Daring to Dream

Almost exactly a year ago in this space, I thanked IT professionals for what they did for my dad, who had died a few days earlier of ALS (see In Praise of Perseverance). I thanked them for the perseverance they showed in creating and advancing the systems that have improved all our lives, and especially for those he so loved using himself, until, as I recounted then, he could no longer lift his arms to his keyboard and his fingers could no longer press the keys.

My dad was very proud of the fact that I speak Chinese, and he once asked me what the Chinese word for "computer" is. I told him it's dian nao, which, literally translated, means "electronic brain." He got a kick out of that. "Well, that makes sense," he said. "That's probably what we should be calling them."

That exchange came to mind earlier this month when I attended the opening of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. The institute was founded by Patrick J. McGovern, founder and chairman of International Data Group, Computerworld's parent company; and by his wife, Lore Harp McGovern. I was intrigued by Pat McGovern's lifelong journey, one that had taken him from wanting to help people understand electronic brains to wanting to help them understand the human brain itself.

McGovern talked about that journey in his eloquent remarks at the opening ceremony. He recalled some advice his mom had given him when he was a boy. She told him that whatever he did with his life, he had to be proud of doing it, he had to be around people he enjoyed doing it with, and he had to have a dream.

McGovern's dream was to improve the quality of people's lives through improved communication. It's not surprising, then, that for four decades he has devoted himself to technology publishing -- an endeavor that, not coincidentally, melds the communications -- oriented mission of publishing with the development of the tools that have advanced communication more in the past 50 years than in the entirety of previous recorded history.

Referring to his travels around the world in the course of making IDG the global media institution it is, McGovern said he was struck by how alike the people in every country he's visited truly are. He noted that they share the same fundamental aspirations and concerns, regardless of which side of any particular political boundary they happen to reside on. At the same time, he found that despite their similarities, the people in different countries appear to have an inherent distrust of one another. How, McGovern wonders, do we account for that communication breakdown?

Many would argue that the answer has a spiritual element. But if we can accept that there is a link between the spiritual and the physical, how can we develop a deeper understanding of the physical dimension of thought and emotion? Simply put, why does the brain work the way it does?

The McGovern Institute for Brain Research is the McGoverns' dream to find the answers. Suppose we could learn enough about the brain to enable us to understand and treat the neurological disorders, both mental and physical, that afflict so many millions of people all over the world.

As I ponder that supposition, I think about the neurological disorder that caused my dad so much suffering, and that ultimately took his life. And I think how glad I am that people like Pat McGovern dare to dream.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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