Unhitching

Yesterday morning we hitched up our much-loved tent trailer for the last time. We drove down to the Fauntleroy Ferry dock, made the short crossing over calm water to Vashon Island, and with mixed feelings delivered the trailer to a new family.

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We bought the trailer, a Coleman Sea Pine, back in the spring or early summer of 2001. For quite a few years, when our kids were younger and smaller, we used it intensively from Memorial Day to mid-October for weekend getaways to nearby forest and mountain campgrounds, and for extended vacation journeys all over the Western United States and Canada. We explored large parts of Washington State and Oregon towing our little fold-up home behind us. We went as far north as Jasper National Park in Alberta, and as far west as Tofino on Vancouver Island. We never ventured very far south; Redwood National Forest in northern California was probably the farthest south we ever got. Our easternmost trip, probably the most memorable one of all, took us to Yellowstone and then, since we were in the neighborhood, a quick dash to Mount Rushmore.

Before the trailer, we’d done a few tent & tarp camping trips, but none of us really enjoyed the work of camping. We wanted to explore new places, see new things, but relax in reasonable comfort along the way. We wanted to stay dry.

Still when we bought the trailer I remember thinking is was a huge extravagance. It had a king bed at one end and a double at the other, a fridge, a cooktop and a hot water heater. It had hookups for power, water and cable TV. It wasn’t really camping at all. It was “glamping”. Did we really need this huge thing in our garage? My father, generally quite a frugal man, surprised me with his enthusiastic approval when he first saw the trailer. He said he regretted not doing something similar when my brothers and I were kids.

Once we got out on the road we realized pretty quickly that our little pop-up trailer was quite modest compared to the truck campers, travel trailers, 5th wheels and mobile homes out there. Plus we could be set up, and comfortable, and dry in about a half an hour.

We were very fortunate to team up with another camping family – our kids went to school together – who showed us the ropes and became our camping companions for many years.

As the kids grew up, the once-spacious trailer started feeling cramped. Then we bought some land and eventually built a vacation home and the trailer sat parked and unused in the garage.

Until finally, yesterday, we sold it to another family with a couple of young children of their own, a family my wife knows through her work.

We felt a twinge of sadness as we drove away leaving the trailer behind. Transitions like this evoke fond memories from years gone by, yet they also mark the passage of time, the end of an era. But it was time to let go. We took good care of the trailer and we left in great shape. It has many years of life left and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, it deserves to be used and loved by another family. Now they will travel and explore and create lasting memories of their own.

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Exit West

Exit West
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, New York, 2017

Wow! What a marvelous magical book to close out this tumultuous year!

Exit West cover

Nadia and Saeed live in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, perhaps in the Middle East, or maybe Afghanistan or Pakistan, or possibly anywhere, that is being torn apart by violence. The danger is distant at first, and sporadic, but gradually it encircles and finally sweeps over them.

They escape through a mysterious black door which transports them instantly and safely to another part of the world.

Exit West tells the story of the young couple, how they are changed by and respond to their experiences in their new home. At one level it’s a typical story of migrants as strangers in a strange land.

But Nadia and Saeed are just two out of millions who move through the black doors that have begun to appear all over the world, a mass migration of people leaving behind violence and terror and also family and familiarity, a flow of humanity unstoppable and utterly unimpeded by distance or borders. Parks, greenbelts and hillsides become transformed into tent cities and shanty towns. Everyone must adapt.

Exit West show us people who sever all ties with their homeland when they migrate and others who remain tethered to their original homes by memories, sentiment or nostalgia. Some don’t move at all but feel as if they’ve migrated because everything around them has changed so much that home doesn’t feel like home anymore. And of course we’re all migrants through time. We all leave behind one generation and are left behind by the next.

The book is wonderfully written. Hamid portrays the gradual encroachment of violence, then terror, and eventually destruction on Nadia and Saeed’s once peaceful city in a way that made me feel it happening around me, that made me realize how easily it could happen anywhere, even here. And I loved how Hamid’s beautifully constructed paragraph-long sentences swept me along, sometimes leaving me breathless.

Almost everyone in the story, from Nadia and Saeed to the police and “native” populations of the host countries somehow manage, with difficulty and with some exceptions, to restrain their worst passions. Slowly, tentatively, and with a lot of hard work they settle in and start to reorder their world. It’s fiction but so very pertinent and in the end left me feeling hopeful.

I hope Exit West gives you as much inspiration to start off the New Year as it gave me ending this one.

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The Myth of the Strong Leader

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age
By Archie Brown
Basic Books, New York, 2014

We all admire strong leaders, leaders with a commanding presence, leaders who aren’t afraid to make tough decisions, who “tell it like it is” and press forward undaunted in the face of critics and nay-sayers.

But are these strong leaders really effective and successful? Do they deliver the results we actually need or want? Do they deserve our admiration?

In The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, Oxford professor emeritus of Politics Archie Brown argues that the so-called strong leader is a myth; such leaders are neither effective nor admirable. On the contrary, they are often disastrous.

The Myth of the Strong Leader - cover

Brown defines the strong leader as

“a leader who concentrates a lot of power in his or her hands, dominates both a wide swath of public policy and the political party to which he or she belongs, and takes the big decisions. “ [p. 1]

Types of Leaders

The bulk of the book consists of a detailed examination of five different type of leaders with examples drawn from 20th and 21st Century history.

Redefining leaders are either individuals or collectives that redefine what is possible and desirable. They reset the political agenda of their society. They move the political center in their direction. Examples of redefining leaders in the US include Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal and Lyndon Johnson with his Great Society legislation. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher is a preeminent example.

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Transformational leaders “play a decisive role in introducing systemic change” [p. 148] in their country or internationally. This change can be either political or economic. They change systems in ways that are “qualitatively better” for their citizens. Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, transformed the Russian political system, dismantling the USSR in the process. In China, Deng Xiaoping introduced transformational economic change. Nelson Mandela and Charles de Gaulle also rank as transformational leaders according to Brown. There hasn’t been a transformational US president in a long time. He says Abraham Lincoln was the last one. By abolishing slavery and re-admitting the eleven Confederate states to the union after the Civil War, Lincoln essentially re-founded the United States.

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Revolutionary leaders also introduce systemic change, but they do so using violence and coercion during and after their revolutions. They introduce new ideologies to justify the overthrow of existing institutions and to legitimize post-revolutionary regimes. Sun Yat-sen in China, Vladimir Lenin in Russia, Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam are examples that Brown explores in detail. The main thing that distinguishes revolutionary leaders from transformational leaders, according to Brown, is that revolutionary leaders frequently replace one autocratic government with another, often to the detriment of the people.

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Totalitarian and authoritarian leaders represent a continuum. In a totalitarian system, one man, and so far it’s always been a man, holds absolute power. At the other end, an authoritarian regime might be run by one man or by an oligarchy. Kim Il Sung’s North Korea represents the former, while the “mild authoritarianism” of Singapore represents the latter. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong fit somewhere along this continuum too, more towards the totalitarian end of course.

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Lastly, there are inspirational leaders, people who sometimes hold no political office at all, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Malala Yousafzai, but whose eloquence and/or moral character provide leadership and inspire profound change.

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Collaboration

A common theme runs through Brown’s assessment of all these leadership types:  contrary to the myth of strong leaders making big decisions, collaborative decision-making is far better than decision-making by a single individual.

Brown is no fan of the Great Man theory of history. He shows us that even successful redefining and transformational leaders didn’t do it alone.

Lyndon Johnson was a master at wrangling the American Congress to achieve his legislative aims. Mikhail Gorbachev used formidable powers of persuasion to move the Politburo toward his goals, which they realized too late included democratization. Margaret Thatcher was dumped as Britain’s Conservative leader and Prime Minister when her increasingly autocratic ways became too much for her colleagues to tolerate.

Process matters, according to Brown. When leaders, democratic or otherwise, ignore the experts, circumvent cabinet ministers, ignore institutional decision-making practices, all because they think they know best or don’t need the advice of others, the result is usually bad, often disastrous.

Bringing a diversity of perspectives and a diversity of interests to the table, discussing them openly and thoroughly, and giving due weight to the opinions of experts in various government departments all contribute to better outcomes than having a single “decider”.

Even autocratic leaders make better decisions and are less likely to impose great suffering on their people when they collaborate. The Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, for example, was still an authoritarian state, but decisions were made collectively by the Politburo, and therefore,

“The collectivist caution of the top leadership team did not inflict remotely as much pain on their own people as Stalin had done.” [p. 261]

Similarly, in Communist China, referring to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that followed:

“The greatest disasters occurred during the period when Mao Zedong wielded untrammeled power.” [p. 261]

Democratic leaders are much less likely to make the kind of catastrophic blunders that autocratic leaders do, mainly because democracies restrain the decision-making powers of leaders. These restraints might take the form of constitutional checks and balances as in the US, Cabinet level decision-making processes as in the UK and Canada, and political parties everywhere which enable mass participation in both political goal setting and leadership selection and also form a “loyal opposition” to the party in power.

Still, even democracies are not immune to dire consequences when leaders attempt to concentrate power in the name of appearing “strong.” Brown’s main example here is Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to commit British troops to the Iraq War.

In conclusion, Brown warns us that,

“Leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making in many different areas of policy and who attempt to exercise such a prerogative, do a disservice to both good governance and to democracy.” [p. 362]

Unsolicited Feedback

The Myth of the Strong Leader is an in-depth, academic survey of the history of political leadership in the 20th and early 21st Centuries.

It’s a really important book at a very critical time.

Despite being published a couple of years before the election of Donald Trump, it contains enough historical warning bells and flashing red lights to make anyone anxious about the style and direction of his Administration.

It’s too bad it’s not more readable.  The book is really an academic work, not a popular one. It took me a couple of tries to get through it and I admit I bypassed my 100 Page Rule by skimming through pages of details about leaders or revolutions that didn’t particularly interest me.

Well Archie Brown is an Oxford professor and there’s no question of the depth of his scholarship and research.

A couple of other observations before I wrap up:

  • Brown doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as I expected about the Bush Administration’s decision making process on the invasion of Iraq. It’s not completely absent, but the focus is much more on how Tony Blair got the UK involved in that war.
  • This is a book about political leadership and doesn’t cover leadership in the business world or in other types of organizations.  Even so I think the overall message about the benefits of collaborative leadership and a diversity of perspectives is applicable in these areas of society too.

The Myth of the Strong Leader is really a lengthy argument for the benefits of diversity. Leaders who invite and bring together a variety of opinions, expertise and perspectives, who include rather than exclude, who persuade rather than dominate, make better decisions and deliver better government. And they show greater strength of character and intellect than any so-called “strong leader.”

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On Dumping Stuff

Last weekend we took a load of stuff to the dump. Technically it’s called a municipal waste transfer station. You pull up, back up actually, to the sloping edge of a long deep rectangular trench. The trench is really an open-topped tractor trailer parked one level below. You throw your stuff in. When the trailer gets full, they close the top and haul it away somewhere — to a real dump I guess — and slide in a fresh trailer. They weigh your vehicle on the way in and then again on the way out and charge you a fee for the difference. Not pretty but very efficient.

We loaded up our SUV with stuff; old stuff, broken down stuff, worn out, disused stuff. There was an old chair and an old nightstand, some old pillows and a bag of old clothes too ratty for Goodwill. There were a couple tables we’d used when we first arrived in Seattle which had been disassembled and consigned to the garage for over a decade. A thick wooden desktop that we’d salvaged and saved for years because all it needed was some sanding, a little stain and some new legs and it would make a fabulous desk for one of the kids, or maybe even a kitchen table when they moved into their own apartment. A hollow core door, spattered with paint, that had been my own makeshift desk at university and which we’d been saving for the last twenty years because … why?

We piled in a couple of IKEA bed frames we bought for our kids when they were little, some pictures we’d taken down a few years ago when we had the house repainted and never put back up, and an old vacuum cleaner which everyone hated because it was so heavy and awkward but which actually did a pretty decent job sucking up the dirt until it too finally gave up the ghost.

We drove it all to the dump.

We weighed in, backed up to the edge of the precipice and began unloading, unceremoniously tossing stuff into the pit below. The place stank. Like garbage. I found it hard not to become sentimental. Each of these things had been useful at one time, a part of our lives and our memories; the kids’ first beds, the nightstand from our bedroom. Now, old and discarded, they were being tossed aside. A hint of our own mortality I suppose.

It didn’t seem to matter what we threw in, everything hit bottom with the sound of breaking glass. Scrap wood — smash! Metal table legs — smash! Pillows — smash! I felt guilty about the waste. Never mind that we’d already hung onto these things for years and years hoping our kids or a neighbor might use some of it someday. Couldn’t we have tried harder to find someone else to take this stuff? Advertised on Craig’s List perhaps? Or kept them for just a little longer? You never know, someone might turn up. Maybe when our kids have kids of their own? Did we even need to buy these things in the first place? Couldn’t we have made do with less?

The vacuum cleaner was the last to go, and it seemed to resist falling into the pit. The canister body rolled down first, slowly, reluctantly, pulling the coiled vacuum hose along with it, and then finally, like Gandalf being dragged by the Balrog into the abyss at Khazad-dûm, the powered carpet cleaning attachment slipped over the edge, and was gone.

It’s so easy to succumb to the tyranny of things, to become trapped in fealty to your own possessions. Once in a while it’s important to remind yourself that you are the owner and not the owned. And the surest sign of ownership is giving something away. Or in this case, throwing it away.

After everything had disappeared into the chasm what I felt most was relief. An unburdening. A more bearable lightness of being. When we got home, the house felt roomier and airier and a little less cluttered.

I looked around and realized we’d missed a few things. There’ll be plenty more for our next trip to the dump.

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Machine, Platform, Crowd

Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future
By Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2017

Machine Platform Crowd coverMachine, Platform, Crowd is an update to Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s fabulous 2014 book, The Second Machine Age. (My review here).

In it, the authors, describe three powerful trends shaping the worlds of business and technology today.

First, the incredible advances in the power of computer technology, particularly machine learning, and more broadly artificial intelligence, that are enabling machines to perform more and more tasks and do more jobs that used to be the sole domain of the human mind.

The second trend is the emergence of platforms, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, as the great economic engines and money makers of the 21st Century, in a marked shift away from product-based businesses of the past.

Finally, the third trend: the shift towards sourcing ideas and innovation from the crowd, that vast and diverse reservoir of internet-connected talent and enthusiasm that lies outside the traditional boundaries of the organization’s core.

These trends are forcing organizations to re-think and re-balance how they operate, invest and succeed.

The authors cover some interesting developments in this book, particularly the discussions about the economics of platforms, and about the future of the firm as an essential unit of business organization. However, if you haven’t read The Second Machine Age, I’d highly recommend starting there.

You can listen to a recording of the authors discussing Machine, Platform, Crowd with futurist and energy analyst Ramez Naam at Seattle Town Hall on June 22, 2017.

Unsolicited Feedback

McAfee and Brynjolfsson, to their credit, devote some attention in this book to the implications for employment, or the lack of it, from all this rapid innovation. They’re technology enthusiasts and they point to a number of areas that will be continuing sources of jobs well into the future, especially fields involving human-to-human contact, leadership and creativity. I didn’t find this completely reassuring, but it did allay some fears that mass unemployment is the inevitable outcome of technological progress.

The book is aimed at a mainly business audience, so there’s less attention to broader social, and political implications of these changes. In some ways that’s good – they’re sticking to what they know well. But they’re smart and engaging thinkers so I for one would welcome their thoughts on these topics.

At Seattle Town Hall, for example, they talked about “EIEIO economics” as the smart policy playbook for the country:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Immigration
  • Education
  • Infrastructure
  • Original Research

Smart policies in these areas can help move the country forward. We’re not doing a great job at any of them these days, they said.

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Mr. O’Byrne

I’ve been remembering my high school calculus teacher, Mr. O’Byrne, over the last few days.

It started while I was reading a lengthy article about neural networks and how they’re trained using backpropagation and analytic gradients. There’s not that much calculus involved, just a few partial derivatives, but it’s more than I’ve used in decades. The author was describing these gradients as the limit of some function as a variable h approaches zero. And it all came rushing back. There I was, a teenager in Mr. O’Byrne’s calculus class, learning about slopes, tangents and limits as h approaches zero.

To be honest, Mr. O’Byrne was not one of my favorite teachers. I didn’t dislike him, I just didn’t find him particularly dynamic or inspiring.

Perhaps that’s because he was close to retirement by the time I showed up in his class. Maybe he was tired and worn out. He was a large man in both height and girth, with thinning, wispy white hair. I remember he seemed to be in poor health, often short of breath and coughing wetly into a neatly folded white handkerchief.

But his lessons sure stuck.

On the last day of school Mr. O’Byrne bade us all farewell with a traditional Irish toast, “May you be in heaven a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

Most of us remember one or two special teachers who inspired us or challenged us or coached us. Yet even the ones we don’t remember as fondly, the ones who gave of themselves year after year without fuss or flamboyance also helped us and left their mark. They deserve a toast too.

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Thank You for Being Late

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2016

It’s a good thing Tom Friedman is an optimist. Reading his latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving the Age of Accelerations, published just after the 2016 US election, could easily scare the daylights out of you.

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There’s so much happening in the world these days, at such a fast pace, affecting so many facets of our lives, that many people feel overwhelmed and anxious and out of control. I know I sometimes do.

Friedman doesn’t shy away from any of this change or try to sugar coat it.

The central idea of the book is that we are living through a momentous historical inflection point, as important as the invention of the printing press, in which changes in technology, globalization and the environment are happening at ever-accelerating rates. Any one of these three great accelerations would be significant; today they’re happening simultaneously, interacting with and reinforcing each other.

Friedman walks us right into the whirlwind to show us what’s happening and to help us pause and reflect and maybe marvel, even if only for a few moments. He looks at the impact of these changes on our lives, our communities and our cultures. Lastly, Friedman takes us back to St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where he grew up, to illustrate the kinds of communities and values he thinks we need to build in order to thrive in this era of accelerating change.

Welcome to the Machine

In the first of three main sections of the book Friedman presents his latest report on the state of “the Machine”, his shorthand term for an evolving mental model of “the biggest forces reshaping more things in more places in more ways, on more days.” [p. 15]

Here he examines in detail the three great accelerations, starting with technology in a chapter titled “What the Hell Happened in 2007?” It turns out this seemingly innocuous year saw a number of hugely important technological changes:

  • Apple introduced the iPhone
  • Google launched Android
  • Amazon released the first version of the Kindle e-reader
  • Facebook opened to anyone with an email address (late 2006)
  • Twitter spun off as a separate entity
  • Emergence of Hadoop
  • GitHub received its first commit (upload of source code)
  • IBM started its Watson cognitive computing project
  • Cost of wind and solar power starts to fall dramatically
  • Cost of human genome sequencing plummets

That was quite a year!

The key to understanding the effect of all this technological change is Moore’s Law which has now been delivering exponential increases in computing power for about 50 years. Processing power has doubled so many times that we’re now in “the second half of the chessboard.” This ides comes from a book called The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAfee which Friedman cites heavily. (You can find my review of it here.) The chessboard here is the legendary one on which a king was asked to place one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, and so on until a truly stupendous quantity of rice is required on the 64th square. In the second half of the chessboard, each doubling in processing power unleashes massive, disruptive change.

In looking at globalization, the second of the three great accelerations, Friedman quotes the late historian William H. McNeill, author of The Rise of the West,

“The principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” [p. 147]

Globalization brings us into contact with more strangers from more places with more skills and more ideas and viewpoints than ever before. But globalization is no longer about just trade in raw materials and manufactured goods. Now it’s about the flow of goods, services, capital, skills, data and knowledge. In fact we’re shifting from a world where stocks (of materials, money, and knowledge) were critical for economic success to one where flows are more important. Societies that are more open to these flows, more open to contact with strangers, and more willing to participate in them are the ones that will do well. Societies that are less open, less willing or able to participate in these economic flows will struggle.

(Incidentally, Friedman joins a growing list of commentators who say that open/closed is becoming a more useful and important political distinction than left/right. See, for example, The New Political Divide in The Economist.)

The chapter on climate change, the third acceleration, is largely inspired by a book called Big World, Small Planet by Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum. (My review is here.) The book defines a framework of nine “planetary boundaries” that we must not cross if we want to avoid potentially catastrophic damage to Earth’s ecosystem. These boundaries include climate change, as measured by atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, ocean acidification, deforestation, biodiversity loss, etc. Trouble is we’ve already crossed several of them. In maybe the most passionate section of the book, Friedman argues:

“As environmentalists have often noted, we have been great at rising to the occasion after big geopolitical upheavals – after Hitler invaded his neighbors, after Pearl Harbor, after 9/11. But this is the first time in human history that we have to act on a threat we have collectively made to ourselves, to act on it at scale, to act before the full consequences are felt, and to act on behalf of a generation that has not yet been born – and to do it before all the planetary boundaries have been breached.

This is the challenge before humanity, now, right now, and it is for this generation.” [p. 183]

Impacts of Accelerations

Friedman next looks at the impact of all this change, what it’s doing to our jobs, our communities, and our countries. This is well-traveled ground for Friedman since he’s been reporting on this for years in his New York Times column. I want to highlight just a couple of ideas I found particularly striking.

There’s a lot of concern these days about whether automation is going result in mass unemployment. Think about self-driving cars and trucks. How many people earn their living driving people and goods from one place to another? Will they all be put out of work by autonomous vehicles?

Friedman doesn’t have an answer to this question; no one does. But he looks at a number of cases where automation actually resulted in an increase in certain types of employment. Bank tellers for example. You might have thought the introduction of ATMs in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s would have decimated the ranks of bank tellers. In fact, the number of bank tellers has increased. Why? ATMs brought down the cost of operating a branch, so banks opened more of them and hired more tellers. What is true, however, is that tellers now handle the more complex transactions that ATMs can’t, and, in my experience anyway, they seem to be performing more sales and marketing functions, like encouraging me to consider various investment products offered by the bank. So the skills required of bank tellers have certainly increased with automation.

The same is true in many other fields.

And of course new technology has created new jobs and even whole new careers that didn’t exist before, like software development and data science.

So the picture for employment in the face of accelerating technological change isn’t easily predictable, but there’s no solid case for doom and gloom either.

What will be required of us all, though, is more skills and more flexibility. Lifelong learning, in other words.

Countries too are impacted by accelerating change. Friedman takes us on a tour of what he calls the World of Disorder, places where the three accelerations are causing states to literally collapse into anarchy.

The civil war in Syria, for example started out with peaceful protests over the Assad government’s failure to deal with one of the worst droughts in modern history. Friedman calls Syria “the geopolitical superstorm of the age of accelerations.”

It turns out that failed states can be just as dangerous as powerful ones. They become breeding grounds for criminal and terrorist organizations. Worse yet, they generate huge outflows of refugees and migrants which threaten to destabilize neighboring countries. There were something like 653 million displaced persons in the world as of June 2016. Most of these people fled collapsing states rather than inter-state conflict.

Now, More than Ever, Values Matter

We’re living in a world, Friedman says, where technology has enhanced the power of one and the power of many. We’re rapidly approaching the point where a single individual could have the power to destroy us all, to kill every living human being; a power formerly restricted to one or two nuclear superpowers. At the same time, we’re also at a point where, working together, we could fix anything, solve any problem facing humanity, from global warming to world hunger to poverty to homelessness.

With so much power in our hands, our values matter more than ever. When we live in such an interdependent world, how should we behave towards one another in a way that nurtures trust and respect? We need “moral innovation” to accompany and govern technological innovation. Extending the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would wish they would do unto you” – into cyberspace is one part of the answer.

Another important part, Friedman suggests, is that people need to be anchored in strong communities.

In the final chapters of the book, Friedman takes us to his home town of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. I think it’s some of his most autobiographical writing to date. His point is to hold up his home town and its values as an example of the kinds of strong communities we need to build.

It’s not a perfect place; Minneapolis has s long and sad history of racism. But St. Louis Park, at least, welcomed Jewish families like Friedman’s in the 1950’s and developed a reputation for welcoming immigrants – contact with strangers – from many parts of the world. It’s a community that values education and whose residents appear willing to pay for it through their taxes.

It’s a community with the kind of values that both anchor and propel its citizens in the world so they can “thrive in the age of accelerations.”

Unsolicited Feedback

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Tom Friedman. I’ve read most of his books, and I read his New York Times column regularly. I don’t always agree with him, but as far as I’m concerned, if you want to understand what’s happening in the world today, if you want to understand the Machine, Friedman is quite simply required reading.

Thank You for Being Late is a huge, sprawling book. Not just its size, about 450 pages, but also the scope of its ideas, observations, and connections. Many of its chapters could be expanded into full length books of their own.

I work in the technology sector. I’ve lived through and, in a small way, contributed to some of the changes Friedman describes in the book. Yet seeing it all laid out in black and white in a few deft pages left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

At a personal level, I worry about what the future holds for my children. How will they survive and thrive? What kinds of jobs will they have? Will they be able support their own families when the time comes? Will there be any jobs at all, or will we automate ourselves into mass unemployment?

At a societal level, and a global level, the challenges are even more daunting. Like it or not, the world is rapidly knitting itself together into an integrated global community. And without doubt the challenges we face are increasingly global in scope, from climate change to population migration.

Meeting these challenges will require global institutions and global approaches that we just don’t have yet. And it will require far better leadership than we see in the world today.

There are some encouraging signs, like the Paris climate agreement, the plummeting cost of clean energy and the accompanying rise in clean energy jobs.

Unfortunately, right now it seems like we’re living through a period of backlash against the accelerations, against technology, globalization and openness to strangers. When I see people, especially world leaders, closing their hearts and minds at a time when we desperately need more collaboration, more understanding and more creative ideas, it’s discouraging and even frightening.

Thank You for Being Late doesn’t entirely allay these fears and concerns, at least it didn’t for me. But the book is so much more than just a snapshot of the current state of the Machine. It looks deeply and widely into the challenges and the opportunities we face and tries to give guidance about how we ought to conduct ourselves in the age of accelerations.

Tom Friedman says he’s an optimist. I sure hope he’s right!

Related Links

C-SPAN talk by Tom Friedman about Thank You for Being Late.
https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4633221/friedman-thank-late

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