Award-winning science-fiction author shares his ideas on the future of online credibility

(Courtney Pedroza/DD)
David Brin and three other panelists used Brin’s most recent science-fiction novel, “Existence,” as the basis for a panel discussion about technology’s affect on credibility and journalism in the future. (Courtney Pedroza/DD)

Science-fiction author David Brin created a world where the future of technology could have a direct effect on the credibility of not only journalists but also everyday citizens. And he believes parts of his science fiction may become reality.

Brin, an award-winning author and scientist, spoke on a panel organized by ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination at the A.E. England Building on Wednesday.

The other panel members were Alexander Halavais, associate professor at the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Dawn Gilpin, associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School; and Retha Hill, executive director of the Cronkite School’s Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab.

The discussion was based on on Brin’s most recent sci-fi novel, “Existence,” released last year. Brin read an excerpt from the novel about a journalist in a not-so-distant society wandering the rubble-strewn streets in order to pursue a story idea and find credible sources.

“Optimists keep forecasting that more information will make us more wise, more willing to accept when facts prove us wrong,” Brin quoted from the book. “But so far, all it’s done is stoke indignation and rage.”

Society is great at creating a large amount of ideas on the Internet, but it is “lousy at the destruction of most of the crap,” Brin said.

His suggestion to combat this is a system that builds a personal reputation, or “credibility score,” based on what a person does and how well he or she treats others. Brin’s system would assign people a permanent “pseudonym,” similar to an online username, that would collect “credit” based on how that person is perceived in regard to qualities such as intellect and open-mindedness.

“One of the cool things about the new reputation concepts is I think a business could make billions,” Brin said. “It could also offer people the service of renting pseudonyms.”

Gilpin said she found Brin’s credibility-score concept particularly fascinating, although she questioned how the system would be implemented and who would be measuring the credibility of the credibility measurers.

“(Credibility) helps you make decisions about who you’re willing to align with,” Gilpin said. “Everyone knows now — due to social media — everything spreads very quickly, but that is also true for rumors and misinformation.”

Although there have been claims that the Internet is meant to improve society through a wide range of connections and “verbose opinions,” it fails to do so, Brin said, citing an article he wrote that was published in the American Bar Association’s Journal of Dispute Resolution.

“The thing to compare to is the far more mature arenas that we use to solve problems today: competitive markets, which compete over products and goods and services; democracy, in which competition supposedly gets the rough edges off of policy; science, which still works; courts; and the press, supposedly,” Brin said. “These are arenas in which, through reciprocal accountability and reciprocal criticism, we bash down each other’s worst (ideas) … while empowering people to create new alliances.”

We are currently in between two worlds: a world in which communities have an implicit idea of who has a valued reputation and a more formalized world in which reputation can transfer between communities, Halavais said.

“The question is of whether there is this universal reputation that moves with you from place to place. Whether, for example, if you get a badge on Huffington Post, whether that gives you credibility somewhere else,” he said.

Hill agreed. Society is advancing toward actively linking people together through technology, she said.

“We’re not too far off from the idea of being able to rent time on cameras for journalism and news organizations to have access to all of this information so they can peer down into society to find out exactly what is credible,” Hill said.

For example, she compared the journalist’s ability to use cameras in Brin’s novel to the constant spotlight that is shed on politicians.

“It is very difficult to lie because there are cameras everywhere,” Hill said. “You think about these politicians who have been discredited because they made an offhand remark that was captured by an iPhone, and then it’s gone out.”

Although common elements of science fiction, such as aliens, exist in Brin’s novel, the main feature is our world and what is expected to happen in the near future, Brin said.

If you brought yourself from 30 years ago to the present day, you would spend half your time being amazed at the new ideas and half your time being disappointed by the concepts that haven’t changed, he said.

“And to catch that mixture of amazement and disappointment captures what our own world is like — the way we live here in the past,” Brin said. “(But) sometimes, great things happen because it is time for them.”

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