The Department of Homeland Security recently joined forces with SIGMA, a group of science fiction writers. DHS plans to mine the writers' ideas about border control, disaster preparedness and terrorist tactics. SIGMA founder Arlan Andrews says sci-fi writers have more to offer than lasers and flying spaceships.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The 9/11 Commission called the 2001 terrorist attacks "a failure of the imagination," namely the government's failure, and one that apparently it hopes to remedy with the help of SIGMA, a group of hard science fiction writers. The group was founded by Dr. Arlan Andrews, a scientist and science fiction writer who has served on various White House panels and in many official capacities.
Last month, SIGMA members were among the attendees at a Department of Homeland Security conference in Washington. The Homeland Security man Chris Christopher, who initially called for collaboration with the science fiction and fantasy writers, put it this way. Quote, "If you think what you've always thought, you'll get what you've always got."
SIGMA founder Arlan Andrews answered his call, and ours. Arlan, welcome to the show. ARLAN ANDREWS: Oh, thank you very much. I'm happy to be here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is it about science fiction writers as opposed to, say, playwrights, that make them [LAUGHS] qualified to advise Homeland Security? ARLAN ANDREWS: We are probably the only professional group in the country, maybe the world, that has spent most of our entire careers living in the future. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you were quoted as saying that you formed SIGMA because you'd heard more original and appropriate futurism on panels at any given science fiction convention than in all the forecasting meetings you ever attended in Washington, DC. ARLAN ANDREWS: Yes. One of my jobs when I was working at the White House science office back in 1992 for the first Bush administration, there was a Congressionally-mandated act that says there has to be a Critical Technologies Institute that's supposed to advise the government on the technologies of 10 years in the future so that government grant writers would know what's coming up so maybe they should start allocating money and paying attention to different technologies.
Well, I attended several meetings of the Critical Technology Institute. I remember one fellow, leading head of engineering for National Science Foundation, mentioned that in 10 years micro-machines and nanotechnology would probably be important. They laughed at him.
A month or so later, I was privileged to be at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House when Dr. Allan Bromley, who was President Bush's science advisor back then, mentioned that in the future, computer visualization, ways to display data, would be very important. And as we all know, they are today in various forms.
They laughed at him. They said, sure, Allan, we'll put your videogames in these projections. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what kinds of things were you offering at the conference? ARLAN ANDREWS: Well, Department of Homeland Security is interested in border security. They're interested in inspecting cargos that come in. They want to be able to respond better to natural disasters like Katrina and earthquakes and tornados and that sort of thing.
So in many cases, we didn't give them ray-guns and aliens and penetrating armor that, you know, is intelligent and that sort of thing. One of our writers, David Brin, who's very famous - he wrote the basis of the Kevin Costner movie, The Postman - he came up with a concept that is low-tech for this group. It's called citizen tech.
He thinks that individual citizens should be empowered and we should have things like we used to have in the old days, back in the '50s, a Civil Defense organization. I think Katrina was a perfect example of how citizen tech was not used.
All those people down there, had they had a little bit of training and the cell phones and the proper cell phone towers, you know, the Civil Defense colonel or sergeant on each block, said, hey, folks, get out here, we've got the school buses down here, we could utilize that so that some of the people in FEMA and the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana could be bypassed. The people know what to do. They just go do it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that the Department of Homeland Security was asking you for some ideas of how to deal with the problems that they're confronting, say, with regard to our ports and so on. Did they also ask you to conceive of future disaster scenarios? ARLAN ANDREWS: One of the proposals that one of our group had said that in the future some of us think there's a strong possibility that Al Qaeda or someone else will set off five to ten nukes simultaneously around the country.
The fellow asked - in fact, it was Jerry Pournelle - asked the DHS official, do you have in mind what kind of regulations and laws, martial law, whatever else, that you're going to need after that fact occurs? Because most people realize that today the Patriot Act, had it been written before 9/11, would be a lot different. But it was written in extreme political pressure and fear, anxiety and worry about the next attack, so they threw everything together.
Jerry gave them the option right now. Says, go back and think. What happens when our big cities are all wiped out, no traffic is allowed on interstates, communications have been zapped by some e-bomb, as our member talked about, and everything's fried? How do you respond locally? If we lose 10 million people in one day, the next day is going to be pure hell for everybody. But still, we have to respond.
And so, what we do is think about it now when we have plenty of time and there's no pressure and there's no fear. BROOKE GLADSTONE: No fear? Aside from having the living crap scared out of me just now by [LAUGHING] what you said [ANDREWS LAUGHS] I am also struck by the fact that these ideas that these hard science fiction writers are offering have to do with organizing locals to confront a disaster when it happens and to create a legal system that could help sustain the country in the time of unimaginable disaster. Neither of these things involve communicators, death-rays or jetpacks. ARLAN ANDREWS: That's quite true, that science fiction writers, the successful ones, at least, talk about the impact of events and technologies on people and society, not the gadgets themselves. That's why my own favorite stories take place in the next 50 years or so. Occasionally if you read something that takes place a billion years from now, that's fine, but somehow it has to tie back to us because [LAUGHS] who's really interested in when all the stars and galaxies die, unless somebody from now is there talking about it? BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Arlan, one last question. Why don't we have jetpacks? ARLAN ANDREWS: Actually, we do. I saw something just last weekend. There are two available right now. One is $150,000 that lasts about 60 seconds, and one is a quarter of a million that lasts about 90 seconds. Feel free to go ahead. I'm sure they would like to sell some to you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much. ARLAN ANDREWS: Well, thank you very much for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arlan Andrews is the founder of SIGMA, a science fiction writer and an environmental program manager for the U.S. Navy at Corpus Christi, Texas. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]