Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Message of Thomas Friedman’s New Book: It’s Going to Be O.K.

Thomas FriedmanCreditJosh Haner/The New York Times
Editor’s note: Books written by New York Times employees are always reviewed by individuals outside The Times.
n Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
By Thomas L. Friedman
486 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
From Donald Trump to Brexit to Marine Le Pen, one thing that unites the unhappy West is a profound sense of mystification. Across Europe and North America, people have an acute feeling that their world is accelerating away from them — but they can’t quite understand why. There is no narrative. Hence the attraction of leaders who “tell it like it is” and identify convenient scapegoats, like immigrants or the European Union. But what most people really crave is an honest explanation. As with patients on a psychiatrist’s couch, the first step is to understand what is going wrong. Then you can decide on the medication.
Into this darkened room steps Dr. Tom Friedman.
While other journalists dream of being investigative reporters or news breakers, Thomas L. Friedman is a self-confessed “explanatory journalist” — whose goal is to be a “translator from English to English.” And he is extremely good at it. A talent for explanation has garnered him a column at The New York Times and a string of best-selling books on huge subjects like globalization and climate change. Snooty critics might grumble about his folksy style, but it is hard to think of any other journalist who has explained as many complicated subjects to so many people.
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Now he has written his most ambitious book — part personal odyssey, part common-sense manifesto. “Thank You for Being Late” has two overt aims. First, Friedman wants to explain why the world is the way it is — why so many things seem to be spinning out of control, especially for the Minnesota white middle class he grew up in. And then he wants to reassure us that it is basically going to be O.K. In general the explanation is more convincing than the reassurance. But as a guide for perplexed Westerners, this book is very hard to beat.
Friedman argues that man is actually a fairly adaptable creature. The problem is that our capacity to adapt is being outpaced by a “supernova,” built from three ever faster things: technology, the market and climate change. That sounds like a predictable list, but Friedman digs cleverly into each one. For instance, on technology he argues convincingly that 2007, which saw the arrival of the iPhone, Android and Kindle, was the year when software began, in the words of Netscape’s founder, “eating the world”; he introduces us to vital obscure bits, like GitHub and Hadoop; he points out that if Moore’s law (that the power of microchips would double about every two years) had applied to the capabilities of cars, not computer chips, then the modern descendant of the 1971 Volkswagen Beetle would travel at 300,000 miles per hour, cost 4 cents and use one tank of gasoline in a lifetime.
The chapters on climate change and the market are stuffed with similar nuggets. But Friedman also shows how all three forces interact, complicating and speeding up one another. In Niger, climate change is wrecking crops even as technology is helping more children survive, so a population of 19 million will reach 72 million hungry people by 2050. On trading floors, technology and markets create “spoofing,” so a 36-year-old geek, operating out of his parents’ flat by Heathrow, can make the Dow Jones index fall 9 percent in a “flash crash.” And everything, Friedman warns, will keep getting faster. There are already at least 10 billion things connected to the internet — but that is still less than 1 percent of the possible total as ever more cars, gadgets and bodies join “the internet of things.”
Man has sped up his own response times. It now takes us only 10-15 years to get used to the sort of technological changes that we used to absorb in a couple of generations; but what good is that when technology becomes obsolete every five to seven years? The supernova is making a joke of both patent law and education. Governments, companies and individuals are all struggling to keep up.
It can be bewildering even for the winners — like Friedman himself. In 1978, he was queuing up to phone his stories from British telephone boxes; now he can email a column from deep in Africa that appears almost instantaneously on the Times website and provokes a rapid reaction from China. In two and a half years researching this book, he had to interview all the main technologists at least twice, because things changed so quickly. Like everybody else, he has no time to think: The book’s title comes from an offhand comment to a friend whose tardiness allowed a few welcome minutes of contemplation.
For the most part, “Thank You for Being Late” is a master class in explaining. It canters along at a pace that is quick enough to permit learning without getting bogged down. Inevitably he sometimes gets the balance wrong, either allowing his informants to ramble on, or skating over a thorny detail: For instance, having admitted that productivity numbers have not leapt forward in the same way that technology has, he asks us, in effect, to trust him, they will. And, yes, the folksiness will still irk some critics: The starting point for the book is a chat with a Bethesda parking attendant, with another attendant from Minnesota waiting near the end.
But criticizing Friedman for humanizing and boiling down big topics is like complaining that Mick Jagger used sex to sell songs: It is what he does well. There is also a value in bringing things together — in putting foreign policy beside climate change. And don’t be fooled by the catchy slogans (“Build floors, not walls,” “Turning AI into IA” and so on). As usual with Friedman, it is all backed up by pages of serious reporting from around the world.
Indeed, this reviewer’s complaint is that the explaining is too convincing. Lying on the couch, listening to him in his guise as Dr. Tom Friedman, you understand, ever more clearly, the reasons the world is spinning so fast. It is not all gloom: Along the way we discover that the A.T.M. created more full-time teller jobs at banks (because it allowed banks to increase the number of branches). There are inspiring stories of communities rising to the challenge, and a memorable paean to the virtues of chickens from Bill Gates (they empower women, keep children healthy and jump-start entrepreneurialism). But respite from these accelerations? There is none, there is not going to be and Trumpian attempts to stop it all will do more damage than good.
This makes it harder to reassure us that it is all going to be fine. Friedman produces a common-sense list of 18 things that the American government should do, from setting up a single-payer health system to passing free-trade deals and building infrastructure. If the politicians in Washington accomplished even a quarter of his list, the United States would be better at coping with change. But Friedman is too honest a reporter to argue that will happen soon. Asked why some biological systems thrive, the environmentalist Amory Lovins replies, “They are all highly adaptive — and all the rest is detail.” It is hard to put Washington in the highly adaptive category.
Friedman’s main cause for optimism is based on a trip back to St. Louis Park, the Minneapolis suburb where he grew up. This is perhaps the most elegiac, memorable part of the book — a piece of sustained reportage that ranks alongside “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” Friedman’s masterly first book about the Middle East. He points out that the same communal virtues that made Minnesota work when he was young have survived — and are still useful. But somehow, the passages that lingered with this reader were the ones about the good old days that have disappeared — when baseball used to be a sport that everybody could afford to watch, when local boys like the young Friedman could caddy at the United States Open, when everybody in Friedman’s town went to public schools.
So you don’t finish this book thinking everything is going to be O.K. for the unhappy West — that “you can dance in a hurricane.” There is no easy pill to swallow, and most of the ones being proffered by the extremists are poison. But after your session with Dr. Friedman, you have a much better idea of the forces that are upending your world, how they work together — and what people, companies and governments can do to prosper. You do have a coherent narrative — an honest, cohesive explanation for why the world is the way it is, without miracle cures or scapegoats. And that is why everybody should hope this book does very well indeed.

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