Brin/The Good and the Bad

The Good and the Bad: Outlines of Tomorrow

(c) 1993 David Brin

PART ONE: Introduction

Recently, I read a newspaper report of great interest to a new parent like me. A firm known as California Technology Enterprise Corporation is marketing an innovative gizmo -- a spinoff of high tech defense hardware -- which they call "Beeper Kid," to help keep track of your toddler at the shopping mall or county fair. It lets out a little shriek whenever your 3 year-old strays more than 10 feet away from the home unit, strapped on your wrist.

Next, of course, will come a little direction finder, to show in which direction the kid has dashed off so recklessly. Great for tracking that wandering child, or finding those missing car keys... or for planting under your husband's car, to find out where he really spends Tuesday evenings, when he's supposed to be playing poker with the boys.

Isn't that the way of modern technology? All recent generations of humanity have had to deal with this vexing combination. Shiny new gadgets and services often work even better than promised, but they come inevitably laced with countless unexpected consequences--all of which makes life ever more complex, nerve-wracking, and dangerous.

Think about the wonders on sale right now at your local Radio Shack. Any of you can saunter in and buy a toy car for 20 bucks, containing a remote controller and four or five wireless-actuated motors -- exactly the kind of stuff "Q" was always so proud of supplying to secret agent James Bond -- only now mass-produced so that ten million home hobbyists can have some cheap, harmless fun. Meanwhile, thousands of would-be inventors have access to inexpensive parts they can experiment with to their heart's content, coming up with countless new ways to do things, some of which may even make life better.

And oh, yes. Out of millions of customers, and thousands of experimenters, a few dozen of those carrying toy cars out of the corner Tandy Store will be psychotics, having just purchased ideal tools to help manufacture remote-controlled terrorist bombs.

This odd mixture of fulfilled dreams and unforseen side effects has been going on for a long time. Way back in 1890, a few visionaries predicted the automobile becoming an important factor in modern life. One or two might even have foreseen continent-spanning freeways. But, to paraphrase writer/critic Edward Bryant, it would have taken a science fiction writer to predict the traffic jam.

Mind you, one of the most common misapprehensions about science fiction writers is that we try to predict the future. In fact, we only do a little better than stock market analysts and weathermen. Yes, we've had some famous hits -- such as air and space travel, nuclear weapons and eco-devastation. On the other hand, no author before 1979 came even close to predicting something as fundamental to our modern world as the home computer.

No writer did so because everyone at the time was distracted by a red herring. Even the most imaginative authors were suckered into writing novels, stories, and films about gigantic computers, occupying whole city blocks, dominating metropolitan skylines. They were all misled by the "obvious."

Why? First off, back in the seventies it certainly looked as if massive central processors would be the way of the future. That's what nearly all the futurists and computer mavens were predicting.

Even more importantly, it suggested two obvious and irresistible possible story lines.

Plot "A": The big machine is evil. It takes over and tries to kill everybody. The hero of your story fights it.

Plot "B": The computer is good. But it makes a frail, easy target, and your hero has to protect it against some nefarious scheme or saboteur.

Nobody predicted that the home computer would displace the mega-machine, and go on to replace the rifle over the fireplace as freedom's great emancipator, liberating common citizens as no other technology has since the invention of the plow. (The only writer who came close was John Brunner, in his wonderful novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Way back in 1967, he had one of his characters say -- "Do you know that if we weren't spending so much on arms, every home in America could have a Shalmanisar-level computer?" Brunner just missed. He saw the possibility, but could not quite bring himself to believe we would actually do it.)

So, even science fiction writers must approach prognostication with a sense of humility. Should anyone ever set up a neutral, unbiased "predictions registry," as I depict in my recent novel, Earth -- an organization dedicated to logging, scoring, and/or debunking all claims of prophecy -- the grades handed out to SF authors would be above average (certainly far better than so-called psychics), but not so good that any of us ever retired on winnings from the racetrack.

Nevertheless, it's safe to say that many more wonders lie on the horizon which we'll use for well and ill... both to improve our culture and at the same time make things even more unmanageable than ever.

For instance, imagine the bright future of chemical transducers, sophisticated relatives of your home's smoke detector, which will stand guard to alert us of too much chlorine in the pool, or marijuana on the breath of a bus driver. Government and industry are already using early, expensive versions, such as battlefield transducers which watch over our troops to warn of invisible poison gas. Next we'll see them at border checkpoints, augmenting old Rover, the sniffer dog. Eventually chem-sniffs will show up at K-Mart, to be purchased by home owners worried about ozone, radon, or lead in the home. Or by neighborhood watch committees, keeping an eye on local hazards to public safety. Or by parents, bugging their kids' rooms for traces of cocaine.

You think things are bad for smokers now? Just wait until your co-workers replace those plaques on their desks, saying -- "Smoke Free Zone" -- with laser alarms that will zap if you had a cigar the night before.

The funny thing about the picture I'm painting is that it can be seen as either good news or bad. In the last example, I guess it depends on whether you smoke or consider tobacco a noxious weed.

In fact, whether we approve or not hardly matters. These things will happen. All we can do is try to be prepared.

Nevertheless, we will be urged to vote in all sorts of new laws to regulate these brave new technologies. Throughout the last 500 years, there has been fierce tension between two contrary penchants in western civilization. The first contends that free individuals will make mistakes, but can generally be trusted with new technologies, with new ideas and new freedoms.

The other, puritanical, voice worries that human beings are inherently corruptible, that freedom will be abused, and that ideas themselves can often be perilous. Potentially destructive technologies must be kept out of the hands of common folk at all costs, for their own good.

In this perennial debate, it does no good to posture, as do self-righteous purists on both sides. Both parties have plenty of anecdotes on hand, to illustrate and support their view of human nature, because that nature spans a wide spectrum and defies any simple-minded effort to model it.

On the whole, we in this culture tend to lean in the direction of trust, a decision I support wholeheartedly, since the result is a lively, exuberant era, whose wild brilliance merits putting up with a certain amount of chaotic excess. But then, I am a product of generations of propaganda extolling freedom as a good thing -- as the best thing -- worth any price to win and hold.

Now a contrarian historian might point out that nearly every other human civilization took an opposing view, that liberty is a dangerous, potentially fatal social illness. From tribes to kingdoms to empires, almost none ever preached as we do, in contemporary films and situation comedies, that individual eccentricity, diversity, and license are sacred traits, to be extolled right up there with (and sometimes above) patriotism and motherhood.

Are we right? Was every other human society wrong? It's a question one seldom hears posed, and is even more difficult to answer.

Take, for example, the checkered story of a publication entitled The Anarchists Cookbook, which contained recipes for making bombs out of household detergent and other items available off-the-shelf, in any supermarket. When some police functionaries tried to have the book suppressed, the Supreme Court supported freedom of speech. But I wonder -- might it even have mattered if would-be censors succeeded in banning it? Here we have a society which sells millions of barrels of liquid high explosives on street corners to all comers... which they proceed to pour into vehicles in order to send tons of steel hurtling faster than a cheetah, faster than most birds, while the drivers chew gum, fiddle with the radio dial, eat hamburgers, steer with one finger, and go whizzing through tight turns, routinely missing other cars by inches. Who, one hundred years ago, would have predicted that the most skilled human being -- let alone the rest of us -- would be capable of such feats? Who could have predicted we would want to?

Such a society simply has to rely on the general good sense of common citizens. So far, at least regarding the public's right to drive, that trust seems not to have been badly placed.

So far.

And yet, one can imagine scenarios in which a technology might have to be fiercely squelched. Say it becomes feasible, someday, for any family to make a nuclear bomb in their attic? Or, as in my novel, Earth, to make a mini black hole in the basement? If such powers really can be Radio Shacked -- (now there's a verb for you) -- then no law, no matter how draconian, would suffice to protect us. If the time ever comes when one lone fool can bring down everything millions of decent people have built, then we finally have the answer to why we've never been contacted by alien intelligent life. Every other sentient race has wiped itself out long before getting off its home planet.

PART TWO: The Chemical Pandora's Box

Barring such extreme and catastrophic examples, what sorts of new opportunities might lie on the horizon, to tempt us, thrill us, and make ever-greater demands on our good judgment?

Some trends will be unstoppable. For instance, two new technologies will soon make today's quixotic drug laws even more pathetically impossible to enforce than they already are.

Advances in automatic chemical synthesis will in time put machines on the market capable of manufacturing in a bottle almost any known bio-active substance. These will first appear in university labs where, by day, miracles of medicine will be invented to save countless lives. And, late at night, there will also pour from these labs tons of bootleg RU486, the morning after abortion pill, if that much-coveted drug is not legalized.

A little later, the next generation of synthesis machines will sit in your local pharmacy, so that any rare or special prescription can be filled while-u-wait, without having to send away to distant factories. Then, as equipment prices drop with mass production, these devices will appear in local high school chem labs. (Want to keep them out? And let kids in Japan and China get even farther ahead of our students? No way!)

After that, can home units be very far behind?

Wonders will spring forth from thousands of basement laboratories. A new realm of convenience and creative living through chemistry... as well as a flood of cheap mind-benders, illicitly tailored by certifiable idiots bent, as usual, on spoiling a good thing.

Imagine the social angst! The fervent calls for legislation! But this phase will soon be superseded, in turn, by yet another. An age when each of us, for well or ill, shall have the sovreignty to use or abuse chemical marvels, without any need for outside machinery or expertise at all.

How will this be? It is inevitable, as we learn more about the functioning of the finest chemical synthesis factory of them all -- our own living bodies. In particular, we are starting to understand a thing or two about the workings of the human brain, where it is becoming clear that everything we love, every pleasure we partake in -- from the most sublime music, to athletics, to sex, to affection and parenthood -- appears to be mediated by a swarm of self-released psychoactive compounds.

Now some will be horrified by this revelation. The same folks who decry that the beauty of a rainbow is diminished if we penetrate its secrets to discover that it consists of ten trillion floating watery lenses, all brilliantly refracting, in perfect synchrony, rays from a stellar fusion pile, burning with ancient, furious constancy, millions of miles away.

Indeed, there is no shame in knowing about the psychoactive chemicals released by our brains, the endorphins and enkephalins, for which opiates like heroin are mere shabby substitutes. For instance, my little 18 month-old son has something my wife and I call the "devil-boy grin." Does he know, instinctively, that his smile -- all babies' smiles -- will trigger a surge-release of endorphins inside the brains of 90% of women and 60% of men? All I know is that he saves his very best beam for when he's about to do something he knows is forbidden, and he knows I'm watching. Then, in go the dimples and out come the teeth. Those eyes squint and come alight.

Zap! I can feel the adoration hormones secreting, and my mind feels like it's about to melt. I laugh. He laughs. We both break down laughing. Ah, the tribulations of parenthood.

There's no disgrace in learning that chemistry plays a role in life's magic. But what does it imply about our present-day drug laws?

What serves wholesome joy can also be abused. It is a simple fact that people seek pleasure, and those who cannot find it in healthy ways have always turned to look for it elsewhere.

Consider the new techniques becoming available through electronic biofeedback. Already computer programs are coming out which use visual and aural repetition techniques to help train you to slip into the so-called "alpha state," almost at will. For most, this will be just another useful tool, such as when you sit down in the dentist's chair and wish to "be somewhere else for a while." On the other hand, any person inclined to misuse these programs might, within a week or so, learn to emulate what eastern gurus may have been doing for the last 2500 years -- that is, release a flood of their own endorphins, putting themselves into an incognizant stupor in a matter of minutes.

Now today, when a fellow is seen sitting in a park with a line of drool trailing slowly out the corner of his mouth, there's a good chance he's high on something illegal. But say it's ten years from now, and he has no detectable unnatural drug in his veins, just floods of his own, natural secretions. What's a cop to do? Roust him and demand in a loud voice -- "Hey buddy! Show me your zen license"?

In one of my novels, I coin the word, "dazer," to describe the next wave of addicts -- the self-doping kind, who will need to commit no crimes to supprt his habit, and who will send no money to Columbian coca cartels.

When this happens, even the most obstinate puritans will have to face a hard fact of life -- that it's hopeless to outlaw victimless, pleasure-seeking behaviors, even when they are self-destructive. You can regulate. You can tax, preach, and persuade. You can even heal. Recent, gradual success in the great-big-war-against-tobacco proves that patient temperance drives can do a lot of good, without trampling on the Constitution or a man's right to choose his own road to hell.

Nevertheless, there finally comes a point when a society would be well-served to remember the admonition offered by Clint Eastwood, at the end of "Magnum Force."

... "A man's just got to know his limitations."

PART THREE: The Wild Net Yonder

None of the technologies I've mentioned so far will change our lives anywhere near as much as the information revolution. It's a hot topic. Everyone is talking about huge data highways, linking home to office, to factory, to school, to the AI assistant you'll have strapped to your wrist. All the world's channels of communication, all the databases, all the libraries will be merged into one universal network. Everything will be connected. Knowledge will be power.

Yet, even on this new frontier we are already seeing the great skill some people apply to making nuisances of themselves. Today's Internet, for instance, is plagued by countless individuals who fly into abusive, self-righteous tirades -- called "flames" -- at the first sign of disagreement. Much like mental patients suffering from Tourrete's syndrome, they blurt out angry vituperation, abandoning the editing process of common courtesy which took us thousands of years to acquire. (At last year's ALA conference, I gave these people a name -- "Net-Tourretes.")

Yet, are these flamers all that different from the motorist who cut you off last week, flipping an obscene gesture and laughing at your frustration, safe behind his mask of anonymity? The problem may not be entirely due to the lack of visual cues common in face-to-face contact, as so many pundits have insisted. Rather, flaming may be just one more symptom of a much bigger problem, which we'll take up later.

The information revolution is already affecting our political sensitivities. It used to be a truism that the candidate who was ahead in the polls would duck her opponent's calls for a debate. Recently, however, public attitudes of fair play seem to insist that debates be considered an essential part of the process, and being ahead is no longer an excuse for skipping out.

Television did this, and the process continues. Once upon a time, when a candidate published his or her income tax return, it could be dismissed as a stunt. But today, that too is fast becoming the expected thing. (In France, a land of persnickity individualists, all tax returns are a matter of public record. They survive.)

Soon, politicians will be required to keep all financial accounts open to public scrutiny on the Net. The new technologies of communication -- from talk shows to the Internet -- will enforce this new era of accountability, for well or ill.

Nor are politicians alone under the hot, spotlight glare. Think about how police work has been changed by the arrival of cheap video cameras. They have proven invaluable tools, assisting the forces of law in winning arrests and convictions. And they have also made the beat cop feel as if the whole world is watching over his shoulder.

Already local neighborhood watch groups are being trained to maintain stakeouts, helping track the movements of gangs and drug dealers on local streets. Security cameras have reduced mayhem on school buses, and they help deter crimes on subway platforms.

It sounds benign, but where will it lead? What will we do when surveillance tech keeps getting smaller, niftier, and lower in price? When someone can pilot a remote-controlled drone the size of a housefly through a neighbor's window, shall we then pass laws to keep such devices out of the local electronics store?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

ALL of the anecdotes I've just mentioned

have one thing in common. They point out the critical interaction we face, between technology, accountability, and privacy. I expect few topics to create more ferment, during the coming decade. As Americans, we adore our privacy even more than freedom. Even more than we love our flashy techno-toys. So, when we are told (as we will be, quite soon) that "privacy laws" will protect us against nosy intrusion by our neighbors, by businesses and government, we'll vote for them, standing up and shouting "Aye!"

But nothing will protect or save privacy. It's over.

The anonymity of urban life was one of the attractions which brought millions to vast cities, escaping the village busybodies, back home. But that armor of seclusion amid multitudes is going to vanish in the near future, like the chimera it has always been, a passing illusion, a fluke in the history of human communal living. Soon, we are going to return to the way of life of our ancestors -- to the transparency of the village -- whether we like it or not.

Let me ask you something. How many of you in this room think that if we pass privacy laws it will actually prevent the rich and powerful from finding out anything they want to about you? What, no hands raised at all? I thought not.

Clearly, all "privacy laws" will accomplish is to provide common folk like you and me with a warm, fuzzy mirage of seclusion, while having the major effect of preventing you from finding out anything at all about the rich and the powerful.

What shall we do about those mosquito-sized spy drones I spoke of earlier? Banish them from Radio Shack? Restrict their use only to the police?


Or rather, over my dead body. If anyone is going to have the power to spy on me, I want them to know that I just might have a mosquito of my own -- watching them watch me!

That's how courtesy was enforced in the old village. People understood that it was in their own best interest to be polite. You quickly learned that the best defense against bad neighbors was to work at being a good neighbor yourself.

Soon, that fellow who laughed as he rudely cut you off on the freeway won't be able to hide behind a shield of anonymity anymore. The kid who swipes an apple from a shouting fruit vendor can expect to get a phone call on his wrist phone before he runs more than a block away. Would-be burglars will have to be awfully clever, when cheap video cameras in any home can be automatically linked to the police, in real time. And the inveterate flamer on a computer bulletin board will find his system plagued by "courtesy worms" -- a type of immunal response software -- sicced onto him by members of an offended Net community.

In the village, it wasn't fear of retribution that kept you from behaving rudely, callously toward your neighbors; it was the sure knowledge that someone would tell your mother, and bring shame to your family. Tomorrow, when any citizen has access to the universal database to come, our "village" will include millions, and nobody's mom will be more than a fax call away.

I reiterate; it's over. It was fun while it lasted, living on these city streets amid countless, numberless fellow beings, not knowing any of them at all. It was also lonely. Today, you read about old folks found dead in their apartments, months, even years after anyone had last seen them alive. That won't happen anymore when the village returns. Busybodies will gossip, but you'll be able to leave your doors unlocked. Everyone will know how much you paid for your nose job, and what videos you rent; but you and your kids will have friends in every part of the world, whom you met through shared interests on the Net. And when you travel, those friends will pick you up at the airport with wide open arms, even though you never laid eyes on them before in your life.

Perhaps, after all is said and done, most of us will even decide that it's better that way. Better to know our neighbors (in their multitudes) than to live a fiction, a lie, of splendid, lonely isolation.

As if we're going to have the slightest choice in the matter.

PART FOUR: Freedom and Politics on the Net

Let's talk about some other possible features of that information network of the future.

Here is one of my favorites. If we plan in advance, the myriad, multitudinous, data streams caroming back and forth across cyberspace may allow room for adding something called "tag commentary" onto most messages. I am talking about a few parasitic bits affixed to the end of nearly every data stream, within which each reader or recipient can append a brief comment, perhaps as succinct as a plus or minus sign, signifying "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." These blips would be mere ephemera, of no official value, useful only in sampling the reactions of Net users to a particular tract or posting.

Now I'm certain the people in charge of the information pipelines will hate this idea, because it's going to add to an already overwhelming problem of bit-rate loading, yet this tagging could be used for any number of amazing things. Users may, for instance, put down flamers and diatribe purveyors without ever having to engage the perpetrators in direct mudslinging. Of course, some Net-Tourretes will take pride in achieving the highest possible negative scores, but most users will simply adjust their access-sieves to filter out anything tagged below, say, "minus nine-thousand", and so most of us will escape the swill, except when we choose to go slumming.

On the positive side, tagging might help elevate some particularly insightful missive, one posted by some unknown person, just once, in a dim corner of the Net, so that it might percolate upward out of obscurity, to reprinting, re-posting and perusal by ever greater numbers, simply by virtue of the accumulated number of enthusiastic "nods" it receives along the way. In this way, the moguls who own vast media empires won't have a mortal lock on what we see or think. Rather, good ideas and good art will have an alternative route to wide dispersion -- through a system of simple, anarchic, popular merit.

One result of tagging I would especially like to see is the potential for assessing pompous would-be pundits with credibility ratings. For instance, picture a typical 21st century news reporter coming on screen. Underneath his talking head, you see an accumulated score. (Or several scores, one compiled by, say, analysts at Consumer Reports, and another gathered from viewers, watching in real time, reacting with thumbs up or down.) These little numbers would serve to show how trustworthy or believable viewers are finding the product (whether a sales pitch, or news, or commentary) that the reporter is trying to "sell."

Imagine these credibility ratings changing in real time. Envision the sweat popping out on our ace authority's brow, as his score rapidly plummets before his eyes!

Now picture a politician having such a figure flashing away at the bottom of her TelePrompTer!

Yes, the bad side of all this is obvious. It could serve to elevate the level of debate, or to debase and homogenize it, depending on how the system is used. Which is why I'm raising such possibilities, both here and in my novels. It may be too late to prevent these trends, but it is by no means too soon to begin thinking about possible consequences.

Indeed, this is surely not the first time something similar has happened. History warns us to be wary every time a new communications technology arrives, because while some try to use it to uplift humanity, others skillfully apply the new medium to the oldest of magical arts -- manipulating others.

The old aristocrats in 1930s Germany, for instance, thought they could control Hitler, because they owned the newspapers. He went around the press, reaching vastly greater masses with the new, hypnotizing power of radio and loudspeakers, which, to people newly exposed to them, seemed to amplify the user to greater than life... to near godhood. In a parallel vein, the Ayatollah Khomeini bypassed the shah's monopoly on radio and TV, simply by smuggling into Iran one single cassette tape per week. Within days, that cassette had been duplicated a thousand times, to be circulated and played aloud in every mosque. Fax machines came close to serving the same insurrectionary function in China, during the Tien Anmen uprising, which nearly toppled the old communist aristocracy.

All of these fruits of science have proven both empowering and potentially manipulative of the common man and woman. And the drama of our yin and yang, love and hate, relationship with technology continues.

What will be the consequences when, as some predict, the personal computer is so cheap that the average citizen of the Third World owns one, and has greater access to data than clean water?

We are bound for interesting times.

PART FIVE: Slavery in the Future

With one noted exception,

the social structure of nearly every human civilization has been pyramidal in shape -- with a few aristocrats lording it over great masses of peasants whose function was to serve their masters' whim. The greatest exception to this historical rule is our own. Modern western society appears to be shaped like a diamond, with the vast majority living fairly decent lives in the middle. What aristocracy we have must, supposedly, earn its place only slightly above the rest of us, and earn it again with each generation. It may be impossible to eliminate poverty entirely, but our poor should have reasonable hope to join the center, if not personally, then through their children. The diamond has a name -- "the American dream." And, even after the attempted aristocratic coup of the 1980s, this society still has the astonishing shape of a middle much larger than the bottom. A social structure in which the well-off still outnumber the poor. A shape that, despte all the work we have yet to accomplish, is unprecedented in humanity's long history of complex civilization.

Now, before we get smug, let's reveal a secret truth. The diamond exists, but only for the aristocratic class of human citizens. Underneath that wedge of privilege, supporting it, crouches an invisible pyramid of slaves. Vast numbers of drone workers, without rights or entitlements, who toil at the beck and call of even our humblest proletarians. The slaves are called machines -- billions, trillions of them, depending on how you define the word... or perhaps numberless beyond counting, if all software entities are included -- and they are the modern helots, on whose backs the human master race rides toward a splendid tomorrow. 1

This idea is not new. Science fiction is rife with foretellings of possible consequences of this new social pyramid. In his novel, Mockingbird, Walter Tevis depicted a decadent humanity, "served" into somnolent oblivion by a resentful machine class. Cordwainer Smith evoked sympathy in his works, for the slaves we seem bound to create, out of both machinery and altered animal life. The works of Jack Williamson send chills up one's spine, with visions of how robots might re-interpret their fundamental commandments to "protect" men and women, once their artificial intelligence surpasses our own.

On the opposite extreme, we have vistas of bliss and fulfillment in Vernor Vinge's novels, which feature something he calls the "Singularity," a near-future event in which human knowledge, and our ability to "tie into" the culture-wide database, starts to expand geometrically... asymptotically... with our collective skill rocketing higher and higher, faster and faster, as we synergize with our synthetic agents, so that, within mere months, every sentient being on Earth attains godhood and leaves.

This is more than just philosophical maundering about history and destiny. The metaphor of servant and master is vitally relevant to the way millions today use their interface with the growing, worldwide infoNet. For, like television, and radio before it, the new technology has the capability of metastasis -- of turning round and devouring the body it was meant to serve -- and taking over the life of the "master" it was designed to benefit.

Be honest. How many of you in this audience have grown addicted to your computer bulletin boards, your interest groups and data access nodes? How many hours a day do you devote to this new, artificial world? Hours taken away from your real work, your real world relationships? True, the opportunities offered by the Net are glorious. Every day we see the up side described in glorious detail, in magazine articles, on TV and, especially, on the Net itself. But surely you'll admit that it can also become a tar baby, a parasite, sucking hundreds, even thousands of hours out of your valuable life span. In effect, hours sucked away by a machine.

As for me, I'm a curmudgeon. Despite the optimistic depictions I present in Earth and other novels -- of a future Info-Network that ennobles humanity -- I remain deeply suspicious of its present incarnation. I own the machine; the machine does not own me! So I use Email sparingly, and stay away from net groups which might draw me in with tantalizing but time devouring discussions.

Am I denying myself wonders? Probably. But not for long. To properly utilize the miracle of worldwide data access, I am waiting for a few new slaves.

Prototypes are already out there, called software "agents." (In Earth I call them "ferrets", "hounds," and even "hey you.")

Picture the workspace of tomorrow. You appear to be all alone at your desk. But entities await your bidding, patiently, ready to act on any whim.

You'll say, "Ferret! I want some information!" and your home computer will quickly reply, "Yes, boss. What data do you want me to fetch for you?"

"Go get me 500 words, written in the style of Connie Willis, about Scandinavian sauna architecture and associated mating rituals, okay? Make it funny, and accompany with illustrations in the style of Vargas. Chop, chop."

"Yes, boss," the voice replies. And off a little messenger program scurries outward, into the vast sea of the Net, to fish for what you need and prepare it according to your tastes. Now that's when this particular skeptic will become a true convert. It's when Vernor Vinge's vaunted Singularity might be on the verge of taking off, for our capabilities will then start to multiply as never before.

Unfortunately, there will also be a dark side to this trend toward loyal, servant entities -- in the form of privacy screen guardians and personalized data sieves. The insularity of perfectly isolated worlds of the mind. Some people will inevitably program their home units to admit only those TV programs, only those shows and magazines, which agree with opinions they already have. We've already seen this trend in channels devoted to certain ethnic and religious groups, and in the cult followings of talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh.3

Will "connecting" technologies only serve to divide us in the end, fragmenting us into a myriad acrimoniously bickering tribes? Could it be that those working on the Tower of Babel were thus cast into confusion, cursed to speak countless indecipherable tongues, by means of something as useful and promising as the Net?

There are some ways in which our tendency to fractionate may prove ennobling. As we form interest groups and join bulletin boards covering each subject under the sun -- gathering together from all corners of the globe every hobbyist who is interested in, say, miniature toy soldiers, or chinese porcelains, or origami -- it is fast becoming clear that no single thing of value from the past or present will ever again be completely lost. If it has any intrinsic merit at all, it will attract some band of eccentric aficionados who will turn it into an avocation, a pastime with an ardent cult following that crosses all borders and time zones. Already, the trend can be seen flourishing. There are more spinning wheels and floor looms being used today by hobbyists than existed in the 19th century. Horses and blacksmiths abound in the era of the gasoline engine. There are more sword makers in America today than lived in the entire Middle Ages, making blades that could have sliced through Charlemagne's best armor like butter. Moviemakers can once again film vast war epics in the U.S., filling battle scenes with unpaid extras who provide their own perfect Civil War uniforms, marching and "fighting" with a realism that could only arise out of the most passionate of hobbies.

And on the Net there thrive special corners where people seek to share knowledge and grow in craftsmanship through ten million pastimes.

So which destiny will be ours? At one extreme, the future depicted by the cyberpunks, while containing no end of dazzling wonders, will be dominated by criminals, aristocrats, and vast, faceless bureaucracies. If the dourest cyberpunks are right, then our institutions are irredeemably corrupt and our fellow citizens irremediably stupid and controllable, as depicted in Oliver Stone's ugly television drama, "Wild Palms." If so, if our fellow citizens are as witless as Stone and his ilk clearly believe, then we certainly shall deserve nothing better than the downer tomorrows those authors depict.

On the other hand, some of the incisive works of Orwell, Huxley, and later authors such as Brunner, Sterling, and Sheffield, may affect our thinking in more useful ways, inspiring wary caution while helping us to avoid the very mistakes depicted in their novels and films. The self-preventing prophecy is a venerable subgenre of SF.2 A dire warning can be valuable indeed, so long as it offers -- implicitly or explicitly -- the possibility of a way out.

PART SIX: Where It All May Lead

As I've said before, prediction is hazardous and often misleading. While some distant vistas may terrify us into avoiding error, others might serve as beacons to guide us forward, enkindling hope to carry us across the rough days ahead.

Last year, Hans Moravec dazzled the crowd at the last ALA conference with his notions of how, if we do succeed in building a decent civilization, our descendants may be undistinguishable from gods in their ability to contemplate vast numbers of possible realities, or to create simulated corporealities down to the minutest detail. If this does come about, what will our descendants do with such power?

One of their hobbies, Hans predicts, will be to concoct accurate models or re-creations of past events. Models so perfect that each of the simulated players in a scene will actually think synthetic thoughts, with all the complexity and subtlety one could desire, just as if the event were "real."

In fact, at this point I might ask -- how do any of you out there in the audience know for certain that you and this room are not simulations? Perhaps we are all magnificently delineated personas, playing roles in a deluxe re-enactment of one special, historic day, way back in the late Twentieth Century, when a couple of otherwise obscure sci-fi writers -- Connie Willis and David Brin -- uttered a few remarks which stimulated an idea in the head of that young man in the third row... an idea that later changed the world?

Okay everybody, now I want you all to turn toward that wall over there and wave at our descendants! That's right. Maybe that's what's special about this moment. The aspect that gets this simulation replayed over and over in the 60th century, as a minor classic. The first simulation that showed evidence of self-awareness, and even tried to converse with its simulators!

What a classic.

We should be so lucky.

In conclusion, I want to return for just a moment to the issue that may have struck the most nerves, when I raised it a little while ago. That is the issue of privacy, and my suggestion that the era of leading anonymous lives -- each of us dwelling almost alone amid the urban multitudes -- is about to end. Laws intended to seal off our private information from prying eyes will only guarantee that those prying eyes must be rich and powerful, in order to roam at will across our personal affairs. Those laws will also make certain you and I have no access at all to information about the rich and powerful, except what they choose to share.

We can have either freedom or privacy, I predict. Alas, not both. Given that dichotomy, if the alternative is to give up liberty, my own choice is clear. As long as the playing field is even, and everyone is subject to the same rules, perhaps privacy should be exposed as the myth that it has always been.

Now I know this puts me in a tiny minority. And an unpopular one, I might add. Not only are civil libertarians on the march, demanding legislation to protect a phantom promise of data seclusion, but they are being aided by a strange alliance of conservative and business leaders. And a lot of hackers, too. Most of the cyberpunks, it seems, have decided to come down with full, self-righteous force on one side of this issue. Alas, the wrong side.

Let me read to you a brief quotation from the Cyberpunk Manifesto, by Eric Hughes.

"Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something that one doesn't want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn't want anybody to know."


"Privacy is the power to selectively reveal one's self to the world. We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place."

(Like those anonymous letter bombs that have recently been blowing up on innocent people's desks, I suppose. And computer viruses? But let's go on.)

"People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers." (Oh, good stuff. Admirable!) "The technologies of the past did not allow for a strong privacy, but electronic technologies do. Let's extend all those other things, the whispers, the darkness, the envelopes. We the Cyberpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and electronic money."

Over my dead body. And yours as well, I presume, since librarians like you in this audience are even more dedicated than I am to the open transmission and sharing of information.

Information. Fools predict that it will be the "money of the future!"

But it is not money.

It's not wealth.

It is life, and its unfettered course is as necessary to a healthy, free society as the open flow of air.

As far as I'm concerned (and this may sound odd coming from a fellow who grew up in Los Angeles), the air is too precious to become a commodity. Air should always be free.

And so should be the light.

Thank you very much.


1. Consider a simple, mundane case. You can all get a snack, in the middle of the night, faster than a pharaoh could by snapping his fingers and commanding a hundred servants. All you need is those two loyal, efficient slaves -- your fridge and your microwave oven.

2. In fact, the greatest science fiction author ever to have lived may be Karl Marx. In the East he was taken as a religious leader, providing a dogmatic doctrine to serve as a semi-religious focus for what will eventually come to be seen as just another massive peasant uprising -- more virulent than most, but akin to countless others throughout history -- which was betrayed (as usual) by the generation of revolutionaries themselves, who schemed to make themselves into aristocrats in the new order.

Where Karl Marx had truly historic effect was in the West, where his scenarios were read as terrifyingly believable stories about what might happen in the near future, if present trends continued. In science fiction, we call this the "if this goes on" tale. And when such a tayarnle is particularly terrifying, it galvanizes reform-minded individuals to act, to push for changes in the system. In this case, the changes wrought by liberal reformers were so drastic and far-reaching that the terrifying scenario depicted so believably by Marx -- of an ever-narrowing social pyramid, leading to upheaval -- no longer seems at all likely to come about. The ultimate irony is that Karl Marx may have been the chief destroyer of his own dream! If you credit that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others yanked capitalism off its former track, onto one in which workers own a piece of the action, and have a stake in capitalism's success, then it isn't all that far-fetched to fantasize that Karl Marx helped prevent the very social breakdown he predicted so vividly in Das Capital.

Very few authors have ever provably predicted or made future events happen, simply by writing words. But a great many may have played roles in preventing possible tomorrows. It is an intriguing suggestion. Of course, by its very nature, it is also a contention which cannot be proved. Still, I stand by my suggestion that Marx be reassigned to the category of a major sci-fi writer, despite the fact that millions took his works of fiction much to seriously. (Let that be a warning to the rest of us.)

{Actually, people can be awfully forgiving of would-be prophets. One success counts more toward your reputation than a hundred failures. People still come up to me, claiming awe that I predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1987. No one bothers to chide me for also prophesying a solar sail mission to Mars, a Nobel Peace Prize for Jimmy Carter, and at least some success for supply-side economics. Fortunately, those embarassments have been conveniently buried and forgotten.}

Comments, corrections, additions and may be sent to the Editor
Visitors: 341