‘Combined weight of all the new surveillance technologies heading our way is a recipe for disaster, beyond Orwell’s wildest nightmares’

Gautham Shenoy September 8, 2018

To say that David Brin wears many hats would be an understatement. He’s a scientist and the bestselling author of many award-winning science fiction novels which predicted many of today’s problems and trends – from the worldwide web to e-mail spam to rising sea levels and eyeglass cameras to name a few. He is also the author of the final book in the ‘Second Foundation trilogy’ in which he has tied together many a loose end by blending into a consistent framework the Foundation and Robots stories of Isaac Asimov.

David Brin is also a transparency expert who wrote the classic non-fiction book The Transparent Society in 1998, highly regarded for its accuracy in predicting current concerns about surveillance, online security and privacy. He is also a futurist counted as amongst the world’s best, a tech advisor who has consulted with companies such as Google and Microsoft and widely cited as being in the top writers that AI elites follow. He helped establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination and serves on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group. One could go on.

FactorDaily has always been about giving you, our readers, ‘signals that help you read the future’. And this New Worlds Weekly column has always made the case for SF being more than just another genre of literature, and how good science fiction can also give us glimpses of the future(s) we could be hurtling towards. David Brin is someone whose books and opinions have helped many ‘read the future’, and who has contributed to shaping many a thing in the present. It was with this in mind that I reached out to Dr. Brin for a Q&A. So, without further ado.

Gautham Shenoy: Thank you, Dr. Brin, for agreeing to do this Q&A. I’d like to start off by asking, as a widely-read and respected practitioner of the genre, what do you think makes – and has made – ‘Science Fiction’ special?

David Brin: Change is the salient feature of our age. I call science fiction the literature of exploration and change. While other genres obsess upon the narrowly familiar and so-called ‘eternal verities’, SF deals with the possibility that our children may have different problems and priorities. They may indeed be very different than we have been, as we today are very different than our forebears.

Shenoy: What role do think science fiction can play in better preparing us for possible futures or to make sense of what is to come, in a time of such rapid change – both societal and technological, intertwined as they are.

Brin: All creatures live embedded in time, though only humans seem to lift their heads to comment on this fact, lamenting the past or worrying over what’s to come. Our brains are uniquely equipped to handle this. Twin neural clusters that reside just above our eyes – the prefrontal lobes – appear especially adapted for extrapolating ahead. But how do you exercise any organ? Practice!

And so science fiction novels, and to a lesser extent, films, exercise those prefrontal lobes by asking the question, “What if…?” This is what Einstein called the ‘Gedanken-Experiment’ or thought experiment. So many forecasts of science fiction have come true, and we have prevented so many horrors by thinking about them in advance, that clearly we have a tool of some value in science fiction.

Also read: ‘We’re Winning the War’: A Q&A with SF writer, critic and historian, Adam Roberts

Left & Center: David Brin’s ‘Uplift universe’ novels, Startide Rising, and The Uplift War, both of which won the Hugo and Locus SF awards. Right: Brin’s 1985 novel Postman, the basis for the movie of the same name.

Shenoy: There’s a lot of hype surrounding Mars and its colonization thereof. There are talks of sending passengers to Mars as early as the next two years. Mars One is planning to establish the first human settlement on Mars with people already having been shortlisted for a voyage in 2024. How realistic do you think these claims are? What, as per you, can be considered a realistic goal when it comes to space exploration, Mars or otherwise?

Brin: For starters, I have nothing against Mars. In fact, I think it is a fine, mid-distant objective, a lure to entice us onward. An ‘inspirational goal’. Alas, as a near-term goal, it has problems. A rushed Mars program would have to use the Apollo Method, seeking a single, short-term victory lap.

Compare two kinds of expeditions, to the top of Mt. Everest or say, to the South Pole. In both cases, you spend 90% of your time going back and forth – building a base camp that lets you build an advance camp that lets you supply an assault camp. With Everest, the aim is tourism and glory. When it comes to the South Pole, the U.S. wasn’t first; but when we went, we stayed. And the scientific benefits have been huge. Still, everything needed by humans at the pole must be supplied from ‘Earth’.

Mars expeditions will only make sense when we have truly sophisticated methods. Foremost, we need to have ISRU or In-Situ Resource Utilization facilities in place, not only on the Martian surface, but also on Phobos, that can extract and store volatiles like water, for use not only as fuel but also in closed ecological life support or CELS systems.

In the near term, we can test these methods in lunar orbit and with robots to asteroids and Phobos.  There are so many reasons to check out asteroids because of the unbelievable wealth they contain. In contrast, we know of nothing of value on the Moon, so far. The sole purpose of anyone planning to land on that dusty plain is…well, tourism.

Shenoy: There are some that say that rather than pouring money into space programmes, humankind would be better served if we first used those funds into solving more pressing problems – be it of climate change, or social & economic inequality – here on Earth before we leap for the stars. What are your thoughts on this?

Brin: What kind of zero-sum thinking is it, that we must ruthlessly choose between good things when there is plenty of useless waste out there? If you want to save money and save the world, how about aiming at fashion and cosmetics? Sports? People who have 3rd and 4th homes? Secret banks? See where I discuss that in EARTH and in The Transparent Society. We would harvest many hundreds of times as much cash to spend on social and economic inequality.

Science may enable us to grow perfect substitutes for the herds of grazing cattle that now denude the planet. Much of that science would be nowhere, but for our general enthusiasm for exploration and discovery.

We are alive today because observation and communication satellites calmed everyone down during the Cold War. We know something about the Earth and were able to save the Ozone Layer and the whales and some fisheries, because of satellites.  The biggest single thing enabling poor people in Africa and other areas to engage in commerce to advance themselves have been cell phones, and do you think any aspect of that technology would have happened without space programs?

As I show in my book EARTH, we might save the world because of science and yes, space exploration, not in spite of it.

Left: David Brin’s 1990 novel Earth which predicted many current trends. Center: Brin’s influential non-fiction book on privacy and freedom, The Transparent Society. Right: Cover of Brin’s latest novel Existence.

Shenoy: It’s been 20 years since The Transparent Society was published and there’s hardly a prediction you’d made about surveillance and privacy in that book that hasn’t come true in some form or the other. How many times have you found yourself saying ‘I told you so’ and to whom?

Brin: Yes, well, I get a lot of mail about specific pages in that book, like page 206 that seems to predict the 9/11 attack on New York, or page 160 portraying a future when both cops and citizens aim cameras at each other, all the time. As predicted, our information is pouring into vast databases, and not a single paternalistic ‘protection’ has ever – even once – reliably prevented data from leaking. And yet, “I told you so” seems pallid and useless.

What’s needed is for people to look closely at a pure fact that strikes everyone as counter-intuitive, but it’s true – the only thing that ever gave common people freedom, safety and protection from abuse by elites has been light. If it can truly shine upon the mighty, they will hate it!  But it is the only thing that ever worked!

Also read: Fake news often reads or looks on video, like weaponized design fiction: Bruce Sterling

Shenoy: What are your predictions for the next 20 years when it comes to transparency, and the tussle between privacy and freedom in an age of ubiquitous surveillance, both online and offline.

Brin: As shown in George Orwell’s 1984, light that travels in just one direction – with surveillance of the masses reporting to secretive elites – is a recipe for endless tyranny. So, what’s your solution?

All over the world, well-meaning men and women can see the potential problem and they always, always leap to prescribe exactly the wrong solution – “Don’t look at us!” they howl. They demand that the elites – of government, corporate, criminal, technological – somehow accept rules that blind them.

But this cannot possibly work. We cannot cower and hide ourselves from elites.

The rate of technological development makes the use of the law to ban methods of vision intrinsically impossible. Cameras are getting cheaper, smaller, better, more mobile and more numerous each year at a rate that is much faster than Moore’s Law. In a few years, cameras will be too small to detect, hidden in an earring or shirt button or in the corner of every pair of sunglasses.

If you make these technologies illegal, that will only effectively limit access by average citizens. Elites, the rich, intelligence services, the cops and criminals will still have them and use them. Stop and work it out.

Across all of time, elites have never allowed themselves to be blinded, with one exception. Only in the modern West and America are there some constraints on how much corporations and agencies and the rich can look. But those constraints only work if we can detect when they violate them! Think. The only way your approach can possibly work is if mine (citizen vision and elite accountability) is in place first!

Also read: A matter of Thalience: Karl Schroeder, Ventus and the ‘successor to science’

David Brin speaking on ‘Big Picture AI’ at IBM’s World of Watson in 2016. (screengrab via youtube)

Shenoy: India’s Aadhar project has been dubbed ‘the world’s largest, most intrusive biometric database’ and it’s got all the markers of ushering in a great surveillance state. The state, however, insists that it’s doing what it is for the greater good; to ensure proper implementation of social welfare projects, to curb corruption, to foster more financial inclusiveness and so on. But as they say, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.

Brin: The benefits of Aadhaar are obvious, but are they worth setting up an Orwellian state?  Look at the previous sentence. The question itself assumes a zero-sum game. That you cannot get a good thing without an accompanying bad thing. But civilization – especially lately – has shown us many examples of positive-sum where we embrace a new benefit while cancelling the harms.

Yes. The combined weight of all the new surveillance technologies heading our way is a recipe for disaster, beyond Orwell’s wildest nightmares. The only way we can stop them from becoming instruments of repression is by giving everyone access to these tools so that the powerful will be stymied and held accountable, and ordinary citizens will be empowered. By answering surveillance with sousveillance. By demanding that Aadhaar report to the people more effectively than to the mighty.

That could still lead to tyranny. The Chinese are instituting “social credit” where a pervasive system will score you and downgrade you if you even talk to anyone else with a low score. It is already turning into a powerful tool for conformity enforcement.

India stands at the cusp of many cultures and traditions. Will India choose the Chinese outcome from Aadhaar, and either let elites dominate or conformity-enforcing mobs? Or will India lead the way, by letting light spread tolerance of our harmless differences and eccentricities? Perhaps even enhancing them in fun ways.

Shenoy: There are some who fear the growth of AI, more specifically the emergence of AGI. Whilst others are hoping for it, ready to welcome super-intelligent AI, if and, when it does arrive. Where in this spectrum is David Brin?

Brin: I’ve been speaking and writing about Artificial Intelligence a lot. I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. There are things we could do right now that might tip the balance on whether these new minds will be friendly, helpful, or dangerous.

There’s a video of my talk on the future of Artificial Intelligence to a packed house at IBM’s World of Watson Congress, offering big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation. It led to this appraisal as ‘#1 influencer’ in AI. (Watch the video here)

Alas, although I finished and tied up the great ‘Robots’ series of Isaac Asimov in Foundation’s Triumph, I don’t think it will be as simple as establishing ‘three laws’.

Shenoy: Will there be another Uplift novel?

Brin: Yes. I hope so. If I can dig myself out from under all these interviews! 😉

Shenoy: As a futurist, an advocate of privacy, a scientist and science fiction writer, what books do you think are essential reads?

Brin: The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly. Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon. The Better Angels by Stephen Pinker. Abundance by Peter Diamandis.

And that brings us to the end of this Q&A as also this edition of New Worlds Weekly. I hope you found it as thought-provoking as I did. On that note, I wish you a happy weekend and hope to see you here on FactorDaily next weekend for another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live long and prosper!


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