As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Syd Mead, a "visual futurist" and concept artist, best known for his designs for science-fiction films such as Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens.
SYD MEAD: The question of ethics is you know, an ancient one.
DEVIN STEWART: Yes.
SYD MEAD: It can be used as a ruse, a ruse use, or it can be used as a serious platform from which to launch philosophical interpretations of social theory and appropriateness and so forth. So ethics to me is a word that is sort of like the color blue. It can be many shades.
DEVIN STEWART: Yes. Our hope is to talk to enough eminent people to really get the public thinking about these big questions, sort of a moral awareness and day-to-day understanding of international affairs and current events.
SYD MEAD: Well I wish you massive, massive doses of luck.
DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much. So how do you see today's world differing from previous eras, particularly from a moral perspective?
SYD MEAD: Morality has become confused, in my mind, with economic success. In this country, the United States, and in all the developed countries, the available equity to run the society is starting to gravitate towards the bureaucratic elite. Representative democracy was never meant to have a professional political class, and that's what's happened. The bureaucratic management system starts to absorb the available capital, and once you have a professional political bureaucracy, their main interest is being reelected, not to be a service to the electorate, and to me that's complete moral breakdown.
DEVIN STEWART: What are the implications, and how would you see a way to address this problem?
SYD MEAD: We have enforced term limits. There's pros and cons on that. One of the cons is the forte—you destroy the impetus for a professional political class or professional bureaucracy. The con of the people that don't think that's a good idea, is that you don't have the years of experience in progress in the legislative body. So there's pros and cons on that whole concept.
But to have a professional bureaucratic political class, most government systems in history eventually eat themselves up because of the bureaucratic process.
DEVIN STEWART: And when you say morality has been confused with economic success, how would you define morality?
SYD MEAD: Morality is character. It's the ability to analyze and see how you fit into the overall social hierarchy. So the morality to me is just a sort of sensitivity to what is essentially fair. It has nothing to do with a sexual preference or all the weird things that single-issue proponents go after for their own purposes. It simply is a matter of what's fair on a social basis for that particular society. Different societies have different mores, and that changes what the morality is, depending on the social mores that are accepted as the norm. In our society here in the United States, I fear that the norm is becoming considerably distorted.
DEVIN STEWART: So you don't see a more universal norm that goes beyond societies?
SYD MEAD: Well, if you quoted me, let's go to the mythological, the Biblical. You can't kill. You shouldn't forcibly take someone else's property, and of course ownership is a shady area to begin with. It's simply what is fair for a given stack of hierarchical elements that the society feels is normal, and normal changes over time.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you think things are getting better or worse today?
SYD MEAD: I think they're in a weird kind of stasis, highly compartmentalized, and in some pockets of the society—I'm more familiar with the Americans, the United States—in some pockets of the system, morality is distorted to favor that particular little pocket of people, of people that are involved there economically or socially. The bankruptcy of the system in areas is the shifting of, as I mentioned, equity into the upper levels of bureaucratic management and to entitlements, which are essentially political pandering to the vote process. I know that sounds strong, but that's my opinion.
DEVIN STEWART: That's actually a common theme that we're hearing from a lot of these interviews. Is there an emerging trend that you think about or are concerned about?
SYD MEAD: This country was originally started with the nice idea that you could manage a continuous revolution of ideas transferring into practice what made sense for all the people, all the population. I think that's being shifted a little bit to the advantage of people who can control that process, and you can control the process through media. You can control it through lawmaking, and you can control it through the inferred and deliberate diversion of capital.
DEVIN STEWART: How about moral leadership? What does that mean to you?
SYD MEAD: People have to have a sense of what's normal in the first place, and that's critical. In a population that is allowed to vote, a democratic representative society, you must have people that vote that have a sense of what they're voting for, in other words an informed populace. If that informed populace gets information that is managed outside the norms of just what's news, if their exposure to media becomes the reality, and they vote and make decisions based on the reality that is presented to them, if you can change that reality, you can do incredible things, both good and bad.
DEVIN STEWART: "Change that reality"—what does that mean?
SYD MEAD: When you watch television, you download things on your iPad or your iPhone or whatever your transfer medium is, watching television in your home, listening to radio in your car or in your earbuds, that exposure to medium across the whole spectrum of delivery becomes the reality that you consider is normal. And if you can manage that, you can do incredible things.
DEVIN STEWART: So you don't mean "manage" them. You mean manipulate, obviously.
SYD MEAD: I mean manipulate, which is a management technique, yes.
DEVIN STEWART: I see. Now that's moral leadership?
SYD MEAD: Moral leadership depends on what everybody thinks is normal, what they appreciate as representing their best interests. If they don't know what's going on, they don't know what that is.
DEVIN STEWART: And then going to this idea of a global ethic that we've been exploring at Carnegie, does that resonate with you, a global ethic? And if so, what does it mean to you?
SYD MEAD: There are corporations in this world that are bigger than most governments, and they are very powerful and they run the world. Now, a global ethic would mean that they might have a conscience, which I doubt. That sounds sort of dire, but I think that's what's happening. A global ethic that is shifting from population's self-interest to upper levels of capitalization self-interest, intercepting all over the world.
DEVIN STEWART: Is this the issue that concerns you most today?
SYD MEAD: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: And would you call this the greatest challenge facing the planet?
SYD MEAD: I think it's an enormous challenge. The technology is funded by capitalized entities that can afford to put money into something that may not have an immediate use, or ever; serendipitous-type technology investigations. But in the long run, you have to have a technological base because that's how we're going to survive.
Of the world's population, over 50 percent already is living in cities and that's going to increase. The only way you can sustain that is through a technological intervention really in the form of civil information, servicing the needs of people in a dense environment. It's the only way you can have a lot of people in a limited space, and it has to all work together.
And I think on a global basis we're going to start evolving a realization that you can't have these huge, huge urban designs, urban populations, without some sort of enforced or appreciated level of enforced comity, of just people saying we have to live together, and we have to sort of understand what we don't want.
DEVIN STEWART: Enforced comity?
SYD MEAD: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: And how would that work? Does that mean a global government?
SYD MEAD: Not a global government, but what it means is trying to convert these disparate kind of upper-level elitist bureaucracies into a cooperative mix. The UN was supposed to have done that. Of course, it failed miserably, but that has to happen. If that doesn't happen, then we will continue to compete and rearrange the power structure ad infinitum. It won't work, other than a kind of "who's the biggest and baddest" kind of thing. That's what I fear is a near future social and economic phenomenon.
DEVIN STEWART: So is this a dilemma with technology?
SYD MEAD: Technology is morally neutral. It doesn't do something bad or good. It's there. My favorite example is you can have a very, very sharp knife and learn how to bone a duck, or you can stab somebody. So the knife is the representation of an idea made into an article or a usable end result, and that's morally neutral. The use of it is what is twisted or can be perverted.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you see technology as being used for both good and evil in the future?
SYD MEAD: Yes, yes. We're having this whole fracas over genetically modified everything. We're learning how to make seed groups that tolerate salt water in deltas to grow more food in countries that have large, shallow coastlines. We're learning how to desalinate water with sunlight and mirror fields, because in the next 20 to 30 years, the most scarce resource on the planet is going to be potable water. There's no question of that.
So technology is our lifeboat, and the people who don't think that should really go back into the woods and eat tree bark.
DEVIN STEWART: But you also said earlier that technology is being used to benefit a small elite.
SYD MEAD: That's the other side to technology, yes. Let's say you give cheap computers to millions and millions of people in third world countries, and those computers are linked to a central agency, which is government, and you can then pervert the entire society by having immediate access per person on a download basis. That's using technology for communication and media exposure for dire and for corrupted end-use.
But if you have a media system that displays educative programs, it displays and promotes discussion-type assessments of what society needs to survive and needs to be cooperative, then you can do a great deal of good.
DEVIN STEWART: What recommendation would you make to organizations, such as businesses and governments, to respond?
SYD MEAD: Part of the whole problem is funding, and funding is necessary for all of this to happen. If you have large capital entities that have a selfish interest, they will eventually get control through funding of media outlets. They already have, and that's not a conspiracy theory. It's fact. So what you have to do is to somehow unlink huge, huge capital resources from media outlets and so what people listen to and read and have access to isn't a distorted version of what somebody would like them to think.
DEVIN STEWART: And you've thought about the future a lot in your career.
SYD MEAD: Yes. I've been hired by corporations and movie companies to visually illustrate a future that is promotional for that particular group. I've done that my whole professional life. And what I've done is to promote and illustrate futures that are glossy, that are pleasant, that are egalitarian. Things work. People actually produce something. They enjoy the benefits of their productive contribution to the overall civic, economic, and social milieu, and that's the future that should be practiced over and over.
I've done dystopian future illustrations, notably Blade Runner, but that was a professional job helping Ridley Scott visualize a dark, noir science fiction story that he was fascinated with, and I did that very well. But my personal impetus when I'm doing presentations or illustrations is to depict a future that is really nice.
DEVIN STEWART: How will we get there?
SYD MEAD: We're getting there in bits and pieces. You have visionaries who are organizing places where you can go and live. Unfortunately a lot of these are gated communities because you don't want the bad people in there, other than landscapers, laundry workers, and fire and police, and the UPS. But to get there you have to have a system of agreed upon—and I'll call them rules.
Mass transit only works if people use it as sort of a community on wheels or community in progress, not as a closed venue to hold people captive. Tight living conditions in urban centers all over the world need a mutual appreciation of each other's rights and comfort zones to be stable. And if that starts to be interrupted by whatever means, either inter-group, sub-group strife, or resentment or whatever, then the whole thing breaks down, and you no longer have a cooperative social machine, if you want to call it that, going on.
And that's happened all over the world also.
DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that when you were hired to create worlds in the future, illustrate worlds in the future that are egalitarian, those were from people hiring you to do so, right? So clearly there are some companies that have that vision as a bright future. Is that correct?
SYD MEAD: Yes, they have that vision because it's beneficial to what they're trying to get across. "If we make this or we make that, we're going to be here for a while, and our future should work like this, as we've hired this fellow to illustrate, which is a nice future that works. People are having a good time and life is nice because we're helping make it that way." That's the basic advertising promotional message that we convey.
DEVIN STEWART: Now is that simply marketing, or is that something that's—
SYD MEAD: It's marketing. In some cases it could be completely hypocritical for advantage, for social schmoozing. But in a lot of cases it's a genuine goal that they wish to promote.
DEVIN STEWART: And why would a company hire you to create a dystopian future illustration?
SYD MEAD: I don't think they would unless they were entertainment game companies or movies. Bad news travels faster than good. It takes a lot more skill in the movie or game industry to create a nice, slick future vision than it does to create disasters. We'll use the Jerry Bruckheimer formula of something has to blow up, catch on fire, or go rocketing across the screen about every minute-and-a-half. That's the formula.
And the crop of games that are out there right now, some games are now becoming more contemplative, and there are more studies in concentration and strategy rather than everybody blowing each other up constantly throughout the progress of the game. There's two ways to go about it. But it takes more skill to make an interesting experience that way than it does to have the control board in the spaceship blow up every episode.
DEVIN STEWART: But you seem hopeful.
SYD MEAD: I do. I do.
DEVIN STEWART: Is world peace possible?
SYD MEAD: Not all over at any one time, no. I'm accused of showing this glossy future. I say, "Well, here's the deal. Human nature is what it is. If we go with the Biblical mythology of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, Cain killed Abel. That meant at the very start 25 percent of the human race was homicidal. That's not very promising."
And right now we have trouble spots in the world that are not caused by anything other than primarily belief systems colliding with each other, and power grabs, using beneficial subsidies for their own purposes and denying their population the subsidies those were intended to benefit. So that's always going to happen.
Human nature is what it is. We're competitive, and you get people in power and they get a taste of it and they don't want to give it up. But if you have enough steady state spots that are willing to cooperate together, then I think it's—we have less going on now in the world than we did generations ago in terms of conflict.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you see things as getting more peaceful?
SYD MEAD: Peaceful because of getting better. From 1900 on, the level of poverty has dropped. The percentage of the world's population that don't have enough to eat has dropped. Everything's getting better slowly, and in spite of the alarmists, it has been getting better and better steadily for the last 100 or so years, and one reason is better technology. It's better organization of facts and things that make the world go, organization and travel and so forth, the awareness of other cultures by other cultures.
So as that continues to grow and you get an intermingling of disparate groups, they could come to appreciate each other's value, then you have a stabilizing effect.
DEVIN STEWART: That sounds somewhat cosmopolitan.
SYD MEAD: Yes, very. Muslims and Christians got along very, very well up until the Battle of the Trench, northeast of Mecca, and that's when it all started to come apart. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures have very, very similar roots to their morality system, their insistence on certain rules, and it's odd that there is such a virulent distaste for each other.
DEVIN STEWART: How would you account for that distaste?
SYD MEAD: My father was a Baptist minister. In the faith-oriented world, you have groups that split off because they disagree on some fundamental—it can be minutia, and they become very, very upset and they hate the people that don't think like they do because when they believe a certain way that becomes you. That's your id. That's your ego. That's your self, your sense of self, and if that's offended, that is a virulent trigger for action.
DEVIN STEWART: That's interesting. We've heard a very, very similar theme from Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric from Bosnia. It's the small things that create the conflict.
SYD MEAD: As you grow up in most cultures that have strong faith-based underpinnings, you are gradually coaxed into separating your physical existence from your spiritual existence. Let's call it a soul. This mentality reaches its extreme when you say, "I'm willing to sacrifice my physical being because my soul will survive and I'll enjoy heaven or an afterlife or legacy or whatever it happens to be," and that's a terrible insult to intelligence.
DEVIN STEWART: Who is ultimately accountable for the problems we've talked about?
SYD MEAD: We all are. If everything goes bust, the universe will go on without us just as it has for billions of years prior. Nature doesn't really care. Nature is what it is and it goes on. It's a self-circulating and generating process, and so we're all at fault if things go really bad. There's nobody to blame but ourselves.
DEVIN STEWART: Mr. Mead, thank you so much for this excellent interview, great insights, and a great perspective. I really appreciate it.
SYD MEAD: You're very welcome.