The World Is... Fast
Gee whiz, Thomas Friedman marvels again at his own ability to explain everything
If you were Thomas Friedman, eating breakfast with corporate titans, playing tennis with secretaries of state, travelling to Davos and Sydney, Iraq and Niger, one moment watching African emigres in Libya scrambling onto a boat bound for Europe, the next giving a lavishly remunerated talk about that experience in a gilded boardroom, perhaps you too would write as he does. Let me try: Sitting on a beanbag at the Googleplex, on a sunny day in Santa Clara, I ask Sergey and Larry, my go-to-guys when I want to be educated about the future, to describe the glorious revolution they are leading so that I can transcribe their vision in a column. I look out the window at a car driving itself and it occurs to me that this is why ISIS hates us. Another Friedman passage might read: Bouncing along a rutted, potholed street in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Abdul Aziz, the bright young founder of a big data analysis firm, flips open his Macbook Pro. He shows me the work his big data analytics start-up, its HQ still his parents’ basement, does for clients from Oregon to Okazaki, Japan. I look out of the window at palm trees and coarse desert sand and it occurs to me that this is why ISIS hates us.
His new book, Thank You for Being Late, begins with a laboured gloss on the title. We live in, “as John E. Kelly III, IBM’s senior vice president for cognitive solutions and IBM Research, once observed to me”, a state of acceleration. “We are living,” Friedman contends, “through one of the greatest inflection points in history.” Technology, globalisation and climate change are accelerating at such a clip that we can’t keep up. The time has come to “pause and reflect”. And so Friedman duly declares his “independence from the whirlwind” with the requisite hokey anecdote. “‘When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start,’ argues my friend and teacher Dov Seigman, CEO of LRN .... ‘You start to reflect, you start to rethink your assumptions, you start to reimagine what is possible and, most importantly, you start to reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to reimagine a better path’.”
Thank You for Being Late, then, is the product of Friedman’s pause to reflect. To no one’s surprise, what emerges from this ballyhooed pause is another reiteration of Friedman’s faith in the American way. It’s not just Friedman who wishes the world could be more like America, it’s the world that wishes it could be more like America. Lately, even America wishes it could be more like America. This chimerical America is the country Friedman remembers from his youth, a mid-20th century bastion of decency and community. “When I think of this challenge on a global scale,” Friedman writes, “my own short prescription is that we need to find a way to get more people to practice the Golden Rule”; that is, treat others as you would want to be treated yourself, and, in case you were wondering, “it doesn’t matter which version you were taught... any variant enshrined by your faith”. It’s a saccharine truism masquerading as insight, as a potential panacea for the world’s problems. For most of his career as a columnist, Friedman has been claiming that the world is on the precipice with, famously, about six months to turn course, to save itself. This time, technology is outstripping our ability to adapt to it and if we don’t adapt, we die. For hundreds of pages we are privy to his wonder at what cell phones are capable of, at the efficiency big data brings to the milking of cows, at the poetry produced by artificial intelligence, at the innovations of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Airbnb, AT&T and other tech giants. The miracles of which technology is capable are revealed to Friedman by the top executives at the companies performing those miracles. Might they have a vested interest? Friedman has a talent for complicating what is simple, and for simplifying what is complicated. So that, for instance, what are two discrete and simple concepts—black swans and the elephant in the room— are twisted together in service of a basic point: we are not paying enough attention to the dangers of climate change. Complicated matters, though, are given short and patronising shrift: “My time in the Middle East led me to realise that with a few rare exceptions, the dominant political ideology... was ‘I am weak, how can I compromise? I am strong why should I compromise’.”
The portmanteau ‘mansplain’ expresses women’s irritation at being told at tedious length what they already knew by bumptious men. Friedmans-plaining is just as grating.
FRIEDMAN HAS A TALENT FOR COMPLICATING WHAT IS SIMPLE AND SIMPLIFYING WHAT IS COMPLICATED
Thank You for Being Late Thomas L. Friedman Penguin Pages: 496 Price: Rs 799