As I write this, today is my birthday. In about five minutes and what will be the date of this post, it will September 11, 2011. Ten years later. Today when my mother called me to wish me a happy birthday, she asked me how I felt about tomorrow, and I told her that I felt sad, that it seemed like a wasted opportunity, that it triggered us entering into two wars, one of which was clearly needless, that it distracted us from the larger issues at hand instead of bringing a great country into focus, we became obsessed with shopping, gross consumerism and excessive easy credit that led to the economic overhang that haunts us today. But most of all I feel that except for a few hassles at the airport, things seem amnesic as if nothing meaning occurred to us.
This week, I've been coming back from a long trip, and for some reason I've been angry for reasons that I haven't been able to pin down. Later this evening, while I was cleaning up after a casual celebration I realized that the anger has been in the lack of perspective and context that infuses our lives. We seem a country obsessed with drama. Reality TV shows, a New York Times article about resorts that boast about where Snooki had slept (to be honest, I'm inferring that, I just saw the email teaser and couldn't breakdown and read it in a rare bout of self control), here in Silicon Valley the focus was on the twin dramas encompassing Techcrunch/AOL and a potty mouthed CEO unceremoniously fired over the phone. In the realm of real news, we have a presidential campaign dominated by flamboyant non-issues of the promise of $2 per gallon gasoline. The largest legitimate salvo to some does of relevancy was a jobs bill whose goal was to generate demand by more tax cuts on the hope and prayer that those funds will be spent across the economy to stimulate demand, though my fear in an age of mass market consumerism a few top brands will simply witness increased dominance as more people buy iPhones and iPads, the spoils will continue to go to the few. Perhaps a few service sectors such as restaurants and beauty services may see an uptick, but not enough to pull an economy out of the doldrums. My wager is more of that tax cut will be spent of movies, than books. Junk food than exercise.
That is the world that I see, I am fortunate that I was not directly impacted by that day. I had no friends in the towers or in Washington DC or Pennsylvania despite my ties to the New York Area. I did have the responsibility to motivate and organize the communities I oversaw to bring some positive action. I was unemployed at the time, it was my most productive time. I along with other alumni leaders of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters channeled the energy of fellow alums by organizing a non-profit community service fair that wasn't a job fair but a volunteer fair. We were oversubscribed both on non-profits who wanted to present and people looking to make a difference. It was a time where people wanted to change the conversation, not merely accelerate it. People wanted to re-engage with the communities.
A friend of mine created a discussion group called the "Engage Forum" and we met in potluck style meetings and looked over out ballots in earnest to understand what we being asked to decide. We had discussions, both left and right, even in San Francisco. As we went to Iraq, we were fortunate to be able to get Larry Diamond
to speak on his experiences on the Coalition Provisional Authority to make sense of what was coming next. I invited a friend who was also the Mayor of Mountain View to attend since she had recently been part of a group of leaders selected to go to Afghanistan as part of an outreach effort. She fell in love with the country, and eventually went to Afghanistan to create opportunities for Afghan women to become self sufficient. Whenever a news story about a death of an American came on the radio, I would pause. She would eventually pass away in Afghanistan, but due to illness not ill will.
In the aftermath, there was a possibility of a deeper understanding of our role in the world. The door was open, but somehow it closed. Most people where I live have no connection to anyone who is serving to keep our cupcakes flowing. So without that connection, we focus on the cupcakes flowing. When gas prices go up, it's not clear we connect the dots. The context is that things are good, at least things are good for me.
And it is good for me, and that is why I am sad and angry at this time. In the reflection of ten years past, in my milestone of another year on this planet, in the milestone of 10 years since that fateful day. I ask what have we learned, I ask what have I learned? And the conclusion I come to is that the past 10 years have been an accelerator of our former selves. Arno Penzias, the Nobel prize winner once said that technology is not good or bad, it makes things just more so. It's an accelerator. If you don't know where you are going, a sports car gets you lost faster and further than you could before.
The debt has grown, our bodies have bloated, our distractions have multiplied. All factored by the new tools we have today. In our effort to return to normal, we accelerated the life before the event in a huge game of catch up, and so we did and then some. We focused on meeting those people's immediate desires, we still do. That's what this valley does.
However, ten years ago we took a pause to reflect on those desires, today perhaps in remembrance we should pause again.