The World Is... Fast

Gee whiz, Thomas Fried­man mar­vels again at his own abil­ity to ex­plain ev­ery­thing

India Today - - LEISURE BOOKS - By Shougat Das­gupta

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

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Thank You for Be­ing Late Thomas L. Fried­man Pen­guin Pages: 496 Price: Rs 799

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