Thank You For Being Late, Thomas L. Friedman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.
Summary: Discusses three “accelerations (computer-related technology, globalization, and climate change), how these might re-shape our world for ill or good, and the case for pausing, reflecting, and creating communities of trust working for the common good.
Whether you agree with him or not, an interview with Tom Friedman is always a fascinating conversation, at least for some of us. It was on Charlie Rose, my wife was watching while I had dropped off to sleep, and the next day, she told me, “we have to get Thank You For Being Late.” It didn’t stop there. After my wife started reading this, she said, “you have to read this and write one of your reviews on it.” So dear, I have, and I am, and let’s see what you think.
Friedman starts by explaining his title, which is his response to those who are late for meetings with him. In our accelerating world, time to pause, to reflect on our moment in history, and our lives, is an increasingly precious opportunity. Put away the smartphone and just be. Then, in the remainder of the chapter he recounts his encounter with an Ethiopian parking attendant who asks Friedman’s help with his blog. It turns out that he hosts a site devoted to a pro-democracy take on the politics and economics of his home country. Friedman contends that his columns mix his own values, priorities and aspirations, his analysis of the big forces, “the Machine” that are shaping events, and the impacts on peoples and cultures. And as he does this with Bojia, his new Ethiopian friend, he begins to reflect on these.
Part two of this book is concerned with three big forces he believes are impacting people and cultures. He looks at 2007 as a critical year–the debut of the first iPhone, the launch of the Android, Qualcomm’s 3G technology enabling book downloads on Kindles, IBM’s Watson, non-silicon based processors, the beginning of an accelerating curve of solar power usage. He sees this as an inflection point where technological innovation exceeds human adaptability, requiring new ways of learning and governing. This opens a several-chapter discussion of the first key force, technology, whose acceleration is reflected in Moore’s law on the doubling of processor speeds every 18-24 months, at decreasing costs, that has made for a tremendous explosions because of software, networking, the convergence of smartphones and computers, and what Friedman calls the “supernova” of “flow” that makes possible massive amounts of storage in “the cloud”, all kinds of ways to utilize that data (including nefarious, as the Equifax hack, and others underscore), with incredible implications for commerce globally.
This leads to his discussion of the second force, the global market, where being in “the flow” makes unprecedented collaboration and crowd-sourced innovation possible, but also increasingly automated financial flows that under some circumstances might lead to drastic computer-initiated market swings. At the same time, this can lead to incredible knowledge flows, such as MOOCs, making courses on nearly every subject available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and also the export of the propaganda of terror, linking isolated individuals in developed countries with terror cells.
The third force is climate change and species loss, environmental changes that are sweeping the globe. He notes a series of boundaries we are breaching or in danger of breaching–climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, bio-geochemical flows, ocean acidification, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosols, and introduction of novel entities from chemicals we’ve invented to nuclear waste.
Friedman is ever the optimist and the third part of this book explores both technological and political innovations on the global scale that channel these forces for good, and in the chapter on “Control vs. Kaos” for ill. He has a chapter on “Mother Nature as Political Mentor” where he has Mother Nature making a laundry list of policy recommendations to delight the heart of anyone on the center-left of American politics, and will be dismissed by the right.
What was most fascinating for me amid this ramble through technology, globalization, and climate science, ground Friedman has traveled in other books is where he ends up in his last chapters. He essentially commends whatever our religion’s version is of Sunday school to teach us the Golden Rule and its application in life, and a return to “politics as local” revisiting his childhood days in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, and the continuing heritage of a politics beyond partisanship that forges relationships of trust with business and civic leaders, and presses into seeking the common good of a community.
When Friedman finishes, you feel he has touched everything including the kitchen sink. All of it is quite fascinating, and yet hard to hold together. Perhaps that is his point. Technology, globalization, changes in the environment are all accelerating–change is happening fast. We can run frantically to keep up. Or perhaps we would do better to pause. It is particularly intriguing that his most profound recommendations do not have to do with big government, even more technology or sweeping global environmental agreements, as much as I think he would be in sympathy with all of these. It is that we need to change in our own behavior, and in our habits of community. We need to return to real communities rather than virtual echo chambers and move from national posturing to local governing.
What begins as a survey of science, business, and technology ends in a kind of quest for God and a well-ordered society. An exploration of the accelerating future ends in a reflective search for spiritual and community roots. It feels to me that Friedman is searching for God knows what, and I find my self thinking, “indeed, God knows, but will we listen?”