Interactions with an Ethiopian parking attendant — an Economics graduate and blogger — led Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to write a somewhat personal and contemplative giant column in the form of his new book. The title comes from Friedman exclaiming to a tardy breakfast guest “Thank you for being late!” because the delay helped the author find time for himself to just sit and think; to appreciate the moments with himself even as he was beginning to feel “overwhelmed and exhausted by the dizzying pace of change”. One wonders why was Friedman then busy scheduling various meetings in the first place!
He contends that column writing—like his book—is created by mixing three ingredients: the author’s values, priorities and aspirations; how the biggest forces are shaping events and what’s been the learning about people and culture when these forces impact them. The book then is about 5 Ms: Moore’s Law, Machine, Market, Mother Nature and Minnesota. The seductive ability of alliterative listicles to be disseminated via social media cannot be overlooked.
Moore’s Law refers to the famous theory postulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that the speed and power of computational processing would double roughly every two years. This exponential rise in computational power has made hitherto impossible breakthroughs possible. Software, taking advantage of this raw power, is driving change in all sectors from finance to genomics to commerce to social networks to transportation to media to many others. The Machine and Market refer to the economy and to the acceleration of globalisation. Global flows of connectivity are weaving markets, banks, companies, communities and individuals into ever more integrated webs.
Mother Nature is climate change, population growth and bio-diversity, all of which too have been accelerating at an increasing pace. “We live in exponential times” is the slogan here. To make sense of it all, Friedman goes to St Louis Park, Minnesota, where he grew up. A place that had a strong healthy sense of community, where everyone knew everyone else, help was easily available, Jews (Friedman stresses his Jewishness) weren’t as discriminated against as elsewhere and racism wasn’t as visible (there’s an amusing anecdote about a Ghanaian student Kofi Annan, later the 7th UN Secretary General, then studying in a liberal arts college in Minnesota who visits St Louis Park). The Academy award winning Coen brothers, Harvard’s political philosopher Michael Sandel, senators and others grew up in the neighbourhood. Education, hard work and middle-class values were important. “One can dance only in the eye of a hurricane” and a healthy community — schools, parks, neighbours, trust — is the eye as the hurricane of change whirls around us. It is a romantic thought no doubt, but then if exponential change is the only constant, how immune can communities really be from it?
There is a wide-eyed breathless explication of the wonders of technology and its relentless unstoppable march. Friedman is so excited with sensors-packed garbage cans that he exclaims that the “garbageman is a tech worker now” and that the “garbage can could take an SAT exam!” He takes moments and anecdotes in specific points of time and extrapolates them to generic and unreal ends while ironically, continuously, extolling the exponential rate of change. It is not for nothing that a tongue-in-cheek neologism named after him, “Friedman Unit”, has been devised that refers to “next six months” predictions on the outcome of the Iraq war made on 14 different occasions over a two-and-a-half-year period! A fascination with catchy phrases like “black elephants”, “build floors not walls”, “Nature’s killer apps”, “supernova” permeates the book. These terms are explained in convoluted ways and have the air of someone delivering an attention-grabbing lecture on the management speaker circuit.
And clearly Friedman gets called to many commencement speaking engagements; he also informs us that he charged Walmart a “lot” for speaking there and converted that fee into a tutorial by Walmart on how their backend operations work. Given his personal (he is married into one of America’s richest families) and professional heft (celebrity columnist, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, commencement speaker, reporter, documentary maker, author), he has access to the world’s top technologists, corporate leaders, policy makers, academics, entrepreneurs, scientists, consultants and uses their observations and comments to liberally buttress his aha-moments and assertions alongside tales of ordinary people; he uses interviews, blogs, analyst reports, movies and travel to make his points about his values, his assessments on geopolitics, the impact of technology and on America’s role. However, the use of hyperbole, anecdotes, hasty predictions while fervently championing American-style technology-based globalisation is squarely aimed at the American reader of the New York Times.
He is conscious of, even perhaps naively sympathetic to, the complicated history, socio-cultural and geopolitical complexities of peoples around the world but addresses them only superficially. His interest after all is in America. For example, to explain how the “supernova” would transform lives, he quotes from his 2011 experience with India’s Aakash tablet that was expected to revolutionise India’s education. It is another matter that that hasn’t happened. He believes that the importing of another country’s labour, brainpower, natural resources will be the norm rather than physically taking over another country; funding schools, universities in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America would promote American-style education and technical education. He talks of ideas like Bill Gates’ Chicken Coop and UN Convention to Combat Desertification’s Monique Barbut’s Green Corps but doesn’t talk of why these haven’t been adopted widely and successfully. Rising inequality—income, education, opportunity—coupled with the increasing demands on people of enhancing skills and technology knowledge, of regulation and protectionism, of social change are huge challenges which Friedman doesn’t quite address.
The dangers of the rampant proliferation of social media haven’t been lost on Freidman. He quotes Wael Ghonim, the “Google guy” who helped launch the Egyptian revolution in 2011. “Rumours that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions.. We create our own echo chambers, we communicate only with people we agree with and we can mute, unfollow, and block everybody else. Only discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. It is really hard to change our opinions, we are forced to jump to conclusions. Our social media engagements are designed to favour broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. We are here to talk at each other instead of to each other.” It would be very useful for all to keep this quote in mind. The need for organised efforts to “liberate the internet” is a cryptic point Friedman makes ironically enough without a deep dive into the methods necessary!
Friedman has an 18-point policy platform “Making the Future Work for Everybody” inspired by “Mother Nature”. It talks of a single-payer universal healthcare system to free trade agreements to tax breaks to entrepreneurship to immigration (“very high wall with a big gate”) to gun control to conditions-based US aid to challenge grants. He urges traditional parties to adapt themselves to a new agenda, the so-called radical centrist idea; else they will implode under the pressure for adaptation.
Friedman uses language that’s been called “folksy”; it could have been shorter and crisper rather than get self-absorbed in too many personal anecdotes and be over-reliant on catchy phrases. None of what Friedman’s written is new. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, wrote about the changes and impact of exponential technologies on people, societies and governments in December 2015 (The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What it means and how to respond); interestingly he isn’t part of Friedman’s book. In fact, Friedman has been writing about the same issues in his columns and books for over two decades. Clearly, as a believer in globalisation, technology and environmentalism, he is calling out to the return to the good old days of the trusting, caring, pluralistic nice community. In America. For the informed reader, this isn’t a must-read book. For the rest of us outside the US, it isn’t clear what exactly will be the change and the impact. But adapt we must!
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