In 2001 I went to an O’Reilly conference with the unwieldy name Peer-to-Peer and Web Services. It was, in retrospect, the forerunner of the more succintly named Web 2.0 conference. The 2001 conference, which had originally been scheduled for late September, was pushed into November by the 9/11 disaster. But it wound up being one of the most eclectic I’ve ever attended, and for that reason one of the best. I rubbed elbows with hackers, musicians, lawyers, journalists, venture capitalists, and most unusually for me, soldiers.
It was a soldier who made the most lasting impression. Earl Wardell, who worked for the Joint Chiefs, said things I would never have thought a soldier could say to a crowd like us. Conventional command-and-control wasn’t working. The enemy had mastered the art of network agility. It was now imperative for our military services to understand and apply the ways of the web, and we in the vanguard were invited to help guide that historic transformation.
It was a stunning moment. Since then, I’ve wondered from time to time whether that invitation had remained open, whether it had been accepted, and if so what were the outcomes.
This month that invitation was extended to me, and by a strange coincidence not once but twice. Last week I spoke to an intelligence advisory board at an undisclosed location near Washington, on a panel where I was flanked by a Google executive and a Nashville music promoter. This week I spoke at the Highlands Forum in Carmel, California, where members of the Web 2.0 tribe met with our military counterparts.
Both gatherings were extraordinary events for me. The rules of engagement between “my” tribe and “their” tribe are loosely defined, so I’m not sure how much I can or should say here, but I will report the following observations.
First, the invitation I heard in 2001 was real, and remains open. Some of the best and brightest minds in the US military are keenly aware that the emerging web will be a fundamental enabler of the transformation they urgently wish to effect.
Second, the future is as unevenly distributed inside the DoD as it is everywhere else. I have met folks who are discouraged, cynical, and who see no signs of the needed transformation. And I’ve met other folks who are energized, hopeful, and deeply engaged in making that transformation happen.
Third, I have met the enemy and it is tribalism. I recently heard an interview with E.O. Wilson in which he was asked to react to the critiques of religion that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have famously been making. The problem isn’t religion, Wilson said, it’s tribalism. The two often coincide but they are not the same thing. Religion is not a pernicious force in the world. Tribalism is.
I said when I joined Microsoft that my goal was to build bridges. We need to build bridges within the technical world, between the Microsoft tribe and the open source tribe. We also need to build bridges between the geek tribe as a whole and the rest of the world, because when you strip away the Linux and Vista T-Shirts we geeks share much more DNA with one another than with the vast majority born without the hacking chromosome.
We also need to build bridges between the civilian tribe and the military tribe. I’ve now had the rare opportunity to see that those bridges are in the process of being built, and I’ll do whatever I can to keep that momentum going.
Meanwhile, here’s my takeway. Tribalism is an aspect of human nature, so it must once have served a purpose, but it no longer does. It’s a piece of evolutionary baggage that we can no longer afford to carry around. I don’t know if we can let go of it, but we had better at least try.