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Fiction Science Club

How technology can keep democracy from dying

Between the voting-machine failures, the cyberattacks and the social-media shenanigans, technology hasn’t had a great record when it comes to fostering and protecting democracy in the 21st century. But George Zarkadakis says the technology — and democracy — can be fixed.

In his new book, “Cyber Republic: Reinventing Democracy in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” the Greek-born tech expert, writer and management consultant offers a repair manual that takes advantage of innovations ranging from artificial intelligence and expert systems, to blockchain, to data trusts that are personalized and monetized.

According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.

“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”

He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreakerOvercastPocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Zarkadakis’ journey to the frontiers of governance began back in 2006, when he was a facilitator for the European Union’s Meeting of the Minds citizen assembly experiment. In the book, he describes the experience as his “Pauline conversion.”

The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.

One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.

Citizen assemblies have been called “the flavor of the month among political geeks,” but they’re not a simple panacea for what ails political systems. Zarkadakis acknowledged that the current information climate is rife with disinformation. Why? One big reason is that trumped-up polarization is so profitable, due to the algorithms used by Facebook and other social-media platforms.

“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”

Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.

Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.

In reply, Zarkadakis pointed to a $5.5 billion loan that American Airlines received from the federal government in June to weather the coronavirus crisis.

“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.

American Airlines valued its AAdvantage program at $19.5 billion to $31.5 billion. There may be some question about that valuation, but in any case, “that’s the kind of money we’re talking about around data,” Zarkadakis said.

To guarantee the veracity and the source of a given data stream, Zarkadakis suggests using the same kinds of blockchain-based software tools that are used for cryptocurrencies.

Cyber Republic book cover
“Cyber Republic” lays out a game plan for giving democracy an upgrade. (MIT Press / Shutterstock / chuckchee)

The data trust concept may sound way-out, but it’s already gaining some traction among pundits and researchers as well as science-fiction authors. In “The Ministry for the Future,” a newly published novel that anticipates the deepening of the world’s climate crisis, Kim Stanley Robinson works in references to a fictional data trust called YourLock. (Stay tuned for more in a future Fiction Science episode.)

Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.

“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”

Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.

I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”

George Zarkadakis
George Zarkadakis is the author of “Cyber Republic.” (Yannis Bournias Photo)

Are there lessons that political scientists can learn from science fiction? Or that science-fiction writers can learn from political scientists? Zarkadakis noted that there are ample parallels between “Star Wars” and the tale of the Roman Republic’s transition to the Roman Empire, or Germany’s transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

“I also find it interesting when science fiction is looking into the future, into different sorts of political systems,” he said.

Among his favorites are “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”

Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.

“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West  Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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How the stars gave birth to the Human Cosmos

Once upon a time, the sky was filled with stories.

They might have been tales of migrating bulls, horses and antelopes, translated from the constellations into paintings in prehistoric caves. Or sagas about the cycles of life and death, commemorated in stone structures oriented to mark the seasons. Or legends about the Widower Sun and the Sky Coyote that dictated the timing of rains, ripenings and rituals for California’s Chumash culture.

Such stories helped ancient peoples get a grip on the workings of the natural world — and set the celestial stage for millennia of scientific advances. But ironically, those advances may be leading to the extinction of the stories, as well as the fading of the night sky.

“We understand so many wonders about the cosmos, but at the same time … we’ve never been so disconnected from the cosmos,” says Jo Marchant, the author of a new book titled “The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars.”

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Marchant and I delve into how our cosmic perspective has been simultaneously sharpened and dulled. Give a listen to the Q&A via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.

As a species, Homo sapiens is exceptionally skilled at recognizing, replicating and creating patterns out of raw data. In her book, Marchant traces how ancient cultures connected the star patterns they saw in the sky with the natural cycles they had to deal with on Earth, and how those connections evolved in the ages that followed.

Our proclivity for finding patterns can sometimes get us into trouble, as illustrated by the attraction to the Face on Mars — or, more recently, QAnon conspiracy theories. But in the main, it’s a good thing: An argument could be made that the scientific method boils down to the ability to identify patterns that knit together data, and verify that those patterns apply to subsequent occurrences.

Jo Marchant
Jo Marchant (Photo by P. Marchant)

“I’m interested in how we built the scientific view, but I’m also interested in what have we lost,” Marchant said. “Does it matter that we no longer see the stars? We know from light pollution that most people in Europe and the U.S. can no longer see the Milky Way, for example. With artificial lighting and heating, and air travel, and our computers and phones, we’re living in a way that’s more disconnected from the cycles of the sun and moon than ever before.”

An overreliance on our devices, and on perspectives that are divorced from the natural world, could leave us unaware about emerging risks from climate change and viral spillovers. It could also rob us of the emotional response that pushed our ancestors toward discoveries: a sense of awe about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.

“One of the most common ways that scientists use to trigger awe in studies is to show people pictures or videos of the starry sky, and they’re finding that when people feel awe, it makes them more curious, more creative, less stressed, happier, even weeks later,” Marchant said.

Exercising your sense of awe can also have a beneficial social effect. “People make more ethical decisions,” Marchant said. “They’re more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet. They feel more connected to other people and the Earth as a whole.”

Can we heal our social and political divisions and unite to solve environmental challenges just by looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? If only it were that easy. Marchant said we’re sorely lacking in the kinds of stories that knit together the human and the natural world.

“Now we have this view of a physical universe out there — the scientific universe, if you like, made of particles and forces, and we’re separate observers of that,” she said.

The Human Cosmos
“The Human Cosmos,” published by Penguin Random House

The closest things we have to the cosmic myths of ancient times are science-fiction tales such as George Lucas’ Star Wars saga or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. (The former took many of its themes from “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,”  Joseph Campbell’s distillation of mythic archetypes, while the latter was inspired by “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”)

Even those sagas are more about all-too-human affairs rather than our connections with the heavens. The long-ago, faraway galaxy of Star Wars, for example, primarily serves as a new stage for war-movie drama, just as Lucian’s 1,850-year-old sci-fi novel served to satirize his own society.

When I asked what kind of sci-fi came closest to capturing the cosmic connection Marchant was looking for, she pointed to “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 2009 movie about the clash between naturalistic aliens and machinery-mad humans. (Due to coronavirus-related delays, the sequels are now scheduled for release between 2022 and 2028.)

But even before “Avatar 5” rolls out, another type of cosmic connection could well inspire a fresh wave of awe and innovation. Within the next decade, actual men and women could well be walking on the surface of the moon, and perhaps even on Mars.

“I think it makes a difference, having people up in space rather than just machines,” Marchant said. “It’s kind of going back to that ancient view of the heavens, of seeing these characters and people in the stars, in the skies. … There’s also that perspective of looking back down on Earth, which has been so influential — that view of Earth from space.”

Astronauts have long talked about the Overview Effect, a deep sense of oneness with the Earth that arises when seeing its full disk from space, paired with a heightened desire to protect the planet from harm.

Could a widening of the Overview Effect restore humanity’s cosmic balance? If so, it’d be a sky story worth retelling for ages to come.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

After our podcast Q&A, I asked Marchant if she had any recommendations for science fiction worth reading or watching. On the streaming-video front, she talked up “Devs,” an FX/Hulu series that capitalizes on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

“What would the consequences of that be if you could have a computer that could literally predict everything that you were going to do in the future?” she asked. “How would that affect our sense of who we are, and our responsibilities?”

Deeplight cover
“Deeplight,” published by Pan Macmillan

On the book front, Marchant recommended Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight,” a Lovecraftian fantasy tale that’s set in an underwater realm. “It’s a great adventure story, but also she’s looking into themes of power and the divine, and what happens when the gods are taken away,” she said.

Marchant said her favorite part of “Deeplight” was Hardinge’s disclaimer: “The laws of physics were harmed during the making of this book. In fact, I tortured them into horrific new shapes whilst cackling.”

Based on Marchant’s recommendation, I’m designating “Deeplight” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to pop up at used-book stores or your local library. For a list of previous CLUB Club selections going back to 2002, check out last month’s lineup.

UNESCO made Francesco Bandarin’s photo of the prehistoric auroch painted in the Lascaux Cave available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license. We’ve added a rendering of the constellation Taurus.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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‘Twin Peaks’ star channels tech genius in ‘Tesla’

Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? Or poking a rival with an ice-cream cone? When you watch Kyle MacLachlan play one of America’s most famous inventors in the movie “Tesla,” you can.

And wait until you hear which 21st-century tech genius MacLachlan would love to portray next.

“The story of Elon Musk would be interesting, just because I think he’s a quirky fellow,” MacLachlan told me during an interview for the inaugural Fiction Science podcast. “That would be challenging, to understand who that his, and how he moves through the world, what he thinks, how he interacts with people.”

MacLachlan is pretty good at playing quirky roles. His best-known character is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who delves into dark secrets, interdimensional weirdness and damn fine coffee in “Twin Peaks,” the classic TV series directed by David Lynch.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, MacLachlan and I talked about “Tesla” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as “Dune,” the science-fiction cult classic (or classic flop, depending on your perspective) from 1984 that marked his big-budget movie debut.

To cut to the chase, proceed directly to the Fiction Science podcast, which is also available via Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

It’s interesting that MacLachlan makes a connection between Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. Just as Musk has a long-running rivalry with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over rockets and cars, Edison butted heads with Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born genius who was more eccentric in real life than Agent Cooper was on “Twin Peaks.”

The Edison vs. Tesla rivalry had to do with how best to distribute electricity, which was revolutionizing the American economy in the late 1800s. Edison favored the direct-current approach, which pushed the electrical charge in one unvarying direction. Tesla, in contrast, championed alternating current, which involves reversing the direction of the electrical flow dozens of times per second.

Edison argued that DC was safer than AC, and his associates went so far as to have dogs electrocuted with alternating current to prove his point (though a tale about electrocuting an elephant is said to be overblown). Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually won out — largely because DC electricity couldn’t be transmitted across long distances.

Tesla went on to blaze trails in wireless communication and power transmission — technologies that are continuing to change the world. But as brilliant as Tesla was as an engineer, he was a total failure as a businessman. He ended up dying penniless in a New York hotel room,

Edison, meanwhile, reaped fame and fortune — in part because of his pragmatism and hardheaded business sense.

“If he was working on something and it didn’t work, he would just try something else,” MacLachlan told me. “It was really that simple. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to it. It was just, ‘Let’s bring up the next thing and give that a shot, and see if that gets the job done.'”

Tesla’s life has been touched upon previously in TV shows and movies: In “The Prestige,” David Bowie played him as something of a light-bringing demigod with a Frankensteinian twist. More recently, Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as a foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison in “The Current War.” Both Edison and Tesla have had their turns in the documentary spotlight as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.

In head-to-head match-ups with Edison, Tesla tends to come off as the lesser-known underdog. In fact, filmmaker David Grubin told me that when he was asked to do the Tesla documentary, he initially thought it was about the electric car built by Musk’s company of the same name.

In the new movie, veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as an earnest electricity nerd who suffers outages in business — but nevertheless generates sparks with women admirers including actress Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan (the scion of industrialist J.P. Morgan).

Anne, played by Eve Hewson, serves as the movie’s narrator and occasionally addresses the audience directly as she pulls up pictures of Tesla on a MacBook. After the Tesla vs. Edison ice-cream fight, Anne immediately sets viewers straight: “This is pretty surely not how it happened, but what can I tell you?” she says.

Those aren’t the only anachronisms engineered by “Tesla” director Michael Almereyda: In one scene, Edison is seen idly thumbing a smartphone, while in another, Tesla sings a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

But not every weird twist in “Tesla” is an anachronism; some of them are true to life. Tesla really did rub elbows with Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, and he really did have many of the eccentricities shown in the movie — including an aversion to pearl necklaces and a need to polish his dinnerware with a set of 18 napkins before using them.

Toward the end of the movie, Tesla is shown obsessing over particle-beam weapons and the “statistical certainty” of extraterrestrial life. Back in Tesla’s time, such ideas may have seemed like science-fiction tales at best, and delusions at worst — but today they’re being taken totally seriously.

It’s debatable whether “Tesla” will succeed at the box office, but the mere fact that the movie was made with such high-profile stars argues that the real-life Tesla won’t be forgotten. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget, we should remember every time we switch on a light, flip open a laptop — or watch the movie on a mobile device.

Speaking of movies, here’s a video from astrophysicist Andy Howell that explains the AC vs. DC battle between Tesla and Edison in the context of “The Current War.”

IFC Films’ “Tesla” opens in theaters and on demand on Aug. 21. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.