Tomorrow Happens

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David Brin

David Brin
San Diego, California, USA
October 06
Bio David Brin’s novels have been translated into more than twenty languages, including New York Times Best-sellers that won Hugo and Nebula awards. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed cyberwarfare, the World Wide Web, global warming and Gulf Coast flooding. A 1998 Kevin Costner film was loosely adapted from his post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. ............................................ Brin is a noted scientist, futurist and speaker who appears frequently on television (Life After People, The Universe), discussing trends in the near and far future, on subjects such as surveillance, technology, astronomy, and SETI. His non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, deals with issues of openness and security in the wired-age. ............................................. David Brin web site: Twitter: Facbook:

MARCH 15, 2012 8:47PM

Contemplating Civilization: Its rise and fall

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Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero. Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.

Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours... but not without a struggle in ever generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs - who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.  If liberals would only read the "First Liberal" -- Adam Smith -- and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.

Then take a look at Niall Ferguson's new book Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Ferguson appraises some of the reasons that civilizations fail, a topic that Jared Diamond surveyed (with a bit too obsessive a focus only on environmental causes) in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed... and that I take a Big Perspective on, in my next novel, Existence.

In his article, Western Civilization:Decline or Fall?, Ferguson describes how he sees our way out of a "decline of the west:"

"What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anti-competitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic."

In other words, break free of the hobbling/crippling, oversimplifying metaphors like "left-vs-right" - a curse bequeathed on all thinking, by the French Revolution - and get back to acting like intrepid grownups again.

==Rebuilding Civilization==

Open Source Ecology: Following the DIY "maker" trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization -- or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models.

The founder, Marchin Jabukowski (TED Senior Fellow) is a Physics Ph.D., who dropped out to work on this project. His orientation is post-scarcity society rather than disaster, but if one were wanting to create a generalized resiliency rather than prepare for specific movie scenario plots, it would be a good place to start. See his TED talk: Open Sourced Blueprints for Civilization.

And now, Open Source Ecology is teaming with WikiSpeed to build an open source, modular, configurable car with high fuel efficiency that meets U.S. safety standards.

Seems related to a TV series I was pitching for some years, to start with contestants wearing loin cloths in the desert, challenge them to make stone tools, then leather, and eventually smelt metal, etc.  The show?  REBUILD EVERYTHING!  Picture "Survivor" meets "The 1900 House" meets "Junkyard Wars"... then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs... along with a dash of "The Flintstones". Include some tasty inter-tribal rivalry, and add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

In the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization! Instead of just surviving, they must chip flint, make spears and arrows and traps, stitch clothing from hides (no animals will be killed directly by the show). Once the Stone Age has been conquered, contestants move on to re-invent pottery, weaving and agriculture -- then mining and smithing copper ore, then bronze, iron and so on. Each next step must be taken by using technologies achieved at the previous level. Once they succeed at a task, it is assumed that their “civilization” (their team) has that technology from then on. They will be provided any tools they require from that level, in order to attempt the next.

Envision season four ending with them chugging up-river on a built-from scratch steamboat, prospecting for ores to make the first TV....

==Threats to Civilization==

In EXISTENCE I portray the rich buying up small island nations that are doomed by rising tides, then building stilt cities on those nations, who already have legal international sovereignty.  Now see the beginnings: leaders of the Pacific archipelago Kiribati are considering moving the entire population to Fiji, as their islands are threatened by rising ocean levels. When you see stilts rising over there, know that I told you first.

We have overseen the largest wealth re-allocation in history: The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil.  Ponder that. And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates who ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat.  Now T. Boone Pickens is back touting natural gas... of which North America apparently has a vast supply... as a way to break that habit.  Sure it is still fossil/carbon fuel (though better and cleaner than oil).  But it might serve as our “bridge” in order to both do better and keep some of our money, to invest in the true solution technologies of the future.  Pickens will stand to make big bucks if we go along with his plan.  But at least we’d know what we are buying - a deal that makes sense, unlike the total sellout of our children that happened in the first decade of this century.

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The concept seems to be that civilization, by definition, is the current state of technological expertise. But civilization, if that can still be a term applied to the kind of now acceptable inhumane forces that are murdering millions of people to control the remaining sources of energy and other basic needs, is rapidly moving beyond the archaic inter-relationships of production, work and labor and markets so that people are progressing (if "progress" can be the proper term) to be irrelevant to production which undermines the total system. What lies ahead is unknown.
@Jan: Given that description, I'm speculating you're saying it's unknown because you don't want to say what that makes obvious. The wild card of the future only makes it self known when it chooses to, but it will. I do have to agree with you however, the machine got out of control and it's direction doesn't inspire confidence.

I've noticed, as I take a new tact in trying to focus on what can be created to improve things, that even here, in what many who participate would consider an enlightened environment, bitching trumps most other things (besides the Hallmark moments) as an attention getter. David's posts are educational and illuminating but don't seem to attract much attention. When I post what I hope are things directed towards reducing the static and re-focusing on solutions, most of the comments, while somewhat supportive of the style, still seize on the conflict. What's a humanoid to do? Maybe it's part of the programming.
My point was that things like robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing are signposts to radical new directions in technology whose impact is hardly yet being felt in the total economy but the rapid developments in these sectors have strong indications of being explosive to accepted economic structures and require radical new outlooks.

In general the most useful comments on general analyses involve pointing out where there are further points worth considering that demand further analysis. Pretty little irrelevant theorems are best quickly destroyed and removed so that real thinking can take place.
Somehow I missed those specifics in the generality of your original statement, but thank you for clarifying them and giving me something to consider.
What is intrinsically destructive of a wealthy and workable economy today is the povertization of the work force by the use of foreign cheap labor as this destroys the very necessary flow of money through wages to create a viable market. But this is only an interim problem as the rise of automation and robotics is a new rising reality where no wages at all must be dispersed to create production. When that becomes a confrontable reality, and it is yet in the future, it is an unknown as to how a viable market can be maintained. I just don't know and my ideas are probably not acceptable to current public and official attitudes.
"When that becomes a confrontable reality, and it is yet in the future, it is an unknown as to how a viable market can be maintained. I just don't know and my ideas are probably not acceptable to current public and official attitudes."

There is an easy solution, tax and redistribute. (Call it a national dividend if you like.) The beauty of it is, that it scales. It can adjust to any scenario including infinite productivity.
And since he election of those officials responsible for controlling taxes are already totally under the thumb of those who are most taxable who is going to see to it that the wealthy support the poverty stricken? The resistance to raising taxes is already almost insurmountable. How is that change to come about?
I love all of this, and added a few new books to my "to read" list. I love your DIY comments. Liked and rated.

Only point that needs to be raised. You mention that Jared Diamond is "bit too obsessive" in his "focus only on environmental causes" in Collapse.

I need to dust it off again, but I recall he wasn't only focusing on environmental causes. Ecological causes of collapse were one of a handful of others which - in combination - lead to collapse. Further, since environmental causes of past collapses get scant attention in formal historical circles, isn't it good he shook things up a bit? I think "obsessed" is a bit off the mark. Perhaps his obsession seems like obsession in light of the context? If anything it countered the reductionist, deterministic sense you get when reading his earlier Guns Germs and Steel.

Also, today's environmental challenges are of a uniquely large and global scale. This is bigger than goats destroying forests on a North Atlantic island. No human has ever breathed an atmosphere with so much CO2 as today. How is this any less significant than perhaps the large volcanic eruption at Toba 70,000 years ago that created a population bottleneck so huge it is amazing we didn't go extinct (explains why humans have little genetic variation compared to other species)? That is the scale of things we're talking about here. Yes, yes, we maybe might possibly develop technology that will carry us through like Noah's ark. Yet, Global Warming (Wierding, rather), added to collapses in biodiversity and the acidification of the oceans, one has to wonder. If you think Diamond overplays ecological factors of collapse historically, that is one thing. But, today's ecological realities are much larger than anything any of the societies he analyzed faced. Sure, perhaps he overemphasizes historically, but I think any overemphasis might be with the purpose of making the connection to our much larger ecological problems today.

okay, now that I have written that, I wish I would have opened up Collapse again to make sure I am not missing something. :-)

I am really looking forward to your book, by the way.
"And since he election of those officials responsible for controlling taxes are already totally under the thumb of those who are most taxable who is going to see to it that the wealthy support the poverty stricken? The resistance to raising taxes is already almost insurmountable."

Ah yes, but the winners from lower taxes are in the minority. I would start by concentrating on reforming the electoral system to take the money out of politics - and to allow third parties to grow and prosper.