Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Not a Post about 9/11

I remember the day very clearly; I lived on Great Jones at Bowery, a 2-block stretch of 3rd Street. Lost a friend, some neighbors, and maybe some sanity and health. And I'll reflect on it at some point this morning--likely on my walk.

In the technology world we measure progress--daily, really.

We're so often amazed at discoveries, and the process of discovery itself. And once there's a breakthrough technology (or set of technologies), like Nano-tech for instance, it's easy to re-imagine what we once thought was simply a dream, but unattainable because of a gap in the tools available to us.

In the pat 11 years, we've witnessed a number of game-changing, enabling breakthroughs in technology and have entered a new era of innovation as a result. Storage of information is cheap and super fast. Processing power is cheap and super fast. Companies have embraced open APIs so other developers with different inspiration and vision can now build on top of the original innovation.

We celebrate Startups and Entrepreneurism (caps intended). When I built my first company, it didn't feel like the world supported new businesses. When I tried to raise capital for ChiliSoft, several investors tried to by 51% of the company. I haven't heard of that kind insidious behavior for at least five years.

Credible information flows from credible people out across the ether to inspired innovators hungry for guidance. Brad Feld, Fred Wilson, Chris Dixon, and Steve Blank didn't have blogs when I was building ChiliSoft; I had to go on the advice of kind people and a few very scarce and incomplete books. We didn't have 'lean' guides or classes, we were simply scrappy and figured it out.

Everything has changed. We live in an age of enabled innovation, not just dreams. Someone removed a barrier and told others, and then the others jumped in and innovated on top of the enabling discovery. AJAX. REST. Nano. 3D printing. And amazingly, email, which has been redefined simply through new applications of it.

And another thing happened--almost everyone connected to everyone else. These are amazing times, and I'm constantly inspired by the work of so many beautiful minds solving big problems (along with smaller minds solving non-existent problems).

And yes, capital flowed, but we need less of it at the start. Many will argue a good company never needs capital, but capital is just a tool and should never be regarded as anything more or less.

But I look back on that amazing, beautiful blue-sky day 11 years ago, and I wonder why we haven't advanced similarly as people organized in nations, and specifically my own country, the US of A. The U seems less real to me.

We've built a massive defense industry and put it to work at a cost of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives (their lives, not ours here in the US of A).

We've neglected the infrastructure and then are outraged when a bridge collapses, trains collide, or plans have near misses.

We've really failed to solve a lot of problems in education, and have invested more in mismanaged pension funds than in basic literacy (in my district anyway).

We continue to sit by while people are slaughtered in Syria, having learned nothing from Bosnia or Rwanda, and caring only a little more because it's in the Mideast, near Israel and Iran, and of course the supply of oil needed to feed our oil-slick based economy.

We haven't made much progress, if any, in that part of our lives. Money likely has a lot to do with it; greed drives a lot of bad behavior, and in the case of the US, it's driven enough systemic changes that it's intrinsic to the budgeting process annually in DC.

So I look at the progress in tech--so inspiring, so enabling, so inspiring and promising--and I wonder why, after decades of modern experience, why we can't figure out how to align our interests to make this a better country that reflects in its actions what we've led ourselves to believe is the social contract between us.

Eleven years after that terrible day, and the smoke-filled, confused days after, and the anxiety-ridden weeks after, and the reflections on what mattered to us most, and all of the commitments we made to ourselves about how we would be different, how we'd take care of our own, how we'd come together in a warm embrace like we did at Union Square at the end of that week with candles lit and voices raised--after all of that, we have very little to show for it.

It's a shame, and I really don't know the way forward, but I'm inspired by what we're doing in tech, and what we're enabling for people across the world. Someday, perhaps, we'll see similar inspired innovation and discovery in human relations and governance.

I really hope so.

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