WASHINGTONTime magazine has done a better job of picking the Person of the Year in 2006 than in explaining the choice. Many commentators are expressing doubts, although I suspect most peoplethat is, youhave a better understanding of what the award is trying to convey.
The you picked by Time magazine refers to the millions of people around the world whose daily interaction, particularly through the Internet, is fueling the Information Age and shattering the barriers of the nation-state, language, race, gender, age or ideology.
This is an idea most of us can easily agree on. But what is its real significance and why are you, then, the Person of the Year? The magic of the Information Age, I would submit, lies in its orderly chaosthe unforeseen and beneficial order that results from millions of daily actions taken by people who pursue different ends through this vast network of communication. Nobody really set out to create, or deliberately direct other people toward, such a thing as a world community. And yet that is exactly what has happened. Online services such as MySpace, Facebook or Wikipedia, to mention but three, are a small expression of that orderly chaos.
The idea that wonderful social achievements come about unexpectedly is counterintuitive. We expect community, solidarity or social cooperation to result from targeted efforts by powers we can easily identify and hold accountable. We mistrust the idea that, left to their own devices, individuals will achieve high social ends. But that is precisely what the Internet has done. At the beginning of the 18th century, Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch doctor known for his book The Fable of the Bees, wrote that private vices lead to public benefits. He would be amazed to see the extraordinary expansion of knowledge, commerce and choice brought about by the daily actions of vain, greedy, nosy, obscene and irreverent users on the Internet.
The Internet has not changed the essential nature of our civilization. What it has done is reaffirm and enhance its basic traitthe existence of a self-correcting and evolving order that coordinates what nobody originally set out to coordinate in a way that no government program, nongovernmental organization, intellectuals or a single computer could ever match.
Different professions use different names to refer to this phenomenon. Economists talk about markets. Some historians point to the laws of history. There are novelists who compare it to a swarm, including Tolstoy, who stated in War and Peace that man lives consciously for himself but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of historical and social ends.
What the Internet is doing is expanding the reach of our civilization beyond its previous borders. It is also giving those whose daily actions sustain that civilization the tools to accelerate its pace and weaken the forces that work against it.
In the last couple of years I have been directing a research project on entrepreneurship in three continents and this is exactly what I have witnessedthe gradual, sometimes tortuous but unequivocal push of our civilization beyond its traditional borders through the design of no single person or entity.
The fact that our civilization is expanding is making many people insecure, nowhere more so than in the United States. It is a purely psychological effect because the truth is that the United States is still one of the most secure places on earth, as anyone who has lived in truly insecure environments knows. Three things are causing this insecurityHispanic immigration, Asian competition and Islamic terrorism. Many people think that immigration will take away their culture, competition will take away their jobs, and terrorism will take away their freedom. In fact, immigration is mostly about assimilation, competition is churning out more jobs than it is eliminating, and there is little chance that terrorism will come remotely close to matching the defensive or offensive capabilities of the United States. But these arguments are rational and fear is an irrational thing.
That is where you, Person of the Year, come into play. Precisely because too many barrierspolitical, economic, and culturalwere in place to begin with, the liberating power of the Information Age has caught many people off guard. But they will eventually adapt and the result will bein some ways, it already isan enhanced awareness of other people. That will probably not be enough to eradicate fear and mistrust altogether, but it will hold it in check and the world will be freer and more prosperous for more and more people.
You are, indeed, the Person of the Year.