My most recent book is Mood Matters: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers, which is an extended account in words and pictures of how the mood of a population (how it feels about the future, optimistic or pessimistic) dramatically impacts the types of collective events we can expect to see. This ranges from short timescale events like the kinds of films people will like and the sorts of fashions that will be trendy to longer-term events like shifts in political ideology to very long-term events such as the demise of a global power or even a civilization.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born and raised in Portland, OR and received all my university degrees in mathematics. But that was decades ago, and since finishing my studies I’ve been a university professor and researcher at a number of major international centers?The RAND Corporation, the Santa Fe Institute and the Int’l Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria. Currently, I lead a program at IIASA devoted to the study of extreme events in human society.
I started writing general-audience books about twenty years ago, with the best-selling volume Paradigms Lost: Unsolved Mysteries of Modern Science. Since that time I’ve written a dozen popular-science volumes, including Complexification, The Cambridge Quintet and Would-Be Worlds.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to present an account of the developing science of socionomics to a broad audience. I feel the big idea underlying socionomics, the notion that it is the mood of a group that drives social events, not other events, is crucial to understanding how things like the current financial crisis, presidential elections and trends in popular culture.
How did you choose the title?
By focusing on what, exactly, the book is about (social mood) and why I wrote the book (because it is the mood that matters insofar as why we see what we do and not see something else).
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
The major obstacle was simply that editors, like just about everyone else, simply did not believe the basic premise of the book that it is the social mood, not events, that underlies what we can expect to see.
I cannot really say I “overcame” those obstacles, other than to continue to look for a sympathetic editor who wasn’t afraid to take a chance on publishing a far-from-mainstream idea. That took about five years!
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
Despite the fact that I’ve written over a dozen general-reader books, I’m not sure I really consider myself a “writer”. Mostly, I got started because there were ideas/questions I wanted to know more about (origin of life, the possibility of a thinking machine, the existence of intelligent lifeforms elsewhere in the universe, and so on), and thought that the best way to prove to myself that I understood these questions was to try to explain them in everyday language to someone else.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Not really. I just do a lot of background research, try to assemble it into a coherent story and then start putting down one word after another. Of course, rewriting is the key as my manuscripts undergo many revisions and tweaking before they see the light of day in print.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
Never give up when everyone says you’re wrong; give up immediately when everyone says you’re right!
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would start writing general-reader books sooner!
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
I read many different types of books, ranging from professional reading in computer modeling and system theory to airport thrillers. In this latter category, I’m partial to authors, mostly British it seems, who almost never show up on bestseller lists, such as Peter James (not P.D.!), Philip Kerr, Barry Eisler, Tess Gerritsen, to name but a few. I also like “hard” science fiction, as exemplified in the work of Greg Benford, Robert Sawyer, and more classically-speaking, Stanislaw Lem. I like all these authors because they tell good stories and do very good research. So it’s a pleasure to be both educated and entertained in a single sitting.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
My next book will be a general account of extreme events, especially those brought about by human fraility like financial meltdowns, Internet failures, political revolutions, terrorism and the like. The book will address issues such as why and how such events happen, their effect on society, and most importantly, what sorts of tools we can employ to anticipate and, hopefully, head off such events before they fully unfold.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Follow your muse, don’t give up when people ignore your work, and most importantly, don’t write for money. Do it for self-fulfillment and enjoyment!
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
An intelligent, open-minded layperson (not an academic or even intellectual) who wonders about why collective events happen one way and not another, and how we can understand the forces driving such events. Such a person might be from any walk of life and may have a “day job” of almost any type ranging from a dance instructor to a nuclear physicist. The most important factor is that they have some intellectual curiosity about the world around them and are not afraid of thinking unpopular or even counter-intuitive thoughts.