2011: A Year In Turmoil?
How do you size up an entire year?
My headline noted that 2011 was “a year in turmoil.”
I wasn’t sure how else to refer to it. A year in disruption? Evolution?
Change was not only in the air — it was patently self-evident, all around us, and all around the globe.
Social change. Change in our physical world. Political change.
It was Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that change is the only constant. Heraclitus was spot on with regards to 2011.
Social Media, Social Change
It was a year that seemed to have started with some broadened hope, with Estonia joining the Eurozone (and, maybe to their later chagrin, the Euro), and with Southern Sudan holding a referendum on Independence…but all that soon evolved into a river of mostly bad news: the flooding in Rio, the Moscow airport shooting, and yes, on a more promising note, the fall of the Tunisian government and the start of an Arab winter that quickly turned into spring.
After the protests spread to Egypt, fed both by the widespread use of Facebook and Twitter and on-the-ground collaboration, President Hosni Mubarak left office in February, but the simultaneous and simmering uncertainty in Libya caused crude oil prices to jump some 20%, and the world seemed as much in shock as did the CNN reporters on the ground in Tahrir Square.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
February also brought us the IBM Watson “Jeopardy” competition, where IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” challenged the world’s best “Jeopardy” players, and, in spite of a few snafus, ended up running away in victory, and demonstrated once again that in such a “man v. Machine” contest, it’s easy to forget it was the men (and women!) who built and programmed the victorious machine!
And then March 11.
A 9.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami flattened part of the coast of Japan, killing over 20,000, and leading to a nuclear emergency at four different nuclear energy plants. The pictures we saw on our television screens looked like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie gone terribly wrong, and the world watched in solidarity as well as helped through generous outpourings of support and assistance.
In late March, the UN Security Council voted to create a no-fly zone over Libya, and soon NATO jets were flying recon over the country.
A Royal Breather
Then, just when things couldn’t seem to get any more heated and political, a lighter moment provided a sigh of relief in April: The “royal” wedding of the United Kingdom’s Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
And yes, of course, also one of the most Googled figures of 2011, Kate’s lovely younger sister “Pippa.”
Despite all the hype, pomp, and circumstance, you had to be pretty hard-hearted not to think the Royal Wedding a magical event, despite the chintzy plates and royal potpourri for sale. The prince-to-be-king and his lovely royal bride provided a needed kiss seen round the world.
Bin Laden Been Gotten
Only a few short days later, it was back to reality, when the American president announced from the White House one late Sunday evening that Osama bin Laden, the founder and leader of Al-Qaeda, had been killed during an American military operation in Pakistan. One Twitterer in Abbottabad, Sohaib Athar, noted in realtime that “Helicopter hovering about Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”
Continued Monetary Turbulence
Later in May, the European Union agreed to a 78 billion Euro rescue deal with Portugal, continuing a long slided reach towards monetary stabilization in Europe. There were more natural disasters, this time violent tornadoes wreaking havoc across the south and American mid-west, killing 552 people, the second worst year for tornadoes in U.S. History.
In June, more natural disastrous activity, this time with the Puyehue volcano eruption, which disrupted air traffic across South America, New Zealand, and Australia. Also that month, on June 16th, IBM celebrated its centennial, it’s 100 year anniversary as a going concern.
July witnessed South Sudan’s succession from Sudan, as well as the world’s first artifical organ transplant (an artificial windpipe coated with stem cells).
Space Shuttle: Back To Planet Earth
July also saw a bitter end to the longstanding NASA Space Shuttle program, as Atlantis STS-135 brought the shuttle back to earth once and for all. But by August, we were looking back towards the heavens as NASA announced its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had captured photographic evidence of possible liquid water on Mars.
Maybe those first astronauts on Mars will be able to fill their canteens after all.
NASA also launched its first solar-powered spacecraft, Juno, on a mission to Jupiter. Juno will study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and also search for clues as to how it was formed.
But don’t get in any hurry — Juno’s not expected to arrive in Jupiter’s orbit until July 4, 2016!
In August, back here on Planet Earth, the Gaddafi regime was challenged in August at the Battle of Tripoli, as the Arab Spring proved it had legs into the summer and beyond. While back in London, peaceful protests soon turned into full-on riots, killing 5 and leading to over $275M in economic damages.
As summer turned to fall here in the west, more natural disasters reared their ugly heads, from droughts and fires in Texas to monsoons and floods in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Fire Everywhere, Water Nowhere…And Yet Everywhere
Where water was needed most, there was very little. Where water was needed least, there was an overabundance. That conundrum seemed to somehow aptly sum up 2011 thus far, a year in contradictions and juxtapositions.
In October, Colonel Gaddafi was no more, brutally killed in Sirte as National Transitional Council forces took control. The Colonel’s reign of terror had come to an end.
A spark that had started in the spring had now spread into a conflagration.
Of course, there were more economic woes in Brussels, as the EU announced an agreement to take on the European debt crisis with a writedown of 50% of Greek bonds.
On the U.S. Halloween holiday, October 31, the UN indicated the global population had reached 7 billion. Ghoulish!
And finally, after eight long years, the U.S. War in Iraq came to an official and declarative end, even as the fate of the country continues to be debated and fought over.
And In Conclusion?
So what to make of it all? Were there any constants amidst all this change and disruption? Or was change the only constant?
I had an opportunity to mentor a group of very bright Notre Dame business undergrads this past fall, and so I’m going to turn to their research to try and put the year into some context.
Their central thesis centered around the growing role of social media on society and business. In their paper, they posed the following question:
Is it [social media] changing the way people organize and interact or is it just a fad that will pass with time? The findings of this analysis indicate that social media has a growing role in society, more than just helping people to connect with old friends. It is used at an alarming rate to organize protests, aid relief in areas of need, and disseminate information about global events. Social media is used in both positive and negative ways to change the way people react to global occurrences. — “What is Social Media’s Growing Role on Business and Society as a Whole?” Robert Blume, Emma Higgins, Rob Kirk, Morgan Kelley, 2011, University of Notre Dame
Certainly, their thesis seems somewhat self-evident. Social media has certainly been used for both the positive and the negative, but in light of some of the anecdotes they cited, the Notre Dame students illustrated that the proof was really in the pudding.
That, rather than looking for broad, overarching themes, perhaps we should examine specific instances of how social media has been used, for both good and bad, and attempt to discern some broader lessons about the changing technology landscape’s impact on our evolving humanity?
To which we’ll now return, and close, on the topic of the Japanese earthquake. Horrific though it was, the Notre Dame students explained the positive, life-affirming role social media played in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami:
One way in which social media helped was that it allowed the victims connect with people all over the world. People used social media to connect with their friends and family instantly to let them know that they were alright or to receive word on the condition of others. People also turned to social media to demonstrate their support for those in Japan. Twitter hashtags such as #prayforjapan‖ and ―#japan‖ were tweeted at an alarming rate, some of which were tweeted thousands of times per second. Brad Shimmin analyzed this by saying — While there are so many technologies at this time that isolate us from our fellow beings, social networking tools have shown their ability once again to unify us as human beings, and to bring out what is most altruistic and empathetic in our natures,‖ (―Twitter…‖, 2011, ~1). Beyond giving people physical support in their time of need, social media brought about emotional support by letting everyone in Japan know that they were being thought of, and that they were not alone in the situation.
And perhaps that’s best object lesson of all for 2011. That despite all the turmoil, conflict, and disruption — engendered either by acts of God, or of man — we still simply want to be connected one to another.
To know others are out there, virtually or otherwise, witness to our travesties and our triumphs, and ultimately, to know wherever we are in the world, we are most certainly not alone.