What kind of world do you want to live in? This is a question that is always worthwhile to ask ourselves. For me, I’d be cool with a world full of electric cars and self-sustaining solar-powered homes. It would be great if we weren’t spewing so many toxins into the environment, and if we sustainably generated our own energy. That may be why so many people are enamored of Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla. His business is predicated on a vision of the future that’s pretty darn appealing.
I’d also love a world where people can seamlessly share content, and where everyone with a creative idea has an equal opportunity to publicize their work—and make a living from it. That’s the promise behind YouTube, and one reason folks across the globe spend 1 billion hours each day watching what’s posted there.
But you know what I wouldn’t like as much? A world where only rich people get to drive safe cars and control their own energy. Where fake news and real news are indistinguishable, and where creators of anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, misogynist content can game the system to financially support themselves and spread their messages.
Today, all of these trends are simultaneously unfolding, thanks—for good and for bad—to the impulses and ingenuity of businesses. Musk’s Tesla is both a marvel and a mirage, as senior writer Austin Carr explains in “Tesla Raises the Roof.” YouTube may be the most powerfully misunderstood media operation around—a bet-the-company financial moonshot that will either take Google to the stratosphere or undercut a decade of brand building, as Harry McCracken reports in “YouTube Shoots for the Stars.” Yet YouTube is also a frontier land that represents at once the best and worst implications of mass communication.
This is the essential reality of American business, politics, and culture right now—a tug-of-war between selflessness and selfishness in an era of dramatic change. Sure, technological advancement has great potential to improve the human condition. But in the near term, there is painful disruption, waste, anger. It is messy and often unfair.
If we believe that our efforts are making the world a better place, are we simply fooling ourselves? If we don’t fool ourselves sometimes, will we not even try to make a difference? In so many ways we are guinea pigs in an ecosystem that is undulating more rapidly than anyone can keep track of. (Maybe that’s why Elon Musk wants to go to space.)
Yet I choose to believe that the future will be better than the past, that possibility will defeat adversity. It’s an article of faith for me. The proof that I cling to: the inspiration that we see around us, the human embrace of challenge, the Tough Mudder that is our modern life.
So cheer for Musk, that his solar dreams might come to fruition, or cheer against him; watch and post on YouTube—and on the burgeoning universe of other platforms—or find other ways to spread ideas that animate you; learn, do, and be inspired, as we all keep mudding on. The fight for a better world is its own reward, a journey of discovery that has no fixed destination. Maybe we will never find what we seek, but is that so bad? As long as we strive, we grow. And the world grows with us.