In 2016, Thomas L. Friedman published a book titled “Thank You for Being Late”. The book is a reflection on the ever increasing pace of life, the reasons why it’s happening, and how to cope (from an optimist’s point of view). Friedman postulates that mankind has entered an Age of Accelerations, dominated by the rapid shifts in technology, globalisation and the effects of Climate Change. Friedman also believes we may be at the brink of, or even past the point, where the speed of change is outpacing human’s ability to adapt. He goes on to propose ways to enhance humanity’s adaptability, centered around the need for a resurgence of people being connected to “healthy communities”. While Friedman does have a few vocal critics, he’s a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was a White House correspondent for the New York Times during the Clinton administration and a sounding board for Barack Obama on Middle East issues.
To Friedman, the Age of Accelerations took a great leap forward around 2007, at least technologically, the first of Friedman’s three major accelerating forces. In late 2006, Facebook opened its platform up to the world, and Google bought YouTube. 2007 was the year Apple released the first iPhone, Amazon released the Kindle, Twitter was spun-off from a broader start-up, development started on GitHub, and “Satoshi Nakamoto” began working on Bitcoin.
While these are the high profile changes, much, much more was happening behind the scenes. Moore’s law, first postulated by Intel co-founder George Moore as far back as 1965, suggests that the speed and power of microchips – the computational engine – doubles every two years (originally every year in the beginning). In order for this to take place, the industry must take on ever-more exponential innovation. In 2007, a few of these innovations were absolutely critical to the continuation of Moore’s law. Intel contributed by introducing non-silicon materials into the transistor, AT&T created software-enabled networks to greatly expand the capacity to handle smartphone traffic, and IBM created “Watson”, the first cognitive computer.
It’s this last step, entry into the “Cognitive Era”, as it’s been called, combining machine learning with artificial intelligence, that both frightens and invigorates the world’s imagination. Regardless of what people think, to Friedman’s point, computers like “Watson” exist, and can now ingest and process so much more information than humans can. To adapt and cope with this reality, mankind will need to learn to work alongside artificial intelligence as opposed to trying to curtail or contain its progress. Personal intelligent assistants, like Google’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which people are already getting used to, are just the beginning.
In parallel to technology’s explosive growth, has been globalisation. In simplistic terms, this has meant an increasingly wider scope for the trade in goods and services, and the ability to move money around the world with ease. It’s also, however, about interconnectedness and the opportunities and consequences of that. By Friedman’s definition, any individual or company can now “compete, connect, exchange or collaborate globally”. Think of e-commerce platforms, education, financial tools such as crowd-funding, news and even friendships, all on a mobile device we can hold in our hands. This globalisation has helped to reinvent the processes around everything from medicine to manufacturing. Not all of this is for the good, however, as we can also distribute gossip and rumours and hate. It can be used to democratise power or concentrate it. And creates an enormous amount of anxiety as people often feel overwhelmed by it all.
Lastly, according to Friedman, all of this growth in technology and globalisation has caused alarming changes to the planet, with the potential to significantly reshape its ecology and biosphere. There is increasing agreement amongst scientists that we are now entering an era called the “Anthropocene”, dominated by the impact humans are making on Earth, and leaving behind the “Holocene”, a very stable, hospitable planetary equilibrium that has sustained human life since the Great Ice Age. Unfortunately in this transition, the world has planetary boundaries that we are beginning to breach. While the exact start date will be debated for some time to come, mankind is essentially entering the unknown, which will have consequences, many negative, for all life on Earth, unless we mitigate these rapid changes to our natural resources.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Friedman believes we have hope if we direct our attention to the transformations taking place in five key areas – the workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics, and community – and understand and address the issues that are surfacing from the three great accelerators. It’s going to take life-long learning and trust in each other, as well as a complete redesign and reimagining of society. Friedman uses examples of resilience and adaptability by professing the need to build communities, both locally and globally. He does this by exploring his childhood hometown in Minnesota and the policies of progressiveness and inclusion it implemented in the past, and continues to consider for the future.
This is where Friedman’s arguments are debatable. I grew up about 10 miles from Friedman’s home and just over a decade later in time. My suburb of Minneapolis was similar to his, in that it was a very homogenous society, dominated by the heritage of Scandinavian, northern German and Dutch immigrants who settled there. While Friedman is Jewish, and he discusses other minorities as examples of inclusiveness in the community structure, these were very small minority groups in comparison to how much of the rest of the world co-exists. The minorities in Minnesota at that time were a novelty, and novelty can be interesting, acceptable or tolerated because it isn’t perceived as threatening. Combined with a harsh winter climate that forced people together for survival, I’m not convinced that one can apply this particular community as an example of solutions to the world’s problems. It simply isn’t representative. That said, Friedman’s points remain valid in terms of ways to cope with the global changes that are taking place. It’s in the implementation where one wonders whether enough of mankind is willing and has the ability as a whole to reinvent our global societal structure.
Featured Image: Thomas L Friedman and Book Cover