Earthrise

Image Credit: NASA; Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968.
When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people.

— Frank Borman, Apollo 8, Newsweek magazine, 23 December 1968

AS8–14–2383 is perhaps one of the most important designators of the 20th century. It’s the designation NASA gave to the above photograph, captured by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on the first manned mission to the moon. For the first time ever humanity saw not a sunrise from our planet, but an earthrise from the moon. Earth, rising from behind the moon’s horizon.

Earlier that same year, 1968, North Korea had captured the USS Pueblo, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two black athletes staged a silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the United States, and “Star Trek” aired American television’s first interracial kiss.

Time magazine closed out the troubled year with the Earthrise photograph on its cover, with a one-word caption, “Dawn.”

When astronauts describe their first experience in space, many remark not on seeing space for the first time, but seeing earth. Donald Williams, who passed away earlier this year, said “for those who have seen the Earth from space, and for the hundreds and perhaps thousands more who will, the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us.”


It feels as if 2016 has already had more than it’s fair share of suffering and it’s only just half-way done. How far have we really come since 1968, nearly 50 years on? Leaps and bounds in technology for sure. But, here in America it was barely more than a month ago that dozens of people were killed in a night-club in Orlando. It was only four months ago that 32 people were killed in a bombing in Belgium. Remember, when you changed your Facebook profile photo in solidarity?

In 2016, the US is engaged in more simultaneous wars. Ground wars are sometimes replaced by drones, but the death toll on civilians is rarely better. 587,000 civilians died in the Vietnam war. 26,000 civilians have died since 2015 in Afghanistan, 500,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the US invasion, 80,000 civilians have died in the Syrian Civil War. In 2015 the US deployed special forces to 135 countries at a cost of $10bn.

In 2016, Europe saw how divided it is, especially around race, immigration and refugees. In the first two months of 2016 135,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe; according to the UNHCR 1 million people entered Europe in 2015 by boat (four thousand of whom drowned). 80% came from the above three wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It seems utterly unimaginable that the image of the boy drowned on the beach was less than a year ago, and yet it’s a distant memory. Many countries and people in Europe openly and warmly welcomed them, many did not. In the UK, 52% of the population voted to leave the European Union — a union created as a result of war to bring people together.

In 2016, gun control is out of control. In 1994 the average gun holding household in the US had 4.1 guns, in 2013 it was 8.1. In 1996 the population of the US was around 260m there were around 245m guns in circulation in the civilian population. In 2013, the US population was around 315m people, and there were 357m guns in circulation; the year Obama took office was the year the number of guns surpassed the number of people. There’s more than one gun per person. In 1988 the US manufactured just under 1m assault rifles, whilst in 2013 it manufactured 4m; the civilian population has not increased 400% in the same period.

In 2016, mass killings are the new assassinations. It’s harder than ever to kill a head of state, yet it’s more common to see a mass shooting. Six heads of state have been assassinated since 2000 (down from 16 in the same period before 1968). Yet, as far as I can tell, there was only one mass shooting (defined by four or more people shot) in 1968, the Orangeburg massacre (all those who died were black). In 2016, so far, there have been 28,000 (of course no doubt our records are better than 50 years ago).

In 2016, black people die at the hands of law enforcement. It’s become so regular we barely have time to write the hashtag before the next person is killed. We aren’t even really aligned on the size of the issue: 88% of black people in a study say they believe more change has to happen for blacks to have the same rights as whites, only 53% of whites think it does. Income inequality is real, from 1968 to present day: in 1968 the median adjusted income for a white household was 1.8x a black household ($44,700 vs $24,700), in 2014 it was 1.65x ($71,300 vs $43,300).

In 2016, it’s apparently OK to be racist, homophobic, and sexist and run for office.

I could keep writing the list above, there’s no shortage. Let’s just look here in San Francisco for a moment. Family homelessness in San Francisco increased by more than 90% from 2007 to 2014. Over 2,000 children were homeless in 2014 and it took most families nearly nine months to access temporary shelter. Tech, the largest employer, lacks any meaningful amount of diversity. And so on.


It seems impossible, or at least potentially unhelpful, to try and look for similarities or parallels between so many terrible things. And yet, I think we find a few interesting things.

First, our division is not along the same boundaries as our parents. We should be very careful about employing the same binary oppositions as previous generations: Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative, Christian/Atheist, Civilized/Heathen, Police/Criminal, Same/Different, Us/Them, White/Black. Today, there is greater divide between two people in the same country than there is between the average person in two countries. In a highly connected, online, realtime world, more and more of us have access to the same information in the same formats on the same devices. The differences between two people in London are just as great in Paris, Berlin, New York. The people who share your views, ideals, thoughts are more likely to be all over the world than your neighbor. And so whilst some divides are still painfully present (black/white) some are no longer so simple (police = good, criminal = bad), and we are divided by things like tech/non-tech, refugee/safe, globalist/isolationist, pro-/anti-migration, connected/disconnected, pro-/anti-privacy. But few of these are unique to a country, religion, political party or demographic.

But, if we keep hammering the same lines of division in our politics and our media, we will keep seeing people think Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are rapists, or immigrants take our jobs. If we use the same constructs to describe people we’ll never escape the same outcomes.

I’m willing to bet you do a version of this everyday. Every time you (and I’m assuming you’re a democrat) say that someone must be dumb to vote for Trump you lose your intellectual high-ground by using the least-intellectual argument: calling the opposition idiots. Is it any surprise many people in the US might vote for Trump? He’s not the one telling them their feeling are invalid or they’re stupid. Is it any surprise half the UK voted to leave Europe, when the ‘intellectual’ London describes them as moronic and leaves them feeling unheard? A former CIA agent basically said even when you torture people, everyone thinks they’re right (quotation about an interview with Al-Qaeda):

“But the truth is that when you talk to people who are really fighting on the ground, on both sides, and ask them why they’re there, they answer with hopes for their children, specific policies that they think are cruel or unfair,” she says.
“And while it may be easier to dismiss your enemy as evil, hearing them out on policy concerns is actually an amazing thing, because as long as your enemy is a subhuman psychopath that’s gonna attack you no matter what you do, this never ends. But if your enemy is a policy, however complicated — that we can work with.”

We must listen to others and seek out those who think differently.

Second, when people need help, we don’t. There are many examples, but one I think is particularly poignant after the Orlando and other recent shootings is access to mental health services in the US. NPR produced a programme, How Therapy Became a Hobby of the Wealthy,in which they observed that therapists would more often seek the ‘easier’ and higher paying private clients:

Especially in affluent places like the San Francisco Bay Area, this creates a divide, a culture of mental health haves and have-nots. Mental health clinicians don’t need to participate in the health care system or take insurance to keep their schedules full — making it harder and harder for people of lower income to find a therapist.
“That’s why you can have a lot of mental health professionals in an area, but still have a shortage of care for people in need,” Humphreys adds. “The person who’s hurt is the person who’s suicidal, maybe they’re horribly addicted to OxyContin or their child is showing signs of bipolar disorder, and they can’t find somebody to take their insurance. It’s unjust.”

In a fantastic article, Ester Bloom dug deeper into the challenges of those in need getting access to mental health. Most worryingly, but not surprisingly, it is black men who have the worst options:

no one fared quite as well as the middle-class white female character. Therapists “prioritized” her “for coveted weekday evening appointments” — she was offered the sought-after slot by 20 percent of 80 psychologists. On the other end of the spectrum, the black working-class man had just one therapist make the same offer after placing 80 calls. As the Atlantic notes, were Kugelmass’ study “to play out in the real world, an identifiably black, working-class man would have to call 80 therapists before he was offered a weekday evening appointment. A middle-class white woman would only have to call five.”

We must offer help when people need it, not matter who they are.

Third, we do nothing. We wonder why these things keep happening, as if we’ve ever done anything to stop them. Maybe you vote, probably you try and stay informed. Maybe you even discuss things with your friends. All these are good, but they’re no longer enough. Well intentioned, concerned, informed silence is still silence. Nothing squared is still nothing.

We must act.

So what do we do? Many of us in tech in San Francisco have a crippling fallacy: we either want to save the entire world or none of it. When we succeed the impact and value are tremendous — forget shareholder value for a moment, it’s hard not to see Twitter, Facebook and other messaging platforms offering a voice to people without one; Apple supporting encryption and privacy at massive scale as powerful for people under repressive regimes; maybe even Lyft, Uber, Airbnb offering economic opportunities to more people. But those are the 1%.

99% of the efforts of the best and brightest do little or nothing, and we still celebrate failure.

Simplifying for a moment, there’s two types of growth in tech products: step change and incremental. It’s oddly hypocritical that we expect step change growth in our society (that a single vote, new president or new law will change everything at once) and yet advocate for incremental growth in our products (that we should experiment, listen for feedback, learn, iterate). We put all our faith in a single election and revolt if our companies make us do a big launch.

But the two are not incongruous. We just need to learn to also make incremental growth in our society. And the best incremental growth only needs a 1% change that compounds. I certainly don’t have a figured out list of ways to help, but some 1% ideas we can try:

  • Speak up at work:
  • Actively seek diversity on your team or project (ask yourself, who are the five people you work most closely with? Do they look/think/sound just like you?)
  • What else?

So, I propose:

We must listen to others and seek out those who think differently. We must offer help when people need it no matter who they are. And we must act, even if that’s just doing 1% things.

Earth. Rise.


You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

— Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, People magazine, 8 April 1974

/* Footnote: problems I didn’t even get to — climate change, discrimination against LGBTQ and other groups, problems with healthcare, education and immigration. */