Thank You for Being Late

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

This book is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest reflection on social change–technological, global and environmental. The title refers to his experience of having someone show up late for an appointment, and then realizing that the extra few minutes provide a time for reflection in an otherwise busy day.

Friedman’s basic premise is that “the three largest forces on the planet–technology, globalization, and climate change–are all accelerating at once. As a result, so many aspects of our societies, workplaces, and geopolitics are being reshaped and need to be reimagined….In such a time, opting to pause and reflect, rather than panic and withdraw, is a necessity.”

Technological acceleration

In chapters 2 through 4, Friedman pulls together a wealth of examples to provide a fine overview of developments in digital technology. I can’t do justice to all the detail, but here are a few highlights.

Remarkable breakthroughs have affected all five of the basic components of computing:

(1) the integrated circuits that do the computing; (2) the memory units that store and retrieve information; (3) the networking systems that enable communications within and across computers; (4) the software applications that enable different computers to perform myriad tasks individually and collectively; and (5) the sensors—cameras and other miniature devices that can detect movement, language, light, heat, moisture, and sound and transform any of them into digitized data that can be mined for insights.

The result is “one of the greatest leaps forward in history.”

All this computing power is not just on a desktop or a laptop, but in the “cloud”, or what Friedman calls the computing “supernova”. The ability to tap into this universal information-processing capacity is deeply empowering to individuals, groups and organizations. The challenge is to use that power constructively and not destructively, for collective liberation and not just for domination or other selfish purposes. One downside is that technological innovation is occurring faster than “the average rate at which most people can absorb all these changes.” For example, we are not yet accustomed to the kind of lifelong learning that the information age will require.

Friedman also asks why it’s taking so long for technological change to raise economic productivity. In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert Gordon argued that the extraordinary productivity gains of the “special century” from 1870 to 1970 are unlikely to be repeated. Friedman is more optimistic, pointing out that productivity gains from electrification took several decades to materialize. New factories and business processes had to be designed, and a new generation of managers and workers had to emerge. Many technological breakthroughs are far too new–a number of them emerged in 2007–to assess their effects on social institutions. I find it exciting to imagine a new era of rising productivity and wage gains, which might go a long way to alleviate class, race and gender tensions.

Global acceleration

Electronic connectivity is one of the main factors accelerating human interactions across vast distances. The total value of global flows of goods, services, and finance increased from 24 percent to 39 percent of world GDP between 1990 and 2014.

William H. McNeill, the historian noted for The Rise of the West, argues that “the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” People may perceive such contacts as either a threat or an opportunity, but in the long run they provide societies with more solutions to human problems. Friedman believes that “those societies that are most open to flows of trade, information, finance, culture, or education, and those most willing to learn from them and contribute to them, are the ones most likely to thrive in the age of accelerations.” Although Friedman has little to say about the Trump presidency in this book, we know from his columns that he has little use for nationalism or isolationism.

Friedman does recognize that people whose lives are vulnerable to disruption by globalization will need help coping with this new world. “If a society doesn’t build floors under people, many will reach for a wall–no matter how self-defeating that would be.” Nevertheless, his chapter on globalization contains his most optimistic statement:

[I]f there is one overarching reason to be optimistic about the future, and to keep trying to get the best out of digital globalization and cushion the worst, it is surely the fact that this mobile-broadband-supernova is creating so many flows and thus enabling so many more people to lift themselves out of poverty and participate in solving the world’s biggest problems. We are tapping into many more brains, and bringing them into the global neural network to become “makers.” This is surely the most positive—but least discussed or appreciated—trend in the world today, when “globalization” is becoming a dirty word because it is entirely associated in the West with dislocations from trade.

Environmental/demographic acceleration

The human impact on the planet is increasing, as a result of both our dramatic population growth and our intensive use of the Earth’s resources.

Here Friedman is most concerned with global climate change, and he does not explain demographic trends as much as I would like. Human population growth accelerated especially in the twentieth century because of progress in reducing mortality rates, especially for infants and children. Just between 1900 and 2000, world population increased from 1.65 billion to 6 billion. Smaller families and declining birth rates have reduced the rate of growth somewhat, but the world population is now 7.7 billion and expected to add a couple billion more before leveling off.

A team of scientists specializing in Earth systems identified “nine key planetary boundaries we humans must make sure we do not breach.” Unfortunately, we have already breached four of them. We have put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, if we want to hold average global temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution to 2 degrees Celsius. In some places, biodiversity is already below 90 percent of preindustrial levels. The portion of the earth’s original forests that remain has fallen below 75%. And we have been poisoning the earth by adding far too much phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements.

Other boundaries that we are currently staying within, but not by much, involve how much we are acidifying oceans, using freshwater, loading the atmosphere with microscopic particles, and introducing other novel entities into nature, like plastics and nuclear wastes.  One area where we are moving in the right direction is in restoring the thickness of the ozone layer that protects us against dangerous radiation.

Technological breakthroughs–especially in clean energy–are helping. But we also need to change our behavior more rapidly, in order to apply known solutions on a large enough scale.

Continued

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