Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration was was my first full read of a Thomas Friedman book. [Probably a good thing to accomplish, now that I’m officially a Minnesotan.] His writing style was efficient, packing in loads of detail and information. But it was also full of story and flowed along, bringing you to each new point in a very logical and entertaining way. I was especially impressed with the early discussion on technology. Though I grew up with computers as a young girl, Bitcoin is still a mystery to me, and I feel I’m losing in the race to keep up with the latest gadgets, software, and ideas. But his explanations, including expert narrative from the field, made me feel like I could comprehend, in large part, what’s been happening in the last few decades of development.
Friedman’s book is laid out with two small bookends on two large areas of discussion. His intro, Reflecting, is a wonderful story full of serendipity [one of my favorite topics] fueled by focused action. His ability to see value, in those who others may not, led to a wonderful interaction and I feel like this has been a story throughout my life. I’m amazed at the people I meet, some who others would typically dismiss, and the great gift I get from them. It was heartwarming to read of Friedman’s good fortune resulting from his reaching out to a stranger who became the unlikely source for this book.
The meaty middle sections deal with Acceleration and Innovation.
In Accelerating we learn about three main areas, Technology or The Supernova, The Market, and Mother Nature, which are driving the pace of life faster and faster. And we learn why the start of much of what is happening points back to 2007. A fascinating read in hindsight, to consider the massive rate of change that we have seen in the last decade. But a startling realization at what we are not giving enough attention to, as we rush forward, is a warning of our possible demise.
Moore’s Law, which originally predicted that the level of complexity of components would double every two years, with a corresponding reduction in cost, was proven with an improvement from sixty elements to sixty thousand elements in a single integrated circuit over ten years. That rate being unsustainable, Moore’s Law was later revised to envisage the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubling approximately every two years; still a very rapid pace of development.
Friedman gives many examples of how technological development led to better and cheaper devices, pushing accessibility to the masses and resulting in the “The Cloud”, which offers an ever-expanding availability of data and resources via the Internet. Friedman more accurately refers to this as “The Supernova” and he explains how it, along with Globalization, has changed our world, and also our Economies. The Market chapter delves deeper into how this has been happening and then the chapter Mother Nature discusses some of the ramifications of our fast-paced, resource-depleting, way of life is affecting us environmentally.
Glenn Prickett from the Nature Conservancy sums it up nicely at the end of this section: “Nature doesn’t need us but we sure as hell need nature… Losing sight of that simple fact could be disastrous for the human species”. Amen.
In the end, there may be only one way forward. To simply go on doing what we’re doing, until we find ourselves extinct. Nature knows that life will go on, in fact will likely thrive again, once humanity is gone. Or at least has its numbers reduced to a sustainable level. The trees will take over and dominate much of the US east of the Mississippi. The grasslands and herds will recover in the west. Coastal cities may well be submerged but most of the coast has been depleted of wildlife as urbanization and population grew, so much of Nature will remain unaffected. Well, I guess sharks and fish and turtles will gain new real estate!
It will be interesting to watch over the coming decades… or as long as we get on this planet. Though Dan and I know it’s not perfect, we are hopeful that our home is more sustainable than some. And while life will be pretty rough if we lose the grid, gas, and stores, we hope to have a food forest in place to feed ourselves and some small livestock to keep us with enough protein. And, if not, there are always the deer and other critters, wild plants and mushrooms, and white pine needle tea.
Friedman argues that now is the time for us to decide if we will use the powers we have to destroy… or to protect and preserve. He noted that humanity has risen to the occasion following geopolitical upheavals in the past (Hitler, Pearl Harbor, 9/11) but this time the threat is of our own making and we will need to act on a scale never before imagined, for a generation not yet born, and before we reach the limits of our planet’s capacity to sustain us. This is a monumental task and not one we can fix if we do too little or wait too long. As he notes: “We cannot rebuild the Greenland ice sheet, the Amazon rain forest, or the Great Barrier Reef.” And there is no 3-D printer that can regenerate “rhinos, macaws, and orangutans”.
Friedman’s second large section, Innovating, covers the meat of his title – what Optimists need to do to Thrive in this Accelerated Age.
He begins by noting that things are just moving Too Damned Fast. Yes!! Friedman argues that we cannot slow down – that putting our paddle in without continuing to pull hard is like dropping in a rudder and we will not be able to keep up and compete. On this I am not so sure I agree. I believe a little slowing down and reverting to less technology may be our best way forward.
I am realizing that this fast pace is, in part, what drove me from the Rat Race. I was getting lots done for my job and crafting as much as I could, but I never truly had time for a full focus on either. Or time to reflect. And I never got enough time to really develop what I felt in my heart was most important… me. If we all spent more time in personal development, I believe we’d all find ourselves working together more compassionately and effectively.
I realized that in moving to rural Minnesota, I took an even bigger step back from the Acceleration. People living here still have a sense of taking time. Things are not so rushed. And you see it in how they often care for one another. I worried I would not be able to adjust but I have LOVED the slower pace (in large part). I have seen since leaving the Rat Race that I still have access to fast-paced life with Bemidji less than an hour away, but I can choose to stay secluded in nature, spend time on the farms of friends, craft with neighbors, and more enjoy LIFE. Taking time to consider what is going on in the world at large has enabled me to blog about some of the happenings and this has deepened my experience and understanding.
Friedman’s first section on how we Innovate is entitled Turning AI into IA, where he addresses the changing nature of how we use robotics, computers and telecommunications and how they are ubiquitous in our lives. He discusses how life-long learning will be necessary and how technology has allowed more people access to learning at cheaper rates than ever before. And he argues that Intelligent Assistants will help us forward.
Interestingly, he depicts how sometimes, when we add automation (like weaving machines or ATMs) the result is not what we expect (less weavers or bank tellers). In fact, the number of jobs increased in these arenas… but with new skills and responsibilities instead. When automation drives up availability, more demand means we have more need for workers in a given area. But with automation, there are new skill requirements, and often our old system of business hinders our next wave of workers. For example, an executive assistant (EA) job now requires a Bachelor of Arts degree. However, only 19% of current EAs have a B.A., meaning if any of them want to change jobs, we would require him to “quit, go into debt for eighty thousand dollars to get a BA, and then interview for another opening for the exact job (he is) already doing.”
It’s no wonder the new economy is becoming “badge-based”. Organizations like LinkedIn and Opportnity@Work are offering jobs to people because of their skills, regardless of how these skills were achieved. Brick-and-morter colleges are struggling to keep up with coursework development that keeps pace with the changing needs while online training courses are much more quickly providing the needed skills to those willing to invest their time (on their own schedule and typically at a much lower cost than traditional education) to earn badges they can use to denote skills on their resumes.
I finally started to truly see the Optimist aspect of Friedman’s book on page 255 in a section entitled Come the Revolution. He explains that good middle-class jobs today are “stempathy” jobs – those which blend technology and human interpersonal skills. He explains how we went from 19th century jobs working mainly with animals and plants to 20th century paper-pushing jobs to 21st century jobs where we will mostly work with people… Dov Seidman (American author, attorney, columnist, and businessman) refers to it as moving from “hands to heads to hearts”. While we automate so much of our work, there is always going to be a need for a “heart”, something machines cannot have. I am hopeful this will bring us to a place of more humanity, more compassion, and more community.
After reading this section, I texted Jill (who loaned me this book), that page 255 was my favorite page and she replied:
Yes, and here’s where I think this is going:
– Comment to Captain Picard when he brings an Earthling aboard his ship from the 20th century: “Captain of a Starship. You must make a lot of money.”
– Picard: “In the 23rd century we don’t work for money. We work to better ourselves.”
We’ve got a few centuries to go, but I think it’s moving in that direction.
It will be the end of 4-year B.A. programs where your degree is obsolete on or just after graduation. It will require a constant updating of skills to keep pace with change. It will mean we no longer find our jobs, but invent them. We will go from a time when the first question we ask someone is, “What do you do?” (as in, for a living) to, “What is your passion and how do you leverage it to make a living?” In the long game, I foresee a time when we no longer rely so much on money exchange as we do on trading of products and services. Our lives will be more intimate as we work more locally and with stronger community to provide our sustenance, our housing, and perhaps even our healthcare. But our lives will likely also become more global as technology allows interactions around the world to solve problems. There will need to be some form of exchange to compensate efforts in these veins though I predict it will not be dollars, yen and rupees.
This section wraps with a call to look not to what we are losing (jobs to automation) but what we are gaining, which is yet to be revealed but could promise our becoming the people we want to be. A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that the biggest factor in having a successful career was having mentors who had taken an interest in your aspirations and having an internship associated with what you were learning. People helping people. Imagine that.
In Control vs. Kaos, Friedman describes the changing geopolitics of the acceleration age. With globalization, the interdependence of countries has resulted in the need for America to assure that its old (and current) enemies don’t fail. He argues that a collapsing Russia or China could mean our own downfall. I’ve said for years that maintaining our own manufacturing would be smarter than outsourcing everything to cheap labor countries.
If China fails, you’ll be wearing that same pair of shoes for a lot longer and much of the fear of nuclear threat will return if Russia loses controls over its nine time zones of warheads. Do we stop propping up disintegrating states to prevent further disorder? Or do we intervene and find ourselves stymied by bills we may not be able to pay? It’s no wonder we don’t see much progress… it’s hard to know what to do.
There was a long period of steady and stable growth following WWII but destabilization today, especially in the “straight line” border countries created by colonialism and imperialism, is seeing many stressed by the Market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law. Friedman reviews Madagascar, Syria, Senegal, and Niger to give examples of some of the effects taking shape in recent past.
The major issues? Population growth that exceeds resources. Deforestation that outpaces replacement capacity. Depletion of natural resources by political cronies and outsiders, made worse by the drought resulting from climate change. The results? Desertification. Mass migration of refugees. And hungry people easily radicalized. When a jihadist group can offer a couple hundred dollars a month and you are used to living on $2/day, you take the money and send all you can to struggling family back home.
But Friedman argues that the acceleration empowers not only “political breakers” bent on tearing down governments to install religious or ideological tyranny, but also “political makers” who want to remake autocratic (and I’d argue also democratic, or say… oligarchic) societies into more consensual ones. Though this gets complicated. While most of the discussion was pretty pessimistic, it took me to page 313, another of my favorite pages in the book, where he talks about how radicalization happens when youth have few options. He proposes a plan called ADD: Amplify, Deter, & Degrade. Amplify talks about investing in “islands of decency and engines of capacity-building in countries in, or bordering on, the World of Disorder.” Whether it is education, gardens, chickens, or internet access, this investment pays big dividends for the US.
“When we invest in the tools that enable young people to realize their full potential, we are countering the spread of humiliation, which is the single biggest motivator for people to go out and break things.” ~ Thank You for Being Late, p. 313
The US is currently backward in our investment: Friedman cites $1.3B in tanks to Egypt’s military being far less productive than the $13.5M in college scholarships for Lebanese public schools. He quotes Jumana Jabr, an English teacher in Amman public school in Jordan who said:
One is for making people and the other is for killing people.
How simply and beautifully put. It reminds me of something Dan and I keep saying, “They don’t hate us for our freedom. They hate us because we are killing them.”
When it comes to Deter and Degrade, Friedman offers much less detailed guidance and, as a child of the Cold War, I’m not so keen on a nuclear deterrent as our best option.
Mother Nature as Political Mentor focuses on the fact that in developed democracies we have, in large part lost out pillars of stability:
- the expectation of the next generation being able to achieve a middle-class lifestyle with better standards of living than the previous
- steady flows of immigrants to provide low-skilled/high-energy and high-skilled workers
- equal opportunities for a decent middle-class life in rural and urban areas
This chapter focuses on the political innovation we will need, and which our current center-right and center-left politicians have been unable to navigate. But I wasn’t feeling very optimistic at the outset as he said it would require a “brutally honest assessment” of climate change.
Maybe I shouldn’t lose faith. Who will he go to as a mentor as he develops a list of solutions?
“I can think of no better political mentor than (Mother Nature)… a bio-geophysical, rationally functioning, complex system of oceans, atmosphere, forests, rivers, soils, plants, and animals that has evolved on Planet Earth since the first hints of life emerged.” Thank You For Being Late p. 328
His description of Mother Nature’s Killer Apps shows why she deserves our respect and why our best hope is to mimic her. And he expands into solutions around five of these apps:
- Being Adaptive When Confronted with a Stranger – listening to input from one who is thriving and then adapting this input, rather than simply feeling humiliated by someone who appears to have more success… basically, being able to adapt your culture.
Culture is defined (BusinessDictionary.com) as the “pattern of responses discovered, developed, or invented during the group’s history of handling problems which arise from interactions among its members, and between them and their environment. These responses are considered the correct way to perceive, feel, think, and act, and are passed on to the new members through immersion and teaching. Culture determines what is acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant, right or wrong, workable or unworkable.”
- Embracing Diversity – like Polyculture where diversity promotes resistance to disease and pests (unlike Monoculture), while also better maintaining the topsoil. Did I mention that Jared Diamond (among others) has found that almost all civilizations that collapse have failed to steward their topsoil? Friedman compares how the monoculture of ideas pushed by Al Qaeda and the Tea Party (funded largely by fossil fuel money and oil billionaires) create susceptibility to “diseased ideas: climate change is a hoax, evolution never happened, we don’t need immigration reform” thus allowing an “invasive species” like 45 into the garden.
- Assuming Ownership of the Future and One’s Own Problems – because when we own something, we are invested in its success. Ownership enables “adaptation, self-propulsion, resilience, and healthy interdependencies”. Revolutions are always about owning one’s future.
- Balancing Between the Federal and the Local (Ecosystem Interaction) – because in the age of acceleration, locals will have a better finger on the pulse of needed change and we will need to reconfigure the interaction of local and national government forces to allow more local controls (where trust is higher) while also still supporting national programs (where we can reduce the bureaucracy by limiting it to higher level issues).
- Mixing and Coevolving Ideas to Create Resilience and Propulsion – basically allowing all kinds of ideas to coevolve, like plants and animals coevolve in nature. After reminding us that our current two-party system is unable to think outside their entrenched ideas (which haven’t been working and which mainly just divide – Republicans with tax cuts, deregulation & opposition to immigration…Dems with more regulation, more social welfare, and more identity politics), Friedman gives us 19 ideas on how Mother Nature would make “the Future Work for Everybody”. While I don’t agree with all of his ideas, I definitely agree that thinking along Nature’s way could go a long way in making humans in the U.S. more successful.
Friedman next asks Is God in Cyberspace?, a laws-free, values-free, and seemingly God-free space. His answers are intriguing. Just be aware that, if you haven’t yet seen The Martian, like I haven’t, there are some spoilers…
Being raised in St. Louis Park, he celebrates his heritage in Always Looking for Minnesota. This is a wonderful chapter focusing on the value of community and the power of trust. I have a good friend who grew up in St. Louis Park and he’s a dear. I was thrilled to learn about so many more famous Minnesotans who grew up in this bastion of acceptance and community with a strong focus on education. Friedman wraps up his Innovating section by saying You Can Always Go Home Again (and You Should!) where he discusses the many ways that St. Louis Park is still such a strong and well-working community. With stories from City Hall and the local High School he gives various examples of the trust and security found in this community. And he gives insight into how the Itasca Project addresses “regional economic vitality, quality of life, and prosperity for all.” Very interesting read.
His wrap-up is called Anchoring, and in it he reviews the importance of leadership and the “bitch” of transitions. But his real optimism comes through in his Afterword. Especially because it was written post-2016 election and in full view of the unfolding presidency that resulted.
While arguing that 45’s election and the Brexit vote are both the result of the age of acceleration and the associated unmooring of many, most especially less-educated, working-class whites, he argues once again for the solution of community. In maybe my favorite passage in the book he notes the post-Brexit emergence of young people in Europe who voted to voice their opposition to the message Trump and Brexit are sending. They don’t want to “disconnect in a connected world”, “go backward to monocultures after growing up in increasingly diverse urban areas”. Instead, they want to understand the “necessity of building resilience and propulsion for middle-skilled worked in new ways – and they want leaders” who can take them forward. They voted for “open” parties over “closed” parties and see the solutions not in top down systems but in bottom up building of communities. He concludes:
“And that is pretty much the new divide in global politics today – the open parties verses the closed parties… the communities that are creating complex adaptive coalitions and rising from the bottom up and those where the bottom is falling out.” Thank You For Being Late p. 504
While 45 delivered an inaugural speech describing an America in “carnage” (that surprisingly brings Friedman and G.W. Bush [and me] to a point of agreement… that “That was some really weird shit.”), the reality is that the young people of today are full of hope, acceptance, optimism, technological possibilities, and global opportunities.
“Only strong communities, not a strong man, will make America great again.” Thank You For Being Late p. 512
And I would argue that this does give an optimistic spin on the entire adventure through which Friedman has led me.
This book is one of Wall Street Journal’s “10 Books to Read Now” and it has been reviewed as one of the best Nonfiction books of 2016. I do believe it will bring a better understanding of our current global situation and insight into how we can best find solutions moving forward.