Thoughts at the End of the Year

by Andrew McAfee on December 21, 2009

I thought I’d wrap up the year by looking forward instead of backward. Because looking back on 2009 isn’t all that much fun.

A lot of people have had a tough go of it for some time now, and the last year was not a great one (heck, the Yankees even won the World Series). We’ve seen plenty of examples of bad behavior from prominent people, and a lot of victims left behind. We’re also still recovering from the near-collapse of big and important parts of our economy. And we’re facing huge challenges related to climate change, two wars being fought in the Middle East, and (in the US) altering the health care system.

And yet I find myself optimistic as I look ahead. I try not to be blithe or naive, and I know that soulwise, these are trying times. But I believe that we’ll get through them, and that we’ll address with some level of effectiveness the challenges we’re facing.

My optimism has two sources, one general and one more specific. Generally, I think people are good problem solvers, and are more inclined to be helpful than harmful to each other. Combine these two traits and what results is a world where, as the economist Julian Simon phrased it “The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely.”

I realize that sounds incredibly blithe, naive, and at odds with the facts, but my read of the evidence tells me that it’s not. Climate change might well be an important exception to this happy trend and I don’t mean to be cavalier about it, but I’m with Bjorn Lomborg on how to best address it: invest more in basic energy R&D and unleash human creativity on this human-caused problem.

My more specific reason for optimism springs from my work on the impact of technology, and in particular the emergent social software platforms I’ve written about. Thanks to these technologies, the global Internet, and the explosive growth of wireless bandwidth and mobile devices around the world, we’re entering a really interesting period, and one we should be hugely excited about.

To characterize this period, I’ll rely on the writings of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and visionary who died in 1955. Tielhard de Chardin worked to fuse two strains of thought be believed in deeply: Catholic doctrine with the theory of evolution. I won’t even try to summarize his strange and wonderful arguments, except to say that like Simon he was an optimist, and thought that we are on our way to someplace better.

Tielhard de Chardin held that an important step in mankind’s progression was the interconnection of the world’s people, and he was confident that this would take place. In his book The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote

We are faced with a harmonised collectivity of consciousness equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth not only becoming covered in myriads of grains of thought, but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale, the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection.

In Man’s Place in Nature, he was specific about how this grouping and reinforcing might take place:

And here I am thinking of those astonishing electronic machines (the starting-point and hope of the young science of cybernetics), by which our mental capacity to calculate and 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.

More than fifty years after Tielhard de Chardin’s death, his ‘astonishing electronic machines’ are being deployed all over the world, and our abilities to calculate and combine are being multiplied just as he said they would be.

I am incredibly heartened by this. I give us people enough credit to believe that more good than bad things will come from the ‘harmonized collectivity of consciousness’ we’re creating at present, and that we’ll use it to help overcome the challenges we face. Including the ones we ourselves create.

I’ll end this post with a sentence allegedly uttered by Benjamin Franklin just before he signed the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” We have better tools for hanging together than we’ve ever had before, and I’m confident that they’ll help us get through our current hard times and on to better ones.

Happy Holidays, all.

im2b_dl December 21, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I think it is by bi-product of osmosis and symbiosis that these great machines have enhanced, that may save us from the numbness to the human condition and waste that comes has come from their use for laziness …that may be the key. But only if the storycubes they create that feed each other and strengthen each other are not about the large corporation and more about “democracy touched by grace”.

Gerrit Visser December 21, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Thanks for sharing your inspirig optimistic outlook. Yes there are plenty of tools to collaborate. May be even too many, which makes it difficult to agree on what is needed and what tool is fit for a specific context. Recently i was wondering wether MSN Life would or would not be a good tool to communicate between the front and the back office.

Tessa Shepperson December 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

A nice post and I hope you are right. The web started in a good way, with Tim Berners Lee giving it away. Maybe that is why much of the ethos of the web is to do with kindness and helping each other. I like to think so.

Rick Ladd December 21, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Like you, Andy, and – despite my far left-leaning politics – I am eternally the optimist. I tend to think our growing abilities to calculate and combine are somewhat analogous to the evolution and growth of the human brain. As more and more connections are forged we become collectively more intelligent and, as a result, more “single-minded”, i.e. more agreeable if not completely in agreement. I do believe we have a long, hard slog ahead of us and there will be times of backsliding and loss but, in general, I like to think we are on an upward trajectory in terms of working for the common good. You may call me Pollyanna if you wish.


Megan Murray December 21, 2009 at 4:29 pm

“For all of the talk it's only true to say that if you have no hope, there is none”
One of my favorite lines from a lovely song. I think it applies. I'm filled with hope for pervasive evolution and sanity in 2010. :)

Kim Feraday December 21, 2009 at 5:35 pm

I'm disappointed to see you're embracing Lomborg here. You're reference to “The Skeptical Environmentalist” indicates that you also don't believe that it's real.

Lomborg does not believe that climate change is real but as the evidence has continued to mount he has essentially co-opted the issue to make a strawman argument. He argues that climate change is real but that we shouldn't do anything about it because there are all of these other issues that are more pressing (hunger, access to clean water, disease, etc.). Essentially he turns it into a zero sum game, which of course it's not. This was his argument at the Munk debates a couple of weeks ago.

We can of course choose to address climate change AND address these other issues. In fact, because they are in fact at least partly related, you need to address all of them. Sure investing in green technology is a great idea, but if government prices carbon, it will essentially be acting as a market maker. That's essentially what Stephane Dion was trying to do with the Green Shift in our last election — unfortunately his team wasn't smart enough to package it in the right way.

As far as his $40 Trillion price tag (in lost economic growth) this also doesn't make sense. If you create a market for new goods and services as he seems to want to do then you're going to have a positive impact. And let's keep in mind that there are many industries that benefit from government largesse, the oil and gas industry being one of them. So if you have to play a zero sum game (in terms of government spending then this seems to be the place to do it.

I know this isn't the overall intent of your piece but when you like this it makes me wonder about the validity of the rest of your argument. Social software is great (I love it) but like all technology it's just a tool — it can either be used effectively or not. To a large degree it depends on the people using it. And here I'll agree with you — most people at heart are good and will use the tool to move the world forward.

I couldn't, however let the Lomborg reference go unchallenged. It's too important an issue.

Mike Ricard December 22, 2009 at 7:37 am

I remember reading the Phenomenon of Man as a teenager in the 1970s and thinking this would be a wonderful thing to occur but unlikely given man's constant state of conflict and discord. Teilhard's term for this thinking layer of consciousness enveloping the world, as you know, is the 'noosphere'. from the Greek “nous,” meaning mind.

Today, one just has to look at examples of real-time communications from around the world, like Twitter and Google Wave, to see that, yes, there is a layer of consciousnes becoming ever more pervasive. No matter where people are in the world, they can reach out instantaneously to others anywhere.

I work as an enterprise community manager for a global publisher and I espouse many of the Enterprise 2.0 principles which you have helped to formulate. It is a truly wonderful time to be alive. Thanks Andrew for your tremendous work bringing business into the 21st century.

paulorlando December 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm


That's a wonderful use of older texts to relate to the current experience. I'll check out “The Phenomenon of Man”. I'd also like to suggest a reading of Walk Whitman's “Leaves of Grass” collection as having relevance today. His poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” speaks to me especially in the entrepreneurial experience.

Other than the Yankees comment, the rest of your post was quite elegant. I've also enjoyed reading your tweets. Here's to remaining optimistic in 2010.


Jeff Wilfong January 6, 2010 at 6:57 pm

When reading this post, I kept thinking about the Vulcan Elders from Star Trek. I am definitely not a Trekie, but the elder system was an interesting way to govern. I think about Web 2.0, management, top-down organizational structures, and I think that elder type systems would be rather interesting to look at! Elder systems have to be based in kindness, respect the group which it represents, and be in dialogue. Dialogue is a term not often used these days…

amcafee January 7, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I've watched a fair bit of (the original) Star Trek, but am not familiar with the Vulcan Elder system. Tell us a bit about it, please…

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I’ve watched a fair bit of (the original) Star Trek, but am not familiar with the Vulcan Elder system. Tell us a bit about it, please…

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