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.
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.”
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!
C-SPAN talk by Tom Friedman about Thank You for Being Late.