It's a turquoise sky on a December afternoon. Out of the window I see the Rhein river meandering far below me, the last rays of sunlight shimmering on the surface, a storm is passing through from France heading towards Cologne. To check on it, I push a button, the screen fills with dozens of little widgets: I have a quick look at the realtime weather animation loop for the last 6 hours and can see that most of it will pass to the North.
A little bell sound, ah, an sms text message coming in from my daughter in London: her final cake worked well! I smile, bet she is happy now, on the way to her diploma in Patisserie at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. I flip open the cell phone Qwerty keyboard and type a smiley with hugs at her with both thumbs.
Then a window pops up on the very large screen: it's my old pal Ben, who happens to be online in Santa Barbara. In the Chat window he sends me an image from NASA: the newly found evidence for water, flowing down the sides of a crater on Mars. He also pastes in a link to the NASA site: the super resolution files. I download a handful and watch a couple hundred megabytes come down.
That's a case for the other machine: I drag the images over to the T221, 9 million pixels at 200dpi, what a wonder to behold. Water on Mars! We had just seen the HD documentary by the BBC on the amazing tenacity of life, the Mariani trench 11,000m below the surface, they keeping finding life in surprising complexity in the most unlikely places. I smile again: In my lifetime there may be irrefutable evidence of life outside of Earth.
Ben suggests a Go game, but at the same time there is now a window with Matt and Mike: we have been working on cool new software for quite a while - except there is one twist: they happen to live outside of Auckland, in the forests of northern New Zealand, more like the antipode of my place in Europe. But it works well: the new version is ready, Matt sends it encrypted while the three of us chat together, with annotated screenshots of 'bugs'. We could switch to VoiP or live camera, but it's helpful to have the written record as well.
Yanking the mouse to a corner: the widgets re-appear and a few world-time clocks tell me that it's 8 am where they are, wow, up early! I glance at some headlines on slashdot, digg, heise, arstechnica, perlentaucher. I see the NPR news headlines, the Tate Gallery rss shows an exhibition of Holbein, sweet... didn't I just read about him on edge.org? Where is that Tate St. Ives anyway? I switch to Google Earth and swoop down on the UK from space.
Dragging the mouse to the other corner: the screen fills with tiny colorful images, probably 100 of them, all the files currently open shown in miniature. I find the NASA shots and drag them over to the side into a folder for science stuff. Quite a collection of bits and pieces there, years of collecting them. Attached for a few hundred bucks is a terabyte worth of muse and ponder. Dozens of reference books, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, what a dream.
Come to think of it, I should send that to the other two kids. My boys are 15 and 11 now, a voracious age. I ping the younger one, ask if he has time for Dad just now. I send him a sweet physics simulation LineRider and the lovely SandGame particle system applet, he will have fun with that. In the meantime a quick scan at the news for a good description of the water on Mars events. New Scientist has a nice writeup, Wired a good story with side by side comparisons. I print the page into a pdf file, drag it over to him. The older one pops up, has some new jokes for me. He loves to read them and to create his own. I tell him to google "2.3 trillion missing" and watch the YouTube video. Ponder a little.
They will come over here soon. Sweet, we can go to the mediaeval Christmas market. Drive down to Innsbruck for real snow. I should get a few movies for us to watch. Are they ready for "Aguirre"? Maybe "2001" ? Christopher sent "5th Element" on BluRay. Perhaps "Amelie", next summer we go to Paris. Now that piano is in my ear... A quick change to the music store, a search for Yann Tiersen, there is almost everything he ever made. A few clicks, a few bucks and the soundtrack is here. I burn a CD for the trip. Click in Wikipedia, what has he been up to? Duet with Jane Birkin and Cocteau Twins, neat, missed that!
My much-better-half comes over for a hug: time to go, we have lots of errands before the holidays. She flies across the autobahn past 220 km/h with a grin, the navigator detects a traffic jam ahead, rerouting us across the river, just a 10 minute detour, not bad. Could get some gas though: all the nearest gas stations are shown, I click on one, it takes us there. Pause the favorite song while I go in, grab a couple magazines and newspapers. No cash, I slide the plastic through the slit and leave. She already entered the address we want to go to first, tricky access through the maze of one-way streets around the old town area. Minus 3 outside, we snuggle in the heated seats, on the screen the closest Thai restaurants ...
Obviously I could go on ad nauseum here, but this is not a description of technology per se. The emphasis is on quality of life. On the benefits of tools, the liberating freedom. My real point: Humans are feeble. We forget. We have become numb to all the wonder.
To see the weather in pictures from space, animated over time, what a wonder that would have been to the Wright brothers...or James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo..? To be in realtime communication with your family, what a wonder that would have been for Bach who had 20 children (half of which died in infancy. I didn't even touch on the advances in health and medicine, of course).
To see cellphones and billions of sms would have boggled Tesla, Edison, Bell, Reis, Meucci. To send a probe to other planets, and personally own the resulting images in startling clarity, what a dream that would have been for a Huygens, Mercator, Kepler, Galileo...
To collaborate on your work with colleagues on the other side of the world as if they are in the next room, how liberating is that freedom! To travel safely, quickly, effortlessly, with an all-knowing friend guiding you, what would any of them say to that? Researchers added up that Goethe traveled over 37.000 km in his lifetime, in more than 180 excursions but: on foot, horseback and carriages! Add a zero for a guy like Humboldt. They would have marveled — or cried — at our options to go anywhere, see anything, meet anyone.
To be able to see all the works of all the great artists, and keep a copy to then examine up-close, at your leisure, in your own home — to listen to the music of any composer, new or old...what an absolute dream in itself that would have been for any and all of them! Consider you hear about 'that new Beethoven symphony': you would have to physically travel to a performance somewhere, and even then you could only hear that one, not any of the others, and: you would likely forget it, since you would hardly get a chance to hear it again to build a long term memory of it. Never mind mentioning movies here, or radio, television, let alone the web.
To get to research done anywhere, by anyone, to share the findings and writings, duplicate them instantly, store them and save them, catalog them and index them, searchable among billions, in seconds...to have your own copy of the books, your own Brittanica, how blissful that would have made Jules Verne with his 20.000 wooden boxes of index card snippets, or any of the other universally interested scientists like Athanasius Kircher or T.H. Huxley, Newton or Leibniz. And what's more, your own Sphynx, divining nearly any answer to any question. find any fact, in minutes if not seconds, an advisor like no Sun-king or Emperor, Kaiser or Pharaoh could ever buy with all the gold in their empires.... that's Google now in a smartphone in the pockets of teenagers.
Surely any of the ancient Greeks would spontaneously combust at the sight of almost any household object on any shelf in any department store. And yes, I realize, that still won't make us automatically and constantly happy, duhh. And is there a list of evils and downsides that came with all those advances? You bet. I could switch hats and drown in drivel about all that...
But the question stands: what am I optimistic about? And I think it simply bears repeating:
Countless scientists over the millennia dedicated their lives to discoveries, to solutions, to inventions and explanations. They had visions of bettering the fate of humanity, of seeking truths and finding answers, and they paid for it with enormous efforts and in many cases with their life. Their combined body of bodies stands in front of us, in awe, and... in tears. We have achieved almost all their dreams, we have freedom in every sense like never before in history and: we are ungrateful bastards about it!
Let us just be content again. Plain happy. Period. I am calling for a New Contentism.
From that vantage point, looking at the incredible options and tools for all of us, is there reason to be optimistic for the future that we could make good use of them? You bet!