Blinded by the supernova

Nick Cassella

December 12, 2016

Thomas Friedman has always felt most comfortable analyzing topics from unusually high vantage points. From this perch — his critics would say ivory tower — he is a master at scanning the current terrain of our world, diagnosing where humanity is heading, and offering a roadmap to success.

In Thank You for Being Late, Friedman returns to this tried-and-true formula, focusing his gaze on why our politics and society feel so off-kilter today. He is convinced that a great disruption occurred in 2007 — a “vintage year” in human history. During this seemingly innocuous time, three “accelerations” hit inflection points: the Market (digital globalization), Moore’s Law (technological advancement), and Mother Nature (climate change).

But we all missed this dramatic confluence, because these accelerations arrived right as the financial crisis plunged the world’s economy into chaos. So while our collective attention shifted to the financial industry, the onerous effects of this new, accelerated world were overlooked—even by Friedman himself.

None of these accelerations spotted by Friedman are novel discoveries in and of themselves. However, when put together, they work extremely well as an explanatory pitchfork that describes why deep societal unrest has materialized across continents and cultures in the early 21st century.

“It’s as if,” he reflects, “the ground under everyone’s feet started shifting faster and faster, just as the governing systems meant to help people adjust and adapt largely froze and few political leaders could explain to people what was happening.”

Friedman makes a persuasive argument that the main disruption came from the “supernova”’ — the term he uses to describe the immense amount of information and connectivity recently provided by the internet. He likens its consequences upon humans to “a ‘phase change’ in chemistry from a solid to a liquid.” For better or worse — Friedman would emphatically say better — people now exist in a frictionless world where “whatever you want to move, compute, analyze or communicate can be done with less effort” than before.

He wonders if it is possible whether everyone can “keep up” in this accelerating world; properly recognizing that “this is one of the most important socioeconomic questions of our day — probably the most important.”

Here, from his 33,000-foot view, Friedman misses the trees for the forest. While he does advocate for our institutions to support people hurt by automated jobs by emphasizing and empowering life-long learning, his blueprint for institutional adaptation is awfully vague. He implores governments to think “more about how to optimize returns on human capital” and believes that political success can only be achieved if America is a “healthy community” of citizens who trust one another (“Collaboration moves at the speed of trust,” he quotes). Specificity is also discarded when he claims that our educational systems “must be retooled to maximize…creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.” These are hazy calls to action to say the least.

Friedman does not present the individual with similar obscurity. Rather, he places a disproportionate burden on them to mitigate the disruptions brought forth by the supernova. He makes clear that it is now incumbent upon you to search for “new niches, new opportunities to start something new from which to profit and create employment.”

In one particularly grating sentence, Friedman rebukes anyone who has not utilized the internet to innovate or create something new, stating (emphasis mine), “Frankly if it’s not happening, it’s because you’re not doing it.”

He probably views his emphasis on the individual as empowering — especially when he rubs shoulders with so many brilliant, entrepreneurial minds that reiterate to him how all it takes is hard work and creative thought to succeed in the 21st century. That is literally what one Iraqi entrepreneur told him:

“There is nothing called ‘underprivileged’ anymore. All you need is a working brain, some short training, and then put your idea into a fantastic business from any part of the world!”

But the internet, for all of its gifts, has not fully erased privilege. It is still inaccessible to large portions of the world, let alone in the United States. In Seattle, for example, it is estimated that around 15-20% of our citizens “do not have internet access.” And access to the digital world, predictably, is closely tied to education and income. While in 2014 “75 percent of American households had a broadband Internet subscription” that was only true for “46.8 percent of household with incomes under $20,00.”

To argue that all it takes to be successful now is a good idea and a connection to the supernova reeks of Silicon Valley delirium.

It also shows that Friedman subscribes (a little bit too much) to the myth that life is a meritocracy, where the most adaptable and hard-working win out. In fact, last week when I heard him speak at Seattle Town Hall he remarked, “sometimes no one is to blame but yourself.” That flawed perspective unfortunately compromises his otherwise powerful argument about the exciting potential of the internet.

And if I’m being honest, that meritocratic lens was a problem for me throughout Thank You for Being Late. After all, the accelerations he outlines represent collective action problems. They are deep systemic issues that have permeated all societies. While an individual has never been more empowered to deal with these changes, it is highly unrealistic to expect the majority of citizens to do just that. Friedman continually points out that personal ownership is a necessary and important ingredient in succeeding in the 21st century, but he never addresses whether that viewpoint has lost any merit in an economic era where ownership is becoming less prevalent — think AirBnb and Uber.

I would have preferred him to muse over philosophical questions of this nature; those incited by the age of accelerations. Instead, he devotes most of his book’s ink to ogling over the innovator’s capability to develop novel adaptations to these changes. He even fawns over the the parasitic employer, Walmart! But rarely does he sympathize with those most adversely affected by Moore’s Law, the Market or Mother Earth. And when he does, it comes off as unconvincing. He only really appears to be in touch with the “common man” when he devotes a chapter to his suspiciously bucolic childhood in Minnesota. And in doing so, he makes it all too easy for his critics to label him an aloof elitist.

Because of this, many of his book’s recent reviews have seemed all too eager to critique the man and not his actual observations. Whatever the reason behind this in-vogue reflex, this sort of cursory analysis does a disservice to Friedman’s ingenuity. He clearly possesses a unique ability to distill powerful explanations from complex questions.

I, for one, am glad that Thomas Friedman paused and considered where our world is heading. Am I as optimistic as he is about the future? No. Do I place as much onus on the individual to adapt? Definitely not. But am I better aware of the underlying changes in society because of his observations? Yes. And that is the ultimate compliment you can give any social commentator.

Books in this review:
  • Thank You for Being Late
    by Thomas Friedman
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    November 22, 2016
    496 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

A human that almost exclusively reads non-fiction and has a particular fondness for political theory.

Follow Nick Cassella on Twitter: @Nick_Cassella

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