My Two Top 2008 Technologies

For a year-end post I’d rather not try to recap the year in technology, or in anything else.  Let’s be honest — with the exception of our truly historic presidential election much of the noteworthy news of 2008 was bad to really bad. I also don’t want to offer predictions for 2009. They’re usually embarrassingly inaccurate, plus at this point prayers for the coming year feel more valuable than predictions.

So I thought I’d wrap up this blog for this year with a bit of reflection, and talk about my two favorite technologies of the year (I just got my first iPhone yesterday, but will consider that a 2009 technology). The first is the Amazon Kindle, which I ordered in May after my former student Rivka Spivak told me it was a ready-for-primetime technology.

And she was right. Minor ergonomic quibbles aside, it’s an amazing device. The killer feature for me (beyond the digital ink screen, which was developed at the company where Andy Mulkerin, another former student, worked before coming to HBS) is the built-in permanent wireless connection, which allows me to purchase books anywhere, any time. When I’m acting as an unpaid member of the Kindle sales force and trying to convince friends to buy one, most of them have a hard time believing that this is the case. They assume that when I say "wireless" I mean "wifi," and that the Kindle piggybacks off my home network. I have to go to some lengths (just as Rivka did with me) to convey that the Kindle has a built-in permanent and free mobile phone plan that its users never have to give any thought to —  they just pull books down from the ether whenever the fancy strikes them.

The Kindle adds essentially nothing to the weight of my carryon and takes up very little room, but solves one of my nastiest travel problems. I like to travel light, but have a near-phobia about being trapped on the road without something good to read. This meant that even on a short trip I’d take enough books to start a decent library. Doing so probably compressed my spine and certainly made me feel like a neurotic dope. I now travel with nearly 30 digital books (the current total on my Kindle) and can get more at any time, at a total weight of just over 10 ounces. And very cool covers are available for it, thanks to former student #3 Andrea Nadosy and her company Bobarra (website coming soon; Amazon ordering now available).

Francois Mitterand said that "a man loses contact with reality if he is not surrounded by his books" and the Kindle helps me avoid that fate. My other favorite technology of 2008 helps keep my pendelum from swinging too far in the direction of solitary bookishness.

I grew up with my nose in a book and am glad I did; I agree with Emerson that "In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight. He who has once known its satisfactions is provided with a resource against calamity." But the bibliophile’s fallacy is the notion that books are always more interesting and informative than people, and generally preferable to them. The bookworm runs the risk of truly believing Oscar Wilde’s quip that “The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet’s dream: it is a most depressing and humiliating reality.” As I wrote a while back, the phenomenon of Web 2.0 has shown me that this is witty but wrong. It’s not an overstatement to say that technology, paradoxically, has deepened my faith in people and showed me the phenomenon not only of collective intelligence, but also of inherent human decency.

I saw this over and over again with Twitter, which I started using in June of this year after being egged on by prolific user Amy Senger and other people. Soon after I joined I used Twitter to ask how I should use Twitter. Stowe Boyd wrote back that I should simply follow a hundred people and let the magic happen. He was echoing E.M Forster’s exhortation in Howard’s End: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon… Live in fragments no longer." And he was right.

I’ve written about Twitter several times (see this post, for example), concentrating on its utility for business purposes. But it’s also been a great way for me to meet people and learn more about them, to renew old ties and strengthen current ones, to ask questions and get amazingly interesting and helpful answers, and to immerse myself in a community of friends even when I’m in modern society’s least friendly places: airport terminals, chain hotel rooms, trains, deserted restaurants, my desk in the middle of some workdays, etc. I saw, in short, just how prescient the Catholic visionary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was when he wrote in 1961 about the "those astonishing electronic machines… by which our… capacity to… combine is reinforced and multiplied by the process and to a degree that herald as astonishing advances in this direction as those that optical science has already produced for our power of vision." With Kindle I’m never far from my books, and with Twitter I’m never far from my people (If you’d like to become one of those people by following me, please do !).

I’ve become somewhat popular on Twitter but have yet to receive a single flame message or gratuitous insult, even though it would take all of 10 seconds to write and send one. Instead I’ve been received with a blend of consideration, goodwill, respect, friendliness, maturity, tolerance, and good humor that astonishes me. The Beatles sang that "in the end, the love you take / is equal to the love you make." but I can’t believe that’s true in this case. If I’ve been a good colleague or friend and been helpful on Twitter I’m happy to hear it, but I can’t see how I’ve given half as much as I’ve received.

Twitter and the other emergent social software platforms I’ve used in 2008 have moved me away from Wilde’s view of humanity and toward Mark Twain’s, who said "In all my travels the thing that has impressed me the most is the universal brotherhood of man, what there is of it." One of the things I’ve learned this year is that thanks to 2.0 technologies, there’s a good bit more of it than there was previously.

Happy New Year, all.  Best wishes for 2009.