Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Talking Turkey (2 of 4)

by Rob - February 8th, 2009.
Filed under: Interviews, Turkey.

As a lead-up to my trip to Istanbul, I did four quick-and-dirty by-email interviews for Turkish newspapers, wire services, and magazines. The deadlines on these were so tight that I just had to bang out my answers without having a chance to compose my thoughts or edit my responses — so don’t expect me to defend to the death anything I say in them. :)

Here’s the second of those four interviews, this one done for a national news agency in Turkey.

1) According to your point of view, what will be the most important revolution that will change our world in the next decade? What role will science play in this revolution?

The biggest revolution in technology may still come from radical nanotechnology: turning any pile of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms into just about anything we might desire; by the end of this century, that may well be the key to eliminating hunger and material want.

2) The global economic crisis firstly and mostly affected the automotive industry. Besides the financial solutions, would you please tell us other solutions that will help the automotive industry?

Well, first we must consider whether the automobile industry is worth saving. In North America, when I was a kid most families had one car, and some had none. By the 1980s, the middle-class average was two cars — one for each parent. Now, in the 2000s, an affluent family will have three or more: one for each parent, and one for the teenagers (the legal driving age in most North American jurisdictions is 16).

It’s funny that in a world that laments the loss of personal contact — a world that says we’re doing everything online and eschewing the face-to-face — that we feel we need so many cars. Cars cause pollution, traffic congestion, and so on (not to mention traffic fatalities, which in North America are a leading cause of death of young men).

We also don’t tolerate planned obsolescence anymore: cars are expensive, and they should last many years in any climate (such as surviving the harsh winters of my Canada) and decades in milder climates. The notion that making cars would be a growth industry forever was ill-founded, and now that the shaky foundations of that industry have crumbled, it’s a once-in-a-century opportunity to redefine our notions of personal transportation. Instead of a saving an industry predicated on the assumption that every person over 16 should own something that weighs thousands of pounds, costs tens of thousands of dollars, and sits idle most of the time, we should invest governments’ monies in better public transportation.

3) Digital products have become an important part of our lives: Cameras, PDA’s, Navigators. We observe artificial intelligence and house robots in Hollywood movies more often. How do you think our consumption habits will change in the near future?

Convergence is the key: the iPhone is pretty close to being the perfect mode. It’s a phone, an Internet appliance, an e-book reader, a music player, a GPS, a personal digital assistant (calendar, contact manager, etc.), and so on. People don’t want multiple devices; they want one small, flexible device that does everything.

I love Star Trek, but the most unrealistic thing was that the crew of the Enterprise went down to the planets carrying three pieces of equipment: a phaser, a communicator, and a tricorder. Long before the 23rd century, we’ll each be carrying one, and it will do everything.

4) Diseases (AIDS, cancer), terrorism, wars, and most importantly global warming, all have pernicious affects on our lives, and are still unsolved. Do you think that human beings will overcome these issues in the future?

I think we have to, pure and simple. This is the century in which the human race will either go extinct or establish its stability for not just centuries but millennia to come. The diseases will be cured: AIDS, cancer, and others are tractable scientific problems. We lament the slow progress, but, on the other hand, we’ve only known the structure of DNA for fifty years now, and we’ve only had a map of the human genome for ten. And, also we finally have computers complex enough to deal with things like protein folding and so forth. In other words, we finally have the tools, after 40,000 years of civilization, to do real medicine; we just got them, but the progress will be rapid — I’ll be astonished if, by the 100th anniversary of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA that any diseases continue to be a serious threat to humanity.

Global warming: well, I’m answering this question on Tuesday, January 20, the day in which the world’s biggest global-warming denier, George W. Bush, is replaced by an intellectual, a university professor; the tide will hopefully start to turn immediately. Yes, the US is only one part of it (we have to turf out our own irresponsible government in Canada, too — and it will almost certainly fall in the next few months to a non-confidence motion), but it’s like anything: the old guard has vested interests; you can’t change them, so you have to replace them. We’re very close to the tipping point on climate change; we have to act now, and I do think we are going to do precisely that.

Terrorism is the wildcard. Nothing we’ve done has been effective at dealing with it; the ridiculous measures taken at airports, for instance, are mere theater — they don’t actually make us substantially safer. Terrorism must end before the terrorists get nuclear weapons and biological weapons. The cure, in my view, is straightforward, but hard to implement. Much terrorism is caused by the disparity between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots; when you are flagrant in your consumption, when you don’t care if your neighbor is starving, you invite resentment. It is in everyone’s interest to eliminate poverty domestically and abroad; give each person a high quality of life and things worth living for. In other words, instead of spending the rest of eternity trying to thwart terrorist plots, foster conditions now that ultimately will become self-sustaining in which those plots will never be fomented in the first place.

5) In these global-economic-crisis days, should companies resign from their social responsibilities?

The answer is no. If I may be so bold, it was the abandoning of social responsibilities — the unwritten social contract — that led to the current crisis. Instead of asking, “What impact will this have on other people?” companies pursued profit at all cost. To say now that it’s too expensive to be responsible citizens is misleading; if the corporations and banks had been responsible citizens in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

Google is, in many ways, a model for a modern company: it has a corporate slogan that is simple: “Don’t be evil.” The company doesn’t always live up to that, but that it even tries to is significant: that a gigantic corporation run by some of the richest people in the world has taken to heart what, for instance, medicine has known for thousands of years, is wonderful. The Hippocratic oath Western doctors swear says “Do no harm” — it’s very similar. Now is precisely the wrong time to be abandoning principles and ethics; we’re regrowing industries, and corrupt seeds cannot bring forth good fruit.

6) In business life, this global economic crisis is considered the end of the old world and the starting of a new era. In your point of view, what kind of new era is awaiting the business world?

The global economic crisis has underscored several things: transparency is important, regulation is important, and accountability is important. As we rebuild, again, we have an opportunity to restructure the economic system; we can demand accountability, and we can institute controls. What’s astonishing is how little has been learned from past economic collapses: regulation works, transparency works, accountability works; the principles are simple — we just have to make sure they don’t fall by the wayside.

7) Our Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mentioned about transforming economic crises into opportunities. Do you also think that developing countries like Turkey will create opportunities in this global economic crisis?

Absolutely! I spent some time in China in 2007, and the one thing that struck me was how happy most of the people I saw were. And the answer to why was simple: the current year was better for them than the year before, and that previous year had been better than the one that had preceded it. Over very short time frames, they were seeing their prosperity increase, they were seeing their lives shift from drudgery to meaningful work.

Ask a Westerner if his or her life is better today than it was five years ago or ten years ago and the answer might very well be no; in developing countries the arrow is pointing upward. Note, though, that the opportunities for developing countries exist in good times and in bad; things would be looking up even without the economic crisis. And note, too, that developing countries have something the First World did not: the ability to learn from the mistakes of others who have gone through the same things in the past.

Don’t try to become Western Europe, or Canada, or the United States; try instead to avoid the mistakes we made — and they differ from country to country — and craft a wise solution. The American century is over; this one is still up for grabs.

8) According to the latest unemployment numbers; millions of educated youth struggle with unemployment. However, upcoming generations always lead the future with their dreams. Do you have any recommendations to the unlucky generation of this crisis period?

I graduated from university during an economic downturn myself, in 1982. My degree happens to be in broadcasting, and the year I graduated the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had, for the first time in its history, major layoffs: my classmates and I were competing with people who had ten, twenty, or even thirty years’ experience for any job at all. What happened? We created our own jobs; I went off and became a writer — and that’s why I’m coming to Istanbul in February, that’s why you’re asking me questions now. Education is never wasted; the particular subject doesn’t matter — what university does is train you to think. So, think! You are young, and you have time.

It’s not going to be easy — I went several years making very little money myself — but it actually can be liberating. In Japan, they have the concept of the salaryman — a person who gets plugged into a boring, uninteresting office-worker life; he makes a modest living, but will never rise far. Well, those safe, easy solutions — just plug me into that slot — are gone; a more interesting, more stimulating life may be possible. Now, more than ever, if I may quote the slogan of the seminar I’m speaking at, it’s time to escape the labyrinth.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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