Summary: Three increasingly fast movements are unsettling the world. Friedman, without minimizing the danger, gives an optimistic account of how we can survive and thrive.
I am broadly a fan of Thomas Friedman’s general worldview. He is a progressive (by the definition of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind‘s understanding). He is a globalist (in a non-pejorative sense.) He is fascinated with technology, and while not universally trusting in it, he thinks that technology is the way that many of the problems of our world have been and will be solved. He also thinks that government has a role is cushioning the problems of the global markets and regulating those markets for the benefit of the average person. He does not easily fit into a left/right dichotomy on issues of economics, social safety net, foreign policy or many other issues.
But it has been a few years since I have read one of his books and I am not a regular reader of the New York Times or his columns. Friedman is a bit of an outsider at this point. He falls into the general charge of technocrat and the problems with that label. He is deeply knowledgeable about world politics and for more immigration and more international cooperation, which again, is unfashionable. And Friedman is generally writing as an optimist with wonder about the world in an age that is more cynical and pessimistic.
Thank You for Being Late is broadly about the increasing (and Friedman uses the term exponential often) growth of three areas, computing (especially the movement toward big data), global market forces (and this is broad to include trade, immigration and migration and ideas) and climate change. Friedman is not shy about the fact that the world is scary. We know more about the world know than at any other time and we cannot and should not hide from that knowledge. But we also have limited capacity to absorb and process and change.
The title is from a phrase that Friedman frequently tells people that he interviews. “Thank you for being late”. He frequently meets people for early breakfasts to interview them. And because of traffic or bad planning or other reasons, it is not infrequent that his guests are late. He has started to say thank you because it is only in those unplanned free times that he can think and process. The quote from this section (and I listened to this on audiobook, so I believe this is accurate, but transcribed.)
“The ancients believed there is wisdom in patience, and that wisdom comes from patience. Patience wasn’t just the absence of speed, it was the space for reflection and thought. We are generating more knowledge than ever before…but knowledge is only good if you can reflect on it.”
I like Friedman’s writing style, but he can tend to overwhelm the reader with examples and stories to make his point. So there is far too many fascinating stories and examples that prove his point to really mention. But starting in about 2007, there has been an exponential growth in the ability of technology to collect and harness data. Part of this is felt in the always connected worker. But it is also felt in the slightly too targeted ads that feel like someone is always watching you, and they are.
The use of big data, and the continued shrinking of tech so that iPhones and small sensors and drones can do things that were not really even imagined just a few years ago has cooperated with increasing global markets to make the world seem very, very fast and not particularly friendly to the average small business or worker. Jobs are being gained on the whole, but many of those that are being lost are being replaced by automation or lower wage replacement workers (either locally or somewhere else.) The markets have not been friendly to the working class and/or lower skilled worker, especially in some particular parts (and geographies) of the economy.
Add to that the real effects to the climate that are being felt around the world and you have the perfect storm. (The US has felt some effects of climate change, but there are many areas where climate change is very real. The description of the refugee migration in Africa as a result of the mix of climate change, war and poverty was eerily similar to Parable of the Sower. Friedman was a middle east correspondent for 20 years and spent some time talking about how climate change influenced, but did not solely cause, the current Syrian war.)
So for the first 2/3 of the book I alternated between wonder and terror. Innovation and technology can be amazing. But the implications of innovation and technology can be terrifying. Globalization can and has driven many people from the lowest parts of world poverty, but also is knocking many previously middle class people back into the upper ends of poverty. And climate change is almost solely terrifying.
Friedman suggests that history is driven by contacts with those around them. The innovative adapt and incorporate; the more brittle resistant cultures resist and reject the other. Part of the implication of this is that they learn less from others and lose the ability to contribute new ideas to the mix that come about because of adaptations and innovations. Friedman does not explicitly draw on Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. But it is hard not to see the problem with inherently conservative values of loyalty (to the local group and culture) and purity (against innovative and outside views) being a weakness to globalization, technological change and climate change.
Looking within the US, many rural, or to a lessor extent the White working class that is non-rural, are reacting against innovation, globalization and pluralism with both the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Bernie Sanders. Those conservative values are neutral according to Haidt’s theory (because that loyalty and purity and other conservative values have positive aspects as well as negative.) But according to Friedman’s theory of globalization, there is an inherent negative aspect to it. With the exponential growth of computers (requiring continuous education and retraining) and the exponential growth of globalization (requiring cultural pluralism) these conservative principles have a real negative impact on job growth and wealth creation. And many in the US still deny that climate change even exists as a real problem.
Approximately the last 1/3 of the book is Friedman’s own reflections on his life, his community and how he has experienced change. Friedman is 63 years old. When he started as a journalist, he was typing with manual typewriters. He described how his job as a foreign journalist changed over the years, continually dealing with new technology and changing expectations for the job. And he has a long section about the suburban Minneapolis community of St Louis Park, where he grew up. That community was one of the few suburban areas open to Jewish residents and in a small period of time generated a remarkable number of world famous people. Friedman posits that it was the forced pluralism and integration of ideas that helped to generate people as widely known as the Coen Brothers, Senator Al Franken, Marc Trestman (NFL) and more.
Friedman walks through that long autobiographical and community section to suggest that if we create good pluralistic environments (not just on acceptance of the other, but a pluralism based on trust and respect of the other), we value strong, continuous education, local innovation in government and industry, we do the hard things, just not the expedient or easy things, we work on including the whole population, not just those that want to be included, etc, then we can come out of this perfect storm as a storm of opportunity and not disaster.
The weakness of the book is that it does not seriously address the problems of the parts of the world that are resistant to change or actually against increasing change. Friedman views resistance to change as not only a weakness, but a rejection of reality. He isn’t dismissing the pain of change or the unequalness of who is forced to change. But this is already a long book and I do not think that Friedman has the psychological or sociological chops to really deal with that weakness.
The positive of the book is that it really is an optimists guide to subjects that are actually pretty scary.