David Henkin is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley.
As enthralled users of new communications devices, we are all attuned to the transformative power of technological innovation. But what does this phenomenon really signify? Didn’t earlier generations also experience innovations and dislocations as ruptures? For more than a decade, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman has been raising his hand to offer emphatic answers to these difficult questions. As in his earlier writings, he again insists in “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” that the present and the future are different from the past, especially in how rapidly and significantly things change. And as his subtitle suggests, he is remarkably sanguine about what this might portend.
To get us to see that things in the past were fundamentally different, Friedman first urges us to recognize that everything now is fundamentally the same — in other words, that seemingly discrete phenomena in our world fit into one storyline. Friedman is a lumper. And from his perspective, developments such as cloud technology, long-distance migration, same-sex marriage and climate change all epitomize the same trends and reflect the same forces. The result is a sprawling book of astonishing topical breadth and apparent conceptual simplicity. Readers will encounter all sorts of interesting content along the way — about cyber-piracy, online education, topsoil erosion, U.S. foreign policy, South Asian start-ups and the history of Minneapolis — but they may read the overall picture as less coherent and encouraging than Friedman wishes.
Skeptics of Friedman’s technophilia will recoil from his latest salvo, in part because of his heavy reliance on tech-industry insiders for assessments of the social significance of their products and his relentless and unabashed adoption of the industry’s promotional lingo. Even his reasonable and old-fashioned call for political policies modeled on the diversity, flexibility and resilience of the natural world appears here under the banner “Mother Nature’s killer apps,” a phrase he repeats nearly a dozen times over the space of a short section. Friedman’s celebration of “the start-up of you” — and his habit of quoting uncritically and at great length Silicon Valley designers saying things like “the twentieth century was all about getting you to love the things we make, [while] the twenty-first is all about how to make the things you love” — will surely remind some readers of nothing so much as a mobile-phone commercial. In “The World Is Flat” (2005), he lauded the power of new technologies to collapse traditional borders and hierarchies, and now in his latest book he repeats essentially the same claims that, after the pivotal year 2007 (a “vintage year” in history, he argues), everything became unrecognizably and unexpectedly different.
The bigger problem, even for sympathetic readers of this humane and empathetic book, is that “Thank You for Being Late” provides no clear way of unifying its subject. Friedman insists that the world is fast, that everything is constantly accelerating and that the rate of acceleration has increased, but he does not acknowledge that those slogans mean quite different things. Nor is he interested in the distinction between a faster pace of life and a faster pace of technological change. These phenomena are surely related, but Friedman offers little guidance about that relationship other than analogy. He does think, however, that certain accelerations are more important than others, namely the trinity of computer processing, commerce and climate change. These are parallel developments, though one dominates. Friedman believes that microchips, which have been doubling in power approximately every two years — in accordance with Moore’s Law, a 1965 prediction about the density of transistors on an integrated circuit — are the prime movers of our time.
As in his earlier work, Friedman promotes technological determinism (the view that technical innovations rather than other agents, events or forces drive historical change), but even this doesn’t quite add up to a coherent and consistent connection among the book’s many subjects and arguments. It is not always evident how Friedman defines technology or why he accords it such importance. “We certainly learned on 9/11,” he writes, “how nineteen angry men, super-empowered by technology, could change the whole direction of . . . world history.” Which new technologies does Friedman have in mind? Aeronautics? Skyscraper construction? Cellphones? He moves breezily along to the next example or topic, as if the 2001 terrorist attacks call our attention to technical innovation rather than to religion, geopolitics or the culture of air travel. From his confident, omnivorous perspective, every story confirms the power of digital technology and the novelty of social conditions, even when his facts and informants suggest other explanations. When he cites a study linking gross domestic product to rates of Internet penetration, for example, he can imagine the correlation only in one direction.
Like technology, Moore’s Law is also an elusive character in Friedman’s story. Calling it a law implies an explanatory power that Gordon Moore never intended, and references to the acceleration of Moore’s Law suggest that the growth of microchip transistor density (which has actually slowed down in recent years) is somehow an autonomous force. But Moore’s Law stands for something larger here. Friedman’s story is animated by the insight that exponential growth is hard to anticipate. As one of his sources puts it, “We are wickedly bad at dealing with the implications of compound math.” Friedman believes that anything that grows by doubling — processing power, trade patterns, energy use, human population — will move faster than we expect and at some point will cross some fundamental threshold. He may be correct about the psychology, but the question of when a fundamental threshold has been crossed requires longer perspective and seems open to debate.
When Friedman’s story veers from technophilia and retreats from its commitment to labeling every trend an acceleration of an acceleration, it becomes more compelling — but also more discordant. His bracing jeremiad on climate change, for example, sits uneasily with his celebration of the environmentally troubling phenomena of worldwide connectivity and cloud technology. And by the time we read a nostalgic evocation of growing up in the 1960s in St. Louis Park, Minn., in which Friedman vigorously affirms high teacher salaries, liberal arts education and personal contact, we might forget his earlier embrace of the brave new world of massive online courses and his advocacy of a fresh educational regime of technical training and skills for a new economy. Repeatedly, Friedman’s resolve to face the challenges of global interdependence and virtual connectedness with confidence in the wisdom of the marketplace flinches in deference to traditional community, ancient wisdom and the last laugh of nature.
A similar ambivalence shapes Friedman’s attitude toward the issues of speed and time alluded to in the book’s title. He pays homage early on to the virtues of pausing, slowing down and being late, only to rush into a breathless narrative that repeatedly prophesies its own obsolescence. By the time the paperback comes out, he promises proudly, revisions will be in order. Unlike his weekly column for the Times, a book holds out the promise of sustained reflection, but Friedman commits himself to the dangerous goal of timely publication.
When the folks at Farrar, Straus and Giroux scheduled the book’s release for after the presidential election, they probably anticipated a congenial fit with the results of the vote. Donald Trump’s surprising nomination, like the Brexit campaign, exemplifies for Friedman the forces of disorder and dislocation unleashed by accelerated global movement and economic change. Hillary Clinton’s victory, on the other hand, would have confirmed his conviction that technological progress and globalization cannot be resisted and that increased connectivity ultimately supports the liberal goals of tolerance, multiculturalism and meritocracy.
In a characteristic vignette, “Thank You for Being Late” relates the story of a shared Lyft ride in San Francisco in which some passengers vote a fellow rider out of the car for expressing homophobic views. Friedman’s source, a researcher at something called the Institute for the Future, observes that “intolerance does not jibe with an economy built on platforms that value participation,” and Friedman audibly beams. But the Lyft driver’s take on the same event is different, focusing more on local, tribal norms than on the logic of the sharing economy: “You won’t get a ride in San Francisco with those values — you are in the wrong city.” The conflict between the two interpretations is exactly the kind of thing that Friedman tends to overlook. Those who revisit the relationship between technology and social values in the Trump era might approach the subject more cautiously.
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 486 pp. $28