Friday, March 12, 2010

Dream big (Sunday Reflections for March 14, 2010)

Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28)

A little after 8 am, five days a week 52 weeks a year, I get in my “In Box” an email newsletter from This is a web site created by inventor, author and futurologist Ray Kurzweil. (If you’ve ever used an electronic keyboard or voice-recognition software, you’ve probably made use of something he has a patent on.)

Kurzweil is a dreamer but, as his life has shown, he also has the ability to turn dreams into reality. Now in the latter part of his life (or maybe not “latter” if one of his dreams comes true) he is focusing most of his attention on creating dreams, big dreams—visions of the future both near and distant. Many of his futuristic visions have been dismissed by others as fantasy but not all. And given his past accomplishments many hesitate to dismiss anything he imagines as “impossible.”

Each of the little e-newsletters he sends out has about a half-dozen story summaries, with a link to click on to find the full story if it interests you. These stories are all about things happening right now in countless fields of research and technology. The topics include biology, medicine, nutrition, energy, computing, transportation, physics, astronomy, climatology, communication, robotics, and more.

Many of the stories are truly amazing but for me what’s most impressive is simply the sheer volume of the stories. They arrive day-after-day so that you can’t help but thinking, “Wow, there’s a lot going on in the world.” And the result of that is to make me really—hopeful.

That’s important because we live in what can be a very discouraging time. We can be discouraged by our own personal circumstance or by the economic gloom that has covered much of the developed world. I know it affects me. It’s obvious that—unlike the TV commercial—there is no Easy Button to get us out of the financial and economic mess we’ve gotten into. We’re going to be here for awhile.

Yet as this newsletter shows, around the world people are working to solve problems and make our lives better. Most of these people are working with little recognition—they fly below the media’s radar. Yet they are doing truly remarkable things, many of which someday (and in many cases it isn’t far off) are going to make this world of ours a better place to live.

In many ways Kurzweil provides little glimpses of humanity at its best, of human beings fulfilling what we imagine is our ideal function and purpose: helping each other to live better and happier lives. It brings to mind those early and simple instructions in the Bible: "till the garden and keep it" and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Obviously, however, that isn’t all that’s going on in our world. Indeed, what makes these newsletter articles stand out is that they are often so unlike what is in the news much of the time. Yet one other hopeful thing is that we seem to be asking serious questions about why that is. We are wondering about the ways we are spending our time and talents, energy and resources. We are asking serious questions about our collective values and priorities.

The 2008 financial meltdown has caused a harsh spotlight to fall on Wall Street and for good reason. Certainly the causes of the Great Recession are varied and complex but the Wall Street investment “too big to fail” mega-banks must take a lot of the blame. Their ever more complicated, multi-trillion dollar financial schemes and products (financial weapons of mass destruction Warren Buffett has called them) collapsed like a house of cards, very nearly bankrupting the country and much of the rest of world. The reverberations and repercussions are not over yet nor, apparently, are many of the risky bank practices that got us into this mess.

While not necessarily justifying their previous behavior, bank leaders have argued that these institutions provide a vital service to the country and the world. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has gone so far as to say they are doing “God’s work.” The importance of banking services, especially making available investment capital, is not disputed. What is in doubt, however, is whether these banks are, in fact, providing those services. Rather, their top priority seems to have become not making loans but making money and lots of it—mindboggling amounts of it—however they can.

Wall Street’s banks are the most extreme examples but they are causing many to ask some basic questions about our economy and our society, our needs and priorities. For instance, there are many enormously talented people at these banks. They and their talents are a great resource—is what they are doing really the best use of that resource for our society?

Even more basic: what values are we teaching our children? What should their priorities be? Do we still believe making money and being happy are one and the same? What should be the goal of their education? If we say it is to be able to get a job, how do we deal with the fact the many of today’s jobs will cease to exist in the near future and many of the future’s best jobs haven’t even been imagined yet? And with our ever-increasing productivity and efficiency, is “having a job” even going to be the best way to think about adult life for future generations?

It has perhaps always been true that one of humanity’s greatest obstacles has been lack of imagination. We are creatures of habit. Those who ask “what’s over that hill?” or “what if we did it this way?” have more often been laughed at or scared off than listened to. What is remarkable about the world’s recent history is that such people have been given much more credibility and opportunity. Still, changing habits and ways of thinking are hard for all of us.

My daily e-newsletter from Ray Kurzweil tells me, however, that countless, mostly nameless, people are asking questions and searching for answers in a quest for a better life for all of us. Are they being encouraged? Are there enough investors willing to take a chance on their research and to make their discoveries reality? Are there other talented people who could be doing such things but who got misdirected into jobs or life paths that really aren’t benefiting themselves or the rest of us—or are benefiting themselves without consideration for the rest of us?

Great things ARE happening. Great discoveries are being made. Great problems are being solved. Imagine now if these weren't just stories in a newsletter but it was everyone’s daily reality? A dream? Perhaps. But dreams are where great things always begin. And this dream is based on belief in the greatness and goodness of the creation in which we live and of which we are a part.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Now, there's a post I can appreciate.

"Test all things and hold fast to that which is good"

David Mc