books globalisation

Book review: Thank you for being late, by Thomas L Friedman

Friedman-book-jacketWhen NYT columnist Thomas L Friedman meets someone for breakfast and they get caught up on the way, he thanks them for being late. That unscheduled wait is a perfect time for reflection, and gave Friedman the title for his latest book: Thank you for being late – an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.

Friedman, taking some time to reflect on the state of the world, argues that we are living through “one of the greatest inflection points in history”. That critical point is dominated by “the three largest forces on the planet – technology, globalization, and climate change – all accelerating at once.” We shouldn’t panic about this, he says. Instead, we should pause, try to understand it, and then engage productively. That’s what the book tries to do.

The first part looks at those three accelerations, beginning with technology. It explores Moore’s law and the boom in computer processing power, leading to new opportunities in big data, the internet of things, and cloud computing. We can all do more, as individuals, than any generation before us – and that’s true for both makers and ‘breakers’ – those who want to do good in the world, and those who want to wreck stuff. It weighs up the benefits and dangers of hyper-globalization, and sets the whole thing in the context of climate change.

One of the key points here is that these three trends are accelerating so fast that change “can outpace the capacity of the average human being and our societal structures to adapt and absorb them.” That leads to cultural angst, unrest, failing institutions, conflict and migration, scapegoating and extreme politics.

If we think we can slow the world down and catch up, we’re deluding ourselves, Friedman suggests. Technological advance won’t be curbed, and neither will globalization. Climate effects are only beginning. We urgently need to find ways to adapt faster. As individuals, nothing will help more than a commitment to lifelong learning, something I would agree with. As nations, we need faster and more responsive governments and workplaces.

One of Friedman’s big strengths is that as a well respected commentator, he can get an interview with anyone. And with decades of experience as a Middle East correspondent, he’s not afraid to go where the action is. So we get first-hand accounts from the front lines of change, conversations with Silicon Valley engineers, Syrian freedom fighters, Somali refugees, Chinese entrepreneurs, all sorts. It’s an interesting companion to the last book I read, Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. Both tackle similar topics, Mishra from the history library and Friedman from the streets.  He even gets to Madagascar.

I am, I will admit, always looking for Madagascar. When any writer starts talking about global revolution, I think of Madagascar. Does it reach there? Would it work there? If not, let’s not use the word ‘global’ just yet, and Friedman’s previous books have annoyed me for that reason. There were a couple of points where I wanted to point out that only half the world has the internet, but it would be a little unfair. There’s a real effort here to include developing countries and marginalised voices, at least in the middle sections.

Towards the end, not so much. While I’m looking for Madagascar, Friedman is ‘always looking for Minnesota’, as the title of one chapter has it. It’s where he grew up, and the closing sections of the book are dedicated to dissecting 197os Minnesota for clues about how it integrated incomers and nurtured public spirit. It’s a personal case study that dips just a little too far into nostalgia for my liking, especially since it takes up the whole last 100 pages of the book.

What’s particularly unfortunate about this narrowing of the lens is the assumption of American leadership. That was assumed on climate change in Hot, Flat and Crowded, and here is is again in the age of accelerations: “We are indeed present again at the creation of something new in the geopolitical arena, and much responsibility will fall to America to figure it out and offer policy innovations, and generosity, to manage it.” Maybe, but it’s clear the book was written in the first half of 2016. There’s a list of policy innovations in one chapter, all about global cooperation, openness to the world, tolerance and integration. The US has chosen the polar opposite position on almost every one of them.

That left me with a rather hollow feeling, especially given the subtitle, ‘an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations’. If Friedman is right about what it takes to thrive in the 21st century, then the US is off into the deep weeds. Ironically enough for the title, the book feels a year too late in the writing.

Still, the central message of the book is one I agree with entirely, regardless of America’s choices. Friedman argues that we need to be able to innovate politically and socially, pay more attention to ethics. And while he clearly gets very excited about new technologies, he’s committed to old fashioned human relationships, building trust and community. He sees the potential of simple interventions as well as high tech ones, and the need to be open to new ideas wherever they come from. “We need an entrepreneurial mind-set, a willingness to approach politics and problem-solving with an utterly hybrid, heterodox, and nondogmatic mixing and matching of ideas, without regard to traditional left-right catechisms – letting all kinds of ideas coevolve, just as plants and animals coevolve in nature.”

Amen to that, and for all my own hesitations, I still found Thank You for Being Late a thoughtful, generous, and hopeful reflection on the state of our world.


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