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Future Tense: How the Net Ensures Our Cosmic Survival

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Credit: Dawid Michalczyk

The Internet has changed the way I think, though, ironically, less than I expected. As both a freelance scientist and a science fiction author, I already telecommuted back in 1980, kept flexible hours, digitally collaborated with colleagues around the world, conducted digital literature searches, and was an early adopter of text editing. All these trends have since accelerated. Yet, compared to my colleagues' utopian visions for 2010, today's Net and Web remain, a bit, well, stodgy.

Oh, I'm grateful to live in such times. For one thing, without the Internet, civilization would likely have fallen into the Specialization Trap that tech students pondered, pessimistically, in the 1960s. At the time, it seemed inevitableas the weight of accumulated knowledge piled higher and higherthat researchers would have to learn more and more about less and less, in narrowing subfields, staggering forward ever more slowly under the growing burden of human progress. Specialty boundaries would grow more rigid and uncrossable. This unpleasant fate seemed unavoidable, back when "information" had a heavy, almost solid quality...

...till the Internet Era transformed knowledge into something more like a gasor sparkling plasmainfinitely malleable, duplicable, accessible, mobile. At which point the old worries about death-by-overspecialization vanished so thoroughly that few recall how gloomy the prospect seemed, only a few decades ago.

Today, some fear the opposite failure mode, veering from narrow-minded overspecialization to scatterbrained shallowmindedness. Flitting about info-space, we snatch one-sentence summaries of anything that's known by the vast, collective mind. Whatever the topic, each of us is able to preen with presumptuous "expertise." This trend colors even modern politics; a core tenet of the Culture War holds that specialists are no more qualified than opinionated amateurs to judge truth.

Worrisome trends have always seemed to threaten civilization. From Plato, Gibbon, and Spengler to Toynbee, Kennedy, and Diamond, many have diagnosed why cultures succeed or fail. Theories vary, but the implications go far beyond the fate of mere humanity. In his Future Tense essay "Radical Evolution" (Mar. 2009), Joel Garreau tied technology's march to the question of why we've seen no signs of intelligent life beyond planet Earth, not even radio blips on a SETI screen. Does this Great Silence suggest every sapient race out there ultimately repeats the same technology-driven mistakes, driving their own civilizations to ruin?

We know next to nothing about aliens but can impute something about them from the self-perpetuating instinctive drives that propel both human societies and nearly all animal species on Earth, spurred by the "zero sum," or I-win-by-making-you-lose, logic of reproductive success. Hence, 99% of human cultures that ever achieved farming and metals also wound up ruled by feudal oligarchies that squelched all potential competitors. Crude versions of the same pattern are seen among chimps, wolves, and many other species. The logic of Darwin and Malthus may be pervasive on other worlds, too. Could this help explain the daunting sky-silence?

One important exception was by far the most successful Earth-based civilizationthe Scientific Enlightenmentwhich broke from the ancient feudal pattern, fostering instead what Robert Wright, author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, called the "positive sum game," encouraging individualism and copious self-criticism. (It's a theme typified by self-reproachful messages like James Cameron's movie Avatar.) What better way to detect, reveal, and resolve myriad potential pitfalls than by unleashing millions of diverse, highly educated, technologically empowered citizens to swarm (like T-cells) on every apparent failure mode, real or imagined?

This noisy process was supercharged in the late 1980s when the U.S. government did something that still seems historically anomalous: releasing the Internet it had invented from near-total control, simply handing it over to the world. Ponder, in the light of the past 4,000 years of recorded history, the likelihood of such a decision. Was there ever anything comparable, under the most beneficent kings?

I want to defend this rambunctious culture of freedom for all the usual reasons (such as "freedom is good!"), but I wonder. Such an experiment was rare here on Earth and seems unlikely to have been tried very often, out there across the cosmos. In fact (and here's the point of this digression), our latest, tech-amplified version of the Enlightenment could become a fiercely effective problem-solving system helping us become the exception... a sapient race that survives. That is, if it is allowed to. And if it ever matures.

But getting the most from our potential also requires better tools. In his book Smart Mobs (2002), social scholar Howard Rheingold envisioned a future when the savvy, liberated populace forms resilient, ad hoc, problem-solving networks that pounce on errors and dangers, adapting much quicker than stuffy, traditional, hierarchical institutions. Recall that citizen-power was the only thing that worked well on 9/11. We'll surely need such agility and initiative in times to come.

Success may depend on new skills and tools that empower our "adolescent" traits, the drive that makes us hunger for adventure, surprise, even fun.

Still, no one has yet disproved the hoary adage that "The intelligence of a crowd is that of its dumbest member, divided by the number in the crowd." Could any blog, social-networking site, or twit-mesh be described as a "problem-solving discourse"? Not unless you have very low standards of "discourse." Today's communications platforms seem obstinately, even proudly, primitive, encouraging dumb-down groupthink that Jaron Lanier called "digital Maoism" in his Future Tense essay "Confusions of the Hive Mind" (Sept. 2009), not the vigorously new-citizenship I forecast in my 1989 eco-thriller Earth.

Connectivity scholar and Google Vice President Marissa Mayer says the Internet is in its "adolescence." Indeed, many of the traits tech-zealot Clay Shirky ( adores and that Web critic Nicholas Carr ( abhors are qualities we associate with our own teenage years. Take the rampant flightiness of scattered attention spans, simplistic online tribalism, and tsunamis of irate opinion; picture 10 million electronic Nuremberg rallies. These punk attributes blend and contrast with positive adolescent qualities like unprecedented vividness, creativity, quickness, alert compassion, and spontaneity. No generation ever read or wrote so much... albeit, never was such a high fraction of the writing such drivel.

There's nothing wrong with self-expression. Not everyone is required to engage in erudite discourse. But must the medium conspire to make discourse next to impossible, leaving each decade's version of "conversation" more terse and lobotomized? Must the interface assume that superficiality is the chief desideratum and self-fulfilling expectation?

If this is an "adolescent phase," we may yet see what Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger calls "sophrosyne," or polemical shouting transforming into fair disputation and negotiation, a trick many teens eventually learn.

Imagine today's Internet augmented by a shopping list of now-missing tools to enhance attention allocation, empowering users to do more in parallel while rediscovering the art of concentration. Today's fetish for "gisting," or grabbing the summarized essence of any fact or opinion, might yet be more useful and accurate, when coupled with utilities for source-reputation weighting, paraphrasing, correlation, data analysis, and what Howard Rheingold called general "crap-detection." Collaborationware might yet evolve from its present stodginess, helping ad hoc teams self-organize, divide tasks, delegate expertise, and achieve quick wonders. Such tools could start by bringing online some of the amazing mental methods we take for granted in the real world (such as the way we sift for meaning from multiple conversations at once, as at a cocktail party). Many have never been implemented online, in any way.

Destiny, not only on Earth but across the Galaxy, may depend on how we choose to cross this danger zone. Success could arise less out of stodgy prescriptions than from those "adolescent" traits that make us hunger for adventure, surprise, even fun. Only... perhaps empowered by new skills that help us function as thoughtful adolescents, more like precocious 19-year-olds than scatterbrained 13-year-olds. Perhaps even like people with grownup goals... and the patience to achieve them.

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David Brin ( is a scientist, technology speaker, and author whose stories and novels have won Hugo and Nebula awards. He is also the author of the nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? (Perseus Books Group, 1989).

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