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2007

"WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"


CONTRIBUTORS
Mahzarin Banaji
Colin Blakemore
David Bodanis
Garniss Curtis
Cory Doctorow
Brian Eno
Marcelo Gleiser
W. Daniel Hillis
Alex Pentland
Philip Zimbardo

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MAHZARIN R. BANAJI
Psychologist; Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University

Unraveling Beliefs

If I were an average white woman living in the United States in 1850, I would already have been dead for 10 years. Not an ideal position from which to contemplate optimism about the future, you say. But consider this:  In the snap of 150 years, the life expectancy of this very group catapulted from a dismal 40 to a respectable 80 years. Given my own privileges, this means that I will write 30 more responses to the yearly Edge question. Yippee.

How can life expectancy, seemingly so determined by biology and the conditions of life, double so fast? Advances in science and technology are no doubt the drivers of the rapid changes in nutrition, medical care, and standards of living that account for this doubling. But such advances were themselves possible, even imagined, because of something else: changes in mental states we call beliefs—beliefs about the worth of a life, beliefs about what it means to be happy, beliefs about health and prosperity including about who deserves it and who does not.

Many others in this volume will speak about specific human accomplishments that are legitimate grounds for optimism. I am inclined to focus on an aspect of the mind because it, I believe, is the font of the many possibilities that give us optimism.

I am bullish about the mind's ability to unravel the beliefs contained within it—including beliefs about its own nature (and I am bullish on this in a year when the CEO of Goldman Sachs took home 53.4 million as a bonus).

What gives me particular optimism about the future is the ability of humans everywhere to go against the grain of their own beliefs that are familiar, that feel natural and right, and that appear to be fundamentally true. What makes me optimistic is the possibility that we can (and do) unravel the contents of traditional beliefs and even the process by which they were constructed.    

We've done this sort of unraveling many times before, whether it is about the relationship of the sun to the earth, or the relationship of other species to us. We've put aside what seemed natural, what felt right, and what came easily in favor of the opposite. I am optimistic that we are now ready to do the same with questions about the nature of our own minds. From the work of pioneers such as Herb Simon, Amos Tversky, and Danny Kahneman we know that the beliefs about our own minds that come naturally, feel right, and are easy to accept aren't necessarily true. That the bounds on rationality keep us from making decisions that are in our own interest, in the interest of those we love, in the long-term interest of our societies, even the planet, even perhaps the universe, with which we will surely have greater opportunity to interact in this century.

Here are some examples of what seems natural, feels right, and is easy to believe in—even though it isn't rational or true.

We irrationally anchor
:  ask people to generate their social security number and then the number of doctors in their city and the correlation between the two numbers will be significantly positive, when in fact it ought to be zero—there's no relation between the two variables. That's because we can't put the first one aside as we generate the second.

We irrationally endow
:  give somebody a cheap mug, and once it's "my mug" through ownership (and nothing else) it becomes, in our minds, a somewhat less cheap mug. Endowed with higher value, we are likely to demand a higher price for it than it is worth or is in our interest to demand.

We irrationally see patterns where non exist
: Try to persuade a basketball player, fan, or statistician that there isn't anything to the idea of streak shooting;  that chance is lumpy and that that's all there is to Michael Jordan's "hot hand".

As natural as it is to anchor, endow, and imagine patterns, it isn't accurate, it isn't in our interest, and it may not even be fair. Likewise, research on the implicit beliefs and preferences we hold has shown that such "mind bugs" extend to the beliefs and preferences we have about ourselves, members of our own social groups, and those who sit farther away on a scale of social distance.

We don't intend to discriminate or treat unfairly, but we do. Such unintended consequences come from aspects of our mind that seem natural (helping somebody close to us like a neighbor or a nephew rather than somebody more distant) and feels right (fearing somebody who looks physically different from us strange). Such responses are natural and feel right because they evolved in a world where such responses may have been useful.  And yet, they continue to operate even through the best person for the job isn't one's family member or friend, where in the strangeness of other cultures lie the most lucrative business opportunities.

Becoming aware of the buggy aspects of our minds is the first step toward unraveling them. How we discover what needs unraveling, how we do it, and how successful we are at it are complex issues. But the fact that we do it is impressive. One of the stories to come out of the 2006 election is that representatives who were successful at bringing home earmarks to their states didn't necessarily win because the electorate cared about something larger than their own backyard.  The ability to think about one's own long range interest, to self-regulate and delay gratification, to consider the well-being of the collective, especially to view the collective as unbounded by religion, language, or nationality requires a mental leap that isn't natural or easy. And yet each new generation seems to be able to do it more successfully than the previous one. The standards for how we treat ourselves and others get higher, we examine our beliefs with more and more powerful lenses, and we turn our minds inside out and shake out the rot.

Why do we do this? I'll argue that we do this for at least three reasons. First of all, because newer laws demand it (we work next to gay co-workers because it is the law and soon minds are changed). Second, old beliefs come unraveled because such unraveling is in our self-interest (India is cool because India generates revenue and soon even Bollywood is spoken about positively).

Most importantly though, we unravel existing beliefs and preferences because we wish them to be in line with our intentions and aspirations and recognize that they are not. I see evidence of this everywhere—small acts to be the person one wishes to be rather than the person one is—and it is the constant attempt at this alignment that gives me optimism.


GARNISS CURTIS
Geochronologist Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

Geomorphic Evidence for Life on Mars

There are three geomorphic forms on Mars I have identified: the filling of old, deeply eroded craters with uneroded domes, some only partly burying eroded original true resurgent domes; channels hundreds of km long filled with similar dome-like material that are arched in crossection, the arches rising two and more km above their margins; and vast areas of Mars between latitudes 25 to 60 degrees covered with mat-like material approximately one km thick in many places which buries completely Noachian age impact craters 5 km in diameter and smaller.

The organic material composing these geomorphic forms is almost certainly cyanobacteria combined with calcium carbonate. Stromatolites on Earth, growing today and going back 3.4 Gyr but on a comparatively miniscule scale, are my model.

I believe that the growth of these gigantic stromatolitic forms gradually decreased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars leading to progressive cooling and finally freezing conditions that ended the growth of the three geomorphic forms and the mostly warm, wet Noachian era. The following cold, dry Hesperian and Amazonian eras for the next 3 plus Gyr to the present time have none of these geomorphic forms, proving they needed water for their formation, but water with some other essential materials to cause their growth.

As several types of meteorites from Mars have been identified here on Earth, it is likely that Mars has received meteorites from the bombardment of Earth as well. The question is, which one seeded the other? We probably are not going to find the prokaryotic progenitors of the eukaryotic cyanobacteria here on Earth, but we have a good chance of finding the progenitors on Mars if they ever existed there, thus telling us which planet seeded the other.


W. DANIEL HILLIS
Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman, Applied Minds, Inc.; Author,
The Pattern on the Stone

The Long View of Demographics

I am optimistic about humankind's ability to reach a sustainable balance with other life on earth, in part because the number of humans on earth will soon start to decrease. This doesn't mean that I think we should ignore our environmental problem—just the opposite: I think we should fight hard now with the confidence that we can win a complete and lasting victory.

We are so accustomed to watching the explosion of human growth and development that it is easy to imagine that this is normal. It is not. We are the first generation in history that has watched the human population double in our own lifetime, and no future generation is likely to see it again. All of those blights of growth that we have come to accept—crowded cites, jammed roads, expanding suburbs, fish-depleted oceans, and tree-stripped forests—are all symptoms of a one-of-a-kind surge in human expansion. Soon they will be just memories.

There are currently over six billion people in the world. There will probably never be more than ten. Population forecasts vary, but they all agree that human population growth is slowing. As people become more prosperous, they have smaller families. In every country where women are allowed free access to education and health care, rates of population growth are going down. Sometimes the trends are hidden by the delays of demographics, but the real population growth rates are already negative in Europe, China, and, if we subtract immigration, in the United States. The total human population is still growing, but not as fast as it once was. Assuming that these trends continue, the total population of the world will be shrinking well before end of this century.

This long view of demographics allows me to be optimistic even though almost every other measure of environmental health is deteriorating. We are suffering from our binge of growth, and the parts of our world that are the last to binge are suffering the most. The binge is not just in size of population, but also in the level of consumption. Yet, here too there is reason for optimism. We are so wasteful in our use of resources that there are huge opportunities for improvement. With more efficient technologies, our fundamental requirements for food, materials, and energy should be well within the carrying capacity of our planet. We should be able to support the peak of human population at a higher standard of living than the richest nations have today.

There is no doubt that the environmental challenges of the next decades are daunting, and they will require all the power of human striving and creativity to overcome them. Yet, I have no doubt that we will succeed. Innovation, good will, and determined effort will be enough to handle the next few billion people. Then as populations shrink, demands on resources will be reduced. Nature will begin to repair itself, reclaiming what we have so hastily taken. I hope we manage to keep the gorillas, elephants and rhinoceroses alive. By the end of the century, they will have room to roam.


COLIN BLAKEMORE
Chief Executive, Medical Research Council;Waynflete Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford


Things will—er—get better

I'm hugely optimistic that things will be better in 2007 than they have been in 2006. What things, you might ask. Well, lots of things. Let's take a couple of things that are on the minds of many scientists—climate change and stem cells. In both cases, the imperative for action on the basis of scientific evidence is clear. But in both cases, other forces have intervened to frustrate progress.

For climate change, the obstacles are short-sighted commercial interests and short-term political interests—let's call them myopeconomics and myopolitics. Many businessmen still judge that their own fortunes and those of their shareholders are best served by ignoring the doom-mongers and pumping out the carbon dioxide to make money. A few politicians—one in particular—still think that their own political standing, and their place in history, are favoured by denying the growingly obvious. But the consequences of climate change are accruing non-linearly. A point must come at which the impact of change will fall within the near-point of those refractory industrialists and politicians. When that happens, the rules will suddenly reverse. Both business and politics will be better served by response than denial. I predict that the tipping point will come in 2007. Political skeptics will become passionate converts, eager to claim the historical credit for recognising the inevitable. The burners will become preservers.

I should make it clear that what I am optimistic about here is the likelihood of a change in attitude; not, alas, about the probability of rapid success in the monstrous task of reversing the effects of a century of profligacy. We are going to have to live with the consequences of our parents' actions, and our children with the consequences of ours. The issue is whether our children's children will inherit a world worth living in.

For stem cells—or, to be more specific, human embryonic stem cells—the barriers to progress are not economic but moral. On the one hand, biomedical science offers the hope of cellular immortality—the prospect of repairing a damaged brain, heart or pancreas, just as grazed skin or a bitten tongue already mends itself. On the other hand, a substantial cohort of politicians and religious leaders (more exactly Catholic and fundamental Protestant leaders), especially in the United States and some European countries, fiercely oppose the taking of life in the interests of other lives. Although the balance of arguments seems quite different from that for climate change, interestingly, the crux of the problem is again the power of intuition over the cold rationality of science. I have heard a ‘pro-life' lobbyist describe the collection of stem cells from 10-day-old embryos, surplus to the requirements of in-vitro fertilization, as "the evisceration of little babies". Life, it is argued, begins at the moment of conception.

Most scientists would surely argue that a pre-implantation embryo, smaller than the point of a needle, without a single nerve cell, let alone any viscera, cannot possibly be considered a person. Defining the starting point of life is not a matter of dogma but of social consensus. As my friend, Nobel Laureate, Eric Kandel put it: "Life begins when the kids are all through College and the dog dies"!

Then, given these absolutist arguments, why should I be optimistic about a change in attitude to stem cell research in 2007? Because morality is, for all but the most stubbornly impervious to practical evidence, a matter of utilitarian dialectic. Yesterday's moral outrage has a way of becoming today's necessary evil and tomorrow's common good. Just as with climate change, what will cause a swing of attitude is the turning point of a mathematical function; in this case the shifting ratio of perceived benefit to theoretical cost.

Just a few weeks ago, a team of scientists from the Institute of Ophthalmology, the Institute of Child Health and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London (supported, I'm delighted to say, by the Medical Research Council) reported that they had restored sight to considerably more than Three Blind Mice, by transplanting into their eyes immature photoreceptor cells (midway between stem cells and fully formed rods and cones). Rats that have suffered strokes have been vastly improved by the transplantation of nerve-making cells into their brains. The first attempts will soon begin at repairing severed human spinal cords with the help of transplanted stem cells. The evidence of likely benefit is growing fast. No miracles yet, but a trickle of hope, which is likely to become a steady stream in 2007. I predict that the immorality of not helping the undeniably-living sick will soon outweigh the good of protecting the never-to-be-born. Just as with climate change, the angels might switch in 2007.

There we are. That's what I'm optimistic about. The problem is that I'm by nature an optimist. I see the world through those legendary rose-tinted spectacles. My glass is forever half-full. Interesting, isn't it, how many clichés there are for being optimistic. Doesn't that suggest that optimism-pessimism is as much a fundamental dimension of human nature as extraversion-introversion, happiness-sadness, energy-slothfulness?  Being optimistic about a particular eventuality is more a comment on the believer than the belief. So, what I'm really optimistic about is that that I won't be devastated even if my predictions are less than perfect.


PHILIP G. ZIMBARDO
Psychologist, Stanford University; Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Situational Focus

When trying to understand human behavior that violates our expectations about how people are supposed to act, there is a learned tendency to "rush to the dispositional." We seek to explain behavior in terms of personal qualities of the actor, or agent of the action in question. In individualistic cultures this means searching for genetic, personality, or pathological characteristics that can be reasonably linked as explanatory constructs. It also has come to mean ignoring or giving insufficient weight to aspects of the behavioral context—situational variables—that may in fact be significant contributors to that action. Dramatists, philosophers, and historians, as well as clergy and physicians, all tend toward the dispositional and away from the situational in their views of human nature.

Social psychologists have been struggling to modify this bias toward inner determinants of behavior by creating in a large body of research highlighting the importance of outer determinants of behavior. Roles, rules, responsibility, anonymity, role-playing, group dynamics, authority pressures, and more have been shown to have a dramatic impact on individual behavior across a variety of settings.

Milgram's classic demonstration of blind obedience to authority established that the majority of ordinary American citizens would follow the path laid down by an authority even if it led to severely harming an innocent person. My Stanford Prison Experiment extended this notion of situational power to reveal how institutional settings, like prisons or schools or businesses, could exert unimaginably strong influences over human behavior. Nevertheless, the general public and even intellectuals from many fields still buy the dispositional and sell short the situational as merely minimal mitigating circumstances.

I am optimistic that this mental bias will get a rebalancing in the coming year as new research findings will demonstrate how the situational focus is to an enhanced public health model as the dispositional is to the old medical model when trying to understand and change behavior of people in communities. The focus of public health on identifying vectors of disease can be extended to systemic vectors of health and success, in place of individual ambition and personal failure and success.

This analysis will be important in meeting the challenges posed by international terrorism through new efforts to build community resilience rather than focusing on individual coping. It will also change the blame game of those in charge of various institutions and systems from identifying the"few bad apples" to actively trying to understand how their barrel had soured and was corrupting even good apples. I have shown how this dispositional thinking operated in analyzing the causes of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib Prison by the military and civilian chains of command. It is no different than the search for evil by developing a Witch Identification and Destruction program during the Inquisition.

Although the foundations of dispositional thinking run deep and wide in most of us, I am optimistic that we will start to seep into that biased thinking to construct a more balanced perspective on how good people may turn evil, and how bad people can be guided to turn good.


BRIAN ENO
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist

And Now the Good News

Things change for the better either because something went wrong or because something went right. Recently we've seen an example of the former, and this failures fill me with optimism.

The acceptance of the reality of global warming has, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern in his report on climate change to the British government, shown us 'the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen'.

The currency of conservatism for the last century has been that markets are smarter than governments: and this creed has reinforced the conservative resistance to anything resembling binding international agreements. The suggestion that global warming represents a failure of the market is therefore important. Technical solutions will hopefully be found, but the process will need to be primed and stoked and enforced by legislation that would be regarded as big government socialism in the present climate. The future may be a bit more like Sweden and a bit less like America.

If a single first instance of global governance proves successful, it will strengthen its appeal as a way of addressing other problems —such as weapons control, energy management, money-laundering, conflict resolution, people-trafficking, slavery, and poverty. It will become increasingly difficult for countries to stay outside of future treaties like Kyoto—partly because of international pressure but increasingly because of pressure from their own populations.

Which brings me to my main reason for optimism: the ever-accelerating empowerment of people. The world is on the move, communicating and connecting and coalescing into influential blocks which will move power away from national governments with their short time horizons and out into vaguer, more global consensual groups. Something like real democracy (and a fair amount of interim chaos) could be on the horizon.

The Internet is catalyzing knowledge, innovation and social change, and, in manifestations such as Wikipedia, proving that there are other models of social and cultural evolution: that you don't need centralised top-down control to produce intelligent results.

The bottom-up lesson of Darwinism, so difficult for previous generations, comes more naturally to the current generation. There is a real revolution in thinking going on at all cultural levels: people comfortably cooperate to play games for which the rules have not yet been written with people they've never met, listen to music and look at art which is emergent, not predetermined, and accept the wiki model of the open-source evolution of knowledge.

All these represent dramatic and promising changes in the way people are thinking about how things work, how things come into being and how they evolve.


MARCELO GLEISER
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author, The Prophet and the Astronomer

That the Debate or, Should I Say, War, Between Science and Religion Will See New Light

I'm optimistic that the debate or, should I say, war, between science and religion will see new light. Right now, the fracturing seems to be worsening, as further entrenchment occurs on both sides. Books from Edge colleagues trashing religion as collective hallucination or delusion, or, better still, as idiotic superstition, carry a simple message to people outside the sciences: we are as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.

Although I'm also an atheist, I do not forget what is behind the power of religious thought. Quite simply: hope. Life is though, people suffer, and, rightly or wrongly, religion offers something for people to hold on to. Yes, it's wild to believe in supernatural influences in the world, yes it's crazy to devote your life to a God that seems to have vanished from the world for, under conservative estimates, "at least" 2000 years. But scientists cannot forget that most people need some sort of spiritual guidance, a kind of guidance science, at least as is taught today, cannot offer. Science has shown, and keeps showing, that we live in a cold, hard universe, completely indifferent to us and to life. And yet, people love, die, connect, fight, and must come to some sort of inner peace, of acceptance. What can science offer these people?

It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the real need people have for spirituality.

My hope is that people will begin to see science as a vehicle for mutual understanding and for respecting life. The more we study life and its mechanisms, the more we realize how rare it is, how precious it is. Sure, there may be life elsewhere, and it may even be intelligent. However, even if this is the case, odds are we are still going to be stuck with ourselves, in this planet or our solar neighborhood, for quite some time. Either we learn that science teaches us humility and respect for life and the environment, or we exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply try to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.


ALEX (SANDY) PENTLAND
Computer Scientist, MIT Media Laboratory

The Human Nervous System Has Come Alive

Ten years ago, half of humanity had never made a phone call and only 20% of humanity had regular access to communications.  Today 70% of humanity can place a telephone call or, more likely, send an SMS message… to the Secretary General of the United Nations, or to most anyone else.   For the first time the majority of humanity is connected and has a voice.

Adults in Western culture fail to appreciate the momentous nature of this change because our mindsets are tied to lumbering legacy technologies like PCs and laptops.  But in most countries, and for virtually all youth, the way to maintain your social network and run your business is by cell phone. 

Digital connections allow public services to be transformed.  In much of Africa, health workers survey the spread of disease, advise expectant mothers, and coordinate health services by digital messaging over cell phones.  In tests, the digital system is both ten times faster than the old paper system—allowing health workers to nip epidemics in the bud—and ten times cheaper, despite the fact that phones cost more than paper. 

Governance is also being transformed.   Not only have the heads of governments been brought down by SMS-organized protests, but multilateral organizations such as the WTO have been brought to account as well.  More subtle, but perhaps even more important, the traceable nature of digital transactions means that banking and government services offered by cell phone are more transparent and accountable than the older systems.   An example of this capability in action is that governments such as India claim that the vast majority of captured terrorists have been identified through cell phone transactions. 

Perhaps most importantly connection means improved efficiency and greater wealth. In some parts of Africa and south Asia, banking is done by moving around the money in cell phone accounts and people pay for vegetables and taxi rides by SMS.  Because remanufactured cell phones cost $10 in the developing world and incoming messages are free, every stratum of society is connected.  Day laborers, for instance, no longer hang around a street corner waiting to be picked for work.  Instead, job offers arrive by SMS from a computerized clearing house.  The International Telecommunications Union estimates that in the poorest countries each additional cell phone installed adds $3000 to the GDP, primarily due to the increased efficiency of business processes.

My conclusion is that is that the human race finally has a working nervous system, and that the poor and disenfranchised are for the first time beginning to make themselves heard and felt.  To accelerate this process, we have established the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship at MIT (web.mit.edu/de), which helps form, fund, and scale in-country efforts that leverage these new capabilities.  The possibilities opened up by humanity's new nervous system are unprecedented, and reason for great optimism.


DAVID BODANIS
Writer; Futurist; Author, Passionate Minds

A Core Decency in People that Even the Worst Machinations of Governments Can't Entirely Hold Down

I'm optimistic because there's a core decency in people that even the worst machinations of governments can't entirely hold down. The Evelina hospital is the first new children's hospital that's been built in London in a century. There's a giant atrium in the middle, and the contract with the company doing the cleaning says that the window cleaners need to dress up as superheroes. The children in bed—many with grave illnesses—delight in seeing Superman and Spiderman dangling just inches away from them, on the outside of the glass; apparently for the cleaners it's one of the best part of their week.

The government has wasted a fortune on consultants, bureaucracy and reorganizations of the NHS. It's always defended in cold management-speak. This simple arrangement with the window cleaners cuts through all that. Everyone I've mentioned it to recognizes that—and in that recognition, lies our hope.


CORY DOCTOROW
Science fiction novelist; Blogger; Technology activist; Co-editor, Boing Boing

Copying Is What Bits Are For

I'm optimistic that the risks of anti-copying technology and the copyright wars are starting to move to the mainstream. Daily newspapers are reporting on the risks from Zune's DRM; governments and librarians are starting to question the fairy tales from the entertainment industry. The British government is poised to be the first government in history to reject a proposal to extend copyright. A Canadian MP lost her seat last year because she'd sold out the country to a bunch of entertainment dinosaurs. Four European nations opened inquiries into the competition and consumer protection issues raised by iTunes DRM. The latest WIPO treaty looks like it has died, killed by activist involvement.

Sure, the US-Russia Free Trade Agreement restores the totalitarian practice of licensing presses (Uncle Sam, bringer of liberty!) and plunges Russia back into the pre-Samizdat era. Sure, the RIAA is continuing to terrorize American families by reducing 700 of them to poverty every month. But most people, confronted with the choice between HD-DVD DRM and Blu-Ray DRM are choosing none of the above.

There is no such thing as a copy-proof bit. There aren't even copy-resistant bits. Copying is what bits are for. They will never, ever get any harder to copy.

The copyright wars are a form of contemporary Lysenkoism, a farce wherein we all pretend that copy-proof bits are a reasonable thing to expect from technology. Stalin's Lysenkoism starved millions when the ideologically correct wheat failed to grow and anyone who pointed this out was sent to dissident prison. Entertainment industry Lysenkoism is ruining lives, undermining free speech and privacy and due process, destroying foreign democracies and keeping poor countries poor.

It's about time we wised up to it—and we are.

That makes me optimistic.


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