ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
Student, MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms; Researcher,
Internet 0, Fab Lab Thinner Clients for South Africa, Conformal
Technology in Education
There's a lot in science and technology to be optimistic about,
evidenced by the numerous responses to the question, but I'll focus
the role of technology in education.
Before I entered college, I had never been enrolled in a school.
of my education was provided by books, magazines, museums, and the
like, but I feel the most useful was provided by technology. I was
the first generation to grow up with the Web as a fact of life, and
made use of online references and search engines every day to research
topics in which I'd become interested. From early childhood, many
my questions were answered by a mix of university websites,
ad-supported niche reference works, and charitable individuals sharing
their own personal knowledge with the world. Today, Wikipedia alone
provides peer-reviewed, freely contributed articles on over 1.5
million subjects, and Google indexed 25 billion items in 2005 (it
longer publishes the count). Almost any piece of knowledge known
man can now be located on the Web at the touch of a button.
means of communication can also aid education. When I was 7, I
emailed a science consultant whenever I had a question that I couldn't
find a ready answer for on the Web — questions such as "Why
passengers in the Concorde hear a sonic boom?", and "Where
find the Bohr model of every chemical element?" In 1999, during
week of my 8th birthday, I used email to first contact the author
book I really liked (When Things Start to Think), who
happened to be
Neil Gershenfeld, now my faculty advisor. I probably wouldn't have
bothered to write a formal letter, so if email didn't exist, my
educational trajectory would have been entirely different. I was
mentored from many miles away by Ray Kurzweil, in a series of
conversations enabled by email; this was another major influence
Computing is also a creative tool: it can be used to write essays
(like this one), produce works of art (I've sold fractal-based art
local festivals), and write computer programs. Programming fascinated
me from a very early age, but it wouldn't have kept my interest long
if I didn't have access to a computer. I think that my experiences
programming may have been the most influential in my intellectual
development: problem-solving and critical thinking are rewarded,
skills are enforced, and I even wrote programs to help teach me
things, like an arithmetic drill I wrote in LOGO at age 5. I was
greatly aided throughout my college education in computer science
my earlier self-guided learning of many of the same concepts. Whereas
I was taught 8 programming languages in college, I've learned over
twice as many others on my own, and those were some of my most
valuable and (so far) useful learning experiences.
Papert's constructionist theory best explains my personal experience
with education: "Constructionism is built on the
that children will do best by finding ('fishing') for themselves
specific knowledge they need. Organized or informal education can
most by making sure they are supported morally, psychologically,
materially, and intellectually in their efforts."
this point of view, what holds back the education of children in
the developing world isn't so much a lack of school-houses or
qualified teachers, but a lack of access to technology and
communications. Without the Internet, there's no good place for these
children to "fish" for knowledge — the local elders probably
have a Periodic Table of Elements on the hut wall.
I'm optimistic because the unstoppable force of Nicholas Negroponte's
charisma is now squarely facing off against this problem. He's
convinced a dream team of technical, educational, and political
leaders to spend lots of money and time working on it. His One Laptop
Per Child (OLPC) project shows no signs of failing, despite many
reports to the contrary, and it's moving at a breakneck pace towards
future, not more than a decade or two off, when every child in
the world - developing and developed — really does have a laptop.
Imagining the possibilities is a start, but it seems like the OLPC
team, driven by the constructionist theories, has developed a host
innovative hardware and software that really do promise to bring
useful and creative education to the world.
optimistic because my lab, the Center for Bits and Atoms, with
the aid of the NSF and other global organizations, is deploying "Fab
— Fabrication Laboratories - all around the world, from Boston to
Midwest to rural India and a village north of the Arctic Circle.
Labs bring something that even the developed world lacks broad access
to: cheap, easy fabrication of physical objects and custom
electronics. With a set of inventory, machines and computers that
totals roughly US$50,000, those who enter the lab can make wooden
furniture, high-gain antennas, and even ~$10 "thinner clients"
(terminals that connect over a variety of communications media to
~$1200 servers that support hundreds of users). These types of
objects can be and are developed by local inventors, produced by
oneself or in a "micro-VC" community business, and cost
Fab Labs are also another huge enabling factor for constructionist
education; making things is one of the most useful and creative sorts
Media artist Toshio Iwai, who was Artist-in-Residence at San
Francisco's Exploratorium and wrote the video game Electroplankton,
told a story that his mother took away all his toys when he was a
small child and told him that he could only play with toys he made
himself. Iwai credits that moment as a turning point in his life:
from passive to active, consumer to creator. I'm optimistic that
the future, education will not take place in centralized Houses of
Learning, places where students listen to lectures and then answer
questions about them; that education will take place at construction
sites, in art studios, in computing centers: places where useful
creative things are done. I'm optimistic that it will be a more
useful and creative education that will produce more useful and
creative people that will contribute, in turn, to a more useful and
Science Editor, The Daily Telegraph; Coauthor, After
Public Will Become Immune To Hype
quietly optimistic that in the wake of years of hype over the practical
significance of gene discoveries, fusion power, magic bullets,
superconductivity, gene therapy, cures for ageing, and embryonic
cells*, the public will become more pessimistic about the practical
benefits of discoveries made in the lab and more appreciative of
science is really about — basic curiousity, rationality and
the never-ending dialogue between ideas and experiments. With luck,
the public will spend more time gazing up at the blue skies of science
not down at the brown torrent of parochial and humdrum expectations
about what science can do for them. Science does not have to be useful,
save to put forward useful models of how nature works. Science does
have to cure disease. Science does not have to make us live to 120.
Science does not have to make money.
* Being a science journalist, I plead guilty on all counts
Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox,
the Seashell, and the Soul
Knowable Gaian Mind
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
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.
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.
corollary is that any piece of brute matter will be a computer
just as it is. That is, once we can reach into the inner self of
an object, we'll become able to program the behavior of things
like rocks or log—without our having to attach any kind of
microprocessor as an intermediary.
will communicate at a vastly enhanced level. Presently I communicate
an idea by broadcasting a string of words that serves as a program
for reconstructing one of my thoughts. Once we enjoy subdimensional
telepathy, I can simply send you a link to the location of some
particular idea in my head.
will fade away and, in particular, digital computers will be no
more. The emerging interactions of Earth's telepathically communicating
beings will become a real and knowable Gaian mind. And then we
will become aware of the other higher minds in our cosmos.
UC Irvine; Author, Deep
truly thinks we can slow global climate change within half a century;
at least, no economist who has looked at the huge momentum of energy
demand in the developing countries.
despair? Not at all. Certainly we should accept the possibility
that anthropogenic carbon emissions could trigger a climactic tripping
point, such as interruption of the gulf stream in the Atlantic.
But rather than urging only an all out effort to shrink the human
atmospheric-carbon footprint, my collaborators and I propose relatively
low tech and low expense experiments at changing the climate on
purpose instead of by mistake.
understand climate well enough to predict that global warming will
be a problem, then we understand it well enough to address the
problem by direct means.
the simplest idea uses the suspension of tiny, harmless particles
(less than one micron) at about 80,000 feet altitude, in the stratosphere.
test could be over the arctic, since the warming there is considerable.
The polar bears need hjelp right now, not when we might get control
of emissions, out beyond 2050. The Arctic atmospheric circulation
patterns tend to confine the deployed particles, sweeping them
around the pole but not southward.
could use enough of the tiny particles to create a readily measurable
shielding effect. An initial experiment could occur north of 70
degrees latitude, over the Arctic Sea and outside national boundaries.
The particles would reflect UV rays back into space. They would
reduce warming and stop the harm of UV rays to plants and animals.
Robust photosynthesis would still occur, fueled by the visible
idea exploits our expanding understanding of the climate system,
plus our knowledge that the marked cooling by volcanoes in the
last century arose from sulphate aerosols at high altitude.
works, it could arrest Arctic warming and reverse the loss of sea
ice. Since few live there, any side effects on people would be
minor. By placing the particles at a high altitude, we can arrange
for the first experiments to end when they rain out into the sea,
perhaps after the Arctic summer has passed.
then put this particulate shield and other technologies on the
shelf quickly and cheaply. They would be ready for use if the global
environment worsens, signals that the scarier scenarios of a warming
climate might be threatening.
seem attainable—perhaps ten million dollars for a first experiment.
Trials over open ocean are little constrained by law or treaty,
so show-stopper politics may be avoided. "No Environmental
Impact Statement Required" should be the goal.
that a favorable experiment could change the terms of the global
warming debate for the better. We must think of other methods of
trimming the effects of warming, not just a War on Carbon that
will take a century to win. As economist Robert Samuelson recently
said, "The trouble with the global warming debate is that
it has become a moral crusade when it's really an engineering problem.
The inconvenient truth is that if we don't solve the engineering
problem, we're helpless."
University of Bradford; Author, The
optimistic about skeuomorphism. Odd, perhaps, but true.
small wire tidy on my desk I have several corks. But they are not
cork. The word cork comes from the Latin for oak, quercus,
a sub-species of which has the spongy bark that is so useful for
sealing wine in bottles. In the 1980s, demand for high quality
cork began to outstrip supply. As low grade cork often taints (or 'corks')
wine, substitutes were sought. My corks are synthetic. One is cork-coloured
and slightly variegated to make it appear traditional; like real
corks in the German Riesling tradition, it is stamped in black
with a vine tendril motif. Another is less convincingly mottled,
and is mid-yellow in colour with the name of the vintner, Gianni
Vescovo, printed in bold black. Both these corks are skeuomorphs—objects
that preserve formal vestiges of the constraints of an original
no longer strictly necessary in the new material. First generation
skeuomorphs are close mimics, even fakes.
generation skeuomorphs, like the Vescovo cork, abandon any serious
attempt at deception. Its mottling, and the fact that it is still
a functional cork, rather than a metal screw-top closure (equally
efficient for the modest young wine it briefly protected) is a
comforting nod to the history of wine. At the same time it signals
a new, more consistent, freedom from contamination. As synthetic
corks became more familiar, new and more baroque forms arose. These
third generation skeuomorphs are fun: a bright purple cork that
stoppered an Australian red suggests a grape colour, while a black
cork has a hi-tech look that draws symbolic attention to the new
techniques of low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel.
This black cork is still mottled, but in an exaggerated and unconvincing
manner—a self-conscious and playful back-reference both to
real corks and to earlier skeuomorphic examples. One could not
conceive of the black cork without a process of skeuomorphic familiarization,
through first and second generation examples. Put the black cork
next in sequence with a real cork, and the dissonance would be
much of the history of technology as an unplanned trajectory in
which emergent skeuomorphic qualities often turn out to have been
critical. Corks are a relatively trivial example in an extraordinary
history of skeuomorphism, impossible to review here, but which
encompasses critical turns in material development from prehistoric
flint, via the discovery of metals and alloys, to complex compound
objects, of which computers are a modern manifestation.
about skeuomorphs arises, as optimism often does, from former pessimism.
I grew up with Alan Turing's unsettling vision of a future
machine indistinguishable from a human in its reactions. Ray Kurzweil's
provocative prediction of the impending 'singularity'—the
point when computer intelligence would start to leave humans gasping
in its intellectual wake—added to my fears. I actually began
to worry that efforts to enculture my children with Shakespeare
and Darwin, and even with spiritual and moral values, might be
rendered peremptorily redundant by cold robotic Übermenschen.
recently become quite relaxed about all this, but not because I
doubt for a moment that computers are rapidly becoming very smart
indeed, and will become smarter, in some directions, than we can
easily imagine. Computers explicitly reproduce aspects of the human
brain. Yet their eventual power will probably not be in simulation
or deception. There will never be a perfect Turing machine, except
under conditions so artificial and in contexts so circumscribed
as to be rather ridiculous. Instead, by surpassing us in some areas,
computers will relieve our brains and bodies of repetitive effort.
But it will not be mimicry of our brain function that will be important.
If they behave as other skeuomorphs before them, it will be computers' currently
unimagined emergent qualities that we will come to value most, enhancing
and complementing our humanity rather than competing with and superseding
fashion, the synthetic corks have taken the pressure off the oak
groves, securing their future and with it those genuine champagne
moments. Happy New Year!
Biologist; Climatologist, Stanford University;
Author, Laboratory Earth
a climate scientist, seeking optimism is like a scavenger hunt — have
to look in some strange places.
an example, take the ozone hole that opened up 20 years ago and
nearly instantly (in a few years, which is really fast in international
treaty terms) created positive action: the Montreal Protocol
to ban ozone depleting substances. So that is a good example
of optimism, my students often suggest—right? Well, maybe, because we knew about
the likelihood of ozone depletion for 15 years before the ozone
hole was proved to be caused largely by human emissions.
what happened since the early 1970s?: the chemical industries
denied it, took out character assassination adds in major media
to cast doubt on the scientists doing the work, and hired attack
dog lobbyists to block action in Washington.
is the optimism in this little piece of scientific history? There
was some: unbeknownst to most of us, the chemical industry actually
believed the science was about right, preliminary as it was,
and despite political posturing to the contrary had been working
on substitutes for ozone-depleting CFCs, so that one day, when
the scientific evidence and politics aligned for ozone action,
they were ready to put on a green cloak — and by the way,
take over market share by selling the world their newly designed
friendly" chemicals. So was the ozone glass half empty or
half full — one could legitimately see it either way: (optimists)
we acted when we had to; versus (pessimists) why did it take
a catastrophe in the making to get action we should have taken
a decade before on likely science.
lessons from the ozone affair for climate change policy?
what would constitute a "climate hole"? Perhaps, the
2003 Euro heat waves that killed some 35,000 well-heeled Europeans?
Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans — connected to recent evidence
that global warming should statistically increase top intensity
tropical cyclones? Amazingly enough,
despite all the pessimistic talk from environmental types about
bio-geophysical "tipping points" in the climate system
(e.g., shut down to the Gulf Stream, collapse of Greenland Ice
sheet etc,), my optimistic half brain thinks the only clearly demonstrable "tipping
phenomena" are psychological-political: the symbolic events
of climate impacts just mentioned and the advent of a popular movie
combined with a big change in attitudes about inventing our way
out of global warming by some large corporations no longer lobbying
to prevent policy — these include GE, BP, PG&E, Duke
Energy, Wal-Mart and many others.
events actually are cause
for optimism. But, lest the O overtake the P a bit too fast, what
has been proposed as climate policy so far is only a palliative
that will stop less than half the projected warming — the
really dangerous events occur after a few degrees of warming and
we are still squarely on that pathway, even if making some optimistic
sounds and a few small moves to change direction.
in the optimism-pessimism derby, optimism has staged a comeback
in the back stretch and is gaining on the more apocalyptic favorite.
That is the good news. But without widespread acceptance of the
need to reconfigure our energy systems — and put our overweight
cars on a diet — the troubling favorite is still a few lengths
ahead as we enter the home stretch. But optimism is quite legitimate
still: attitudes are changing fast. Scientists still need to keep
explaining credibly the consequences of all actions — and
inactions — so
we have a good chance to avert the highest climate change risks
that business as usual is steaming us toward. It is still doable
to steer the big ship toward safer waters, but the window of opportunity — and
optimism — diminishes the longer we delay implementing sea
the most optimistic aspect for me is that the young scientists
I work with understand the dilemmas and are dedicated to credibly
explain the situation to all who will engage.
Science Writer; Author, Us
and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind
Zombie Concept Of Identity
optimistic about what I call the zombie concept of identity:
I think it is losing its grip on the thoughts of scientists,
lay people and their political leaders.
zombie concept of identity is the intuition that people do things
because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation.
It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically
valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of "American
behavior'' or "Muslim behavior'' or "Italian behavior'')—and
then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims
or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their
membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).
it's fair to say that scientists have shown that people are not
identity zombies. Much work has been done (some by people on Edge,
like Mahzarin Banaji and Scott Atran) that shows how the connections
between identity and behavior are never so simple. It's clear that
all of us have many overlapping identities (American, middle-aged
person, Episcopalian, Republican, soccer mom can be attached to
one person in a single morning); it's what we're doing, and who
we're doing it with, that seems to determine which of these identities
comes to the fore at a given time.
as these ideas have become familiar in anthropology, social psychology
and other disciplines, they didn't seem to make it into the everyday
discourse with which people talk about terrorism, immigration,
social change etc. That has had a number of bad effects. Leaders
who think that people become terrorists because they're Muslims,
or that new immigrants will be hostile to a society because they're
immigrants, are making decisions that are bad for their nations,
perhaps even unsafe.
though, I see signs that people realize the limits of the zombie
identity. Pop culture is rich in stories and images that remind
people of overlapping identity. More importantly, political rhetoric
is giving way to realism about human psychology.
example: The anthropologist David Kilcullen was quoted in a recent
New Yorker explaining that jihadists are pulled into terrorism
by their circle of friends and their social networks — that "there
are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive
what's happening. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting.
This is not 'Islamic behavior'''.
significance here is that Kilcullen is not, currently, an academic.
He's an official of the US State Department. My hunch is that people
in charge of fighting democracy's enemies will increasingly have
to deal with identity as it is, even as popular culture is ever
richer in reminders that people have a lot of overlapping affiliations.
have more than a little hope that in 10 years' time, people who
take seriously the zombie concept of identity will be looked upon
as we look upon people who believe in witchcraft. That will mean
that popular discourse is closer to science than it used to be.
I think there may be a kind of feedback loop that will be good
for science: As daily talk becomes more comfortable with the idea
that people have multiple identities whose management is a complex
psychological phenomenon, there will be more research on the central
questions: What makes a particular identity convincing? What makes
it come to the fore in a given context?
are the issues that link society, mind and body and I think when
we have more competing theories about how them, we'll be closer
to understanding why people are they way they are. I'm optimistic
that this will happen.
doesn't mean that I think scientists, or anyone else, will stop
saying things like "you know, I was raised Catholic'' or "I'm
a typical Jewish mother'' to explain human behavior. Galileo died
five centuries ago, but we still say "what a nice sunrise.''
But in the same way that we know that really, it's the earth that
moves relative to the sun, I think we will arrive in the next few
years at a better understanding of what collective identity means
and how it is made.
and Television Producer; Author, The
The Optimism of Scientists
To ask "what am I optimistic about?" is rather like
asking "what am I tall
about? or "what am I English about?" For me, optimism
is a personal
characteristic rather than an attitude to be applied to some things
others. Fortunately it is a characteristic that many scientists have
others acquire, and I am optimistic that this optimism will continue
to be a
unique human characteristic.
Without optimism, why would anyone embark on the complex and interrelated
series of steps that makes up any scientific experiment, let alone
enterprises like the Manhattan or Apollo projects? And faced with
like Challenger and Columbia, and the results of inquiries into how
happen, how could anyone have the faith to continue unless they were
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is perhaps the greatest testament
optimism. Conceived decades ago, absorbing two and a half billion
a collaboration between over 40 countries, designed to accelerate
particles to 99.999999 the speed of light and to create a theoretical
entity, the Higgs Boson, for which no evidence exists — if this
is not a
triumph of optimism over realism, I don't know what is.
And I believe this optimism is more than just logical and reasoned
from previous researches. Scientists are optimistic about science
general as a tool for discovery. They believe that the methods of
will produce valid results. They believe that whatever aspect of
universe they turn their attention towards, even if never previously
explored, they can design experiments and carry out observations
be valid and provide sustainable increments in our understanding.
Is this optimism unique to science? I believe it is. No one has such
strong faith in the future benefits of politics or economics or art
philosophy or technology. Some favour capitalism, others socialism;
favour nuclear power, others renewable energy; some believe in a
wide-ranging humanistic education, others believe in vocational training;
some believe in nationalism, others in internationalism. But scientists
believe in science — that is an indication of their optimism.
in Chief, Wired Magazine; Author, The Long Tail
Law of Minds
Our species is unique in its ability to use communications to
learning across populations, allowing us to get smarter and more
more quickly than evolution alone would allow. What makes me continually
hopeful is that those tools of communications continue to get so
much better, so much faster. Anyone who can explore Wikipedia and
not be both humbled and filled with confidence in the collective
potential in the people all around us is a cynic indeed. And we've
only just scratched the surface of such networked intelligence.
Law says that value of a networks grows with the square of the
number of nodes. Today's Web, which is as much about contributing
as it is
consuming — two-way links, as opposed to the old one-way networks
broadcast and traditional media — allows the same to apply to people.
Connecting minds allows our collective intelligence to grow with
each person who joins the global conversation. This information propagation
process, which was once found in just a few cultures of shared knowledge,
such as academic science, is now seen online in everything from hobbies
to history. The result, I think, will be the fastest increasing in
human knowledge in
morning I was explaining to a nine-year-old about Moore's Law
and the magical power of the continuous learning curve. "Will
it ever end?" he
asked. "I don't see why it should," I answered. That's
optimism for you.
Psychologist, London School of Economics;
Author, Seeing Red
Best Is Yet To Come
I had lived in the year 1007, and had been asked what I looked
for my descendants in the next millennium, I might have imagined
wonderful possibilities. But I would not — because I could
imagined the music of Mozart, the painting of Rothko, the sonnets
Shakespeare, the novels of Dostoyevsky. . . It means I would have
see one of the best reasons of all for being optimistic: which is,
power of human artistic genius to astonish us again and again. I
make the same mistake twice. So let me say straight out, in 2007
I hope and
expect that the best is yet to come: that greater works of art than
any the world has ever seen will be created by human beings not far
ahead of us — works of presently unimaginable aesthetic and
moral force. And, mind you, it will not require genetic modification,
computer hybridization, high-tech brain
enhancement or whatever — it will simply require that we continue
to be the
kind of people that we are.