USA Today has reported in “Sci-fi writers join war on terror” that a small group of science fiction writers have been contacted by the U.S. government to advise on new and innovative ways that security could be improved. The group, called Sigma, was formed about 15 years ago by writer Arlan Andrews and was specifically intended to advise the government on advanced technology issues.
Their motto seems ominous in context of recent-history political trends and frighteningly nationalistic: “Science Fiction in the National Interest“. I think their involvement is a bit horrifying, misguided, and more than a bit egotistically self-grandiose. Read on for more details.
Six writers – nicknamed the “Sigma Six”, after “Six Sigma” (a set of practices for reducing defects through process improvements – see related Dilbert cartoon), met with the Homeland Security group with members of the government’s High Impact Technology Solutions (“HITS”) program leaders to speculate on innovative ways that technology could improve the government’s ability to monitor individuals, identify and assess threats. The six writers involved were Greg Bear, Sage Walker, and Arlan Andrews, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and Yoji Kondo â€œEric Kotaniâ€? (USA Today apparently failed to mention Kondo’s involvement).
Sigma has previously consulted with Sandiaâ€™s Advanced Concepts group on future national threats. Many Sigma members have already been involved in industrial and Federal consulting over the years, at the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Association (DARPA), the CIA, and NASA.
The Sigma Group apparently has two primary criteria for membership: potential members must have written speculative fiction, and they must have a doctorate degree in a science/technology discipline. I think their membership criteria is rather snobby and elitist, considering that three main factors define a writer’s ability to write prophetically futuristic fiction and come up with innovative ideas that are within the realm of scientific possibility. Those three factors would be: good scientific/technological knowledge; the ability to project out societal/economic/business/political trends into likely future outcomes; and the pairing of both of these to imagination – the intuitive leap to make connections in ways that others have not. These three factors are not gaged by having a Ph.D.
I would think that to have any credibility and advantage whatsoever, Sigma would’ve needed to also have William Gibson and Neal Stephenson in the group advising the government. Perhaps they should consider allowing existing members to nominate other authors to join up, and vote on their individual merits.
But, my main criticism about Sigma’s advising the federal government on security really isn’t due to their obvious and stupidly limiting elitism, nor from their egotistical and narcissistic need to prove their intelligence by promoting themselves in this way. (It rather reminds one of how movie stars are constantly pushing themselves into political involvement, despite any credible experience in solving complex problems, and in many cases a complete lack of post-high-school education in anything other than acting.)
No, my main beef with the Sigma Group doing this is the apparent total lack of any consideration about the long-term ramifications of their assistance to the government. There’s no website that I could find which outlines any sort of ethical considerations which the group might have, and based on the various news stories and author’s statements about the group, it would appear that they’re just naively lobbing snips of their disruptive tech/scientific ideas over to the government to use in any way they see fit.
They apparently are more concerned about trying to promote themselves and reassure themselves that they have scientific respectability than they are concerned about the welfare of the human race. One would wish that they had learned the lessons of scientists and engineers of the past who later saw that the willy-nilly deployment of new technologies could cause more destruction and problems for the human race, sometimes outweighing the improvements they originally intended. One great example would be the scientist Alfred Nobel who invented dynamite, and later sought to counteract the negative effects of his life’s work by founding the Nobel Prize.
It’s odd an astounding that they would now lend their support to a government which has used fear-mongering to erode human rights and expand the military-industrial complex more extensively than any time in the past.
Security experts such as Bruce Schneier have pointed out the folly of many of the Homeland Security policies which have been more focussed on addressing a single symptom than looking for holistic approaches to addressing real problems. Of course, many intellectuals have pointed out that doing things like requiring people to take off their shoes at the airport doesn’t reduce risk whatsoever, and is ultimately more about giving the false appearance that something substantive has been done while perpetuating citizen’s illogical perceptions of relative risk. One lunatic on an airplane in the UK tried to set off a bomb in his shoes – a very low percentage risk considering how many flights happened up until that point, yet now convenience is impacted for millions across the board as all shoes are now X-rayed. Yet, individuals could carry loads of plastique explosive taped to their torsos and fly right through checkpoints with no problem.
The idea of being able to eradicate all risk in life is completely irrational. Once you face that fact, you should be able to see that more and more little fixes may not be good for sustainable, long-term solutions to security concerns. You will lose in such arms races as more and more privacy and rights are eroded with each intrusive innovation. The abusive misuse of governmental power against innocent individuals is not worth the false perception of improved security. Do these authors not see this as a problem?!?
The general public is unable to understand math, and is therefore unable to effectively assess most risks. With the government perpetuating bad risk assessment as a pretext for reducing privacy, reducing individual rights, and increasing hassles for all citizens, it’s really bad for otherwise brilliant intellectuals such as the Sigma Group to fail to have really assessed the current trends, ethics, and societal implications of their involvement. They are helping the expansion of a police state and an erosion of the very sorts of rights and idealism that they normally would promote through their writing.
Harlan Ellison wouldn’t have fallen for this naive and egotistical temptation! Shame on these guys for doing so.
I’ve written before in somewhat glowing terms of some science fiction writers, particularly in their ability to predict future technological advances and their impacts on our day-to-day lives. (See here and here.) I like Sci-Fi writers, and I think it’s good and helpful to society in general for people to write speculatively about possible futures. If we can foresee possible impacts of new and emerging technologies we might be able to figure out how to make such things work well for us, in non-destructive ways. But, Sigma’s efforts appear on the surface to be devoid of any ethical constraints, and lacking of wise consideration of whether technical advances might be more beneficial than destructive in the balance. I expect more of science fiction writers, particularly if they’re moving out of the realm of entertainment into active involvement with the government and military.
I’m not alone in criticizing Sigma’s involvement. The Chrononautic Log also ridicules the SciFi writers, and John C. Dvorak also criticizes both the ability of SF writers to predict the future, and the way the government simultaneously lauds them while making them out to be borderline crackpots. Techdirt sums it up eloquently:
…the likely result is more pointless methods to try to combat specific scenarios brought up by the writers, rather than anything more comprehensive or useful. While it’s at least nice to hear that Homeland Security is willing to listen to those with “outside the box” ideas, it’s tough to have much confidence in the idea that they’ll do anything useful with the information.
Sigma Group should post a webpage to state what their aims are, and what, IF ANY, ethically progressive policies they use before pushing tech/scientific solutions to societal problems. At best, their involvement currently seems short-sighted and more about pushing their own self-interests rather than altruistic goals of improving the human condition. If they had any ability to be visionary outside the narrow fields of science and technology, I don’t think they could be involved at all with the Department of Homeland Security – an agency which has focussed upon reducing privacy and individual rights while increasing oppressive policies.