Gentle reader, if the feverish pace of change in technology, globalization and climate change both fascinates and frightens you, read Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. His forensic examination and farsighted explanation of the acceleration of everything is an exercise in expeditionary learning and his prescription for adapting to this new world disorder should also appeal to conservatives.
Friedman, a New York Times columnist, is perceived to be as progressive as the paper he writes for. But that assessment doesn’t apply here. As he described it last year, he belongs to the party of “nonpartisan extremism” and his political alignment is “to the far left and the far right at the same time.”
Thank You for Being Late (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), currently ranks number 10 on the New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction List and, published last fall, essentially is an epilogue to Alvin Toffler’s 1970 best-seller sensation, Future Shock (a book about feeling overwhelmed by change). Toffler’s assessment 47 years ago, was, basically, he wrote, “first approximations of the new realities.” So is Friedman’s for a world dominated by cyberspace.
The central argument of Friedman’s book is that technology (due to “Moore’s Law” — whereby computing power has been doubling every two years for the last 50 years), globalization (the “Market”) and climate change (“Mother Nature”) have all collided and now constitute the “age of acceleration.” These three accelerations “are impacting one another” and, at the same time, are “transforming almost every aspect of modern life.”
Friedman believes that the collision occurred roughly 20 years ago, 2007, with technological advancements in computing power (processing chips, software, storage chips, networking, and sensors) that formed a new platform. This platform “suffused a new set of capabilities to connect, collaborate and create throughout every aspect of life, commerce, and government.” These capabilities are smarter, faster, smaller, cheaper and more efficient. It is not coincidental, therefore, that that year saw the advent of the first iPhone, symbolic of this massive transformation.
The challenge posed by these exponential rates of change is our ability to absorb and adapt to them. “Many of us,” Friedman writes, “cannot keep pace anymore.” Eric Teller, head of Google’s X research and development lab, said, “[T]hat is causing us cultural angst.” And Teller warns that “our societal structures are failing to keep pace with the rate of change.”
Our fragile customs, traditions and mores are certainly being pressured in this all-digital, frenetic — if not homogenized — globalized environment. But Friedman is concerned that government itself has not kept up. The process of government — its lawmaking and structural components — should live in parallel with, and not be an impediment to, this age of accelerating change, he advises.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a sort of conservative futurist, nearly a decade ago understood that government is not forward-thinking. In his book Winning the Future, he observed that “We live in a world defined by the speed, convenience, and efficiency of the 21st century, but with a government bureaucracy invented in the 19th century.”
This may partially explain the phenomenon of the presidency of Donald Trump and many Americans’ presumed desire to radically reform government. Trump may have tapped into the belief that today’s government is not only not operationally progressive but too philosophically progressive — that it is out of sync both with technological advances and with the will of the people.
But what will attract cautious conservatives who wish to retain American ideals within a constitutional republic in an era of trans-global bits and bytes that have no allegiance to American values? They face this while addressing this troubling fact, in Friedman’s words : “That we are creating vast new ungoverned spaces — free from rules, laws, and the FBI, let alone God — is indisputable’’.
Amidst the columnist’s 461 pages of analytics and anecdotes he understands that “geo-politics has to be reimagined in the age of accelerations, just like everything else.” He also realizes that we must “reimagine our domestic politics too.” Much of his list of 18 ideas should appeal to conservatives (which includes support for free-trade agreements, tightening border security, reforming bankruptcy laws and review of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations), despite his constant clamoring for immediate action on climate disruption. (In the 1970s, some in the news media warned of a coming ice age.)
Conservatives should also be elated with this novel nugget: “Today we need to reverse the centralization of power that we’ve seen over the past century in favor of decentralization. The national government has grown so big bureaucratically that it is way too slow to keep up with change in the pace of change.” Today, a centralized government is inefficient and out of step with the maddening drive towards efficiency and push for better performance.
Still, Friedman is bullish on the future. He is indeed optimistic that a better world will be made by, and we can adapt to, these accelerations. He sees local government starting to embrace these concepts.
Thank You for Being Late does not delve into the psychological ramifications about the effects of such rapid change on individuals and societies that Future Shock does; nor does it capture the sense of dislocation being experienced today. But it is just as compelling.
And there is exquisite irony in the timing of this new effort. Toffler died last year just months prior to the publication of Friedman’s captivating book. He nonetheless would have agreed with Friedman’s conclusion about these new realities. “I hope that it is clear by now that every day going forward we’re going to be asked to dance in a hurricane.”
James P. Freeman, an occasional contributor, is a writer who also works in financial services. This piece first ran in The New Boston Post.