Archive for the ‘future’ Category

Field of dreams

October 23, 2012

No, this isn’t a baseball post. But, Go Giants. They’re my second-favorite team. Honestly. (But I wasn’t watching, once the game in Boca Raton started. “Horses and bayonets“: that’s a winner!)

Freud on dreams: for some reason I find myself drawn to this topic, at this moment. Maybe it’s that nightmare, night before last, in which a solicitous stranger unexpectedly produced a weapon and began pelting me with painless coiled darts. Or maybe the repeated spousal reports of snoring, the recent incident of nocturnal laughter, etc.  Is that all supposed to mean something?

“No real progress in a definite direction is as yet discernible” in deciphering dreams and their possible meanings, wrote Freud. But he was sure they weren’t just meaningless static, either. “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” So the trick is to unlock the symbolic mystery. Except when the cigar is just a cigar. How to tell? Write ’em down in a journal, say the experts, and maybe you can begin to write your own lucid slumbering stories. But I agree with Sara: the great enchantment of dreaming is the element of surprise, and of promise.

So I prefer my daydreams, which for the most part involve neither snoring nor suggestive imagery. (Never mind what’s supposed to be on a man’s mind, according to Freud.) They’re about possible futures, not a troubled and traumatic past. Freud appreciated them too, when he wasn’t obsessing over stogies and caves and such. As Maria Popova notes,

[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

Or as Bobby Kennedy quoted G.B. Shaw,  “I dream things that never were and ask, why not?” That’s what dreams are really good for: expanding our comprehension of what might be possible, for playful spirits of every age.

Some worry that technology is killing our capacity to dream. Here’s a TED Talk with a different perspective on that:

“To sleep, perchance to dream”: Hamlet may have been tired of life, but the deepest dreamers dream of the life still to come. I’ll take Michael Chabon’s “Omega Glory” over T.C. Boyle’s council of doom any day. Or night. I still wish I’d said this:

If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free.

Yes, we’re dreaming. Of course we are. Maybe that’s what it really means to be alive.

Keep going, keep moving forward

August 1, 2012

The sun at dawn this morning is a fireball mounting the treetops, seeming to shout “get up , get moving!”

Yesterday we got up and hit the road at dawn for yet another distant college campus tour. Kayla in Chattanooga is our favorite student guide so far. “I love my school!” She really sold it. But Older Daughter’s decided she doesn’t like “sprawly” campuses. So far as I’m concerned, they’re the best kind. And we haven’t begun to see “sprawly,” anyway. But, I must remind myself, I’m just the driver.

In our absence the mailman delivered a treat, a “classic reprint” of Dr. Curtis’s Science and Human Affairs from the Viewpoint of Biology (1922). Reading it, I know exactly why he was invited to Dayton to defend the humanity of science and the science of humanity: he was the Carl Sagan of his day.

The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile.

The Cosmos we know today is unbelievably complex and more is being disclosed. Things undreamed of in our philosophy continually appear… The biological discovery of man’s place in nature did more than change traditional beliefs; it gave a point of departure  into a future, unknown but fraught with possibilities.

What science intends, both for the immediate and the remote future, is to keep going. The scientist believes that his rationalistic method offers a means of moving forward… The future is bright with a promise that stands at the threshold of realization.

There you go again, Dr. C., pulling dollars from my ear. It’s a trick that never gets old. The secret? Keep moving.


I believe in magic

June 23, 2012

I do believe, I do, I do! I believe in natural magic, the magic of reality. Don’t read Rowling without it.

…the magic of a thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, of the Milky Way on a cloudless night far from light pollution or of a scanning electron micrograph of an ant’s face. Or, for that matter, the magic of a lover’s kiss. Fairy-tale spells, miracles and myths — they make good stories. But the truth — science — is more magical, in the best and most thrilling sense of the word, than any myth or made-up miracle. Richard Dawkins

The magic even works in Kentucky.

Who knows what great magic may lie ahead, as reality unfolds? As Arthur C. Clarke put it,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God–but to create him.”


“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

And finally:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”

Note to Robert Ettinger: the best dreams are waking

July 30, 2011

Robert C. W. Ettinger: now there was a guy who understood that “life only avails, not the having lived.” Or maybe not.

He gave us cryonics, separated the Splendid Splinter’s head from his bat, inspired Woody Allen (“Sleeper“), and now seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil.

I know I shouldn’t make light of anyone’s passing, but this is just too rich.

“Life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, and immortality might be worth the trouble.” I don’t disagree. It might be.

It might also be more sensible to recognize our personal mortality as a small but crucial part of the much larger and more enlivening story of life on the grand scale, at the species and cosmic level where death and life are yin and yang. It’s really not all about me, or you, or her. It’s about us, about we who’ve been privileged against all odds to wake up in the universe and begin to sniff around, we who have a golden opportunity to prepare our immediate successors for their own moment of lucidity and aspiration.

Links in a chain, we are. Not a chain dangling from a hook in a meat locker, but a chain of genes and dreams stretching beyond every perceptible horizon.

Still, I’m entirely with Mr. Ettinger in his lust for more life. Give me more experience, please. “So when I come back I’d like to try skiing,” and a few dozen other risky ventures. I’d like to meet my great-great-great… grandchildren. I’d like to know how the story turns out.

Older Daughter said last night she’s miffed that there’s this great, vast universe out there and she can’t reach it. I know what she means, and I think I know what Robert Ettinger wanted. But the thing is, we can reach it. What else is an expanded and evolving cranial capacity for, besides foraging and fending off predators more efficiently, if not to dream?

As she and Dumbledore and Emily Dickinson remind me, just because something’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real. The brain is wider than the sky and warmer than a deep freeze. It’s a pretty good time machine and rocket ship too.


December 16, 2010

Two last final exams today, then to more grading.

[NOTE TO STUDENTS: please don’t email to ask about grades this weekend. They’ll be posted early next week.]

Yesterday’s was about as fine a final exam session as I could ever ask for, in FoL.

Matthew, Kayla, Eric, Marie, Jason, and Paul did excellent final presentations, the dominant/convergent theme of which was education. Not “accountable” and “standardized” education but the humane and imaginative kind that will give back to children and adults alike the dream-space of childhood. Our future depends on it.

And then, Harrison generously proffered the perfect gift (scroll to the linked postscript) on behalf of the entire class. Thank you! It’s wonderful, and so was your attentive and active participation in this class all semester long.

I’m so grateful our final note was one of generosity and hope. You guys really restored my confidence in our future. In yours. It’s looking like a “glorious dawn,” indeed.

Ad astra, kids!

not ours to see

December 15, 2010

Already issued the coda for FoL class… but we meet once more, today, and it seems like we need to go out on a song.

Don’t stop

FoL: coda

December 10, 2010

I quoted Thomas Kurton’s Sagan-esque statement about drawing inspiration from our species’ steady climb out of the cave, up from primitive wall drawings to the edge of designing our own nature and future.

Here’s an even more Sagan-esque statement, from Sagan himself. It comes at the end of Pale Blue Dot, with which we began stretching the frame of our Future of Life course.

Two billion years ago our ancestors were microbes; a half-billion years ago, fish; a hundred million years ago, something like mice; ten million years ago, arboreal apes; and a million years ago, proto-humans puzzling out the taming of fire. Our evolutionary lineage is marked by a mastery of change. In our time, the pace is quickening.

Two years ago we thought we’d reclaimed our legacy of change, by electing an eloquent and vital young President whose entire appeal was predicated on our hunger for it. Lately we’ve had our doubts. But he has already endorsed the spirit of enterprise and quest. We should remind him, and his critics.

The first voyage of men and women to Mars is the key step in transforming us into a multiplanet species.

It’s not about Mars, it’s about moving onward and upward. Ad astra per aspera. We must not make this planet either our refuse dump or our permanent burial ground. That Jamesian “feeling of being at home in the Universe” is an expansive one. It feels right. I believe we’ll get there.

generosity 3

December 8, 2010

Last day of class in FoL, soon the Future class will be past. Time keeps on slipping slipping slipping… So we’d better finish Generosity.

Thassa channels Richard Dawkins: “we are the lucky ones,” he said.

And she says

Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn


No one should be anything but dead.


Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, but like the rest of us she’ll have a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

Older Daughter recently amazed me by participating in NaNoWriMo, “national novel-writing month,” a public writing project in which participants pounded out 50,000 words in thirty days. I was so impressed with her determination and stamina. I’d have felt more like Russell Stone, or a weak-willed Sisyphus, if you’d made me do that: “I have to go take my own life.”

But of course I, like Stone, believe that all writing is re-rewriting. In the past that’s always slowed us down. If we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up. Strap on your seat-belts.

As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the “witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Scary thought. But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. We’ve talked about that, in connection with the Updike-Kelly dispute. I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.

More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:

Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?

Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?” On Eaarth? You’ll have to answer that for yourself, but my answer is: the story we’re living at this very moment continues with us. Where it all ends is a mystery.

So we’d better be generous, and give all we’ve got right now. The future will be here before we know it. Cue the symphony.

generosity 2

December 6, 2010

We’re seriously into final report presentations today in FoL, but we also continue with our final text: Richard Powers’ Generosity.

The “collective wisdom” of our crowd-sourcing anonymous horde species does not particularly impress Powers, who says he’s not allowing his narrative to linger over the “tragically flawed” character of his fictional Venter/Kurzweil/de Grey/Moravec/Shirky/[???] hybrid.  Powers throws a curve-ball when he tells us Thomas Kurton is not so “grandiose” (=egocentric?) as Craig Venter, but I think that’s mostly a legal disclaimer.

Kurton, the expert “gene signature reader,” is drunk on genetic possibility and the next big development issuing from our collective direction. Individual responsibility is becoming passe’, at least in this story.

The humanist in the story, Stone, is– like most who cross Thassa Amzwar”s path– content to bask in the glow of her genetically-cooked joie de vivre. But “he himself may never be happy for more than a few island moments.” It’s ok, her “spillover” is enough for him.  Should it be enough for you and me? I say no. But I’m not stepping up for genetic enhancement, either.

Are there other ways to increase your own “set-point” for happiness? Or maybe we just need to rethink our situation. Stoics, Buddhists, and others make themselves “happy” merely by reframing their self-image in the light of reason and reality. Thassa resists the clinical interpretation of her “optimal allele assortment,” insisting:

They make me sound like some kind of bio-factory for ivresse [euphoria]. That’s just silly. Everyone can be as content as they like. It’s certainly not pre-destiny.

But try telling that to the people who buy and sell the happy pills.

Still, there’s a practical as well as philosophical difference between positive happiness and the suppression of negative feeling, isn’t there?

“The entire human race” a massive parallel computer? Douglas Adams should get at least a footnote for that.

Julian Barnes introduces Part Three: “Myth will become reality, however skeptical we might be.” I’m skeptical about that.

It’s not just religious apocalyptics who think we’re in the “end times,” we’ve heard about the end of nature and the end of history. Now it’ll be the end of human nature, if the transhumanists have their way (says the Aussie nobelist). Are reports of our death exaggerated?

Stone has writer’s block, but if he were writing a book it would apparently be about his creeping feeling of being no longer at home in the world, in our time. Would people buy that book, in their collective wisdom (which he considers “catastrophic”)?

Evolution has designed us to notice life in the bursting present, not so much gradual change over time. That could be our undoing, unless we can catch up culturally.

The “secret of Happiness” is probably not what media reports in our story say it is.  Or rather, fulfilling that condition doesn’t tell us how to do it. My hunch is that the secret has a lot to do with learning to live lightly in the present design space nature has foisted upon us. We don’t seem much inclined to do that.

Engineered happiness is one possible “design template for the future,” but finish this book before you decide to endorse it.

be kind

December 3, 2010

They did a nice “On Point” radio tribute to Kurt Vonnegut yesterday, to mark the opening of his new library in Indianapolis.  Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer mentioned one of my own favorite Vonnegut riffs:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I am a humanist, which means in part that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

Vonnegut once wrote that his works could be replaced by the seven-word telegram he received from a High School student: Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.

The show closed with his simple, powerful “message to future generations”:

Please accept our apologies.