April 26, 2019

What are you Optimistic About? Edited by John Brockman

Few books go against the grain of relative pessimism that permeates modern culture. In “What are you Optimistic About?” John Brockman challenges some of the leading thinkers of our time to think of the glass as half full. Each year, the Edge website www.edge.org has asked a simple question to the great thinkers of our time.

The results are always intriguing and enlightening; I like the definition of “crack cocaine for the brain,” as some of them really make you think. Some of the previous questions include: “What do you Believe but Cannot Prove?” and “What’s your Dangerous Idea?” which I read and enjoyed as well; look for a review at this site on this one as well! For the record, 2008′s question currently is: “What have you Changed your Mind About?”

The 150 plus articles are loosely arranged and cover the gamut from all disciplines of science from philosophy to sociology and religion. Some are only a paragraph long and narrow in scope, some cover no less than the chances of our survival as a species and the extension of the universe as a whole. A great deal of them share my own secret hope that computers and technology will soon realize their promised potential. I agree with many of the authors that computers and the Internet are currently at their “Model-T” stage of development; ultimately technology will become so seamless as to blend into our everyday back ground. Some of these essays remind me of two great things computers promised us that have yet to materialize; one is the death of paper. This was promised in the late 80′s when PCs were just coming into vogue (A high school friend of mine likes to joke that we were computer nerds when floppy disks were really “floppy”!) The problem is that no one yet totally trusts electronic media, and sometimes with good reason. The second is durability.

I distinctly remember an Arthur C. Clarke short story that promised computers would “last for centuries because they would never wear out due to lack of moving parts.” Surely, this is achievable from a purely engineering standpoint; so why isn’t it on my desktop? I’ve yet to have a PC or laptop that’s lasted five years! But I digress…

Some of my favorite bits of optimism and a short sampling are;

“War Will End” John Horgan posits that mankinds tendency towards tribal and large scale warfare is declining. I remember raising the same idea in junior high and getting roundly laughed at. Now, the concept of outlawing warfare, or at least containing it to conflagrations that can be dealt with by a local police force do not seem so outrageous. Once slavery was legal and considered a natural state; the destructiveness of 20th century warfare may have at last forced us to confront and question this ugly aspect of human nature as well.

“By the early 22nd Century, We Will be Living on More than One Little Tiny Ball in Our Solar System.” by Rodney Brooks. Somewhat closer to home plate here at Astroguyz, the privatization and eventual colonization of space, once seen as a Buck Rogers pipe dream, may finally get underway in our lifetime.

“The Future of Software” by David Gelernter. This one was funny enough that I read it aloud to my wife; computers may have come a long way, but we’ve got lots further to go! It amazes me that the laptop I’m currently blogging away on is more powerful than what landed men on the moon; still, I can’t wait to have access to a petabyte (a million gigabytes) of data in the size of a bluetooth headset. And with Gelernter’s “empty computer” model, there’s no fear of the dreaded, and often eventual, computer crash! All data is safely locked away in geosynchronous orbit.

“The Rise of Usability” Marti Hearst echoes the sentiment that engineers will someday practice good user interface design. The words “But could my grandmother use it?” should be emblazoned in plain sight of every would-be designer of technology.

For some the title, such as John Gottman’s “When Men are Involved in the Care of Their Infants, the Cultures Do Not Make War,” says it all. Others, such as Thomas Metzinger’s “I Will be dead Wrong Again.” range towards the humorous.

Of course, the reader is not forced to agree with all of the essays, and one would hope that an enlightened audience might disagree with at least a small portion of them.    The concept of “Universal Telepathy,” was a little too new age for this reviewer. If anything, the brain has proven itself to be a self contained unit, unable to “broadcast” or “receive” on a subliminal level. Of course, I’d love to be proven wrong…

The above is only a small smattering of what’s in the book; like a cerebral salad bar, the reader is invited to pick and choose his sub-specialty of interest.

So, you may ask, what are we here at Astroguyz optimistic about? Well let me get on my figurative soap box, if I may. That’s what blogging is all about, right? In a broad sense, I’m now cautiously optimistic about our long term survival as a species. One of my favorite scenes in the movie Contact is when Jodi Foster is posed with the existential “What if you could only ask one question to an advanced alien civilization” scenario. (Why only one? If they’re truly advanced, aren’t they evolved beyond game shows?) Her answer was “How did you do it? How did you survive technological adolescence?” Growing up in the 1980′s, the outlook of humankind was pretty grim. I remember leading thinkers being interviewed on a documentary on nuclear war; none of them thought we would make it to 1990. And yet, here we are, chugging along through 2008. We don’t have teleporters and warp drives ala Star Trek, but flip communicators and laptops have arrived. I can’t wait until a phaser is included on my cell phone plan. Sure, there’s no guarantee that humanity will be around in another century, but the prospects look much better. The fact alone that we are surviving may guarantee that there could be other civilizations in our nearby galactic neighborhood to talk to, and not merely a series of burnt out worlds. The trick now is to have the vision. A tribe can accomplish more than an individual; in the 20th century we’ve shown that the resources of a nation or organization can accomplish tremendous feats, such as landing a man on the moon, unleashing the power of the atom, or eradicating polio. What we have yet to do is work in one direction as a species, and that’s what we need to do to survive. Goals such as interstellar travel, the curing of genetic diseases, and tackling global warming will require a truly global effort, not global lip service.

Closer to my sub-discipline of Astronomy, now is the best time in history to be an astronomer! Discoveries are coming at an accelerated pace; think of the millennia of astronomers to whom the stars and planets were merely dots of light. Now I can see images of a distant world like Titan flashed across my laptop screen the day they’re beamed to Earth. Projects like the CERN particle accelerator and the Terrestrial Planet Finder are just a few of the biggies that promise a new golden age of astronomy and science. In the 19th century, there was a feeling that science was a universal panacea, able to cure all of societies ills. The pitfalls of the 20th century curbed this optimism as the horrors of science with out ethical concern and solely motivated by profit was unleashed. But in the 21st century, some of these promises of science as a candle in the dark are coming back full circle. This alone is the source of my optimism.

Read “What are you Optimistic about?” and then pose the same question to yourself. And be sure to check out the previous Edge books, as well as the edge.org website! It’s a total mind gymnasium.

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