Future Philanthropy 2 – An Interview with David Brin
If you haven’t read the main EON material yet, please start there. This fascinating interview by Brenda with David will make a whole lot more sense if you do that first! — Glen H.
1. David, where have you taken this idea and what kind of responses have you received?
I’m a bit lazy — or perhaps too easily distracted from one shiny idea to the next. Hence, a lot of my best ones sit around for years. I mention them in passing, in speeches or in some novel I happen to be working on at the time.
Lately, I’ve come to realize that “just mentioning” things is fine for some kinds of ideas — mostly notions with obvious profit potential. I’ve seen several companies spawned by comments dropped during a cocktail party. It’s fun to lurk at the edges when that happens, watching others use sweat and talent to turn a passing thought into a profit center.
But other concepts seem to need more watering and nurturing than is my usual habit to provide. Accustomed to viewing myself as a pollinator, I suppose I must learn to do some digging, planting and germinating, as well!
It certainly seems worthwhile in this case, when you consider that the reservoirs of capital we are talking about may exceed thirty trillion dollars. If even a fraction of one percent of that were put into investments that gaze far beyond the normal short horizons of corporate and government thinking, that could turn out to be a very big deal, indeed.
2. An underlying assumption in the EON proposal is that individuals will be more willing to take risks than corporations or governments, and that a key driver will be immortalization. I can buy that – I work in a town called Longview, financed by a man named R.A. Long. Our civic center park is built to highlight a statue of him. A possible counter example that comes to mind is Mircorp – which must have begun as an individual dream, at great risk with a profit motive, but is not named after any specific individual. Funding appears to be corporate, government, and now entertainment industry based. Yet Mircorp seems to me to be an EON style project in size and scope. What other key drivers do you see besides individual immortality for EON style investment?
Oh, I think immortality is just one of many reasons that might draw a wealthy individual to fund an EON-style project. The strongest is something called satiability — which appears to be the centerpiece of a new and fascinating definition of human sanity (a definition having nothing to do with cultural norms or averages.)
Satiability means that getting what you seek actually makes you a bit happier than you were before you got it — whether “it” is money, a rare object, or true love. Moreover, finally achieving a goal gives you more than pleasure. It reduces your driving need, if only by a tiny bit.
For example, once you’ve earned your first billion, you no longer acquire more money for what it can purchase. Further acquisition becomes more about the joyful exercise of competitive skill, and about using your power and talents to change the world.
No, I expect that billionaires will want to take on projects “at the horizon” for the very reason that corporations and governments have little or no ability to operate on the fringes. They must answer to constituencies — stockholders and voters. But a billionaire can do something bold – perhaps even epochally groundbreaking — and justify it by saying “I’ll do this because I can.”
3. What are some of the current small scale successful projects that might be used to illustrate the success of the EON concept? One that comes to mind is the recent Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants to libraries. Do you have some other examples?
The Smithsonian Institution transformed the United States, early in the Nineteenth Century, more than anyone can say. It created a center where scholars and early scientists rubbed elbows with rustic congressmen in a capital city with muddy, unpaved streets, cross-pollinating what would emerge as an American genius for Pragmatic Vision — a pair of words seldom seen in tandem before that time.
Andrew Carnegie’s worldwide campaign to sow libraries and grow minds must surely have bought his way out of any conceivable hell that his workers cursed him to, during the labor squabbles of the 1880s.
Today, there are many small-scale examples of wealthy individuals generously financing endeavors that seem to make no sense according classic investment horizons. One donor has enabled private continuation of the radio search for extraterrestrial life (as dramatized in the movie CONTACT) after NASA and Congress dropped funding for that far-seeing project. A small grant to one South African inventor led to the creation and mass-production of hand-powered devices such as lamps and radios, throughout the Third World, freeing local people from dependence on expensively imported batteries… and incidentally helping the environment.
The Long Now Foundation is well along with the design and prototyping of Danny Hillis’s 10,000-year Clock. A $2 million version has been commissioned for the British Science Museum. Part of a mountain in Eastern Nevada adjoining a National Park has been purchased for building a massive version of the Clock inside its white limestone cliffs. That project will cost on the order of $40 million. The idea is to build a mythic mechanism that may have a symbolic effect on public thinking – much like the effect of those early photos of Earth from space – helping to reframe thinking so that the long view becomes common instead of rare.
Some endeavors will inevitably be so far over the horizon that people initially view them as “crackpot.” Take the field of cryonics, which proposes to freeze people who die of illnesses that are untreatable today, but that might have cures in some future era. This notion is so far from becoming reality that some ridicule is understandable. Moreover, even if steady research results in major cryonics breakthroughs, it will only pose future citizens with dozens of vexing moral dilemmas. Still, if the goal starts looking even remotely possible, should not our grandchildren be given the choice of arguing over those dilemmas? If they get the opportunity, it will be largely thanks to a few rich individuals who are keeping cryonics research going today. Individuals rich enough not to worry if others call them crackpots.
4. You are a writer. Can you think of a way that a story might be used to galvanize investors?
Heh. The smartest ones come to me without having to be galvanized!
No seriously, fiction has been extraordinarily effective at prompting social action, but largely in the wonderfully negative way of frightening people about potential disasters. Scaring them into avoiding plausible failure modes.
One of the most powerful novels of all time, published fifty years ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. That we escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight “Big Brother” to their last breath. In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.
Since then, many other “self-preventing prophecies” rocked the public’s conscience or awareness. Rachel Carson foresaw a barren world if we ignored environmental abuse — a mistake we may have partly averted, thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green. And who can doubt that films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, or Fail-Safe helped caution us against dangers of inadvertent nuclear war? As for Big Brother, every conceivable power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, is repeatedly targeted by Hollywood’s most relentless message… to stay suspicious of all authority.
These examples point to something bigger and more important than mere fiction. Our civilization’s success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as successes we plan.
Having said that, I do believe fiction can describe and illustrate positive opportunities, as well. So long as you make the story dramatic. Nobody likes a preachy utopia.
5. If you were making up the EON catalog, what are five ‘bold ways to change the world’ you would like to see?
I would ask the commission to set aside ten or so categories, covering a wide range of human needs and dreams. Naturally, a high priority would go to projects that offer hope of solving the world’s most pressing problems — like poverty, ignorance, war and ecological destruction — though in imaginative ways that are presently not covered by governments or capital markets. In ways that reflect all we’ve learned about avoiding bureaucratic dependency.
Ideally, these projects would — if successful — become self-sustaining over time. The best would create whole new market forces that generate further billions while helping millions.
One of my favorites would be an international Henchman’s Fund for whistle blowers, offering huge annual prizes (and protection) to uncover the secrets of corrupt cabals all over the world. If it worked even once, the swarm of cats, jumping out of bags, could be awe-inspiring.
Here are some more examples from some of the early, informal EON discussions I’ve hosted online:
- Gregory Benford and Kevin Kelly independently proposed the notion of a Global Biocensus to set about identifying all species on Earth. The process itself, the results and side effects could outweigh (and incidentally build on) the Human Genome Project. As Kelly put it: “If we ever find life on another planet, the first thing we would do is to systematically survey all the life on that planet. That’s something we have never done for our own home planet….” One aspect: develop a portable training program and kit to ship around the world in three years. Use the internet to funnel all data to the public domain. At third world wages, a mere billion dollars might be enough to fund 3 years of collecting and identifying. Here’s what we’d get out of it:
- The first global census of life on earth.
- Real cash trickling into the far corners of the earth.
- Tens of thousands of people with a real job, at least temporarily.
- Tens of thousands of people gaining a new familiarity with science.
- Terabytes of data in the public domain, waiting to be built upon.
- Hundreds of amazing auxiliary discoveries, from lost ruins to “extinct” animals discovered.
- A global training network that could be continued for this or other tasks.
- Thousands of companies, producing hundreds of million of dollars of value, derived from the information collected.
- Other surprises, guaranteed.
- Author Greg Bear has urged that funding go into research in the linguistic and neural net bases of biological interactions, from the genome on up through brains and on to ecosystems. “Understanding and predicting how biological systems coordinate, communicate, and translate communications into physiology and behavior is going to be the biggest problem facing us in the life sciences in the next century-and it’s traditionally been an area of little interest and even considerable bias.”
- There are GOOD fusion energy approaches languishing for lack of funds. Some recommend a “prize” approach. $100M for engineering breakeven might spur results within ten years. And if no one claims the prize? No cost!
- Who could imagine anything that would change the world more than developing a good, inexpensive solar shingle? A slab of roofing material that’s cheap to make and distribute, that has the added feature of converting sunlight into usable energy at rates that make economic sense, even in the Third World. We are quite some distance from such a milestone today. Yet, the possible difference it might make is so overwhelming, anyone who championed its development, and succeeded, would be known forever as a world-saver.
- Establish Virtual Universities in both India and Nigeria, two nations with immense populations and potential, who want to provide rapidly accessible college education for millions but face daunting logistical obstacles.
With adequate funding, each Virtual University might distribute cheap internet access and classroom content to modular Learning Kiosks in several thousand villages. In the beginning, only a fraction of these dispersed sites will produce fully qualified graduates, but those graduates can be hired to serve as guides for eager students in other villages and the virtual experience offered in each kiosk may swiftly adapt to the needs of local users. Distributing several thousand simple, mass-produced kiosks might be less expensive than creating even one old-style university campus, especially if villages are called upon to earn each installed unit with cooperative matching labor.
First-hire options will give the Virtual University — and its affiliated research concerns — ready access to a rapidly-growing pool of trained labor as success builds on success, giving this altruistic venture serious potential for profitability over the longer horizon.
6. If you could name 10 of the 100 or so “pragmatic but far-seeing individuals” you would like to see at the first EON conference, who would they be? What walks of life would they be from?
First I would start by admitting my own biases. Although I have lived and worked in both the arts and sciences, in each case it’s been at the “harder” or more rational end of things. So I’d compensate for that by leaving leave some spaces for prestigious and highly-regarded people who lean in directions that I don’t.
Many of the people I would pick already have track records in the modern economy of endeavors and ideas. People who helped foster recent developments like the Internet or the cracking of the genome. Others would have backgrounds that involve intense thinking about the future, whose hazy outlines remain murky, forever out of reach.
And there would have to be some rather severe pragmatists… men and women who understand science and technology thoroughly enough to do on-the-spot calculations and show whether an idea is merely difficult or impossible. The kinds of projects seek fall somewhere between, in a territory called “risky, arduous, but potentially worthwhile.”
Which ten or a hundred people would I choose? Naturally, I have a list in mind already, tentatively. But I’d be foolish to say their names here. Some have already expressed willingness. Others I know better than to approach yet. Not until EON has letterhead!
Anyway, the selection process won’t be mine alone; it must evolve among first rate minds.
7. It seems that the most promising EON projects would be those not obviously profitable – since obvious money-makers are being built anyway. EON projects would be long shots. Which means the technology could be rather undeveloped – perhaps at a state where things are plausible on the drawing board but engineering proof does not exist. What would be the challenges in estimating cost and time parameters for such ideas?
The word “plausibility” is delightfully ambiguous. It has different meanings (and horizons) to a small retailer than to a venture capitalist. Within government, it has wholly different meanings to a military procurement officer than it does to the head of the National Science Foundation.
In fact, the head of NSF may spend small amounts of money on some notions that are far too speculative for EON! Governments have strangely complicated investment horizons and on occasion they can be extraordinarily visionary, while expecting no return whatsoever. When it comes to pure science at the very cutting edge, few billionaires are tempted to step forward.
No, EON is concerned with a special part of the plausibility horizon. Projects that look good on paper — the numbers seem to work out just fine — but that require truly serious amounts of cash before the potential benefits start pouring in. Projects that might eventually turn profitable, but only over time scales that today’s quick-bucks bankers would sneer at.
8. Another type of EON idea would be purely philanthropic. The technology exists, but local governments may not want it, and certainly can’t afford it. Some of the Habitat for Humanity and Hunger Project work seems to have that characteristic. These would be easier to catalog and define, but would have less potential for profit. Do you think this type of project would be harder to sell?
Not at all. The beauty of the EON catalogue will be its diversity. Billionaires (and mere sub-billionaires) can afford to be idiosyncratic! Some will relish projects that do good while offering a good prospect of generating downstream profits. Others will trade any thought of profit for the personal satisfaction of doing quicker good, easing the pain of strangers in less time. All of the projects will offer some high likelihood of helping to leave our grandchildren a better world. a world rich and daring enough to take on new challenges of their own.
9. Given the recent popularity of the TV show “survivor,” it may be that sideways projects with entertainment value would be easier to sell. For example, it might be easier to sell a trip to climb Pavonis Mons than one to visit Mars for scientific reasons. Do you agree, and why or why not?
F. Scott Fitzgerald proclaimed that the rich “are different from you and me.” I’m not so sure about that, except where it comes to the word “whim”. If you have used creativity and market cussedness to produce goods and services that legitimately earned you billions, you have a right to some extraordinary whims.
In other eras, these fancies could have drifted toward the grotesque, as we often saw in eras like Bourbon France. Fortunately, today the rich are constrained not only by law, but by public opinion. Someone who wastes twenty-five billions on a giant pyramidal tomb will be a laughingstock. One who spends it to go mountain climbing on Mars will be known as a profoundly great human being – if his expedition happens also to hand us all the key to a whole planet.
10. Is this club only for billionaire? Or might there be room for lots of different folks to participate in some way?
Absolutely! In fact, many participants in the early EON discussion have suggested that we not leave out the little guy! Countless “sub-millionaires” can be offered a sense of involvement, perhaps by offering them memberships in a society that each month publicizes a new wondrous project on the pages of a fascinating magazine. Or by offering members special opportunities for either vicarious or in-person involvement in projects underway.
A good example is SETI At Home, an extraordinarily successful program that lets over a million people participate in the search for extraterrestrial life, by “loaning” the down time on their home computers to the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Project. The combined computational power from all of these volunteered PCs has exceeded the greatest supercomputers. Moreover, each participant may hope — while watching his or her small share to the data get massaged onscreen — that this will be the moment when something spectacular happens. Whatever your opinion of SETI – as a worthwhile endeavor or a waste of time – you have to be impressed with the incredible accomplishment of marshalling all these volunteers, using their resources while giving everyone a terrific amount of fun.
I should add that the expert in this area, Shawn Carlson, head of the Association of Amateur Scientists, has a lot of ideas about how an educated citizenry can be unleashed to help solve 21st Century problems.
11. Is there any last thought you’d like to leave us with about EON?
The new philanthropists are very big on low overheads and easily read success metrics. To make a major impact, to make a global change to that vast network of forces, you need to push in some entirely new and non-counterbalanced direction, or change the structure of a network, or find a first cause that can be changed with small amounts of force.
For one project to make a real impact on the world, where others have tried and failed, you must wield either substantially more money or substantially more intelligence than ever tried before. If someone else has tried it before with more money *and* more intelligence, then there’s no prospect of a big win, no prospect of permanently solving the problem, no prospect of giving the world such a giant smack that it wobbles into a new and better orbit.
There’s a place for together-we-make-a-difference, but there’s also a place for originality, especially in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley was not founded on the communal application of huge amounts of brute force, but on individuals and brilliance and changing the rules.
We must try to harness the same vigor at new levels, now that sufficient capital has been accumulated to let bold ventures be undertaken without risking the nation or economy at large.
Indeed, according to basic theories of capital, that is what accumulated wealth is supposed to be for! It is one of the chief justifications for uneven distribution of wealth? that in the long run we will all be better off and that our grandchildren will compete happily with each other from a new and vastly richer level. If we believe this, then it is our obligation to act on it.
Altruists have always preached that great fortune calls for greater moral responsibility. That may be true, but there’s no law saying that it can’t be fun.