Describe your latest project.
Right now I'm writing a series of op-eds for local newspapers throughout the United States in order to publicize the pressing issue of electronic waste mentioned in the last chapter of Made to Break. E-waste is a threat to every living thing, but for some reason it hides under our cultural radar. I do have a second book in mind, but it is an ill-formed idea just yet and I don't want to speak or write about it until it shows itself completely.
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Unfortunately, it's the only thing I'm actually good at. I have a lot of half-baked skills, but this is the most rewarding thing I do with the highest level of technical accomplishment. I try to find something I care about deeply, and then I try to write about it to the best of my ability.
Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
Her name was Dr. Rosemary Wood, and she was my grade six teacher in an experimental, magnet-style program in the public school system in my home town. She made me see I didn't really have much choice and that I was already a writer. She encouraged me to practice by writing, reading, and consciously developing my vocabulary, which was large for an eleven-year-old. She encouraged a lot of other kids who became radio personalities, writers, lawyers, teachers. I haven't seen her for years, but I owe her bigtime. She was the first person to express unqualified faith in me.
Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
No. Now I'll have to find out what it is... Oh, I see the real answer to that question is "Which version?"
Chess or video games?
I used to play chess. My kids play video games (Game Boy and PS2). In "Chips," chapter seven of Made to Break, I write about the fascinating history of them and how they destroyed my favorite childhood game pinball but I don't play them. I chased down pictures of Gunpei Yokoi, the inventor of Game Boy and its D-pad controller, so my eleven-year-old could put them on his wall. Yokoi-san is the Game Boy guru.
What do you do for relaxation?
I go for long walks along the ocean near our home in Vancouver, Canada. I play with my youngest son, a toddler, and I read (a lot). Let me recommend Mark Kurlansky, William Langewiesche and Elizabeth Royte. I throw a baseball with my eleven-year-old. I listen to many different kinds of music. Sometimes I take a trip. The best trip I ever took was into the Rub al Khali (deep desert) with a caravan of friends in four-wheel drives just after 9/11. I was teaching at the Islamic Institute in Abu Dhabi Emirate and needed desperately to get away.
What's your favorite blog right now?
Don't have one. I come across them when Googling topics by keyword and then surf in. Writing is a very careful and conscious thing with me. I generally don't want to read someone else's notes or first draft.
Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Easy enough. I often see myself as a galactic hitchhiker...
What was your favorite book as a kid?
Hands down, Treasure Island. But I also loved the Doc Savage books. My favorite movie, incidentally, is Time Bandits.
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Hmmmm. Technology is nearly always a double-edged sword, as I try to demonstrate in Made to Break. I see human culture, generally, as a coral reef in which new and living tools and ideas constantly replace whatever is old. Thereby our collective experience expands with each generation. Technology is as much a part of this reef for me as the arts, social sciences, or humanities are. The story of the reef is really the story of our adaptation.
The most profound adaptation in recent years, I believe, has taken place in biology. I think our irrational fear of genetic engineering will give way to a recognition of its enormous potential to control our agriculture, our lifespan, and even our own physical form. But technology has presented us with powerful challenges that need to be confronted and overcome in the next forty years or the question will become meaningless. We have these phrases, "technological hazard" and "technological risk," that speak neutrally about what we're doing to our world when we dispose of the chemically complex tools we've invented and distributed in unprecedented numbers. We have to wake up. Quickly.
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Only a scientist or writer? The person I most admire, I think, is Gandhi-ji, but I'm lazy. I wouldn't want to walk that path, not even for a day. I'd like to meet him and make some salt.
What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
I'm very grateful that I now have an advanced degree, but I am a high school dropout. I was shy, and high school was an unbearable ordeal of self-invention and self-presentation. I found out early that I could be accepted provisionally into part-time studies at a local university without a high school certificate, and I jumped at the chance.
What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
I'd like to be able to dispose of it safely and efficiently without damaging the environment here or in the developing world.
Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
I was a teen at the time of the first lunar landing. It fired my imagination, so I just love the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, but I think of all of the Smithsonian Institutions as one big museum or archive. I love D.C. for this cultural access. I also love the Library of Congress, which recently invited me to visit and speak.
By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
I'm fifty-two and will probably last at least another twenty years. By that time unfortunately I think we'll be in a real shithole. We've presented ourselves with some really difficult environmental problems. The world will never be the same again. Also, it will take decades to solve them, and we are still in denial about it. I'm not a cynic. We will adapt. But it will take hard work, suffering, courage, and time measured in generations. Not pretty. I have three sons. I think we should get to work today.
Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
Oh, hell, I dunno exactly what you mean: is my interpretive choice concerning your question between scientific innovation and the industrial application of science and tech? In scientific innovation, America is probably still the leader, but this won't last because of the decline in the flow of the best engineering and scientific minds from the developing world to America's schools.
In terms of dynamism and determination in the industrial applications of techne, I suppose it's currently a contest between India and China. Unfortunately, the Chinese have gambled industrial and scientific progress against the environment that sustains them. They're also weighed down by population, by still repressive policies and politics, and by the fact that their labor costs are escalating, so they are not as desirable a location for hands-on manufacturing as they once were. Power and raw materials are in short supply in China as they are in India, but India is adapting quickly. China will enjoy a decade or less of continued growth at its current rate of acceleration before the infrastructure begins to fall apart. There will be massive agricultural and medical problems in China that will tax its resources beyond the breaking point. India will push ahead. But I'm just guessing.