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Thomas L. Friedman explains what's wrong with us


Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide To Thriving in The Age Of Accelerations

By Thomas L. Friedman; Farrar, Straus and Giroux 463 pages,  $28

Thomas L. Friedman is an imaginative conceptualist and "explainer."  His writing has garnered three Pulitzer Prizes for him in his last 21 years with The New York Times.

Friedman’s 2005 best- seller, “The World Is Flat,” was an examination of globalization in the early 21st century reviewed in this space.

His new book, “Thank You for Being Late,” is an even more important achievement.  It’s an intellectual roll of the dice in a way, a gamble that policy makers and citizens of the world will take the time to read and understand it, and act upon its suggestions. The book deals with the implications of an immense combination of three forces at work that, taken together, are changing our personal space, the workplace, and the environment.

What are those forces?

They are an exponential increase in computer power, an economic interdependency with good and bad results, and mankind's perverse meddling with Mother Nature. These three actors are in a script largely without speaking parts and far beyond the capacity of the mere Internet.

Friedman ties these three major developments of the past ten years together, explaining why they happened, and why they happened at the same time.

First, the digital culture, he says, stems from the convergence of vital developments in chips, storage, software, networking and sensors.  When one combines these phenomena to a supernova, a new technological formation that gives off great energy, it can destabilize everything. This possibility is the result of individuals, nations, and networks acquiring great powers, for good and ill.  They are a new realm of makers and breakers, where one person can destroy (or save) everything.

Friedman's optimism that we can control these forces is brave.  He wants us to develop a can-do attitude in coping with a world that is changing so rapidly that it threatens to grow out of our control. Worse, some politicians are still arguing the cause and effect of the innovations.

Meantime, the first step is obvious: The reader must understand what’s happening and why. So, what does the weird title mean and how is it connected to the huge construct of the book?

Friedman explains the title this way: As he worked in Washington, he would frequently arrange to meet interviewees for breakfast.  But the guests were almost never on time.  The reason for their lateness would be variable: the weather, or another appointment that ran long (Washington work starts early), or the kids. Our author began to take advantage of his breakfast partners’ tardiness.

It gave him a chance to listen, sometimes to eavesdrop, to stories of lives around him that led to a "big idea" one outlined in a moment. He paused, listened to others, and came to some conclusions about how the world has changed since his 2005 book.  It was this law of lateness in D.C. that gave him "food for thought" to write this book.

He wondered, what happened in those intervening seven years? It became clear as he listened and considered. First, he says, in 2005, there was no Facebook. Twitter was still a sound. The Cloud was in the sky. And Skype was a typographical error.

The idea that he considered seemed monumental yet simple. It was to connect these three major developments of the last 10 years – "from the rise of cloud-computing to ISIS ..."

Why? Friedman wants us to avoid being "casualties of change" as he thinks about the times we live in. By being proactive and knowing what we’re doing, he suggests, we accommodate ourselves to life, at least to a degree more than we’d have done on our own. Doing this involves what he calls connecting three models of non-linear exponential law.  Take a deep breathe in considering that last phrase. It may sound overwhelming, but it’s actually a simple idea once understood.

The law means that the power of machines and everything connected to them – Moore’s Law – multiplies beyond our imagining. The world of technology (Moore’s Law), says Friedman, involving phenomena like the Cloud, a supernova, is ever-accelerating and changing.  As a result market forces (globalization) and Mother Nature (climate change), which rely upon Moore’s Law, are also propelling non-exponentially. "Thank You" gives us illustrations of each model, and concludes that the human race will be in rough shape … unless we recognize what this "speed-up" in these three areas is going to do us in, should we not learn to control or at least modify their implications.

Example:  What makes life difficult, our author says, is that the dominant political ideology is the same everywhere. It was obtained in the Middle East, where he spent 13 years.  It followed him home when he returned to cover Washington for the next 30 years. What was it?

Whether you are Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Israeli, Arab, Persian, Turk or Palestinian – there was a choice to be made.  If you were in rough shape you would say, “I am weak, how can I compromise? If you were a winner, you would say, "I am strong, why should I compromise?”

Friedman realized these same questions confronted Democrats and Republicans in Washington.  The result is stasis.

How do you get out of this miserable loop? It has to do, Friedman argues, with regaining the "common good," “about a middle ground that we all compromise for and upon – not to mention a higher community we work to maintain.”

On this score, Friedman remembered his roots.

“What is my value set?  Minnesota, where he grew up, is his answer.  Things worked there, he tells us.  They don’t seem to work most places now.  When he went back to Minnesota, he wondered if he’d recognize major differences that crept in over the years. He took a look at his home in St. Louis Park, at 6831 West Twenty-Third Street, where his parents moved from North Minneapolis in 1956.  What he observed after 40 years was that his old house was still the same color.  But there was something different.

It was the trees.  They had gone from small and scrawny to tall and thick.  The trees, he wrote, grew from the same “topsoil that is the foundation of all healthy communities…and we must enrich it in return.”

One might quibble with one of the words in the title of the book: "Accelerations." Broadly speaking, I was tempted to replace "Accelerations" with "Aggravations" and "Distractions", but in fact these are subsets of his chosen word, accelerations, without bothering him very much.  They go with the territory.

The real über-task of our generation, he writes, is to use our time wisely and understand what's happening.  “Take risks, reach out to the other, and, “don’t worry if it makes you late…“We need accelerated innovation in so many realms, and it can only happen with sustained collaboration and trust.”

That's the message to consider, even as we wait for breakfast guests.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News. He worked in senior positions - chief of staff for a congressman, senior adviser to the Undersecretary for Enforcement at Treasury - for both political parties in Washington over a 20-year period.


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