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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

What Am I Optimistic About?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Another year turns, and it's time for John Brockman, editor of the influential "Third Culture" forum, Edge, to pose his annual question to a range of cultural commentators, scientists and philosophers. Previous questions have either been highly open-ended - "What Now?" "What's Your Law?" - or implicitly directed at a particular contemporary issue. The question for 2005, "What do You Believe is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?" was aimed to provoke religious or scientific fundamentalists, and the resultant book, What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty provides a fascinating snapshot of the boundaries of the age-old contest as it is played in the early twenty-first century.

This year, however, rather than looking to the present or to the abstract, Brockman looks forwards, asking: "What Are You Optimistic About? Why?" Although, oddly, I was not invited to contribute, my answer would have been: not much. War burns in the Middle East; the promises of the campaign to eliminate poverty, made so loudly above the riffs of guitars at Live 8 this summer, now seem little more than a whisper in the dark. There are hints that environmental issues are becoming more prominent in politics and business: if you had told me last year that the Terminator was going green I would have thought it a joke. But faced with this most global of catastrophes, we need to move the world with the levers of technology and lifestyle revolution, and when Blair or Arnie wiggle their fingers from a podium, they may as well do nothing at all.

And yet, and yet. In the flurry of retrospective analyses of 2006 and the predictions for 2007 that fill the glossy pages of magazines and newspaper supplements, I see a common theme emerge that may be, just maybe, a reason to be optimistic. Time magazine's "Person of the Year" is - who? - me. By writing these very words, and publishing them online to be read around the world (at least by the few visitors the site actually gets) I am participating in the creation of a new form of culture, one not driven by great men:
It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
It is also a story about, predominantly, the young, the tech-savvy, collaborating freely and in fun to produce the arts and news outside the boundaries of the conventional, ideological establishment. Later, on the BBC's Start the Week, Andrew Marr asks his guests for their surprising predictions for 2007. One of them suggests that this will see the increasing influence of the younger generation. On a news programme, I hear a Labour politician suggest that, as politics seems to have alienated so many, new forms of political activism, enabled by the internet, will take shape, and the younger generation will be its catalytic force. At my sister's twenty-first birthday, my dad makes a brief speech at which he observes that the older generation, represented by my ninety-year-old grandfather, got us out of the most intractable mess during World War Two, and that my father's generation have done a pretty good job of messing things up again. It was to the younger generation, myself, my sister, our friends, that my father raised his glass.

In the Western world, if you look beyond the sleek plastic veneers of their I-pods and laptops, the young are suffering as a result of the lifestyles of their parents. In the United Kingdom, with house prices at record levels, the number of first time buyers is rapidly decreasing. I have little doubt that the economy must head for a fall: if house prices are increasing at 10% a year and wage inflation is running at around 3%, you do not have to be a mathematician to realise that things fundamentally don't add up, and that the gap has been filled, temporarily, by the mockery of cheap credit. However, with my generation priced out of the housing market now, we will have little to celebrate when the inevitable crash occurs, though we may have time to feel a hint of schadenfreude before recession hits. When it comes to the environment, we are the ones who are going to be choking on the smoke of our parents, whilst they are rotting beneath our feet, feeding the natural cycles they have violated. And in our education system, our parent's generation refuses to subsides university degrees, and we are forced to enter work with huge debts.

And yet, and yet. That financial debt is one being accumulated in return for an education which is better and more widespread than at any time before. In spite of all the hyperbole about the liberating power of the internet (try telling the 94% of Africans who have never used the web how wonderful it is that Wikipedia is democratising encyclopaedias), I do believe that we possess a tool unprecedented in human history to spread knowledge, ideas and moral values. If we can direct our skills in technology, our liberal education, and, above all, our anger at the world we have inherited from our fathers, we might just start to change it.

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