In the early 1980s, as a young man and serious student of math, computer science and international politics, I set out for a career in this industry of ours in the belief that, somehow, electronic communications and computing would shrink the world. I didn't know what it would look like, and I didn't know how to make it happen, but I knew with certainty that it would happen -- and I believed it would make the world a better place. My first job was in the international products group at Wang Labs, working on making our standard software work for people who didn't speak English. I moved from there into working on email and communications products, initially as a speciailist in i18n, later as a generalist developer, and then as I founded my own consulting firm I became a real generalist in email and collaboration system, with expertise cutting across systems and apoplications development, administration, management and strategy. In the mid 1990's, as I continued to work in the field, I began to see the world shrink as electronic communication became world-wide and electronic communities that spanned international borders became commonplace.
Over this weekend, I caught most of Dick Cheney's appearance on Meet The Press and some of Ted Koppel on Discovery. I also caught Matt Lauer's interview with President Bush on the Today Show this morning. I did not catch The Path to 9-11. Like Andrew some of what I saw and heard made me extraordinarily angry. Shouting-out-loud-at-the-television angry. But that's not for today.
I also heard, on the radio, the solemn ceremonies in New York this morning. I thought about that morning. I was working at home. My wife was out at work, and the kids were at school. The TV was not on, which admittedly is a rarity in our house, until I received a terse message via AIM from a friend in New Jersey: "MSNBC NOW". I watched and listened to the speculationcasters, and I said over and over to myself "this is no accident" and then watched the second plane hit. I never left AIM that day. At peak, we probably had somewhere between 40 and 50 people in a single chat that spanned the US and Europe. For a brief time, the world seemed smaller, but yes... it seemed scarier, too. At the time the first tower fell, I sent out a message "This changes everything. Nothing will be the same", but some aspects of the situation didn't really hit me until much later. In fact, in many respects, everything had already changed well before then.
Advances in electronic communication had indeed shrunk the world, but it was in retrospect foolishly idealistic for me to think that the logical outcome of this was that the world would somehow be a better place as a result. It's not nearly so easy as that. It should have been obvious that bad will travels as fast and as easily as good will in this new age of worldwide connectivity. It should have been obvious that instant worldwide awareness of news and events is not merely an opportuntiy for spreading understanding, but also an opportunity for spreading propaganda and terror.
It's not that I'd want it to be another way. We can't and shouldn't want to go back to telex and to limited and delayed sources of information. We talk a lot, however, about "social software" these days, but the lesson for today -- a lesson from five years ago -- is that technology serves our social systems as they exist today, for good or for bad. Technology in general, and software in particular -- is more limited in its capability to change social systems than any of us really understand, and in many more ways than we technologists are prone to believe.