david_brin's picture
Scientist; Speaker; Technical Consultant; Author, Existence
Physicist; Technical Consultant; Science Fiction Writer; Author, The Transparent Society

Sometimes you are glad to discover you were wrong. My best example of that kind of pleasant surprise is India. I'm delighted to see its recent rise, on (tentative) course toward economic, intellectual and social success. If these trends continue, it will matter a lot to Earth civilization, as a whole. The factors that fostered this trend appear to have been atypical — at least according to common preconceptions like "west and east" or "right vs left." I learned a lesson, about questioning my assumptions. 

Alas, there have been darker surprises. The biggest example has been America's slide into what could be diagnosed as bona fide Future Shock. 

Alvin Toffler appears to have sussed it. Back in 1999, while we were fretting over a silly "Y2K Bug" in ancient COBOL code, something else happened, at a deeper level. Our weird governance issues are only surface symptoms of what may have been a culture-wide crisis of confidence, upon the arrival of that "2" in the millennium column. Yes, people seemed to take the shift complacently, going about their business, But, underneath all the blithe shrugs, millions have turned their backs upon the future, even as a topic of discussion or interest.

Other than the tenacious grip of Culture War, what evidence can I offer? Well, in my own fields, let me point to a decline in the futurist-punditry industry. (A recent turnaround offers hope.) And a plummet in the popularity of science fiction literature (as opposed to feudal-retro fantasy.) John B. has already shown us how little draw science books offer, in the public imagination — an observation that not only matches my own, but also reflects the anti-modernist fervor displayed by all dogmatic movements. 

One casualty: the assertive, pragmatic approach to negotiation and human-wrought progress that used to be mother's milk to this civilization. 

Yes, there were initial signs of all this, even in the 1990s. But the extent of future-anomie and distaste for science took me completely by surprise. It makes me wonder why Toffler gets mentioned so seldom. 

Let me close with a final surprise, that's more of a disappointment. 

I certainly expected that, by now, online tools for conversation, work, collaboration and discourse would have become far more useful, sophisticated and effective than they currently are. I know I'm pretty well alone here, but all the glossy avatars and video and social network sites conceal a trivialization of interaction, dragging it down to the level of single-sentence grunts, flirtation and ROTFL [rolling on the floor laughing], at a time when we need discussion and argument to be more effective than ever. 

Indeed, most adults won't have anything to do with all the wondrous gloss that fills the synchronous online world, preferring by far the older, asynchronous modes, like web sites, email, downloads etc. 

This isn't grouchy old-fart testiness toward the new. In fact, there are dozens of discourse-elevating tools just waiting out there to be born. Everybody is still banging rocks together, while bragging about the colors. Meanwhile, half of the tricks that human beings normally use, in real world conversation, have never even been tried online.