What Are You Optimistic About?

Author: John Brockman (editor)

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Full title: What Are You Optimistic About?: Today’s Leading Thinkers Lighten Up

Published: 2007

I read it: Many 2010


How do you get a bunch of scientists and thinkers to seriously entertain the idea that there is anything to be optimistic about? You invite them to answer yet another Edge question, where barriers can come down and participants can answer as they please. The writers come at the optimism question in their own ways, usually by getting the caveat out of the way that there is a lot to be pessimistic about if you have a rational worldview, then (with trepidation) outlining their ideas.

I think contributor Alison Gopnik sums it up best: “Optimism isn’t essentially a matter of rational assessment of the future–it’s an attitude rather than a judgment.” And that attitude is articulated through diverse subjects that are tactfully ordered to create the type of mini-narrative that a compilation of short non-fiction essays can deliver. We move from the decline of violence and increase of morality (and all the science v. religion which those topics encompass) to finding a meaningful place in our bleak cosmos, to many encouraging ideas about how to fix the climate problem(s), to smarter kids to more love to scientific revolution to growing diversity and, goddamnit, understanding instead of killing each other. It’s not overly saccharine, but it is hopeful stuff, and just what you might need for summer reading that still gets the gears turning.

The big names are all present: Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ray Kurzweil, Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman J. Dyson, even Brian Eno. Some of my favorite selections were from contributors unknown to me: Gary F. Marcus with “Metacognition for Kids,” Stewart Brand who claims “Cities Cure Poverty,” or David Gelernter with “The Future of Software.” This is not only an important book, but an amazingly useful one. There’s so much we can do. Personally, I think the two biggest things to be optimistic about are youth and technology. And those things combined? We no longer have to search for Jesus, because we will become smart and creative enough to save ourselves. There’s a lot to look forward to, so we might as well constantly remind ourselves to be optimistic. As Tor Norretranders states, “Optimism always wins, until nobody is around to know that it did not.”


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