On the desk in front of me lies a small pistol.
It belonged to my father, who carried it on counter-espionage missions in Germany, Austria, and Morocco in the early 1950s. And as I look at its muzzle, I wonder how many times it was pressed against the temple or ribs of a foreign agent . . .and how many times it delivered a bullet. There were things I asked my father about, and things I chose not to.
The pistol is a Browning Model 1910 semi-automatic. Its manufacturer’s logo – the Belgium gunmaker Fabrique Nationale – is embossed on the grips. One of John Moses Browning’s minor masterpieces, the Model 1910 is not only small, but hammerless; its sleekness made it very popular among European police officers for much of the 20th century. My father always said he carried it because it was almost invisible under his suit jacket.
Another Model 1910 is one of the most notorious weapons in history. That pistol was used in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 by the 19 year-old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Austrian Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife – the event that triggered the First World War.
As it happens, I’ve been thinking about Princip lately – not the pathetic little man – but what he represents. When, amazed at his luck that the Imperial motorcade had stalled in front of him, Princip pulled out that pistol and started shooting, he unknowingly tripped a series of switches in palaces and ministries across Europe – and eventually around the globe – that would lead to a four year war that would pull down the royalty of Europe, murder millions of soldiers and citizens, and set the stage for an even greater slaughter a quarter-century later.
I think Princip has been lurking in the corner of my mind for a while now, as I’ve read with growing trepidation the latest news from around the world. But he came into focus at last, the moustached little man with the frightened eyes, pea coat and filthy trousers of the prison photograph, last week during a business lunch.
Jeff Skoll, the man with whom I was meeting, is an old friend, and we reminisced about those sunny days of infinite possibility in the mid-1990s when he was helping to found eBay and I was advising him. eBay, of course was one of the great success stories of the dot.com boom – and to Jeff’s credit, he took his new fortune and set out to make the world a better place. He’s best known now for Participant Films, his multiple Oscar-winning, socially-aware Hollywood production company. But in the non-profit world he’s even better known for founding the Skoll Foundation, the leading supporter of the world’s social entrepreneurs.
Less known is that Jeff has also founded the Skoll Global Threats Fund to bring together historic antagonists to help find paths to resolution. In other words, among this generation of business tycoons, no one, not even Bill Gates, has worked so hard to make the world a better, more peaceful, place.
So I was stunned when, as it always seems to these days, the conversation came around to the current state of the world. Jeff, by his nature and works a born optimist, grew darker and quieter. And when I inquired about his work in the Middle East, his face grew even longer. He shook his head slowly. The odds for war in the region in the next couple years, he told me, were now frighteningly high. “Nobody’s talking,” he told me, “Nor even wants to talk.”
It was not the happiest topic for a reunion of old friends, and yet we couldn’t seem to escape it. It was as if there was a third party at our table, a nervous little man in a homburg and long overcoat.
Now Jeff asked me a question. You’re always looking into the future, he said, what should I be reading right now?
The first, of course, is a classic history of the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. It is the infuriating, and ultimately heart-breaking, story of how European governments, sensing the horrors to come, tried hard to stop the slide into war . . .but because of treaty entanglements, pride and momentum ultimately couldn’t keep the dogs of war at bay. Even Germany, whose militarism created this volatile situation, had second thoughts – but once the Moltke plan was switched on, there was no switching it off. And so, the flower of Europe died in the mud of Passchendaele and the Somme.
Silicon Valley pioneer Bill Davidow’s book was published earlier this year, and deserved a lot more attention than it got. Bill and I together wrote a very influential, and optimistic, book fifteen years ago entitled The Virtual Corporation. I learned then that Davidow is not only one of the world’s leading venture capitalists, but, when it comes to the impact of technology on society, an unequalled seer.
So it was shocking when I read a manuscript of Overconnected and realized it was a warning from a worried man. Simply put, the thesis of the book is that the networking of the modern global economy has presented some extraordinary, and unprecedented, benefits to mankind. But the fact that all of those servers and networks, storing and transferring much of the world’s financial and intellectual capital are also interlinked via the Web with few protections and no kill switch, is enormously dangerous. It gives the global economy, says Davidow, an unprecedented volatility and vulnerability to tiny events that can chain react at light speed into world-wide crises.
Four years ago, when I read Bill’s first draft, I thought he was being a bit over-the-top. After subsequent events, from the global economic crash to the Arab Spring, I now wonder if he didn’t go far enough. Suddenly the pace of technological change (Moore’s Law) and the networking effect (Metcalfe’s Law), so long celebrated for their benefits to modern life, are now showing us their very sharp teeth. We are now discovering to our dismay that the democratization of information not only can improve the lot of billions of people, but that it can also empower little men standing outside cafes with hatred in their brains and pistols in their pockets awaiting the chance to unleash both.
The world is always a dangerous place; but in the last few years that danger seems to have spread. Equatorial and sub-Saharan Africa may be about to tip over into another hellish era of tribal warfare. China, when it isn’t being arrogantly expansionist seems to be dancing on thin demographic ice. As its hordes of men grow up without women, its thinkers now write about the value of ‘small’ wars. In Russia, faced with economic collapse if oil prices slump, Vladimar Putin has made himself de facto Tsar – or worse. And in Europe, the aging population, trapped between rioting welfare junkies and unassimilated Muslim immigrants, fervently hopes (they don’t pray anymore) that they will die before their long vacation from economic reality ends.
As for the United States, the world’s military protector and economic backstop, there is not only the greatest philosophical schism since the Civil War, but a dangerous lack of leadership at the top. Even as it is crushing new business and new job creation at home with endless regulations and the corruption of corporatism, it is also projecting a self-righteous image of weakness abroad. The lesson of history is that vacuums in leadership are always filled, more often by the ambitious than the responsible. And that, at least in the short run, “soft” power is no defense against hard men. Right now there are some very hard men out there leading nations, loading their pistols and eyeing their neighbors and rivals.
I learned a long time ago that when things seem crazy, they usually are – no matter how much smart people try to convince you otherwise. There is a lot of crazy going around right now. . .and it won’t disappear just because we look away or tell ourselves it’s not as bad as it seems.
Ours is not Auden’s “low, dishonest decade” before World War II, but it certainly has been a decade of denial and distraction. But no amount of ignoring the magnitude of the threat, or busying ourselves with other matters, changes the fact that there are not only millions of switches out there waiting to be tripped, but that, in our networked world, all of those switches are wired together. Or that even one of them, snapping at the right moment, could send trillions of chains of consequence around the world in less time than it takes to say “Sarajevo.”
The awful irony is that I merely have to lower my eyes from the Browning pistol to my laptop computer to remind myself that there is also another set of indicators out there – breakthroughs in atomic level transistors, nanotechnology, cybernetics, and energy; along with the discovery of vast oil and natural gas reserves in the western hemisphere; and a million budding entrepreneurs out there ready to connect with the tens of billions of dollars sitting in venture capital funds. With a little luck, a few more years, and lot less government interference we could find ourselves once again in an economic golden age.
But first, we have to get from here to there in an overconnected world of angry people, and pray that no one accidentally – or purposefully – trips the switch that sends us back to August, 1914. There is no obvious path, and we seem chronically short of leaders to mark the way. Worst of all, he is out there. We don’t know who, or where, or when, and probably not even why, but our Princip, the little man with the little pistol, is waiting for us, hoping against hope that we stall once more and he gets his chance.