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IxDA Stories: Meet David Brin

Interviewed by Poppe Guthrie on the IxDA Stories podcast

How did you get into what you’re doing now?

I always knew I would be a writer, I come from a family of writers, but the thing is that I thought I could escape into science. Science fiction authors are actually much more interested in history than in science — the field should have been named “speculative history” because you’re speculating about alternate pasts, alternate presents, or a continuation of *the* story, the only interesting story, and that is humanity climbing up through horrible mistakes and errors and standing on each other’s shoulders to get to the point where we might be ready to launch to the stars.

It is based upon the fact that it’s the greatest of all stories, and so that’s what science fiction often is about. It’s about alternate or projected futures. Science is a driver of change and therefore science plays a large role in a lot of science fiction. But only one out of every ten science fiction authors are scientifically trained as I am. Some of the best hard scientific science fiction is written by former English majors who couldn’t parse a differential equation in 20 years if their lives depended on it. They write fantastic scientific science fiction because they’ve learned the technique, and you can get all the advice you need for the price of pizza and beer at a nearby University. Or you don’t even have to pay for the pizza and beer they’ll pay for it, if you’ll just name a character after them!

So I was fascinated by history and across all of history the same mistakes were made over and over and over again. Only one civilization ever tried to develop clades of people who got past human delusion, believing not what we want to think is true, but what is true, or better yet hasn’t been disproved, because that’s what science can do. Science can disprove stuff — science can never prove anything. I wanted desperately to be part of that, and so I wound up going to Caltech for my undergraduate education, so I must have had some ability at science. I wound up getting a PhD at UCSD in Astrophysics. I still am involved with NASA, but really when you get right down to it, you are what you were born to be. And I was born to be a liar. I tell fantastic stories about people who never existed, doing things that never happened!

I definitely believe in trying to make my fictions well-grounded. I think that makes them more plausible and much more interesting. I have a huge predictive score. Even though science fiction authors will deny being in the prediction business, we’re not, we’re in the prevention business.

What sorts of things are you thinking about preventing now? You mentioned that science fiction is trying to dissuade from the mistakes of the past and project into the future. What kinds of mistakes do you see humanity making now?

Well, letting emotion and subjective reality overcome our ability to check on whether or not the things we believe are actually true. Pandering to the mythology that your type of people is the best type of people. We’re all programmed inside that tribalism. So it’s been very easy for cynical oligarchs and conspirators to flatter whole swathes of the population by saying “you’re part of the minority who really gets it, who really knows what’s going on”, and of course, usually they don’t…

Hollywood preaches four great moral lessons, and they have been very good for us. One is suspicion of authority. You cannot name a popular film that you’ve enjoyed in the last 20 years — or in your case 15 — that didn’t revolve around the overcoming of some abusive authority figure. Now it may be alien invaders or a mother-in-law, but there’s always some kind of authority to resist, that helps you identify with the main character.

There’s also tolerance, diversity, and eccentricity. the antagonist in a popular novel or movie usually exhibits eccentric traits right at the beginning, and that helps the audience to bond with them. And here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be the audience member’s particular eccentricity. The fact that they are eccentric and standing up for their own individuality helps the audience to bond with them.

None of these four were preached by prior mythic systems. We have a lot in common with the prior mythic systems of the Joseph Campbell “Arc of the Hero”, and things like that, but those principle messages are fairly unique and they are part of the reason why this Periclean experiment has been so vastly successful.

But here’s the problem, those lessons from Hollywood can be used against us. Under normal circumstances, in normal times, the difference between a decent Democrat and decent Republican is which direction they think elites are trying to become Big Brother. The Republican is concerned about snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. The Democrat is concerned about conniving aristocrats, oligarchs and faceless corporations.

But in normal times each of us would be willing to admit “well, you know I’m less concerned about the corporations and aristocrats, but I guess in theory they could be dangerous too. So while I’m fighting the bureaucrats, you go ahead and shine light on the oligarchs and the corporations.” That’s how this would be synergistic and in normal times, there’s some of that, but the well has been utterly poisoned.

What we have instead is “my side’s elites are absolutely pure and virtuous, how dare you say anything bad about them? Your side’s elites are already Big Brother.” It happens that one of those two sides is more accurate than the other right now. The deeper phenomenon of a deliberately stoked radicalization that has destroyed the ability of this mythic system to propel pragmatic problem-solving — problems like climate — that have brought down previous civilizations. Problems like the wasting of talent, racism, sexism. You don’t have to fight racism and sexism based upon yammering, chiding moral grounds. Yes, those moral grounds are absolutely valid. But you don’t have to. All you have to do is raise the simple fact that you’re wasting talent. That is a pragmatic Adam Smithian justification for most liberal programs.

How do you see speculative fiction, speculative designers, or designers in general, playing a role in helping to overcome these problems that we’re facing from your perspective?

Human beings are fundamentally delusional. I make money off that because I create industrial-grade, high-quality, Maserati/Lamborghini-level delusions. I sell them and do very well by it, but always there’s a warning label saying “this is for fun and possibly a warning”. Possibly inspiration even, but it’s delusional.

This is the source of our greatest art, but the problem is when delusion moves into public policy and the governance of the civilization. You get this horrible litany of errors called history and most human societies were shaped like a pyramid with a few Lords and Kings and priests at the top. And what was their top priority? It came even before fighting each other — crush critics. Prevent the only thing that can penetrate delusion and that might lead to decent governance, but it might also lead to them losing their power. Criticism is the only known antidote to error. CITOKATE.

I’ll repeat it — criticism is the only known antidote to error and delusion. The problem is, we hate it! Oh, we don’t mind dishing it out. But we hate criticism, we hate receiving it. The irony being, it is the only thing that can help you to perfect your craft, your plans, your products, and your ability to defeat your enemies, because criticism is what will find your errors before you commit them. It’s the only thing that does, it’s a very good reason to get married — every now and then, it’s nice to have a critic who’s on your side.

But if necessary, you can take the criticism from the people who are most eager to dish it out to you: your enemies. And if you take criticism from your enemies and take careful notes and pay them respectful attention, first off, it will bug the hell out of them, so you get an immediate short term satisfaction. Secondly, they are very likely going to be pointing out things that you haven’t thought of, that you can improve. The most galling thing you can possibly say to one of your enemies is “Gee, thanks, I hadn’t thought of a couple of these. Now most of them, you’re an idiot. But these three, I’m going to fix these and thanks a lot because it’ll make me better able to defeat you.” That is what is called a win-win.

There is no greater concept to define our civilization than the positive-sum game. You know what a positive-sum game is. It’s the most important concept. It’s a game in which the sum of the points that are won by the winners and losers is positive. You might have heard the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats”. A positive-sum game is one in which even if you lose everybody wins. It’s just that the entity who defeated you won a bit more. And that’s what’s supposed to happen. Pericles, in his funeral oration in Thucydides, talks about how people can achieve positive-sum games competitively and adversarially. As long as they agree on a cooperative context. So cooperation and competition nestle with each other. One is sterile without the other.

We cooperate to create rules for arenas like markets, democracy, science, justice, courts, and the clearest example is sports. Where adversarial action is very rigidly regulated in ways that maximize the output in sports excitement with less injury or cheating. Supposedly we’re going to get a positive-sum outcome from the recent election. It’s just coming in dribbles. But you get my point, a zero-sum game is one in which I win by making you lose. We’re in a negative-sum game because basically there are parties in this nation who, if they can’t win, they’ll tear everything down. It’s a negative-sum way of thinking right now. There’s all sorts of poison pills being played and there will be more and more of them in the next 50 days.

This audience is in an interesting position, being people on the ground designing the products, having influence in the technology that we use as societies to run our lives. So what’s your message for them being in that position of power?

I suppose the most important thing is to maintain an ability to question assumptions. It’s one of the most difficult things to do because an assumption, by its very nature, is something that you assume, that you take for granted. One way we’ve done this is by encouraging our youths to feel that it is their duty to rebel. Very few civilizations ever did that. But we say your generation is actually supposed to upset ours in some way or another.

My last question is less pithy but still revealing. If you could commission any artist dead or alive to create a work of art just for you, who would it be and why?

Oh well, I’ve already had that! You can see it in the cover for my novel Sundiver. I’ve had a number of Jim Burns paintings based upon my books and Michael Whalen’s occasional caricatures of yours truly. Patrick Farley is my favorite right now and he’s done a bunch of really lovely images.

🎧 Tune in to other episodes of the IxDA Stories podcast.




The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

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