Thursday, April 28, 2005

A guest Commentator on the Modernist Rift

While still swamped, I want to share with you some thoughts by an eminent philosopher/poet and theoretician about philanthropy, Frederick Turner. (We are both on a philanthropy round-table exploring new ideas in that important realm.)

The following excerpts touch upon matters that we have been discussing, having to do with anti-modernism and its roots in the 18th Century, when romantics and Platonist philosophers chose to wage ideological war against science and the Enlightenment.


I believe that the rift between the sciences and the humanities is profoundly dangerous both intellectually and culturally, leading to deep errors of understanding and unwitting crimes. Certainly at the time it seemed the only defense against what looked like a brutal pragmatism in personal relationships and a ruthless historicism in international realpolitik, where the victors in both cases would write history. But the apparent cure--the cordon sanitaire between science and the humanities--had side effects perhaps worse still. Let us look briefly at the history of those key humanistic ideas: freedom in moral action and originality in art.

To be free one must have free will. Will became the core concept of nineteenth century moral philosophy. It was will or intentionality that set us apart from brute nature. But what was the direction of will? It could only be the extension of its own field of action, since any focussing down on a specific object in the world would enslave it to the deterministic motivations of physicality. "Extension of the field of action" is nicely glossed by the word "power": so "Will" now became "the Will to Power". Thus power eventually became the key idea of the Humanities, as it remains today in its Foucauldian, Feminist, Postcolonialist, Lacanian, and Neomarxist versions. Strangely, our original enterprise, which was to delineate an alternative humanistic world to the deterministic realm of physical forces, has logically morphed itself into the very enemy it was designed to escape.

Power, whether expressed in oppressive violence by a reactionary elite, revolutionary acts by the disenfranchised, or legal sanctions by an enlightened ruling group, is the same thing as physical force: politically it means that you can send men with guns to make people do what you want. If beauty has been culturally relativized out of existence (which is indeed the result of avant-garde theory) and if logical reasoning is, as part of the regnant regime of power and knowledge, no more than the linguistic property of the oppressor, the only way to persuade people is through force.

...Thus the humanities, when cut off from nature, ended up not only looking exactly like the brutal world they hoped to transcend, but also trapped in the gradual entropic heat-death of the physical universe. And history confirmed this gloomy picture: the best-intentioned will- and power-based state in the world, the Soviet Union, turned into a nightmare of coercion and finally after seventy years blew away as if by some inexorable physical law of decay. As Lysenko found out, nature had its revenge on will.

...But during the same period natural science has, paradoxically, undergone a profound revolution. The theory of evolution proved how astonishingly original nature could be. Chaos and complexity theory showed that no Laplace calculator could keep pace with the world's own unpredictable self-organization. The feedback inherent in all dynamical systems rendered the idea of power largely obsolete in complex ecological systems, where the top-down balancing influence of the whole system could dominate local chains of deterministic cause. The predator's power over its prey is part of a system in which the prey species also determines the numbers of the predators and relies on predation to keep its own gene pool healthy. The rigid reductive xenophobia of our immune systems serves a larger organism that is free to explore all kinds of different worlds. The selfish gene becomes the microstructure of the altruism of a social species, and is in turn selected for or against by the resulting adaptability of the species as a whole and the emergent features of the ecosystem it inhabits...

...Ironically, then, the sciences and the humanities have changed places. The humanities now profess a scientifically obsolete view of events, a power-based account of the world which is as incompatible with the values of human culture as Kant rightly declared the Newtonian universe to be. This is where the "logic of the humanities," in Cassirer's phrase, has got us. Meanwhile the sciences, with their rigorous research methods, and beginning with presuppositions just as linear and deterministic as they were accused by the humanities of being, have paradoxically disclosed to us a universe full of freedom and creativity, fertile ground for art and moral action.

For the humanities this reversal is tragic, however understandable the route by which it was reached. If there is a moral it is that we should not have lost faith so soon in the power of human reason and experiment when corrigible by free criticism...

...But it is too late now to be drawing morals, and who are we to judge the grand humanistic savants of the nineteenth century? The task now before us is to rescue what we can from over a century of largely misguided theory--and thus partly tainted research--in the humanities, and put the field on a sound footing; so that we can bequeath to the future public an institution in better shape than we found it. The sciences, technology and the market now more than ever need guidance from the arts and humanities, which are the custodians of our best human traditions of truth, beauty and goodness. If those activities are exempted from the purview of the humanities, they are being given a licence to be ugly and unethical; science to allow its necessary reductive method to infect its conclusions, technology to be socially and ecologically destructive, and the market to choose short-term exploitation and cheating rather than the more profitable but more demanding path of long-term mutual interest.


Fascinating! I'll see if he plans to publish the entire article somewhere.

Indeed, the notion of a distinct split between science and the humanities has long been fostered by those who implicitly assume that later generations will continue to be unable to cross the gap. CP Snow famously addressed this cultural divide, which he saw as unbridgeable.

Many in the humanities clutch this dichotomy to their breasts, frantically. They adore the notion of "eternal human verities" in order to preserve a notion of equality with scientists, who have achieved truly staggering things in the last two hundred years. (In contrast, what are the transforming discoveries in psychology or ethics or literature, that have made us truly different than we were, say, in the days of William James.)

This is of course sad, and a little pathetic. The phrase "eternal verities" must be one of the most loathsome and despicable notions ever perpetrated on ten thousand college campuses, pushing the view that children can never learn from the mistakes of their parents.

Of course, this contradicts the central aim of most literature! Do we not write moving works of prose in order to enlighten others, so they will empathize and thus learn from episodes of pain and error that they never personally experienced? This is the goal of great literature, and yet, the mavens of literary criticism hold that this goal can never be achieved on a grand scale. Genrations who read great tales of tragic error will never be edified enough to STOP making similar errors themselves.

Fortunately, the simplistic rigidity pushed by Kant and others has been decisively disproved. The sciences and the arts are perfectly capable of fruitful intercourse. While we weren't looking, the "gap" has been quietly vanishing - crossed eagerly by technically-trained artists and artistically inclined scientists.

Try this exercise. Go to a place like Caltech and poll both students and faculty. See what fraction of the population not only participate in some artistic pastime, but excel at it! I will wager the figure is more than 90%. And yet, this is never reported, so precious is the comforting image of hapless nerds who have surrendered much of their humanity in order to succeed at the dry realm of facts. Or poll former Caltech graduates to survey the relative success of their careers, income or marriages. Or even happiness and overall serenity. I'll wager they score highly (on average!) in every category.

There is no tradeoff. No hidden moral cost to science. Science CAN be dangerous, because it increases human power to do good or harm. But it is also the generator of such notions as emergent properties, and the positive sum game. The belief that things can get better. Especially if science does NOT become the amoral pack of nerds that so many romantics feel driven to portray it.

--See the next entry on Modernism--

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Modernism and "Sanity"

NoOne said: "Ask yourself if science has explained consciousness. Do we have an objective theory of subjectivity? No, we don't. And yet, we turn a blind eye to this huge gaping hole in our worldview. Or we try and cover the hole with bandaid by using terms such as epiphenomenalism, complexity theory etc. And then we (the ones connected to science) wonder why there's so much hostility toward us."

This is a huge topic.

The brief response. I see scientists as the LEAST-hated priesthood in human history. (You have no idea what common men/women thought of their priests, most of the time, but evidence suggests that average folk have always despised the moralistic bullying and patronizing insistence on secret knowledge. Scientists actively and enthusiastically try to share their "secrets" on PBS. Still, that makes them "least-hated"... not "best liked.")

The longer (though still brief) answer? Here is a short piece on sanity that I recently sent to the organizers of a conference that I'll be attending in June, concerning future threats such as advanced WMD.

"100 years ago we were told by confident and educated men that humanity was finally entering the era of understanding the human mind. Marx, Skinner & Freud were only a few of those offering simplistic, mechanistic models of human nature. These models not only proposed to explain and predict pathways chosen by societies and individuals, but offered means to channel those choices in desired ways. e.g. toward economic justice, rational order, or 'sanity'.

Humanity has since gone through a hellish process of discovering just how complex we really are. None of the models worked! And yet, old habits die hard. We are still coaxed to accept simple explanations from a narrow list of options, most of them occupying snug niches along a hoary-ridiculous left right political axis.

The good news is that all of those oversimplistic models also proved unworkable as methods of mass social control. As Aldous Huxley pointed out in Brave New World, our nature as inconveniently diverse, complicated and variable beings should mean there will always be some way to evade ultimate and systematic tyranny, even when it is empowered by advanced tools of science.

As we descended from the naive hopes of 1905 into the 20th Century's nadir of despair, it was practical men and women who found tortuous pathways leading upward, toward a decent society. Scientists - while still occasionally tempted by grand reductionism - have generally accepted the fantastic complexity of human nature and concentrated instead on the hard work of filling in the foundations of understanding, one brick or fact at a time.

Along the way, over-arching terms like "sanity" fell into deserved disrepute, because of their former role in helping elites to repress diversity, criticism and dissent.

And yet, the premise of this conference will be fundamentally faulty if the aim is somehow to anticipate and neutralize every kind of innovative WMD or other destructive failure modes FOR ALL TIME. This is not a game that can be won indefinitely by a dedicated professional protective class. The curve of accelerating accessibility to technological tools will increasingly favor what Thomas Friedman called the "super-empowerment of the angry young man."

If the world continues to be FULL of angry young men, there is no way that efforts at anticipatory prevention can succeed over the long run. Endeavors aimed at perceiving and neutralizing potential WMD in the near term can only be effective if they are aimed at buying time, so that a more long term solution can come into play. The solution of addressing the supply of likely users of WMD.

Careful appraisal suggests that there are only two possible classes of long term solution that have any hope of success -- (1) panopticon surveillance of everybody and severe social control, limiting individual volition and access to tools, or (2) a rapid and profound increase in the general level of human sanity, empowering autonomous citizens to solve problems rapidly and independent of supervision from above.

You almost never hear the latter approach discussed. (Perhaps because such an eventuality would undermine the position and privileges of the professional protective class.) Some will deny that human nature allows for possibility #2 at all. And yet, if you step back, is any other solution even remotely plausible, over a lengthy span of years?

Is it time, after a century of decline, to bring "sanity" back to the discussion table?

Yes, the word went into exile for some very good reasons. It was used by social elites in many cultures as a bludgeon to enforce conformity. Conformity of behavior, values and emotion. Dissidents against entrenched authority have all-too often been diagnosed as mentally ill. Harmless eccentricity was treated as dangerous deviancy.

But here is the ultimate irony. We have busily built a society whose modern standards and prevalent propaganda themes promote the very opposite of stodgy conformity! I have elsewhere relentlessly pointed out that the principal moral messages in modern film, music and art are (1) suspicion of authority, (2) tolerance of diversity, and (3) romantic appreciation of individual eccentricity.

Yes, there have recently arisen social forces deeply inimical to these teachings. But such forces face a long uphill struggle in any culture war against the three messages that fill almost every movie and song.

And so we face the irony that THIS culture's core values are rapidly coalescing around diversity, eccentricity and independence as central desiderata. So, might such a culture come up with a new and appropriate definition of sanity that is consistent with such values? A definition that does NOT preach conformity but rather relishes independence and flexibility of thought? One that cherishes diversity, yet nevertheless gently encourages palliative and caring attention to focus on people who need urgent help by the standards of a laid-back and tolerant civilization?

People wracked with anguish, for example. Or rage. Or the drug-high of relentless and unreasoning indignation. Inability to plan effective measures to achieve genuine self-interest. Inability to either cooperating with others or compete with them fairly? Might it be "mentally ill" to oppress and limit the options of others? (And that might include those who are too quick to accuse others of being mentally ill!)

Any of us would likely agree that those traits are sick in ways that truly merit attention. Attention that might increase society's overall safety without quashing creativity, eccentricity or freedom to disagree.

I contend that our long term safety from the proliferation of WMD will depend upon building a civilization in which very few of society's free and mature citizens will want to use them. In a culture that does not oppress, "insanity" will essentially boil down to the very same motivations and drives that we have the most reason to fear. Drives that will propel "angry young (or old) men (or women)" to use weapons of mass destruction against their neighbors during the coming century.

What long term solution can possibly work, other than SOME version of "sanity" becoming the norm during the next few decades?

Defining that word will certainly be a matter of extensive debate. But ultimately, it must be brought back from exile andincluded in the discussion, because all other measures are mere palliatives, buying time."

All right, it was more of a paper than a brief note. I'll be presenting it several places this summer. One can hope.

Comments welcome.

==See the next entry on Modernism ==

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Modernism thought in gestation

Still too swamped for detailed posting on the topic at hand. Sorry. I am trying to write a review of Robert O'Harrow's new book for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist... for the pay of a mug and a T Shirt. Heh.

I did find one older item that I'll share this week, that is relevant to both recent topics... modernism and bad sci fi. It doesn't use the word "modernism" yet. WARNING: this will seem a bit repetitious so those of you who are impatient with that sort of thing should give this one a pass. But it shows how my ideas were evolving a couple of years ago.

The 18th vs 19th Centuries...

It’s been said that western civilization has spent the last hundred years trying to resolve a deep cleavage in our culture -- a continuing struggle between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries... between prescriptions offered by the Enlightenment and those of the later Romantic Movement.

For generations, a vast majority of writers, artists and academics have sided with romanticism. From Keats and Shelley to nearly all modern musicians or movie stars. Seizing every opportunity to extol emotion and put down “cold” reason has become as natural as breathing. George Lucas expressed this reflex. “I’d say the primary word for me is romantic. I like the esthetics of the Victorian age.”

With nearly all of society’s most expressive and persuasive voices raised on the romantic side of this old struggle, it is a wonder that notions of cooperative progress and confident pragmatism survive at all. Even science fiction has grown much more cynical. Noir cyberpunk images push aside much of the can-do spirit seen in earlier times. Speculation about alien life is replaced by introspection about alienation.

Scholar and author Judith Berman, in a much-discussed 2001 study, showed how this trend has penetrated the very center of Science Fiction. Focusing on the flagship Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, once a daring journal devoted to ideas. Her landmark analysis revealed that a profound change had occurred. Almost none of the stories published during a year-long period had anything to do with exploring interesting futures. Even plausible “dark warnings” were avoided in favor of pieces about nostalgia, alternate pasts or presents, or featured characters who wallowed in loathing toward technology or progress.

And, mind you, this is in science fiction. Clearly the campaign against the future must have progressed even farther, elsewhere.

There is nothing new in this, of course. Cynicism has many advantages over enthusiasm. (And make no mistake. Romanticism is not the polar opposite of cynicism. Romanticism and cynicism are deeply connected, even Janus twin faces of the same personality. Every generation of romantics, since Shelley, has believed that they invented the studded-black-leather look. The howl of rage. A poetical worship of despair. It is an easy crutch, especially for people with more verbal talent than useful skill. We can all recall from the schoolyard how easily a sneer overcomes and defeats any gushing expression of enthusiasm.

What is so amazing is how they even manage, while doing this, to portray themselves as the underdogs!

In how many popular films does a skillful nerd prevail over the romantic loner? Values like competence and egalitarian advancement are seldom defended in media...

...and yet they remain popular at a deep level -- perhaps out of gratitude for the real life-improvements wrought by people like Franklin, Edison or Salk... and in part because citizens sense the underlying themes of inequality and egotism that drive so much of the Romantic Movement.

Individualism is fine. Both enlightenment and romanticism prescribe it. This link goes back to when they were allies against feudalism and monolithic religion. This is why our great modern propaganda campaign -- Suspicion of Authority -- accompanied by memes of tolerance of difference and acceptance of eccentricity, appears to be a consensus product of BOTH enlightenment and romantic impulses.

But many of us realize a stark truth -- that not everyone can be a king or rock star or handsome loner. The rest of us need fairness more than we need egomania. We rely daily on the amiable skill of countless strangers, rich in craft and diversity, who are fellow citizens of a civilization. They are more important to us than any Leader... or any Rebel.

This contrast is distilled when George Lucas says: “...there's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled.”

Lucas has a point. I concede the great attraction of the image that his Star Wars universe offers, while opposing it with all my power. (Especially the most evil elf ever depicted, that nasty, uncooperative, smarmy, patronizing, sourpuss, unhelpful, oppressively-secretive and cynically manipulative oven mitt... Yoda.)

Indeed, the Twentieth Century has been a battleground between these two occidental visions of human life. Two great utopian idealisms that continue to wrestle over the heart of the West. Marxism and Naziism were both deeply romantic. So was the Southern Confederacy. So are the leftist postmodernists and the right wing neoconservatives. Most ideologies are, because ideology is a phenomenon fundamentally based on a romantic need to encompass all of humanity within a single, simple and compelling worldview, replete with perfect heroes and perfectly detestable villains. Given the incredible harm that’s been done in the name of dogmas, monarchs and ideologues, their absence from a progressive 21st Century will be no great loss.

With so many enemies, coming from so many directions, should we marvel that the Enlightenment achieved anything at all? That fact, alone, attests to the incredible power of science.

(The landscape can get more complicated if you step back. Intellectuals of the Confucian East and Pious South despise both Romanticism and Enlightenment as expressions of crazy euro-american-individualist egoism. Moreover there are splits within, as well. The French wing of ‘enlightenment’ - rooted in Platonism - is fundamentally different than the Scots-American wing with its fixation on pragmatism. But these complications can await another time.)

Out of this welter and confusion, I don’t know which zeitgeist will prevail. Perhaps even a synthesis?

Pragmatism would be comfortable with that notion.

Here is another way of posing the issue. A great science fiction author once said -- “Keep asking questions! The more irksome the better!”

Now who do you think would be more comfortable with that notion? Percy Shelley or Ben Franklin? Star Wars or Star Trek? A world filled with black-and-white certainties? Or one where openminded people devote their passion to finding out what works?


Okay... fire away. I hope to get back to the main serialized train of thought soon.

--See the next part: The Propaganda of Enlightenment--

Or return to Part 1 of this series...

Friday, April 15, 2005

Star Wars redux?

First off, let me admit that "Anonymous" is right at one level. My recent screed about Star Wars is largely repetitious of earlier remarks. I was going on vacation and thought I'd quickly offer a gift - or grenade - in parting. OTOH, this is a blog, not a formal publication. It is *exactly* where a guy may rant a little at something that's happening to his culture. Even reiterating a bit.

And how can you compare MY repetition with George Lucas's? A couple of billion dollars and man-years pushing one of the most downer and anti-modernist messages of all time - with 4 out of 6 films preaching downer endings - and I am the "crank" for pointing it out?

Mark's message about the parasitical emotion-hungry, logic-destroying midichlorians was pure delight. Like me, you hunger for sense, even trying to find some way to rationalize the absurd. Anyway, you can all see where the genetic "chosen one" thing fits perfectly into the romantic obsession. The Homeric demigod may be flawed and tragic, but no one is ever allowed to question his utter superiority by nature.

Sorry, Ambi. In The Empire Strikes Back, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasden took Lucas's BASIC idea and put words in Yoda's mouth that at least made a little sense. A knight who possesses unusual power is obliged to exercise unusual care. Anger CAN cause bad decisions - eg slaughtering all the Sand People when only a few killed your mom.

(A mom Anekin ignored for 15 years, leaving her a slave on Tatooine, when he had only to call in a favor from rich friends like Amidalah, in order to buy her freedom.)

But brief rage and bad decisions are completely different than becoming a consistently evil person. The Emperor's rant in ROTJ shows clearly what GL meant. That the Force makes you physically and psychically powerful, but morally frail. Captain Antilles showed more moral fiber in the very 1st scene than Anekin shows in the entire series. He relentlessly and CALMLY pursues the agenda of evil. (Which GL intended in the beginning by giving him that nazi helmet and name.)

I never said Yoda wanted to be a king per se... but a platonic "Philosopher King" is a phrase meaning a leader who is born into the role by nature, who faces little accountability, who is permitted to lie or manipulate (for the common good) and so on. Plato's list of traits (half of them horrific by modernist standards) fit Yoda perfectly. (You never met my real dare... to name a scene in which Y is friendly, helpful and informative.)

Note that I do not apply this to ALL Jedi! QuiJon clearly saw that something was wrong. Obiwan tries hard (tho he's a dope.) I got no probs with Luke - sweet & egalitarian... if also a dope. Mace Windoo fascinates me since in Ep2 he does the thing that Jedi are trained to do! He acts as a secret agent, infiltrates, and uses minimum force to get the job done. Had Yoda sent even one Jedi to help Mace, the whole thing would have been solved. But instead, Yoda wastes nearly all of the Jedi, hurling them into a suicidal frontal assault of insane proportions. The parsimonious explanation is that he wanted them out of the way the very moment he took delivery of his clone army.

Ambi said: Changing topics: David Brin, would it cost you much more than now to start a forum on your site? A blog is personal and passionate, but also tends to be highly partisan and one-sided. And you're not immune to it.

There is already a forum at:

I understand your complaint and sympathize. I started this blog at popular request knowing full well that I'd have trouble staying fair or paying enough attention to honor the bright people who check in. As you can see at I am simply too busy for words and desperately need a dittoing machine. (As in Kiln People!)

Anyone who finds Brin-L unsuitable is welcome to explain why or suggest another forum. Again, my apologies and thanks for holding me accountable. CITOKATE.

Anders: I think my universe is better, of course. But that's not the point. My Uplift Universe is NOT the way I hope the cosmos really is. It takes a premise and tries to explore outcomes. Humanity's enlightenment civilization faces great difficulties vs a vast and overpowering Galactic culture that has many traits of romanticism for good reasons. I never thought of that before.

Yngve asks does success spoil EVERYBODY? There are times when I wish I had Spielberg's ear, to quibble a bit, but honestly, I feel he is a brilliant gift to our civilization and probably does not need my advice. (Weird - he is pals with Lucas while preaching the opposite message. Spielberg is deeply loyal to the Enlightenment.)

Same with Zemeckis. The Coen Brothers are the bravest guys around, having the most fun. Cameron - while flawed - deserves society's ongoing subsidy. The Stargate Boys need to be grabbed by the earlobe and told a thing or two... but really, they write well and know their stuff and defend enlightenment values. Glad they exist.

Sadly, the latest round of Paramount Trek-leaders absolutely ruined the franchise. They bought me dinner 3 times, picked my mind, took a few ideas (without paying)... but I would have been thrilled if they had taken my MACRO advice about story arcs and saved the series. Now that's just sad.

Eye candy? Sure. George Lucas hires the best that our civilization has patronized/subsidized - engendering artistic talent at a level that none other can begin to match. These are our cathedrals, so go enjoy their beauty. I plan to do so (though at matinee rates!)

Enjoy the cathedrals. Just don't worship the gods that Lucas plants on the altar. They are gods that hate us and our new way of working in the world.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Misc matters: Beaming Spam at the Stars

I am sorry to have been absent for some time. Been on a family vacation (with three kids!) to Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Talk about the most natural... and unnatural... wonders! I highly recommend Blue Man Group, by the way, and the Penn & Teller show (Penn is a true modernist. Any other society would have burned him alive (my biggest compliment). He'd make a large fire.

Another truly classic modernist is Stewart Brand, one of Ken Kesey's old Pranksters and a Jerry Brown guru, Brand is one of the truly eclectic thinkers of our time. See his latest on "Environmental Heresies"  wherein he suggests that nuclear power and several other notions badly need re-examining by those who genuinely want to solve problems on this planet.

Also for Cory Doctorow's inimitable insights into the phenomenon we have been discussing, drop by: A very colorful perspective on both the "singularity" and how even techno types can dive into romantic transcendentalism. Doctorow's blog  is also worth following. He and I share a stage Tuesday night at the Sci Fi Museum in Seattle.


Okay.... before going back to my episodic paper on Modernism and its enemies, I gotta catch up some bits of miscellany. Things just keep getting weirder. For example, look at a recent phenomenon that absolutely typifies the romanticization of serious modern issues:

Quoting one of the news reports - "Earth’s popular Internet classifieds site became the first commercial company to transmit into outer space this month. Extra-terrestrial civilizations now have the opportunity to search for apartments in Rome, look for a date in Seoul, or buy a used laptop in Denver amongst a huge variety of craigslist classifieds that anyone with internet access can view or post for free. Craigslist’s space transmissions are a reminder that “space efforts are a big deal to everyone living on Earth,” said Craig Newmark founder of

"Humor may have been the driver behind the nearly 139,000 craigslist
users who chose to beam their ads during the site’s first space transmission on March 11. When asked why they decided to post to outer
space several users felt like they had nothing to lose. “Most of our employees appear to be from outer space anyway,” said a human resources representative who posted a job ad for a Washington
D.C. coffee shop."

"While craigslist’s space transmissions seems to have a ‘why not, it’s fun’ rationale, there are questions about whether craigslist’s ads are appropriate messages to send to extra-terrestrial civilizations. Dr. H. Paul Shuch, executive director of the SETI League urges craigslist to join international discussion on protocols for CETI or communication with extra-terrestrial intelligence."

I mean, dang. There are so many levels. But as this is informal, let me just share with you a letter that I sent to these people.

Without ever getting a response.


Hello. My name is David Brin. I am an astronomer who is better known as an author of books such as The Postman (filmed by Kevin Costner in 1998) and The Transparent Society.

I am also a member of the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics (, the advisory body that has been charged with working out protocols and conventions having to do with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. This subcommittee has drafted and circulated the main internationally accepted documents concerning recommended standards for researchers and others who might receive or initiate contact by radio or other means with extrasolar civilizations.

I am writing to inform you that this subcommittee exists. A Protocol exists. And since you have announced an intention to beam messages from Earth into interstellar space, you may wish to familiarize yourself with these matters. What you propose to do comes under the category of "active SETI" and it has implications of which you may not be aware.

A number of members of the subcommittee have called for a moratorium when it comes to deliberate beaming of messages from Earth at detection levels significantly above background. The matter - controversial both inside the committee and outside - is still being debated. In any event, enough prestigious scholars and scientists have expressed concern that it might seem reasonable to ask that you pause a little and consider.

At present there is a limited range of ways that Earth civilization has become detectable. A common belief holds that TV broadcasts have already screeched loudly enough for all to hear, but this fable has been disproved. Beyond a few light years, these signals fade into background.

It is narrowly targeted beams that will far more likely call attention to our planet. Should we transmit such beams while knowing absolutely nothing about the situation out there?

Everybody has a favorite opinion about what interstellar civilizations will be like. Hollywood portrays bizarre threats. Many others feel that advanced societies will naturally be benign. These unproved opinions are not at issue.

What is at issue is the presumption that a few people may commit our world down a no-return road, without taking any time to discuss the matter with others who have pondered deeply on this subject, and who might shed light on the possibilities, both good and bad.

While smiling at the ingenuity and entertainment value of this public relations gambit, I am also hoping that you will consider dipping a little deeper into the subject. There may be ways to get the effect you desire, while still behaving as responsible citizens of a tiny planet, all alone in a dark and unknown wilderness.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

SEE more discussion on SETI vs Messaging to Aliens.

Now of course there is a possible range of disagreement on this subject, even more than most, since SETI has long been known as a field in which one bandies around speculations that range across dozens of orders of magnitude, without a single data point (known instance of extraterrestrial life) to serve as a reality-anchor or boundary condition.

Take the following riposte to complaints about this recent beaming of trite ego messages into space:

“A community website like provides a good cross section of our society and therefore probably provides a fairly accurate representation of Earth today,” said Jim Lewis, vice president of Deep Space Communication Network, the company who transmitted’s messages into space. was DSCN’s first customer when the site won its services through an on-line eBay auction in February. Commenting on the potential harm of CETI transmission, Lewis quotes Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute who said, “if you really feel that way, then you should be campaigning to have all transmissions from Earth shut down." Shostak points out that military radar installations broadcasts much stronger signals than TV antennas do, and they're on all the time. "If you're going to be paranoid, then you should be consistently paranoid," said Lewis.

Of course this is utterly specious. Seth Shostak, alas, obfuscates the distinction between detectable wide-beam leakage from a solar system like ours - of TV and radar broadcasts - vs the detectability at far greater ranges and lower sensitivities of the kind of narrow beams we are talking about here. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in recent years that 1950s broadcasts of "I Love Lucy" are probably NOT readily detectable by happenstance, at ranges beyond a few light years. But narrow beams like those sent recently by DSCN almost certainly are.

Thus, these people are peremptorily thrusting humanity into a new domain of visibility, without consultation or asking even a polite "what d'you think?" from the wide and diverse international community of people who have thought hard about this subject. A lot harder than they have.

Instead, DSCN and Craigslist behave in the typical contemporary fashion. They rationalize doing whatever they like. Typically, they quote the most radical of SETI participants and make assumptions about the nature and motivations of aliens that are not supported or justified by a single data point.

There ARE some simple ways that Craigslist and DSCN could try to address the worries of prudent people, while having their cake and doing a little harmless "Yoohoo!" beaming of adverts at the stars. If they were reasonable people, they would admit that we know little about the universe right now. They can get their publicity AND take basic precautions that our descendants (who will know the universe far better than we do now) might someday thank them for.

Craigslist –
Deep Space Communication – –


Sorry I've been disorganized. More soon.