“I want everyone to become an American,” Thomas Friedman, arguably his country’s most influential newspaper columnist, told the New Yorker in 2008, the year in which the collapse of Lehman Brothers nearly crashed the world financial system. The three-time Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist, whose paeans to US-led globalisation The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat became bestsellers in the Clinton-Bush era, has largely left the failures of the market unacknowledged over his three decades at America’s liberal paper of record. The 2008 recession gets only a passing reference in his new book, Thank You for Being Late, where the high priest of the global marketplace evangelises over the web’s role in transforming the modern world.
In Friedman’s eyes, computing has had a more profound impact on the human race than fire and electricity, which failed to connect us with “all the world’s knowledge or all the world’s people”. As we move from the Industrial Age to the digital economy, the “three largest forces on the planet” – technology, globalisation and climate change (which he terms “Moore’s Law”, “the Market” and “Mother Nature”) are accelerating at such a speed that their impact on our futures is almost unfathomable.
But Friedman – whose folksy demeanour caused his New Yorker profiler to compare him to “a chipper uncle in line at a barbecue” – hopes to put readers at ease and persuade us to adapt to changes that will make humanity “more efficient than we ever imagined we could be”. We meet an optimistic Gordon Moore, whose half-century-old law shows how computing power is destined to increase exponentially, and Friedman assures us that, even at 86 years old, “all of his microprocessors were definitely still functioning with tremendous efficiency!”.
In Thank You for Being Late, part theoretical sweep, part hand-shaking travelogue, the author traverses the globe in search of the “smart” technology that is revolutionising our lives (“That garbage can could take an SAT exam!” he exclaims at one point). We are introduced to Watson, a supercomputer that is looking to “get certified to read and interpret X-rays”, and to a “connected cow”, strapped to pedometers and linked by radio signal to a farmer, which allows him to gauge when best to administer artificial insemination, “maximising” the farm’s output. Never missing an opportunity to shoehorn in a mention of his own connections, Friedman namedrops Bill Gates, Sergey Brin (who shows him a prototype of Google’s “self-driving vehicle”) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and at one point notes needlessly: “By coincidence, I had just interviewed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office about Iran a week earlier.”
His compendium of the digital present features all the usual suspects – Uber, Amazon, Airbnb – and compels us to imagine what life really was like in 2004 when “Facebook didn’t even exist yet”. Replete with buzzwords – selfie sticks, gig economy, sexting (the “tool du jour of edgy teenagers”, apparently) – the book is bold enough to borrow terms without crediting their authors (Niall Ferguson’s “killer apps”) and to coin its own, recasting the digital “cloud”, say, as the more impressive “Supernova”.
Friedman, who has stated his wish to rid environmentalism of its “liberal, tree-hugging, sissy, girlie-man” connotations, muses that since human beings have become almost godlike, we should harness technological innovation to address ecological crises. Think Gaia with an iPad. Now that mankind, empowered by “the Supernova”, is a force “of nature” and “on nature”, we have a duty to protect Mother Nature, who knows when she is experiencing stress or “getting a fever”. The author is aware of the planet’s limitations, as when he contemplates the extinction of rhinos, macaws and orang-utans and observes mournfully that “no 3-D printer will bring them back to life”.
Friedman’s travels take him to Greenland and West Africa, via India, Madagascar and Kurdistan, but he seems most comfortable when back home in America, where he seeks most of his insights from members of the elite – CEOs of computer firms, “legendary” venture capitalists – united in their belief that technology can save the world.
In Silicon Valley he gets inside the multinationals that humanity’s hopes are pinned on. There he finds his own, often italicised, banalities (“Guessing is officially over”, “naïveté is the new realism”) reflected back at him: IBM’s senior vice-president of cognitive solutions tells him the future “is much closer than you think” and the co-founder of LinkedIn talks of investing “in the start-up of you”. Email exchanges and Skype conversations are reproduced at length. He plucks lines from Joni Mitchell songs and recent hit films (Captain Phillips, The Martian). Discussing the temptation to stand still when the pace of change becomes overwhelming, he republishes the blogpost of an Olympic bronze-medal-winning kayaker.
Friedman’s wish to simplify arguments for his huge readership is driven by an overarching belief that democracy can only work when the people are able to make intelligent policy decisions, and not “fall prey to demagogues, ideological zealots or conspiracy buffs”. However, he is also willing to propose his own solutions, which he believes are “unlike anything on offer in America today”. Noting that the mainstream left/right parties are no longer fit for purpose, he wants to see a new force emerge to embrace international free-trade agreements, compassionate border control (“a very high wall with a very big gate”) and generous tax incentives for many of the big tech firms he interviewed for his book. He suggests calling it the “Making the Future Work for Everybody” party.
Friedman’s manifesto, far from breaking new ground, merely restates the dominant doctrine of America’s political centre. The author, a self-described “baby boomer”, shares his clique’s belief that the “titanic stubbornness” of empowered individuals drives humanity forward. Their companies should be left to themselves, paying little tax and gathering Big Data. Everyone should be given the opportunity to become an entrepreneur, a “citizen-worker”, financialising their everyday life and maximising their output. Those reluctant to do so will be left behind in the sweep of progress.
A dogmatic belief in the endurance of US power makes the author willing to cast an eye past his country’s frontiers, as “drones alone are a cure-nothing”. America, according to Friedman, acts as the last and best hope for those who find themselves living in the “World of Disorder”, his term for a long list of non-Western nations. So people in “places like Niger”, where people have “more kids as social security”, may also be offered the chance to achieve salvation.
Friedman’s epoch, the “Age of Accelerations”, coincides with the years following the financial crash: in his country, an age of retreat, when work became more precarious, economic safety nets more frayed, and society more inward-looking, culminating in the election of an illiberal nativist to the White House. Though he offers some familiar cures to America’s ills (“all that stuff you can’t download – the high five from a coach . . . the hug from a friend”), he warns that in this brave new world, we must adapt or die.
Declaring that “average is officially over”, Friedman wills his readers to wave goodbye to the days when you could just show up and do your job. This is dangerous territory for a twice-weekly op-ed journalist with a world-view unchanged over decades, who offers his readers orthodox prescriptions only. He must be praying that artificially intelligent supercomputers don’t take to column-writing any time soon.
Thank You for Being Late: an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L Friedman is published by Allen Lame (496pp, £25)
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage