because Barack Obama thought that it ought to be.

A nation propelled forward – in part – by curiosity.  In 2008, it was a drop-in hint.  Last night, it was the central theme!

Moreover, Make no mistake, it was militant. They were fighting words. For, I was watching closely, and every single time that Barack Obama referred glowingly to science, or innovation, or entrepreneurial boldness, you could see the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, grimace or frown a little deeper, making clear that this is precisely where our deepest battle will take place. Not across fictional gaps in a mythical and stupidly misleading so-called “left-right political axis.” But across a chasm between those dedicated to the past and those eager for the future.

Let’s be plain: I would have liked the speech even better, had President Obama directly challenged Congress to perform an act of good faith, by restoring the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and other independent advisory boards that were wiped out during Republican control, when they decided to dispense with the inconvenience of reality checks from even the most studiously impartial and nonpartisan commissions.  Not having restored the OTA, when she had the chance, counts as my biggest grudge against former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama should have demanded this, and dared the GOP to justify its refusal.

Yet, this is about so much more than science and technology.  Last night’s speech hinted that the President at last understands; the “war on science” is only the most blatant, surface manifestation of a general campaign against all of our professional castes.

Name one that isn’t under fire from the new-right! Scientists, teachers, university professors, attorneys, civil servants, diplomats, journalists… heck even cops! And yes, if you have watched carefully, or know anything about the “miracle of 2006”– even the brilliant men and women of the United States Military Officer Corps have been under assault, for years.

Why? Why has such a broad campaign to discredit (almost) every highly skilled and educated expert class become the centerpiece of conservatism?  A hijacked version of conservatism that has Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave?  You have only to look at the few centers of elite expertise that have been left alone! Those that are spared this all-out onslaught. The financial industry, industry lobbyist associations, and the hyper-rich.

A select group who are spared attack by Fox News. Now why would these groupswant to fund propaganda aimed at undermining all other intellectual elites? Unless… in order to the power of those with the skill and fact-based knowledge to notice and point fingers at outright lies….?

Hm… well… maybe we can analyze that another time.  For now, let’s get back to the speech.

I had one proud moment when I heard the president drop in another of those “he did NOT have to say that!” lines. There was one sentence, while he discussed our need to improve American schools, when Obama mentioned something that our schools do better than any others on the planet. Do you recall what it was?  Did any of you catch it? Even briefly?

I doubt one pundit in a hundred  noticed.  But it is something that we do SO well that  Education Ministries in Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing send out hundreds of minions, every year, re-training teachers to instruct their classes in a more American manner!

Boldness, confidence, creativity, and unabashed willingness to question.  These are traits that American schools (and parents) encourage very well! They are not easily measured by standardized tests, so they do not get mentioned in the news, nor do they become the fodder for hand-wringing political diatribes. But, at last, I have seen one politician notice! Moreover, it is important. In order to improve, it is necessary to grasp what you are doing right, as well as what’s wrong.

Do I expect this speech to make much difference? Indeed, was it even worth the time I spent writing about it?

Not really.  Certain parties in high places, not just in America but in foreign lands, have already chosen to re-ignite Phase Three of the American Civil War. We are in it, right now, 150 years after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. (Which happened ten years after the Civil war actually began, in 1850. Ask me later.) When things have gone that bad, one doesn’t hold out much hope for transformation emerging out of a single speech.

But at a time when all forms of expertise and skill and knowledge are the chief victims and targets in a bilious civil war, and when science is the paramount enemy – openly declared – of a faction that wants us to turn our backs upon tomorrow… any talk of “winning the future” is welcome, indeed.

—-  FOLLOWUP —

“During an appearance with Greta Van Susterin on Fox News, Sarah Palin criticized Obama for referencing Sputnik during the State of the Union, because she believes that Sputnik brought down communism. She said, “Yeah, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time, that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.” Yep, Sarah confused the space race with the arms race.”

Please, go read the article.  See what she said. Does it get any plainer than this? Choose tomorrow.

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