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I'm Optimistic

An interview with Joe Firmage
by Carter Phipps


Joe Firmage

Perhaps the most important moment of Joe Firmage's life occurred when he was just a young boy. One evening in 1982 his father sat him down in front of the television to watch a new, highly acclaimed documentary mini-series about the universe, the first of its kind—Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Enthralled and fascinated by Sagan's story, Firmage's bright young mind was "humbled and staggered" by the wonder, mystery, and beauty of the cosmos, and a newfound sense of the sacred, as gleaned through science, was born. Raised in a Mormon family in Utah, Firmage sensed even then that he had found his true religion. "No seminary lecture could hold a candle to the awesome truths I saw in the nature of the cosmos," he says. "Science became the path I would follow to find answers to my deep questions."

Inspired by Sagan's vision, Firmage spent much of his teenage years studying science during the day and studying the stars at night. But like many adolescent boys of his generation, he eventually discovered the computer, and fell hook, line, and sinker for this exciting new technology. By the time he was in his twenties, space and physics had receded from his attention, and Firmage had given his talent and energy to the world of computers, achieving no small amount of success. Indeed, at the ripe age of twenty-five he was already a millionaire, had founded and sold a small software business, and was a high-profile executive at the second-largest software company in the world. In those days, the Internet phenomenon was just beginning to explode, and Firmage, ever mindful of the future, was in the right place at the right time. He moved to northern California and founded a new company, which soon became a multibillion-dollar success story. In a valley of silicon stars, he was suddenly one of the brightest. At twenty-seven, he was considered to be a true visionary, someone who was changing the world and all of our lives through technology. But what he had no way of knowing at the time was that the future already had new plans. Fate was set to intervene and reawaken the passion for physics, space, and spirituality that had once consumed his young mind.

Some have called it an alien, an angel, or even a hallucination, but whatever the case, someone or something visited Firmage in his bedroom early one morning in 1997. As he writes, "A remarkable being, clothed in brilliant white light, appeared hovering over my bed. He looked rather annoyed and asked, 'Why have you called me here?' I answered without a moment's pause, 'I want to travel in space.' He chuckled skeptically, paused, and asked, 'Why should you be granted such an opportunity?' I responded without hesitation, 'Because I'm willing to die for it!' The visitor was shaken. He stared at me, lowered his head, and out of him emerged an electric blue sphere, just smaller than a basketball, which was swirling with what looked like electrical arcs. It left his body, floated down, and entered me. I was overcome by an unimaginable ecstasy. . . . My body shook as I awoke and continued to shake for what appeared to be minutes. Something had been given to me."

This powerful experience had a profound effect on Firmage and helped give new urgency to a whole series of questions that were already beginning to make him think twice about his role as a leader in the Internet revolution. Where were we truly heading as a species, he wondered, if the purpose of our modern economic system was to turn the world's six billion inhabitants into six billion hungry consumers? Was the Internet economy just going to escalate to new heights the impending ecological crisis we were facing? What was the role of ethics and spirituality in a world of science and business? And his questions did not stop there. Was it true, as he was beginning to suspect, that new ideas percolating on the cutting edge of physics were beginning to make space travel in the near future at least a possibility—ideas that could create new methods of energy generation, radically changing our modern world? Needless to say, these weren't the kind of questions that went down well even in the relatively progressive boardrooms of Silicon Valley. After a series of run-ins with the press and his peers over some of his more radical speculations, Firmage decided it was time to trade in his silicon dreams for more carbon-based realities, and he set his sights on pursuing the breakthroughs in science, economics, and consciousness that he felt were necessary if our species was to have a chance of surviving and thriving through the next century.

Today, at thirty, Firmage is more convinced than ever that the next few decades will bring about major transformations in all areas of human society, and he has dedicated his time and much of his fortune to imagining that future, preparing for it, and helping to bring it about. He is founder and chairman of the International Space Sciences Organization, a research institute set up to pursue new breakthroughs in cutting-edge physics and to explore the evolving connections between science and spirituality. He has been a generous philanthropist, providing crucial support to organizations such as Gorbachev's State of the World Forum and Ken Wilber's Integral Institute. And recently, he launched what may be his most ambitious venture yet, One Cosmos, a science-based media and entertainment company. Nearly two decades after his childhood imagination was awakened by a new kind of television program, Firmage, along with his business partner Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow, intends to carry the legacy of Cosmos to new frontiers. He hopes to awaken millions of minds to the vision that originally inspired him—the beauty and fragility of our embattled mother earth, the awe-inspiring vastness of the cosmos we live in, and the possibility that one day, perhaps, in a future he envisions, humanity may travel among the stars.


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