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Tuesday, January 2, 2007day link 

 What are you optimistic about?
picture Every year EDGE poses a big question to a bunch of big thinkers. Last year the question was "What is your dangerous idea?", which I commented on here, and the year before here. This year it is "What are you optimistic about? Why?". Which is a great question. There seems to be fewer things to be optimistic about, so all the more reason to be optimistic. So, let's see... Hm, as usual, many of the answers are a bit of a letdown. As usual, a bunch of people are using such a podium to optimistically predict that beliefs in "irrational" stuff like God, UFOs and alternative medicine are on their way out, and very soon now, science will have completely rational peer-reviewed answers to what consciousness and intelligence is. Same dumb reasons and circular logic as before. Others are optimistic about solar energy, good, and about finding solutions to our big environmental, social and health problems, good, and the potentials of the knowledge-based society, co-creating culture, etc, which is good too. But in the first several pages, I can't find much I even want to bother quoting. OK here's one:
Irene Pepperberg: A Second (and Better) Enlightenment

Like some other respondents, I'm not particularly optimistic at the moment. Human civilization, however, seems to proceed in cycles overall, and I believe that we are due—even if not quickly enough for my tastes—for a new positive cycle. Every Golden Age—the flowering of reason and good—has been followed by a withering, a decay, a rotting, a descent into superstition, prejudice, greed (pick your own favorite ill); somehow, though, the seeds of the next pinnacle begin their growth and ascent, seemingly finding nourishment in the detritus left by the past. A particular civilization may end, but new ones rise to take its place. I'm optimistic that the current nadir in which we find ourselves (e.g., a world mostly heedless of ongoing genocides, global warming, poverty, etc…) or toward which we see ourselves heading will lead to a renaissance, a new enlightenment…a profound, global shift in the world view for the better.
I believe that too, even though it doesn't really say much. Here's another:
Lisa Randall: People Will Increasingly Value Truth (Over Truthiness)

Optimism is an "ism" like any other. People reading these pages should recognize the responses as the hopeful beliefs that they are. With this caveat, I'm optimistic that people will increasingly value truth (over truthiness). After recent digressions into beliefs and images dominating current thought, I'm anticipating that society will increasingly recognize and understand the value of knowledge. People will want to make their own critical judgments, know more facts, and stop deferring to questionable authorities or visual media for their education. I don't necessarily think everyone will do so. But I'm optimistic that the ones who do won't remain a silent minority.
I'm optimistic about that too. We're letting ourselves be misled in so many ways, but at the same time I think that truth will win, because we're getting better tools for recognizing it, and those tools are probably progressing faster than the tools that can be used to fake it.

I like very much what Kai Krause says, but it is long. Here's a piece:

...Obviously I could go on ad nauseum here, but this is not a description of technology per se. The emphasis is on quality of life. On the benefits of tools, the liberating freedom. My real point: Humans are feeble. We forget. We have become numb to all the wonder.

To see the weather in pictures from space, animated over time, what a wonder that would have been to the Wright brothers...or James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo..? To be in realtime communication with your family, what a wonder that would have been for Bach who had 20 children (half of which died in infancy. I didn't even touch on the advances in health and medicine, of course).

To see cellphones and billions of sms would have boggled Tesla, Edison, Bell, Reis, Meucci. To send a probe to other planets, and personally own the resulting images in startling clarity, what a dream that would have been for a Huygens, Mercator, Kepler, Galileo...

To collaborate on your work with colleagues on the other side of the world as if they are in the next room, how liberating is that freedom! To travel safely, quickly, effortlessly, with an all-knowing friend guiding you, what would any of them say to that? Researchers added up that Goethe traveled over 37.000 km in his lifetime, in more than 180 excursions but: on foot, horseback and carriages! Add a zero for a guy like Humboldt. They would have marveled — or cried — at our options to go anywhere, see anything, meet anyone.

To be able to see all the works of all the great artists, and keep a copy to then examine up-close, at your leisure, in your own home — to listen to the music of any composer, new or old...what an absolute dream in itself that would have been for any and all of them! Consider you hear about 'that new Beethoven symphony': you would have to physically travel to a performance somewhere, and even then you could only hear that one, not any of the others, and: you would likely forget it, since you would hardly get a chance to hear it again to build a long term memory of it. Never mind mentioning movies here, or radio, television, let alone the web...
Wonder is a great thing. There's a lot to marvel about, which our ancestors would have killed to experience. We can do a lot of things very easily which previously would have seemed like magic. So why not be optimistic about further progress?

I also very much like this one:
Chris Dibona: Widely Available, Constantly Renewing, High Resolution Images of the Earth Will End Conflict and Ecological Devastation As We Know It

I am not so much of a fool to think that war will end, no matter how much I wish that our shared future could include such a thing. Nor do I think that people will stop the careless destruction of flora and fauna for personal, corporate, national or international gain. I do believe that the advent of rapidly updating, citizenry-available high resolution imagery will remove the protection of the veil of ignorance and secrecy from the powerful and exploitative among us.

One cannot tell us that a clear cutting a forest isn't so bad if you can see past the half acre of preserved trees into the desert like atmosphere of the former rain forest. One cannot tell you that they are not destroying villages in Sudan if you can view the burned out carcasses of the homes of the slaughtered. One cannot intimate that the impact of a dam is minimal as humanity watches countless villages being submerged in real time. One cannot paint a war as a simple police action when the results of the carpet bombing will be available in near real time on the internet.

We have already started down this path, with journalists, bloggers and photographers taking pictures and in near real time uploading them to any of a variety of websites for people to see. Secrecy of this kind is dying, but it needs one last nudge to push our national and international leadership into a realm of truth unheard of to date...
Right on. If people really could SEE the consequences of their actions, and of the actions of governments and companies, they would not at all go along with it to the same degree.

There are others I enjoy, like the transhumanists are usually enjoyably optimistic, even if they tend to believe us humans are the only intelligent lifeform in the universe. But at least we'd shortly have nanotech matter compilers, super-intelligent robots, and we'd go and colonize the universe and be immortal, all of which is great fun.

Ah, a very refreshing and courageous entry:
Rudy Rucker: A Knowable Gaian Mind

There will be an amazing new discovery in physics on a par with the discovery of radio waves or the discovery of nuclear reactions. This new discovery will involve a fuller understanding of the level of reality that lies "below" the haze of quantum mechanics—suppose we call this new level the domain of the subdimensions.

Endless free energy will flow from the subdimensions. And, by using subdimensional shortcuts akin to what is now called quantum entanglement, we'll become able to send information over great distances with no energy cost. In effect the whole world can become linked like a wireless network, simply by tapping into the subdimensional channel.

This universal telepathy will not be limited to humans; it will extend to animals, plants, and even ordinary objects. Via the subdimensions you'll be able to see every object in the world. Conversely, every object in the world will be in some limited sense conscious, in that it will be aware of all the other objects in the world...
Actually there are a many more I like, but go and read for yourself. These entries are kind of more constructive than last year, even though some of the same conservatism and fixed beliefs show itself. There's reason for optimism.

Now, personally, how would I answer the question? What am I optimistic about?

What I'm optimistic about is consciousness, human or otherwise. As long as somebody's able to pay attention, at least partially, at least some of the time, the future can be nothing but bright in the long run. No matter what happens, somebody will sooner or later be there to notice, to think about it, to feel, to imagine something more and better, and to go for it. Humans do all sorts of stupid things, but however much we hide it, we're always capable of observing, analyzing, enjoying life and acting deliberately towards something more and better. Even if humanity continued in the direction of collective stupidity and wiped itself out, all is not lost. Somewhere, sometime, somebody will wake up and say "Hmmm...." Even if the universe in 20 billion years might have collapsed or expanded into nothingness, that is never just it. In 30 billion years, somewhere, sometime, somehow, some thing, some one will awake, sit up, pay attention, seek the truth, and live life. And that someone will be only indiscernibly different from me, no matter his or hers or its external characteristics. For that matter, we might as well say it is me. Circumstances change, but that which observes and which breathes life into them, appears to remain constant. Doesn't matter who believes it or not, as you don't make it go away by not believing. Existence exists, and is never at risk. And there will always be somebody to observe it. Not because of some improbable fluke accident, and not because of a religious fairy tale, but because it couldn't be otherwise. Two sides of the same coin. Something that exists and someone to notice. A game of infinite variety. No limit to what could exist, and no limit to angles it can be experienced from. But if we add it all up, it is always the same thing, All That Is, Life, The Universe and Everything, forever including those essential characteristics of existence and of consciousness, which together forms life and the potential of life. And I'm as much part of it as you are. So, we aren't really going anywhere, despite the appearance that it is a perilous journey. So, I'm very optimistic. Whatever trouble we'll get into, we'll either get out it, or we'll learn from it and go on to find some better trouble to get out of. Even if we forget, we can always remember.
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