Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Talking Turkey (4 of 4)

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 fourth of those four interviews.

1. What went wrong with yesterday's science-fictional predictions for the 21st century?

Science fiction failed in several ways in its predictions for the 21st century. It predicted a secular 21st century, and we have anything but that. It predicted rampant consumerism and a throwaway society (disposable clothes and so on), without considering the environmental impact. It predicted that price would be no object -- we would build cities on the moon, and so forth, simply because we could, without thinking about the economics of that (simply put, science-fiction writers thought everyone would think it was plainly obvious that we should go into space, when, in fact, to most people the case for that has not been made). And it predicted that international competition, instead of international cooperation, would by the driving force behind the economy. Most science-fiction writers saw the US-Soviet Cold War continuing well into this century, and few, if any, saw the emergence of anything like he European Union. Ultimately, humanity is a cooperative animal, but that fundamental truth was missed in most SF.

2. Does today's economic meltdown promise an upcoming green world?

It doesn't promise it, but it suggests that it's possible. With old systems collapsing, we have an opportunity to redefine how we do business. Certainly, we need to reduce our carbon emissions, and President Obama, for instance, has already called for new legislation in the United States to require cleaner automobiles -- he's doing the right thing in recognizing that right now, while we're rebuilding industries, is the time to set new environmentally friendly ground rules.

3. What will determine which managers and government figures will thrive in the future?

The equation is backwards: the lesson to be learned from the current economic crisis is that government leaders who only care whether they themselves thrive are doomed, and corporate managers who only care whether they themselves thrive are doomed. Managers and government figures are custodians of trust: if you are seen as being in it only for yourself, you will quite likely have a spectacular fall; if you are seen as being in it for the good of the company you work for -- its customers, its employees, and its shareholders, all three not just the last -- -- your company will succeed, and you will succeed along with it. Same thing for a nation: Bush-Cheney clearly served only a narrow, rich portion of the US; Obama-Biden has embarked on the path of serving everyone -- if they really mean that, and really do that, they will ultimately thrive in ways that their predecessors could only dream of.

4. Would you name any probable 'ultimate survivors' -- either corporate bodies or countries -- of the post-crisis era?

Google has a corporate slogan: "Don't be evil." That's the motto all corporations should adopt for the 21st century. The days when you can say one thing to your customers and another to your shareholders are past. Google hasn't always lived up to its slogan, but just consider the worldwide adoration that Google enjoys and the worldwide animosity toward Microsoft: both are in fact quite aggressive -- even rapacious -- companies, but one is seen as being responsive, at least to some degree, to public concerns, while the other is seen -- as the continuing EU sanctions against it attest -- as thinking of itself as above the law. We've seen in the US of late what happens in unfettered free markets; there is a role for government regulation and oversight; those nations that recognize that role will ultimately succeed, those who allow greed to be the prime motivation will fail. But even without oversight, the public image that Google and companies like it put forward -- we're in this to be the best -- will triumph over those companies perceived as only being in it to become the richest.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Talking Turkey (3 of 4)

The Office of the Future

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 third of those four interviews.

1. What will the future offices look like?

The major question is whether there will be offices in the future. Telecommuting -- with perfect virtual reality -- may make it unnecessary for people to physically gather together in a single place. If they do, though, I think we'll see an end of cubicles. People complain that workers are less productive today than they were decades ago, and blame that on distraction from the multitude of input sources on their desktops -- but the real distraction comes from the background hubbub of the workplace, and the inability for most workers to close doors and shut all that out so they can concentrate. The cubicle for office workers will go down as one of the great business blunders of the 20th century; we're blaming technology -- the leveraging power of which has given us the ability to get more done -- for reductions in productivity when the real culprit is office-space design.

2. What do you think the use of Internet in our lives and in the offices will be like in the future?

It will be totally immersive; everything will be connected to the Internet -- not just things we traditionally think of as computers, or even communication devices, but all devices; they will monitor their own health and their needs for supplies, and order in repair people or supplies over the net of their own volition. Access to the Internet won't be confined to just when you're looking at a screen in a corner of your office: it will be everywhere, constant, and very high bandwidth; we will work inside a sea of information and instantaneous computing.

3. What do you think about the way of doing business in the future?

All the virtues of the Internet will be applied to business. Businesses must be transparent: potential customers, current customers, employees, and government regulators need to be able to see what exactly is being done. Gone will be the days of doing things without public knowledge or scrutiny. And, of course, business will be global. The notion of Turkish business or Canadian business or Japanese business will all seem equally quaint: the World Wide Web is just that, a net that envelopes all of us, and allows us -- again, in good online fashion -- to collaborate no matter where we might be.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Talking Turkey (2 of 4)

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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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Talking Turkey (1 of 4)

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. :)

The first one, below, was for the monthly Turkish magazine Digital Age, described as "a digital business and culture magazine." Here's what I had to say:

1. Is technology really a time-saver for us or just making our lives more complicated and busy?

Absolutely it's a time saver. Remember when you had to retype a whole page of text because you'd made an error? That's a trivial example, but it's also true. The reason we are busier now is that we can do more things: computers have given each of us the ability to become publishers, filmmakers, and so on, and we choose to do those things.

A book that's very popular in North America right now is Outliers, by my fellow Canadian Malcolm Gladwell. It points out that the thing people innately value most is the opportunity to do meaningful work: important work, work that makes a difference, work that they can take pride in. Far fewer of us work in boring, assembly-line, repetitive manual-labor jobs now than did 50 years ago. We have technology to thank for that. Yes, we're busier -- but we're happier, too.

2. Technology brings less human relationships, I mean humankind is just becoming more selfish (individual) by technology. What will human relationships be in the near future, if technology keeps on improving?

I totally disagree with your first sentence. In fact, technology brings us closer together. In North America, where I'm from, the phone company used to have a slogan for long-distance calling: "Reach out and touch someone." That is, technology made it possible to be in touch with people who didn't happen to live near you.

The most popular technologies are all about communication -- about interacting with other human beings: cell phones, email, text messages, social networking, online communities, Second Life, and so on.

As for what changes we'll see in the future, it'll be more human contact, not less: all that's holding us back now is bandwidth limitations. Soon, we'll be able to see each other in high resolution anywhere in the world; eventually, we'll see each other in three dimensions worldwide.

Technology brings us together no matter where we live: you don't have to be isolated if you live alone, you don't have to feel cut off from the rest of the world. It's called the World Wide Web for a reason: it covers the entire planet, and it ties us all together in wonderful ways.

3. Does technology has a philosophy? How do you define the philosophy of technology?

The scientific name for Humanity is Homo sapiens, which means "Man of wisdom." Historically, we've done a poor job of demonstrating that we deserve the name. I'd rather we were called Homo faber, which means "Man who makes things." Technology allows us to permanently change things, and to do things that will have effects after we ourselves are gone. No other animal can do that, and we can only do it because of our tools. So, the philosophy of technology is this: technology empowers, technology amplifies our abilities, technology gives us the ability to improve the human condition, and technology allows us to create things that will outlast our own lives.

4. What's your all time favorite future prediction (either yours or someone else's)?

Well, in my field of science-fiction writing, there was a popular movement, starting in the early 1980s, called "cyberpunk." It suggested that the future would be controlled by the tiny underground of streetwise youths who really understood computers.

I love that prediction because it was hopelessly wrong: it was lousy extrapolation. It assumed that since only an elite worked with computers in 1980, that it would always be that way. The death of cyberpunk surely came when Time magazine named "You" -- you, me, average people -- its person of the year in 2006 in honor of the way all of us, from toddlers to the most elderly, had embraced the use of computing technology to give themselves and each other joy.

5. What will humankind be in the next 50 years?

We will live longer, possibly much longer -- with projected lifespans of centuries instead of decades.

We will be more healthy: we are starting to recognize just how much human disease is infectious and caused by bacteria and viruses (the breakthrough that ulcers are caused by bacteria rather than stress was just the beginning; new evidence suggests that Alzheimer's may be caused by viruses -- and so may many cancers); we will cure those diseases.

Some may choose to make modifications to themselves (so they can breathe underwater, for instance).

And, most of all, we will be at peace -- because the alternatives are either peace or annihilation, and I believe humanity is wise enough to choose the former. We're not Homo sapiens yet -- but we better become him in the next fifty years!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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