Nearly 40 years ago, Muhammad Ali addressed Harvard’s class of 1975 on senior day. Famed Paris Review editor and sportswriter George Plimpton attended and remembers the fighter prodding students to use their elite educations to “change the world.” When Ali concluded, a student called for the Greatest of All Time to give them a rhyme. A hush fell over the crowd as Ali recited what would become the shortest poem in the history of the English language:
Me. What’s good for me? How will this affect me? What’s in it for me? At its core, me is reflection of self-interest. Perhaps humans focus on themselves in order to survive. Over millennia, natural selection may have filtered for this instinct. Putting “me” first may well have been a means to survive. So concerned was 17th century enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes with unfettered self-interest, that he famously theorized that without an absolute governing power, “human life would be nasty, brutish and short.” A world in which all that mattered was “me,” Hobbes suggested, represented a dangerous state of freedom.
We. We the people. We are the world. We will rock you. Powerful, communal, and global, “we” suggests a different state of being. We, by definition, means “more than me.” We stands for sacrifice and belonging.Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard-based sociobiologist who has spent a lifetime studying ants in order to understand social evolution, might say that these insects’ behavior is a manifestation of “we.” Each gives its all for the colony.
The tension between me and we is an evolutionary and cultural dialectic. Enlightenment philosophers introduced the natural rights of man and the social contract. The emergence of democracy has given the many — a collective of individual me(s) — the ability to shape their society — the we — in which they live. Me and We are sometimes aligned, but often occupy opposing positions in our everyday choice architectures:
- Well, yes, that’s good for me, but what about others in my neighborhood (we)?
- Ok, I understand how that works for the organization (we), but what about for me?
- Why should I pay taxes to support services for others (we)? They don’t do anything for me.
Modern information and communication technologies don’t change this fundamental tension. They do, however, offer a new frame with which to approach it. Just 25 years into this World Wide Web-based revolution, we’ve moved from 10 million to 3 billion networked individuals. Every day, new technologies get mashed up to to improve our increasingly networked world. A new set of networked services — Twitter, Waze, AirBnB — are changing the relationship between me and we.
What if systems, organizations, and institutions make what’s good for me, also good for we? What if each me knew that their personal efforts to better their own circumstances also improved the lives of others? It has already begun. Here are a few examples:
- Citi Bike | Your bike sharing system in New York CityCitiBike — Me loves it. I get exercise, nearly free transportation, and its more efficient. We also loves bike sharing. We is not courageous (or foolish) enough to ride bikes in cities, but we appreciates that the subways are less crowded and there are fewer cars on the roads. What’s good for me is good for we.
- Uber — To be sure, Uber is an expensive service not available to everybody. What started as a Me “Iphone owners with expense accounts,” has evolved. Consider the company’s “we” oriented feature sets.
- 3 levels of cars with different price points.
- Enabling fares to be split so me can become we.
- Allowing drivers and passengers to rate each other which uses what Tim O’Reilly has called “peer recommendation” to replace governmental regulation.
- Google Search users participate in the world’s largest MeWe experiment. At the core of the PageRank search algorithm is the wisdom of crowds, or in this case, internet searchers. The more people that visit a certain destination the more Google believes that destination should rise in its rankings. In its purest form, PageRank recognized that search would be much better for me, if we took the inputs of the we.
MeWe seeks to balance our inherent self-interest with our abiding need for community. Problem solving with a MeWe lens removes “zero sum game” as a standard answer for intractable challenges. This could be particularly useful in solving society’s most vexing environmental or social problems. If we can design processes and policies that align Me and We, we may see better results.
MeWe solutions make life better for Me, while contributing in some way to the collective We. These solutions leverage technology to help remove frictions and make it easier for individuals (Me) to take actions that support their community (We).
Technologies help remove friction from this process. If Waze can collect traffic data, what are our opportunities, in health, public safety, and education to use our growing network to solve problems? But the largest component of our global economy remains mostly unchanged — the public sector — sometimes called government.
MeWe exists to bring the spirit and structural elements of the MeWe ethos to 21st century government. MeWe draws inspiration from many iconic figures, Thomas Jefferson among them. 238 years ago a Declaration of Independence was made. This democratic experiment has spread to many countries and communities. MeWe was created in this tradition.