Friday, October 20, 2006

Beyond Technology and Business; Things that Matter

It was 2004.  I had three successful startups behind me and each one was more fun and more rewarding than the one before.  So why not ‘do’ another software startup?

Good question.

Well, from sometime in high school and throughout my undergraduate years at Dartmouth, I had been interested in History, specifically the History of Ideas, Civilization and Technology.  I wrote an honors thesis on the connection between Renaissance Art and the origins of Capitalism in Northern Italy.  I always read a lot but over time I began reading more about Natural History and Biology.  Connecting the evolution of human consciousness and social behavior with History, civilization and culture was inevitable.

By the way, if you are interested in the intersection of these fields, you might want to read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

As I read less and less about information technology, I began to wonder more and more about some of the big problems facing society today including education, climate change, loss of biodiversity and the effects of population pressure and economic development on energy sources and water, air, soil, fisheries, timber and wilderness resources, to name a few.  We were (and still are) at a ‘tipping point.’ History and Philosophy are interesting is because they are relevant, because they help us understand our present, because they compel us to act.  Deep down, I knew these were connected.

Some day I hope to have grandchildren.  Perhaps they will ask me, “Grandpa, did you know what was happening to our Earth and do everything you could, everything in your power, to make it better?”

I’d like to be able to answer, “Yes,” even if I have to qualify it and explain that I didn’t have the perspective, the ability or the conviction to try until I was 45 years old.

Does the world really need more innovative software?  Will that improve our quality of life or help us sustain our management of water, air or marine resources, for example?  Or will it be used to build a better sweatshop?  Just asking the question I knew it was time to leave technology and move to what software people call ‘content.’

I realized then that I needed to focus.  I wanted to take a chance on a single, well-defined opportunity and dive in, immersing myself in some new domain.  But I was equally certain that before I went deep I need to start broad, open-minded about what is possible, asking simply, "How can I help?"

You can read about my first steps in this new world at the Right Question Project (RQP).  Or you can also skip that level of detail and remain on this site, which traces my steps as I learn about the history and philosophy of science and science engagement.

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