Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Optimism in the New Year

We're grumpy ungrateful bastards.

Almost all of us.

And we're wrong. Wrong to be grumpy. And particularly wrong to be ungrateful.

In my better moments I know that, but I have seldom been so well called back to a sensible, obvious, optimism than by a piece on Edge by Kai Krause. He makes it crystal clear that only the willfully ignorant are not optimistic. It's a great piece to start you off thinking about the new year with some realistic perspective.

(When folks ask you why in the world you're optimistic about stuff like fiber to the home making a real difference in people's lives I recommend you save this reference, point them to the URL, and heave a dramatic sigh.)


But first some background. I usually save thought pieces for Sundays when many of us have the time and inclination to chew things over. But this one is far too good (and far too appropriate for a first-of-the-year piece) to pass on.

Kai Krause is one of dozens of respected thinkers responding to the question of the moment at "What are you optimistic about." Krause himself is know, among other things, for his work on software interface design--if you want to know where the "hard candy" look of Mac OS X and subsequently Windows XP came from just look at the Kai's Tools program from the 80's.

The "thinkers" on the Edge share the characteristics of being both leading-edge practitioners of their craft (be that software design, cognitive neuroscience or physics) and writing for the larger public at the same time. There is a strong slant toward scientists, interpreted broadly. In a past life I had reason to read the work of a fair percentage of the group (Curriculum Design and Education is a license to study everything) and they really are among the leaders in their fields. The yearly questions asked of this crew and their answers on The Edge website are among some of the internet's best nuggets for thoughtful contemplation. These are all people to be taken seriously--even if you occasionally fundamentally disagree with their premises the quality of their thought is never an issue. The question for this year is: "WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? WHY?"


Now back to Kai Kruse's answer to that question. He does little more than recount fragments of what he does during his day. It sounds like science fiction. But it is the current reality for any who choose to pick up the tools he uses and it most of it will be familiar enough to be recognizeable to the readers of this blog even if they don't use the tools to the extent that Krause does. (I recognize, for instance, that he is using a late version of OS X on his 'puter.) A taste:
It's a turquoise sky on a December afternoon. Out of the window I see the Rhein river meandering far below me, the last rays of sunlight shimmering on the surface, a storm is passing through from France heading towards Cologne. To check on it, I push a button, the screen fills with dozens of little widgets: I have a quick look at the realtime weather animation loop for the last 6 hours and can see that most of it will pass to the North....

A little bell sound, ah, an sms text message coming in from my daughter in London...

Dragging the mouse to the other corner: the screen fills with tiny colorful images, probably 100 of them, all the files currently open shown in miniature. I find the NASA shots and drag them over to the side into a folder for science stuff. Quite a collection of bits and pieces there, years of collecting them. Attached for a few hundred bucks is a terabyte worth of muse and ponder. Dozens of reference books, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, what a dream.

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 the kicker:
And is there a list of evils and downsides that came with all those advances? You bet. I could switch hats and drown in drivel about all that...

But the question stands: what am I optimistic about? And I think it simply bears repeating:

Countless scientists over the millennia dedicated their lives to discoveries, to solutions, to inventions and explanations. They had visions of bettering the fate of humanity, of seeking truths and finding answers, and they paid for it with enormous efforts and in many cases with their life. Their combined body of bodies stands in front of us, in awe, and... in tears. We have achieved almost all their dreams, we have freedom in every sense like never before in history and: we are ungrateful bastards about it!

Let us just be content again. Plain happy. Period. I am calling for a New Contentism.

I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean be only content...just to be actively grateful for what we've got while building on it.

It's hard to argue with when you think about it. On the evidence of what people have already accomplished that seemed like the wildest of pipe dreams to our ancestors there is little reason to think that we can't at least lay the foundations for our own grand new dreams.

Post Scriptum......If there is anything depressing about this it is that we walk this world like the demigods in a world our intellectual forebears spent their lives and dreams to create for us and still act as if we had the excuse of being ignorant fools.


Renegade said...

So true!

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John said...


Great Pics on your site.