Imagination is more important than knowledge.
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
-Two dogs talking to each other, in a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, July 5,
Reflecting on this past decade and a half, during which the world went flat, it strikes
me that our lives have been powerfully shaped by two dates: 11/9 and 9/11. These two
dates represent the two competing forms of imagination at work in the world today:
the creative imagination of 11/9 and the destructive imagination of 9/11. One brought
down a wall and opened the windows of the world-both the operating system and the
kind we look through. It unlocked half the planet and made the citizens there our
potential partners and competitors. Another brought down the World Trade Center,
closing its Windows on the World restaurant forever and putting up new invisible and
concrete walls among people at a time when we thought 11 The dismantling of the Berlin
Wall on 11/9 was brought about by people who dared to imagine a different, more open
world-one where every human being would be free to realize his or her full potential
– and who then summoned the courage to act on that imagination. Do
you remember how it happened? It was so simple, really: In July 1989, hundreds of
East Germans sought refuge at the West German embassy in Hungary. In September 1989,
Hungary decided to remove its border restrictions with Austria. That meant that any
East German who got into Hungary could pass through to Austria and the free world.
Sure enough, more than thirteen thousand East Germans escaped through Hungary’s back
door. Pressure built up on the East German government. When in November it announced
plans to ease travel restrictions, tens of thousands of East Germans converged on
the Berlin Wall, where, on 11/9/89, border guards just opened the gates.
Someone there in Hungary, maybe it was the prime minister, maybe it was just a
bureaucrat, must have said to himself or herself, “Imagine- imagine what might happen
if we opened the border with Austria.” Imagine if the Soviet Union were frozen in
place. Imagine-imagine if East German citizens, young and old, men and women, were
so emboldened by seeing their neighbors flee to the West that one day they just swarmed
that Berlin Wall and started to tear it down? Some people must have had a conversation
just like that, and because they did, millions of Eastern Europeans were able to walk
out from behind the Iron Curtain and engage with a flattening world. It was a great
era in which to be an American. We were the only superpower, and the world was our
oyster. There were no walls. Young Americans could think about traveling, for a
semester or a summer, to more countries than any American generation before them.
Indeed, they could travel as far as their imagination and wallets could take them.
They could also look around at their classmates and see people from more different
countries and cultures than any other class before them.
Nine-eleven, of course, changed all that. It showed us the power of a very different
kind of imagination. It showed us the power of a group of hateful men who spent several
years imagining how to kill as many innocent people as they could. At some point bin
Laden and his gang literally must have looked at one another and said, “Imagine if
we actually could hit both towers of the World Trade Center at the exact right spot,
between the ninety-fourth and ninety-eighth floors. And imagine if each tower were
to come crashing down like a house of cards.” Yes, I am sorry
to say, some people had that conversation, too. And, as a result, the world that was
our oyster seemed to close up like a shell.
There has never been a time in history when the character of human imagination wasn’t
important, but writing this book tells me that it has never been more important than
now, because in a flat world so many of the inputs and tools of collaboration are
becoming commodities available to everyone. They are all out there for anyone to grasp.
There is one thing, though, that has not and can never be commoditized – and that
When we lived in a more centralized, and more vertically organized, world – where
states had a near total monopoly of power-individual imagination was a big problem
when the leader of a superpower state – a Stalin, a Mao, or a Hitler-became warped.
But today, when individuals can easily access all the tools of collaboration and
superempower themselves, or their small cells, individuals do not need to control
a country to threaten large numbers of other people. The small can act very big today
and pose a serious danger to world order-without the instruments of a state.
Therefore, thinking about how we stimulate positive imaginations is of the utmost
importance. As Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the IBM computer scientist, put it to me:
We need to think more seriously than ever about how we encourage people to focus on
productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization-peaceful imaginations that
seek to “minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence rather than
self-sufficiency, inclusion rather than exclusion,” openness, opportunity, and hope
rather than limits, suspicion, and grievance.
Let me try to illustrate this by example. In early 1999, two men started airlines
from scratch, just a few weeks apart. Both men had a dream involving airplanes and
the savvy to do something about it. One was named David Neeleman. In February 1999,
he started JetBlue. He assembled $130 million in venture capital, bought a fleet of
Airbus A-320 passenger jets, recruited pilots and signed them to seven-year contracts,
and outsourced his reservation system to stay-at-home moms and retirees living around
Salt Lake City, Utah, who booked passengers on their home computers.
The other person who started an airline was, as we now know from the 9/11 Commission
Report, Osama bin Laden. At a meeting in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in March or April
1999, he accepted a proposal initially drawn up by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the
Pakistan-born mechanical engineer who was the architect of the 9/11 plot. JetBlue’s
motto was “Same Altitude. Different Attitude.” Al-Qaeda’s motto was “Allahu Akbar,”
God is great. Both airlines were designed to fly into New York City-Neeleman’s into
JFK and bin Laden’s into lower Manhattan.
Maybe it was because I read the 9/11 report while on a trip to Silicon Valley that
I could not help but notice how much Khalid Sheikh Mohammed spoke and presented himself
as just another eager engineer-entrepreneur, with his degree from North Carolina
Agricultural and Technical State University, pitching his ideas to Osama bin Laden,
who comes off as just another wealthy venture capitalist. But Mohammed, alas, was
looking for adventure capital. As the 9/11 Commission Report put it, “No one
exemplifies the model of the terrorist entrepreneur more clearly than Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed (KSM), the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks. . . Highly educated and
equally comfortable in a government office or a terrorist safe house, KSM applied
his imagination, technical aptitude and managerial skills to hatching and planning
an extraordinary array of terrorist schemes. These ideas included conventional car
bombing, political assassination, aircraft bombing, hijacking, reservoir poisoning,
and, ultimately, the use of aircraft as missiles guided by suicide operatives . . .
KSM presents himself as an entrepreneur seeking venture capital and people . . . Bin
Laden summoned KSM to Kandahar in March or April 1999 to tell him that al-Qaeda would
support his proposal. The plot was now referred to within al-Qaeda as the ‘planes
From his corporate headquarters in Afghanistan, bin Laden proved to be a very deft
supply chain manager. He assembled a virtual company just for this project-exactly
like any global conglomerate would do in the flat world-finding just the right
specialist for each task. He outsourced the overall design and blueprint for 9/11
to KSM and overall financial management to KSM’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, who
coordinated the dispersal of funds to the hijackers through wire transfers,
cash, traveler’s checks, and credit and debit cards from overseas bank accounts. Bin
Laden recruited from the al-Qaeda roster just the right muscle guys from Asir Province,
in Saudi Arabia, just the right pilots from Europe, just the right team leader from
Hamburg, and just the right support staff from Pakistan. He outsourced the pilot
training to flight schools in America. Bin Laden, who knew he needed only to “lease”
the Boeing 757s, 767s, A32Os, and possibly 747s for his operation, raised the
necessary capital for training pilots on all these different aircraft from a syndicate
of pro-al-Qaeda Islamic charities and other Muslim adventure capitalists ready to
fund anti-American operations. In the case of 9/11, the total budget was around
$400,000. Once the team was assembled, bin Laden focused on his own core
competency-overall leadership and ideological inspiration of his suicide supply
chain, with assistance from his deputies Mohammed Atef and Ayman Zawahiri.
You can get the full flavor of the bin Laden supply chain, and what an aggressive
adopter of new technology al-Qaeda was, by reading just one entry from the December
2001 U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia’s official indictment
of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called nineteenth hijacker from 9/11. It reported the
following: “In or about June 1999, in an interview with an Arabic-language television
station, Osama bin Laden issued a … threat indicating that all American males should
be killed.” It then points out that throughout the year 2000, all of the hijackers,
including Moussaoui, began either attending or inquiring about flight school courses
in America: “On or about September 29, 2000, Zacarias Moussaoui contacted Airman
Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, using an e-mail account he set up on September
6 with an Internet service provider in Malaysia. In or about October 2000, Zacarias
Moussaoui received letters from Infocus Tech, a Malaysian company, stating that
Moussaoui was appointed Infocus Tech’s marketing consultant in the United States,
the United Kingdom and Europe, and that he would receive, among other things, an
allowance of $2,500 per month . . . On or about December 11, 2000, Mohammed Atta
purchased flight deck videos for the Boeing 767 Model 300ER and the Airbus A320 Model
200 from the Ohio Pilot Store … In or about June 2001, in Norman, Oklahoma, Zacarias
Moussaoui made inquiries about starting a cropdusting company . . . On or about August 16, 2001, Zacarias
Moussaoui, possessed, among other things: two knives; a pair of binoculars; flight
manuals for the Boeing 747 Model 400; a flight simulator computer program; fighting
gloves and shin guards; a piece of paper referring to a handheld Global Positioning
System receiver and a camcorder; software that could be used to review pilot
procedures for the Boeing 747 Model 400; letters indicating that Moussaoui is a
marketing consultant in the United States for Infocus Tech; a computer disk containing
information related to the aerial application of pesticides; and a hand-held aviation
A devout Mormon, who grew up in Latin America where his father was a UPI correspondent,
David Neeleman, by contrast, is one of those classic American entrepreneurs and a
man of enormous integrity. He never went to college, but he has started two successful
airlines, Morris Air and JetBlue, and played an important role in shaping a third,
Southwest. He is the godfather of ticketless air travel, now known as e-ticketing.
“I am a total optimist. I think my father is an optimist,” he said to me, trying to
explain where his innovative genes came from. “I grew up in a very happy home . . .
JetBlue was created in my own mind before it was created on paper.” Using his
optimistic imagination and his ability also to quickly adopt all the latest technology
because he had no legacy system to worry about, Neeleman started a highly profitable
airline, creating jobs, low-cost travel, a unique onboard, satellite-supported
entertainment system, and one of the most people-friendly places to work you can
imagine. He also started a catastrophe relief fund in his company to help employee
families who are faced with a sudden death or catastrophic illness of a loved one.
Neeleman donates $1 of his salary for every $1 any employee puts in the fund. “I think
it is important that people give a little,” said Neeleman. “I believe that there are
irrevocable laws of heaven that when you serve others you get this little buzz.” In
2003, Neeleman, already a wealthy man from his JetBlue stock, donated about $120,000
of his $200,000 salary to the JetBlue employee catastrophe fund.
In the waiting room outside his New York City office, there is a color photo of a
JetBlue Airbus flying over the World Trade Center. Neeleman was in his office on 9/11 and watched the Twin Towers burn, while his own JetBlue airliners were circling JFK in a holding pattern. When I explained to him the
comparison/contrast I was going to make between him and bin Laden, he was both
uncomfortable and curious. As I closed up my computer and prepared to leave following
our interview, he said he had one question for me: “Do you think Osama actually
believes there is a God up there who is happy with what he is doing?”
I told him I just didn’t know. What I do know is this: There are two ways to flatten
the world. One is to use your imagination to bring everyone up to the same level,
and the other is to use your imagination to bring everyone down to the same level.
David Neeleman used his optimistic imagination and the easily available technologies
of the flat world to lift people up. He launched a surprising and successful new
airline, some profits of which he turns over to a catastrophe relief fund for his
employees. Osama bin Laden and his disciples used their twisted imagination, and many
of the same tools, to launch a surprise attack, which brought two enormous symbols
of American power down to their level. Worse, they raised their money and created
this massive human catastrophe under the guise of religion.
“From the primordial swamps of globalization have emerged two genetic variants,”
observed Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani-one is al-Qaeda and the other are companies like
Infosys or JetBlue. “Our focus therefore has to be how we can encourage more of the
good mutations and keep out the bad.”
I could not agree more. Indeed, that effort may be the most important thing we learn
to do in order to keep this planet in one piece.
I have no doubt that advances in technology-from iris scans to X-ray machines-will
help us to identify, expose, and capture those who are trying to use the easily
available tools of the flat world to destroy it. But in the end, technology alone
cannot keep us safe. We really do have to find ways to affect the imagination of those
who would use the tools of collaboration to destroy the world that has invented those
tools. But how does one go about nurturing a more hopeful, life-affirming, and
tolerant imagination in others? Everyone has to ask himself or herself this question. I ask
it as an American. I stress this last point because I think it starts first and foremost
by America setting an example. Those of us who are fortunate to live in free and
progressive societies have to set an example. We have to be the best global citizens
we can be. We cannot retreat from the world. We have to make sure that we get the
best of our own imaginations-and never let our imaginations get the best of us.
It is always hard to know when we have crossed the line between justified safety
measures and letting our imaginations get the best of us and thereby paralyzing
ourselves with precautions. I argued right after 9/11 that the reason our intelligence
did not pick up the 9/11 plotters was “a failure of imagination.” We just did not
have enough people within our intelligence community with a sick enough imagination
to match that of bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We do need some people like
that within our intelligence services. But we all don’t need to go down that route.
We all don’t need to become so gripped by imagining the worst in everyone around us
that we shrink into ourselves.
In 2003, my older daughter, Orly, was in her high school’s symphonic orchestra. They
spent all year practicing to take part in the national high school orchestra
competition in New Orleans that March. When March rolled around, it appeared that
we were heading for war in Iraq, so the Montgomery County School Board canceled all
out-of-town trips by school groups-including the orchestra’s attendance at New
Orleans- fearing an outbreak of terrorism. I thought this was absolutely nuts. Even
the evil imagination of 9/11 has its limits. At some point you do have to ask yourself
whether Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were really sitting around a cave in
Afghanistan, with Ayman saying to Osama, “Say, Osama, d’you remember that annual high
school orchestra competition in New Orleans? Well, it’s coming up again next week.
Let’s really make a splash and go after it.”
No, I don’t think so. Let’s leave the cave dwelling to bin Laden. We have to be the
masters of our imaginations, not the prisoners. I had a friend in Beirut who used
to joke that every time she flew on an airplane she packed a bomb in her suitcase,
because the odds of two people car- rying a bomb on the same plane were so much higher. Do whatever it takes, but get
out the door.
Apropos of that, let me share the 9/11 story that touched me most from the New York
Times series “Portraits of Grief,” the little biographies of those who were killed.
It was the story of Candace Lee Williams, the twenty-year-old business student at
Northeastern University, who had worked from January to June of 2001 as a work-study
intern at the Merrill Lynch office on the fourteenth floor of 1 World Trade Center.
Both Candace’s mother and colleagues described her to The New York Times as a young
woman full of energy and ambition, who loved her internship. Indeed, Candace’s
colleagues at Merrill Lynch liked her so much they took her to dinner on her last
day of work, sent her home in a limousine, and later wrote Northeastern to say, “Send
us five more like Candace.” A few weeks after finishing midterm exams-she was on a
June-December academic schedule-Candace Lee Williams decided to meet her roommate
at her home in California. Candace had recently made the dean’s list. “They’d rented
a convertible preparing for the occasion, and Candace wanted her picture taken with
that Hollywood sign,” her mother, Sherri, told the Times.
Unfortunately, Candace took the American Airlines Flight 11 that departed from
Boston’s Logan Airport on the morning of September 11, 2001, at 8:02 a.m. The plane
was hijacked at 8:14 a.m. by five men, including Mohammed Atta, who was in seat 8D.
With Atta at the controls, the Boeing 767-223ER was diverted to Manhattan and slammed
Candace Lee Williams right back into the very same World Trade Center tower-between
floors 94 and 98-where she had worked as an intern.
Airline records show that she was seated next to an eighty-year-old grandmother-two
people at opposites ends of life: one full of memories, one full of dreams.
What does this story say to me? It says this: When Candace Lee Williams boarded Flight
11 she could not have imagined how it would end. But in the wake of 9/11, none of
us can now board an airplane without imagining how it could end-that what happened
to Candace Lee Williams could also happen to us. We all are now so much more conscious that a person’s
life can be wiped out by the arbitrary will of a madman in a cave in Afghanistan.
But the fact is, the chances of our plane being hijacked by terrorists today are still
infinitesimal. We are more likely to be killed hitting a deer with our car or being
struck by lightning. So even though we can now imagine what could happen when we get
on an airplane, we have to get on the plane anyway. Because the alternative to not
getting on that plane is putting ourselves in our own cave. Imagination can’t just
be about reruns. It also has to be about writing our own new script. From what I read
about Candace Lee Williams, she was an optimist. I’d bet anything she’d still be
getting on planes today if she had the chance. And so must we all.
America’s role in the world, from its inception, has been to be the country that looks
forward, not back. One of the most dangerous things that has happened to America since
9/11, under the Bush administration, is that we have gone from exporting hope to
exporting fear. We have gone from trying to coax the best out of the world to snarling
at it way too often. And when you export fear, you end up importing everyone else’s
fears. Yes, we need people who can imagine the worst, because the worst did happen
on 9/11 and it could happen again. But, as I said, there is a fine line between
precaution and paranoia, and at times we have crossed it. Europeans and others often
love to make fun of American optimism and naivete-our crazy notion that every problem
has a solution, that tomorrow can be better than yesterday, that the future can always
bury the past. But I have always believed that deep down the rest of the world envies
that American optimism and naivete, it needs it. It is one of the things that help
keep the world spinning on its axis. If we go dark as a society, if we stop being
the world’s “dream factory,” we will make the world not only a darker place but also
a poorer place.
Analysts have always tended to measure a society by classical economic and social
statistics: its deficit-to-GDP ratio, or its unemployment rate, or the rate of
literacy among its adult women. Such statistics are important and revealing. But there
is another statistic, much harder to measure, that I think is even more important and revealing: Does your society have
more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?
By dreams I mean the positive, life-affirming variety. The business organization
consultant Michael Hammer once remarked, “One thing that tells me a company is in
trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past. Same with countries.
You don’t want to forget your identity. I am glad you were great in the fourteenth
century, but that was then and this is now. When memories exceed dreams, the end is
near. The hallmark of a truly successful organization is the willingness to abandon
what made it successful and start fresh.”
In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too
many days looking backward. They see dignity, affirmation, and self-worth not by
mining the present but by chewing on the past. And even that is usually not a real
past but an imagined and adorned past. Indeed, such societies focus all their imagination on making that imagined past even more beautiful than it ever was, and
then they cling to it like a rosary or a strand of worry beads, rather than imagining
a better future and acting on that. It is dangerous enough when other countries go
down that route; it would be disastrous for America to lose its bearings and move
in that direction. I think my friend David Rothkopf, the former Commerce Department
official and now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said
it best: “The answer for us lies not in what has changed, but in recognizing what
has not changed. Because only through this recognition will we begin to focus on the
truly critical issues-an effective multilateral response to weapons of mass
destruction proliferation, the creation of real stakeholders in globalization among
the world’s poor, the need for reform in the Arab world and a style of U.S. leadership
that seeks to build our base of support worldwide by getting more people to voluntarily
sign onto our values. We need to remember that those values are the real foundation
for our security and the real source of our strength. And we need to recognize that
our enemies can never defeat us. Only we can defeat ourselves, by throwing out the
rule book that has worked for us for a long, long time.”
I believe that history will make very clear that President Bush shame-lessly exploited the emotions around 9/11 for political purposes.
He used those 9/11 emotions to take a far-right Republican domestic agenda on taxes, the environment,
and social issues from 9/10-an agenda for which he had no popular mandate-and drive
it into a 9/12 world. In doing so, Mr.Bush not only drove a wedge between Americans,
and between Americans and the world, he drove a wedge between America and its own
history and identity. His administration transformed the United States into “the
United States of Fighting Terrorism.” This is the real reason, in my view, that so
many people in the world dislike President Bush so intensely. They feel that he has
taken away something very dear to them-an America that exports hope, not fear.
We need our president to restore September 11 to its rightful place on the calendar-as
the day after September 10 and before September 12. We must never let it become a
day that defines us. Because ultimately September 11 is about them-the bad guys-not
We’re about the Fourth of July. We’re about 11/9.
Beyond trying to retain the best of our own imaginations, what else can we do as
Americans and as a global society to try to nurture the same in others? One has to
approach this question with great humility. What leads one person to the joy of
destruction and what leads another to the joy of creation, what leads one to imagine
11/9 and another to imagine 9/11, is surely one of the great mysteries of contemporary
life. Moreover, while most of us might have some clue about how to nurture a more
positive imagination for our own kids, and maybe-maybe-for our fellow citizens, it
is presumptuous to think that we can do it for others, particularly those of a
different culture, speaking different languages, and living half a world away. Yet
9/11, the flattening of the world, and the continuing threat of world-disrupting
terrorism suggest that not thinking about this is its own kind of dangerous naivete.
So I insist on trying to do so, but I approach this issue with a keen awareness of
the limits of what any outsider can know or do.
Generally speaking, imagination is the product of two shaping forces. One is the
narratives that people are nurtured on-the stories and myths
they and their religious and national leaders tell themselves-and how those
narratives feed their imaginations one way or another. The other is the context in
which people grow up, which has a huge impact on shaping how they see the world and
others. Outsiders cannot get inside and adjust the Mexican or Arab or Chinese
narrative any more than they can get inside the American one. Only they can reinterpret
their narrative, make it more tolerant or forward looking, and adapt it to modernity.
No one can do that for them or even with them. But one can think about how to collaborate
with others to change their context-the context within which people grow up and live
their daily lives-to help nurture more people with the imagination of 11/9 than 9/11.
Let me offer a few examples.
Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, once told me a wonderful story that went like this:
“We took eBay public in September 1998, in the middle of the dot-com boom. And in
September and October our stock would go up eighty points and down fifty in a single
day. I thought, ‘This is insane.’ Anyway, one day I am minding my own business, sitting
in my own cubicle, and my secretary runs over and says to me, ‘Meg, it’s Arthur Levitt
[chairman] of the SEC on the phone.'” The Securities and Exchange Commission oversees
the stock market and is always concerned about issues of volatility in a stock and
whether there is manipulation behind it. In those days, for a CEO to hear that “Arthur
Levitt is on the line” was not a good way to start the day.
“So I called my general counsel,” said Whitman, “who came over from his cubicle, and
he was white like a sheet. We called Levitt back together and we put him on the
speakerphone, and I said, ‘Hi, it’s Meg Whitman of eBay.’ And he said, ‘Hi, it’s Arthur
Levitt of the SEC. I don’t know you and have never met you but I know that you just
went public and I want to know: How did it go? Were we [the SEC] customer-friendly?’
And so we breathed a sigh of relief, and we talked about that a
little bit. And then [Levitt] said, ‘Well, actually, another reason that I am calling
is that I just got my tenth positive feedback on eBay and have earned my yellow star.
And I am so proud.’ And then he said, ‘I am actually a collector of Depression-era
glass, post-1929, and so I have bought and sold on eBay and you get feedback as a
buyer and seller. And I thought you would just like to know.'”
Every eBay user has a feedback profile made up of comments from other eBay users who
have done transactions with him or her, relating to whether the goods bought or sold
were as expected and the transaction went off smoothly. This constitutes your official
“eBay reputation.” You get +1 point for each positive comment, 0 points for each
neutral comment, and -1 for each negative comment. A colored star icon is attached
to your user ID on eBay for ten or more feedback points. My user ID on eBay might
be TOMF (50) and a blue star, which means that I have received positive feedback
comments from fifty other eBay users. Next to that is a box that will tell you whether
the seller has had 100 percent positive feedback comments or less, and also give you
the chance to click and read all the buyers’ comments about that seller.
The point, said Whitman, is that “I think every human being, Arthur Levitt or the
janitor or the waitress or the doctor or the professor, needs and craves validation
and positive feedback.” And the big misconception is to think that it has to be money.
“It can be really small things,” said Whitman, “telling someone, ‘You did a really
great job, you were recognized as doing a great history paper.’ Our users say to us
[about eBay’s star system], ‘Where else can you wake up in the morning and see how
much people like you?'”
But what is so striking, said Whitman, is that the overwhelming majority of feedback
on eBay is positive. That’s interesting. People don’t usually write Wal-Mart managers
to compliment them on a fabulous purchase. But when you are part of a community that
you feel ownership in, it is different. You have a stake. “The highest number of
feedback we have is well over 250,000 positive comments, and you can see each one,”
said Whitman. “You can see the entire history of each buyer and seller, and we have
introduced the ability to rebut. . . You cannot be anony-
mous on eBay. If you are not willing to say who you are, you should not be saying
it. And it became the norm of the community really fast. . . We are not running an
exchange-we are running a community.” Indeed, with 105 million registered users from
190 countries trading more than $35 billion in products annually, eBay is actually
a self-governing nation-state-the V.R.e., the Virtual Republic of eBay.
And how is it governed? EBay’s philosophy, said Whitman, is, “Let’s make a small number
of rules, really enforce them, and then create an environment in which people can
fulfill their own potential. There is something going on here besides buying and
selling goods.” Even allowing for corporate boosterism, Whitman’s essential message is really worth
contemplating: “People will say that ‘eBay restored my faith in humanity’- contrary
to the world where people are cheating and don’t give people the benefit of the doubt.
I hear that twice a week . . . EBay offers the little guy, who’s disenfranchised,
an opportunity to compete on a totally level playing field. We have a disproportionate
share of wheelchairs and disabled and minorities, [because] on eBay people don’t know
who you are. You are only as good as your product and feedback.”
Whitman recalled that one day she got an e-mail from a couple in Orlando who were
coming to an “eBay Live” event at which she was speaking. These are big revival
meeting-conventions of eBay sellers. They asked if they could come backstage to meet
Whitman after her speech. “So after the keynote,” she recalled, “they come back to
my green room, and in comes mom and dad and a seventeen-year-old boy in a
wheelchair-very disabled with cerebral palsy. They tell me, ‘Kyle is very disabled
and can’t go to school, [but] he built an eBay business and last year my husband and
I quit our jobs, and now we help him -we have made more money on eBay than we ever
made on our jobs.’ And then they added the most incredible thing. They said, ‘On eBay,
Kyle is not disabled.'”
Whitman told me that at another eBay Live event a young man came up to her, a big
power seller on eBay, and said that thanks to his eBay business he had been able to
buy a house and a car, hire people, and be his own boss. But the best part, said Whitman,
was that the young man added, “I am so excited about eBay, because I did not graduate from college and was
sort of disowned by my family, and I am now the hit of my family. I am a successful
“It’s this blend of economic opportunity and validation” that makes eBay tick,
concluded Whitman. Those validated become transparent as good partners, because bad
validation is an option for the whole community.
Bottom line: eBay didn’t just create an online market. It created a self-governing
community-a context-where anyone, from the severely handicapped to the head of the
SEC, could come and achieve his or her potential and be validated as a good and
trustworthy person by the whole community. That kind of self-esteem and validation
is the best, most effective way of producing dehumiliation and redignification. To
the extent that America can collaborate with regions like the Arab-Muslim world to
produce contexts where young people can succeed, can achieve their full potential
on a level playing field, can get validation and respect from achievements in this
world-and not from martyrdom to get into the next world-we can help foster more young
people with more dreams than memories.
written by Thomas Friedman