Despite being an academic, I’m a fan of Tom Friedman, the journalist professors love to hate. What inspires such hostility on campus? Arguably, the fact that Friedman – a clear writer, rich, and famous – is everything most academics are not. To be sure, Friedman bashers in the professoriat often grouse about Friedman’s brashness and his “oversimplifications,” but, deep down, many of them are bothered rather more by his privileged platform at The New York Times, not to mention his three Pulitzer prizes, and six best-selling books.
To say that I’m a Friedman fan is not to suggest that I don’t see any problems with his work. At the end of the day, though, his talent – and contributions toward greater public understanding of vital, but difficult issues – trump other lesser concerns. The above points are evident in “Thank You For Being Late,” which brings together many of Friedman’s recent interests – technology, globalization, and climate change, most notably.
The principal takeaway from the author’s sprawling synthesis is that the world is being transformed because of the accelerating rates of change in technology, in global flows of one sort or another – particularly flows of information – and in the Earth’s environment. Friedman believes that, in combination, these forces have the capacity either to overwhelm and eventually undermine human civilization, or, if properly negotiated and accommodated, to bring about an age of unparalleled opportunity and fulfillment for more and more of the world’s population.
The most illuminating sections of “Thank You For Being Late” relate to Friedman’s detailed examination of the possibilities being opened up for humankind as a result of the ongoing (and exponentially accelerating) advances in information and communications technology. Indeed, in many ways such advances – in IT processing, sensing, storage, software capacities and capabilities, and connectivity, all embodied in the so-called cloud – are the protagonists in Friedman’s technophilic study.
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That said, he is no Pollyanna and is careful to mention some of the downsides associated with such advances. As others have also noted, there is the real possibility that many current jobs will be history as “smart” machines, artificial intelligence – think IBM’s Watson – and accelerating globalization render many tasks, even higher-order ones, obsolete. Friedman points out as well that entities such as ISIS can make use of networked IT for their own execrable purposes just as easily as can exemplary entities such as the Khan Academy.
But regarding technology, and regarding globalization and climate change as well, Friedman ultimately reveals what might be called a preferential option for optimism. On balance, both individuals and nation-states in his view potentially have much more to gain than to lose by embracing the great accelerations, thereby opting into the new networked, hyper-connected IT order, balanced forms of globalization, and renewable energy regimes. But they do so smartly and with strong commitments to justice, equity and compassion, making sure that those who stand to lose because of exponential change – whether individuals, communities, or even entire nations – are not left stranded without support or hope.
Clearly, the age of accelerations will not be easy to negotiate. In the chapters with which he ends, Friedman tries to facilitate this negotiation process, though, by drawing from his own past, suggesting that the progressive, public-spirited values of St. Louis Park, Minnesota – where the author grew up – offer important lessons for us all. Whether or not they do is a matter of debate. What is not debatable, writes Friedman, is our need to slow down a bit, unplug at times, and spend more time reading/thinking/debating, perhaps even while waiting for people who are running just a little behind.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
By Thomas L. Friedman
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pages