Reactions to Tom Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”

Tom Friedman’s new book’s basic thesis: now everyone on the planet is living in a simultaneous age of accelerations of changes in technology, globalization and planet earth and we all are challenged in how we can and will respond to these changes.[1] After summarizing the major points of the book, the conclusion will offer some critical comments.

Summary of the Book

Most of the book describes those changes, but nowhere is there an express “guide to thriving” in this age. Instead the reader has to pick up recommended habits and changes that are sprinkled throughout the book. Here is what I assume are the elements of such a guide.

  1. Understanding the Accelerating Changes. This is Part II of the book. Increasing technology emphasizes developments in artificial intelligence and global dissemination of these improvements. Increasing globalization includes “trade in physical goods, services and financial transactions” and “the ability of any individual or company to compete, connect, exchange, or collaborate globally.” Increasing changes to planet earth include climate change, reductions in biodiversity, deforestation, biogeochemical flows, ocean acidification, overuse of freshwater, atmospheric aerosol loading, introduction of man-man chemicals and materials and increasing human population.
  1. Understanding the Effects of These Changes. This is supposed to be the primary focus of Part III of the book. The major one I found is Friedman’s assertion that there are now international inversions: allies can kill faster than enemies; “enemies” can pose greater risks by weakness rather than strength; there is a rising risk of frail states becoming failed states; and jihadists are “super-empowered breeders” of disorder or “breakers.” Most of this Part instead discusses possible responses to the accelerating changes and effects and his conclusion that “we have no choice but to learn to adapt to this new pace of change” (p. 198).
  1. Identifying and Implementing Responses to These Changes.

Responses to changes to planet earth: we need “a compounding commitment to stewardship, a compounding wiliness to act collectively to do compounding research and make compounding investments in clean energy production and more efficient consumption, along with a willingness, at least in America, to impose a carbon tax to get compounding investments in clean power and efficiency, plus a compounding commitment to women’s education and an ethic of empowerment everywhere.” (Pp. 183-84)

In addition, nations need to learn and adapt, to be agile and adopt heterodox, hybrid, entrepreneurial, experimental measures (Pp. 298-325) and to reverse centralization of governments and increase their decentralization, and the U.S. with its federal structure is designed to do just that. (Pp. 325-27) The last point is repeated in Chapter 7 (P. 201).

Goals for innovation from Chapter 7:“[R]eimagining and redesigning . . . society’s workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics and communities—in ways that will enable more citizens on more days in more ways to keep pace with how these accelerations are reshaping . . . [our] lives and generate more stability. [W]orkplace innovation to identify exactly what humans can do better than machines and better with machines and increasingly train people for these roles.” (Emphasis in original) “[G]eopolitical innovation to figure out how we collectively manage a world where the power of one [person], the power of machines, the power of flows, and the power of many [persons] are collapsing weak states, super-empowering breakers and stressing strong states. [P]olitical innovation to adjust our traditional left-right political platforms . . . to meet the new demands for societal resilience in the age of . . . accelerations. [M]oral innovation . . .to reimagine how we scale sustainable values to everyone we possibly can when the power of one [person] and the power of machines become so amplified that human beings become almost godlike. [S]ocietal innovation, learning to build new social contracts, lifelong learning opportunities, and expanded public-private partnerships, to anchor and propel more diverse populations and build more healthy communities.”

All individuals need a plan to succeed that includes lifelong learning and “self-motivation to tap into new global flows for work and learning.” This is a new social contract where people are hired based upon an individual’s skills, not credentials. “Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be . . . stempathy jobs,” i.e., “jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills.”

U.S. National Government should limit national political campaign spending and length of campaigns; stop state gerrymandering; and impose ranked-choice voting for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Chapter 10 also contains a list of at least 20 suggested changes to federal laws and policies without explanatory comments and without saying whether and how they are related to changes to the earth. All of these changes will require government “to create every possible regulatory and tax incentive for every company to provide, and every worker to get access to, intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants, intelligent networks, and intelligent financing for lifelong learning.” (P. 241)

  1. Reflecting. This is the title of Part I of the book, where Friedman says, stopping “to pause and reflect . . . is a necessity” because it enables you to start “to rethink your assumptions, to reimagine what is possible, . . . reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs [and] . . . reimagine a better path [forward].”

Supposedly he realized this when a guest was late for breakfast at a restaurant, thus giving Tom a few minutes to reflect and relax and then to thank the guest for being late (and thus providing the first part of the title of the book). I was put off by his converting this trivial incident into a significant one that is in the title of the book. Friedman is a serious man of the Jewish faith, which like other religions emphasizes regular prayer and attendance at worship services to provide the opportunities for such reflection, but no mention of that or of his recommitting to a regular practice of reflection at the start of the book. In Chapter 11, however, he says, “we make God present by our own choices and decisions. Unless we bear witness to God’s presence by our own deeds, He is not present. You cannot be moral unless you are totally free. All religions have some version of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  1. Identifying and Honoring Your Anchor. “We each need to be anchored [and enriched] in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities . . . [and to] enrich it in turn.” For him that is Minnesota and St. Louis Park, where he grew up and where he obtained the values he holds today: “I am a socially liberal, deeply patriotic, pluralism-loving, community-oriented, fiscally moderate, free-trade-inclined, innovation-obsessed environmentalist-capitalist,” and “America can deliver a life of decency, security, opportunity, and freedom for its own people, and can also be a bulwark of stability and a beacon of liberty and justice for people the world over.”

Conclusion

Although I am not qualified to assess Friedman’s discussion of technological change, a recent Wall Street Journal article takes a less grandiose view of technological innovation.[2] It says, none of the technological change “has translated into meaningful advances in Americans’ standard of living.” Moreover, “outside of personal technology, improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary.”

The book, in my opinion, was very poorly organized and edited. And it suggests that the U.S. responses to the accelerations should rest on the shoulders of thousands of local governments while inconsistently compiling a long list of things the federal government should do, many of which appear to be unrelated to responding to the accelerations.[3]

After a rather manic discussion of this book on the Charlie Rose Show last November, Friedman made a more effective presentation last December at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum.[4]

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[1] Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations Farrar, Straus & Giroux, new York, 2016).

[2] Ip, The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of New Ideas, W.S.J. (Dec. 6, 2016)..

[3[ Here are two of the many reviews of the book: Micklethwait, The Message of Thomas Friedman’s New Book: It’s Going to Be O.K., N.Y. Times (Nov. 22, 2016); Vanderkam, Everyone Has an App Idea, W.S.J. (Nov. 21, 2016). Unsurprisingly Friedman uses some of the book’s ideas in his New York Times columns; here are two such columns: Dancing in a Hurricane, N.Y. Times (Nov. 19, 2016); From Hands to Heads to Hearts, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2017).

[4] Charlie Rose Show, Tom Friedman (Nov. 21, 2016); Westminster Town Hall Forum, Tom Friedman (Dec.13, 2016).

 

Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings?

A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.

Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.[1]

Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.

My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.

I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:

  • “The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”

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[1] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).