September 27, 2001
Special Doomsday Issue
The First-Person News Network: The Web provided a new type of news on September 11, 2001.
A Lesson We May Have Learned: Do Americans still need to be told that the world is essentially unmanageable?
Generation Alpha:A speech I want to hear an American politician give.
Many Small Terrorists Loosely Joined: What can we learn about terrorist networks by analogy to the Internet?
A Poem: Forgive me.
The Bogus Contest that Could Change the World!: Not really.
The Beginning of the End
I have been depressed. Perhaps clinically so. Sad. And frightened. Shaking-while-upright, unable-to-sleep, thin-gruel-of-a-bowel-movement frightened. This issue of JOHO is perhaps more for me than for you. Skip it. Hate it. Send it to people you don't like. I don't care. I've written many messages to groups talking about the bombings, and I've deleted almost all before sending them. I'm writing this instead.
As an aperitif, a simple little Web paean, as if it mattered...
On September 11, I spent the morning watching TV. There's no doubt that television is a better medium at this point for bringing us voice and pictures fast. And watching TV together as a nation, with all of us hearing the same news at the same time, provides a community of information undreamed of 100 years ago.
But the Web provided something new: a first person news network. The email-based discussion lists I'm on were full of activity. People were using surprising expertise to confirm and deny rumors and what we were hearing on the TV. For example, on one group, some pilots discussed whether the sureness of the approach of the airplanes proved that the hijackers were professionally trained, and a guy who turned out to know a lot about weapons said that the hijackers couldn't have used plastic guns because those guns actually contain enough metal to set off the security alarms. The Web drew upon the knowledge of citizens from around the nation and around the world to make us smarter...and to keep our fears as realistic as possible on an unrealistic day.
The Web also let me hear voices from local communities across the country. For example, I heard from friends and Web acquaintances about bridge closings in San Francisco, jet fighters taking off from Hanscom base in Massachusetts, and the police closing an area around some government buildings in Albuquerque. These incidents were too small for the national broadcast networks , but because they came from people with genuine roots, they gave a picture you couldn't get by watching the endlessly looped scenes our hearts couldn't credit.
But, the Web did more than offer information. A national roll call began through email — friends asking if I was ok, me asking them if they'd lost anyone they loved. In fact, the Web began to evolve new capabilities at an amazing evolutionary pace. Someone created a site where people in New York City could post their name so relatives could see they had survived. But soon the site was trashed by people doing things like posting Osama bin Laden's name followed by curses. So, within four hours, another Web citizen created a site that let you report someone who was safe or ask about someone who's missing without without showing you the whole list. The speed of evolution seemed tied directly to the depth of the human need.
When the Maine was sunk a hundred years ago, messages scatted over telegraph wires to feed the next edition of the newspaper. When the Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor, the radio announced the wreckage. When Kennedy was shot, television newscasters wept and we learned to sit on our couches while waiting for more bad news. Now, for the first time, the nation and the world could talk with itself, doing what humans do when the innocent suffer: cry, comfort, inform, and, most important, tell the story together.
I make most of my living as a speaker. At least I did until September 11 when air travel took on a whole new mythic meaning for us. Just to remind us how much the world — by which I mean, of course, the United States — has changed, here's the centerpiece of my standard presentation, in condensed form and without the PowerPoints:
The Web has broken the back of an ancient assumption: the bigger the project, the more control you need. If it's a treehouse, you just need a sketch on the back of an envelope, but if it's the Hoover Dam, you need managers and managers to manage the managers and management consultants to help you figure out how to manage the managers. Management is good: it brings accountability and responsibility. But we also know there's another reason we like management: The bigger the project the more power you have. And if the project gets big enough [picture of the pyramids], you can even have your brain sucked out through your nose and live forever as a god. So, there are some not quite so pure reasons why we like management.
How many managers did it take to create the Web? The world's largest infrastructure and the richest collection of human writings, and it was all created without a single person with "Manager, WWW" on his or her business card. In fact, this was a condition for the Web to grow the way that it has. If there were managers, we'd still be filling out Request to Post forms.
When we're on the Web, we recognize this lack of management. There's no centralized authority and no permission required. But then we go into work and it's a lot different. Somewhere along the way, we confused building a business with building a fort. We claim to have good reasons for putting up the walls that control the flow of information: security, brand, etc. But we know that there's also a deeper, more neurotic reason for the walls: we don't feel safe unless we believe that we control our world. And behind every urge to control there is fear. Business is based on fear. Some of it's rational. Much of it isn't.
This fear-based urge to manage is part of a larger cultural neurosis. We insist on managing everything. Sure, we can manage our business, our employees and our budget. But we also talk about managing time, the very thing that marches on without cease no matter how much we'd like to slow it or even reverse it. And we talk about managing our environment. But what's been the very symbol of what can't be controlled? Zeus throwing lightning bolts. King Canute failing to hold back the tide. King Lear wandering the heath: he's king but he's getting wet like everyone else. To think that we could control a single lightning bolt has been the very sign of human madness. Yet we talk blithely about managing our environment.
If in the 60's the bumpersticker said "If it moves, fondle it," in the 'Oughties it reads: "If it moves, manage it" ... and preferably manage it until it stops moving.
Conversely, unmanaged things we consider to be bad. Weeds are unmanaged flowers. Waste is unmanaged resources. Looting is unmanaged consumerism. Chaos. Cancer. And then there's this one more unmanaged thing: The Web...
I somehow don't think I have to convince American audiences any more that the world is essentially unmanageable, that "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."
The only surprise is that Americans could ever have believed otherwise.
Imagine a great American politician giving the following speech. (If you can't think of any great American politicians, then you may substitute Martin Sheen.)
My fellow Americans, it is with great pride and true humility that I announce tonight my candidacy for the presidency of the United States of America.
I come before you, as every candidate does, with a set of issues and proposals. Over the course of the campaign, I'll talk with you about every topic that every candidate talks with you about, and you'll agree with some of what I say and disagree with some. But tonight I want to talk about the idea on which I stake my candidacy. It is a bold idea, but in these times, is anything less required of a candidate for the highest office of the greatest country in the world?
And that's exactly what this idea is about: we are the greatest country. The greatest economy. The greatest military. The greatest freedom. The greatest spirit. The Cold War has ended, leaving us with a remarkable opportunity that we have yet to seize. In other times on our planet when a single country amassed similar powers, that country has used its power selfishly. The Romans set out to conquer their world. The colonizing powers used their economic and military might to steal the resources and labor of the countries they'd subjugated. We Americans are a generous, peace-loving people. Never before in history - never - has such generosity of spirit combined with such overwhelming power and wealth. This gives us an opportunity unique in the story of woman and man on this planet.
So, here's what I propose. Let us set a goal as a people. An ambitious goal. One that will inspire our great American ingenuity. One that will call upon our unparalleled genius for invention and technology. One that will cause us to stretch our already open spirits. One that will challenge our nation's citizens, its businesses, and its leaders. Let us commit that for the next twenty years, America will bend every good effort to raise up the world.
We will raise the level of health, not just for our own people, but for every parent with a sick child or an ailing parent. Our goal is to bring health care to 90% of the world's population by 2021. We will discover how to eliminate AIDS and will make that cure available to everyone who suffers from that disease, for free if necessary. And we will bring clean water to 95% of the world.
We will raise the economic level, not just of our own people, but of every hard working mother and father trying to put food on the family table. Our goal is to raise the world's minimum annual income to the equivalent of $5,000. Our goal is to make sure that every child on the planet has at least one nourishing meal every day.
We will raise the educational level, not just of our own people, but of every person whose eyes are cast down. Our goal is to bring literacy to 90% of the world's population -- by the way, not just in their own language, but also in English as a second language if they choose.
We will raise the quality of the natural environment not just for our own people but for every person who breaths the earth's air, eats its fruit, or drinks its water. Our goal is, at the end of 20 years, to be confident that the world will sustain us and our children's children's children.
We will raise the standard of living, not just of our own people, but of every person sleeping in the dust and waking to misery. Our goal is to provide electrical power to every remote village. And, having done that, we will provide connectivity to the worldwide web of information and commerce.
These goals may seem impossible. In fact, I believe the goals I've suggested tonight aren't aggressive enough, for I believe we - you and I - are starting something tonight that will begin with our young people talking with one another about what they can do to raise up the world, communities acting to raise up a sister city, companies pledging to make the world a better place to do business ... and this will spread quickly to our allies, and finally, yes, even our enemies will join in.
But how will we achieve these goals? That is something that we Americans will debate and devise over the next few years, working with any other country that has the nobility of heart to join in. The helping hand we extend won't be holding cash. Rather, we will give of our ideas, our labor and our heart. What we are offering in every case will be to work *with* those countries that choose to grasp the hand we extend. We will only help in the ways they want, according to their own needs and traditions. And we will thus learn from them as well.
And how will we pay for this? My friends, when it comes to matters of historical importance, this country has always stepped forward...whether it was fighting fascism in World War II, rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan, or declaring war on terrorism on a global front. Our new cause - raising up the world - is no less grand and no less important. We Americans have always done what's right at moments like this: Put our hands over our hearts and pledge ourselves. Only then can we begin the great national dialogue among corporations, government agencies and, most important, each and every family about what we can do and how we can do it. Only with the commitment of our hearts can we begin the conversation to discover what's realistic. That is the mark of a great people as well as of great countries: their hope rediscovers what's truly possible. We must not let ourselves be held back by small-minded people who think their fear and timidity give them the right to limit our dreams. My friends, we will give those people hope as well. Becoming more than we thought possible: that's what every great goal does for us.
Why should we commit to these goals? Because we know they are right. They speak to the needs that cut across every ethnic and political division. These are human needs. We have the power to meet those needs. In so doing, we will build a more stable world. A world that is safer for everyone. A world in which there are more buyers, more makers, more sellers - the most vibrant sustainable economy in history. A world in which the fires of hatred are at last put out by a gift truly offered. A world in which we Americans bring up our children with a sense of the greatness that has been handed to them and the sense of duty and righteousness and generosity that we have always tried to instill against the forces of cynicism.
In fact, I'm suggesting that we call this the Generation Alpha project because I believe it will mark the beginning of a new generation of greatness for America and for the planet God has given us to share.
Why do this? Because this is what the greatest country in history would do.
Ok, let me put on my flame suit.
First, my aim is to make this idea - that the wealthiest nation has a serious, continuing obligation to the rest of the world -as palatable to Americans as possible.That's why it's in the form of a speech with the usual calls to greatness and a lack of, let's say, critical distance on America's flaws. And that's also why the goals are purposefully vague and are not explicitly political (i.e., no attempt to spread democracy or promote freedom of religion); first let's say yes to raising the world, and then let's argue about how.
Second, yes, there is a whiff of cultural imperialism in this, but less than it may seem (I hope). No country would have to accept help. The form of the aid would be negotiated with the country; for example, if they think Western medicine is a crock, no one's going to force them to take the polio vaccine. And almost all of the goals are genuinely universal goals given the fact that humans have to eat, drink and breath the air. If a country finds implicit cultural values here and chooses not to accept our help, fine. Maybe it'll take ten years for Iraq to accept some aid, and maybe it will end up accepting help from Cuba in training village health workers. Fine and dandy.
Third, yes, teaching English as a second language is arrogant. But it would also be voluntary. And, I think, potentially of tremendous economic importance. If it's going to distract us, I withdraw the suggestion.
Fourth, am I serious about this? To the extent that I'd love to have even a 5-minute a national dialogue about what we could do to help raise up the world: Absolutely. To the extent that I think anything will come of this idea: Nah, of course not.
I just yesterday submitted what I hope is the final final draft of my book. Its title, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, refers to the Internet but could just as easily refer to terrorist networks.
This leads to the thought that our beloved Internet sayings may reflect the nature of the terrorist network as well:
The terrorist network routes around disruption.
Terrorist network time is 7 times regular time.
Metcalfe's Terrorism Law: The utility of a terrorist network equals the square of the number of terrorists.
Mini Bogus Contest: Transpose other sayings if they make sense once transposed. For example, "Destruction wants to be free" doesn't seem to me to mean anything and thus would be disqualified.
On the grounds that we must forgive one another for our bad poetry:
They dug a hole in the ordinary yesterday,
And already the waves are
smoothing its edges.
The earth's weight
that pulls the tides
draws the bodies that fall
and holds fast the feet
that tomorrow will resume
wearing furrows into its brow.
Sept. 12, 2001
TheOnion just came out with an edition devoted to the September 11 attack. It is doing exactly what humor ought to be doing. God bless 'em for it.
I went to a peace vigil last night. For an hour we stood in Copley Square in Boston, holding signs. Anticipating this raised my spirits. Participating lowered them. It wasn't simply that the turn-out of a couple hundred people was pathetic, or that we were mainly gray-haired pacifist-types who still smell of mimeo machines from the last time we did this, or that we were mainly demonstrating to the taxi cabs that make up most of the traffic on Boylston Street. Rather, it was our utter failure to communicate anything except that we're sure our hearts are more pure than our opponents'.
Our signs said "Justice Not War" even though 90% of Americans think that the war is being fought in order to bring justice. Our signs said "No More Victims Anywhere" when 90% of Americans can't wait to make more victims because they see that as a type of justice.
We need better marketing.
So, let's put on our marketing caps and come up with bumperstickers that will change the way we think about the coming war in Afghanistan. For example:
Be Better than the Bombers
Kill Terrorists, Spare Their Victims
I'm sucking wind here. Help! And soon!
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