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Friedman Outlines ‘Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations’

By Amber Ebanks & Anna Gawel

In his famous 2005 book, Thomas Friedman argued that the world is flat, with globalization leveling the playing field. Today, the renowned New York Times columnist sees the world more in the curve of a hockey stick, with technological and other tectonic forces having an exponential effect on the world and how we inhabit it.

His latest book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” expounds on his theory that we are living in a time of profound change, challenge and opportunity.

Friedman says the world is being is being reshaped by the convergence of “three nonlinear accelerations,” which he describes as mother nature (climate), market (globalization) and Moore’s law (technology). These in turn are upending our politics, geopolitics, workplace, ethics and community.

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner discussed these findings and his new best-selling book at the Sadat Forum on March 9 at the University of Maryland in College Park. Shibley Telhami, the university’s Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development, joined Friedman along with more than 400 people.

Shibley Telhami, the University of Maryland Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development, left, talks with Thomas Friedman, an award-winning author and New York Times columnist, about his latest book at the University of Maryland’s Sadat Forum. (Photos: University of Maryland)

Friedman began by explaining the title of his book, recalling how people would often apologize to him for being late to an appointment — until one day he realized that waiting allowed him time to reflect on ideas he’d been struggling with.

He quoted his CEO friend Dov Seidman who said, “When you press the pause button on a computer, it stops. When you press the pause button on a human, it starts — it starts to reflect, rethink and re-imagine.”

That’s what Friedman said he did one day as he was making his regular commute into D.C. via the Metro in Bethesda, Md., where the parking garage attendant mentioned to him that he was a blogger. “I decided this was a sign from God, that I should stop and pause and engage this guy,” Friedman recalled, noting that he agreed to meet with the man for coffee to teach him how to write a column in return for hearing the attendant’s life story.

It turns out he was an Ethiopian immigrant and democracy advocate who was exiled from his country because of his political views. He began writing for Ethiopian blogs but found them too slow, so he decided to start his own blog.

“It’s a wonderful story on how anyone can participate in the global conversation. Google metrics says he’s read in over 30 countries. This is the garage guy. Who knew, until I paused to engage him,” Friedman told the audience.

That in turn forced Friedman to reflect on the forces driving today’s world: market, mother nature and Moore’s law.

“The market for me is digital globalization — not your father’s globalization. I think what’s driving the world today, what’s making it go from interconnected to hyper-connected to interdependent, is the way everything is being digitized and globalized,” he said, noting that we are now living much of our lives in cyberspace, whether it’s to find a date, order an Uber or book a vacation.

Journalist Thomas Friedman talks about his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”

“Mother nature for me is climate change, biodiversity loss and population. If you put it on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick,” he continued. “And Moore’s Law, coined by Gordon Moore in 1965, the co-founder of Intel, posited that the speed and power of microchips would double roughly every 24 months. It’s now closer to 30 months but that exponential has held up for 52 years. I think what is shaping the world today is the interaction of these three.”

Friedman said Moore’s law is a particularly hard concept to grasp. To illustrate the power of its exponential effects, he envisioned what the development of the 1971 Volkswagen Beetle VW would look like under Moore’s law: “Today, it would go 300,000 miles per hour. It would get 2 million miles per gallon and it would cost 4 cents. You’d be able to drive it your whole life on one tank of gas. That’s the power of the technological exponential that we’re in the middle of, and it just keeps going.”

Friedman credited this innovation surge to the seemingly innocuous year of 2007, which he called a “supernova” of acceleration. That year, Apple’s Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in San Francisco in January, “beginning a process by which we are now halfway through putting into the hands of everyone on the planet a handheld computer connected to the internet with more compute power than the Apollo space mission.”

Among the other epochal events that year: Facebook and Twitter went global; the cloud came into being; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos introduced the Kindle ebook reader; Google bought YouTube; IBM started Watson, the world’s first cognitive computer; Airbnb was invented; solar energy took off, as did shale fracking; and the cost of DNA sequencing a human genome fell off a cliff, plummeting from $1 million in 2001 to $1,200 today.

“In 2007, the most important software you’ve never heard of called Hadoop, named after the founder’s son toy elephant, launched its algorithm into the wild. Hadoop is basically what enables a million computers to work together like they’re one computer. That’s what we call big data,” he added. “Also, in 2007, the second-most-important software you’ve never heard of called GitHub, actually now the world’s largest open-source software repository, opened its doors in San Francisco.”

University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami talks with award-winning author and columnist Thomas Friedman.

Finally, “In 2007, the internet for the first time crossed a billion users, and in 2007, people sent more text messages on their phones than phone calls.”

So why isn’t 2007 being hailed in the history books?

“It turns out that 2007 in time may be understood as the single-greatest technological inflection point since Gutenberg [invented the printing press] and we completely missed it — because of 2008,” Friedman said, referring to the global financial crash that became the worst recession since 1929.

Friedman said that like the Great Recession, technological advancements are upending our world, for good and bad.

“They’ve changed the power of one — what one person can do today to make things or break things. We have a president who can sit in his pajamas in Mar-a-Lago and tweet out to the world and reach a billion people without an editor, a libel lawyer or a filter,” he quipped. “But what’s really new is that the head of ISIS [Islamic State] can do the exact same thing from Raqqa province [in Syria].

“We’re entering a world where one person can kill us, and at the same time, because of the same amplified powers, all of us could actually fix everything,” he said. “We have never been more God-like as a species. And if we’re going to be more God-like as a species, we all better be in the grip of the golden rule: Do unto others as you wish would be done to you.”

The year 2007 also changed the power of ideas, “so ideas now flow and circulate faster than we’ve ever seen before.”

“People forget that five years ago Barack Obama said marriage was between a man and a woman. Today … he said it is between any two people who love each other, and he followed [religiously conservative] Ireland in that position.”

Friedman said that humans are at a point where they simply cannot adapt fast enough to the rate of change around them. “Learning faster and governing smarter – that is our challenge today.”

To that end, he said this revolution has redefined what today’s workplace looks like. “Every company now is going to be expecting lifelong learning and the best ones will be creating the opportunities to do so. I call that intelligent assistance.”

Friedman cited the example of Qualcomm, a U.S. wireless tech and telecommunications company with a massive campus in San Diego. “They affixed sensors to every door, window, pipe, drain, sink, HVAC system, computer etc. Then they took all the data, beamed it up to the cloud and back down to an iPad with an incredibly user-friendly interface for their janitorial staff. They created an intelligence assistance system so that if [someone] leaves their computer on or a pipe bursts over their head, they know it before he does and they just swipe down to see how to repair it or who to call,” Friedman said.

“They have made their janitors into maintenance technologists. Their janitors now give tours to foreign visitors. Think what that does for the dignity of a maintenance person at Qualcomm.”

Guests listen to the University of Maryland’s Sadat Forum.

At the same time, these technological improvements have created major disruptions. Automation is displacing workers in coal mines, car factories and even clothing stores. But Friedman said that while it has displaced some, technology overall has created a world of opportunity. In his book, he points out that experts predicted the demise of brick-and-mortar banks with the advent of ATMs. In fact, the machines allowed banks to increase the number of branches they had, thereby increasing bank-teller jobs.

“There is massive entrepreneurship going on … but if you listen to our last election, you’d never know it,” he said, citing the gloom and doom of politicians. “No one is actually telling you what’s going on.”

Friedman argues that politicians are behind the curve, describing his own viewpoints as a quirky, even radical mix of liberal and conservative beliefs. For example, he advocates for a single-payer health care system but abolish all corporate taxes and “replace them with a carbon tax, a tax on bullets, a tax on sugar and a small financial transaction tax. I want to get radically entrepreneurial over here to pay for the safety nets we’re going to need over here because the age of acceleration is going to be too fast for most people.”

It’s doubtful politicians on the left or right would embrace such a dichotomy, which in part is why he believes traditional parties “are blowing up,” which the author said is a “very healthy evolution of creative disruption.”

At the same time, Friedman said he hasn’t given up hope despite the deeply polarized landscape, citing his own upbringing in a small town in Minnesota. Despite years of segregation and anti-Semitism, the town built a deeply inclusive, thriving community of Jews, African Americans, Somalis, White Protestants and native Swedes.

He said people should never underestimate the power of simply being nice. “If you want to be an optimist in America, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up than from the top down because I find many, many communities where the challenges are big, but there are so many people who want to [try to solve them].”

On that note, Friedman closed his lecture by offering some advice to journalists: enjoy interacting with different people, be a good listener and listen to different viewpoints.

“Listening is a sign of respect,” said Friedman, who signed copies of his book before the closing reception. “And it’s amazing what people will let you say to them … if they think you respect them.”

Amber Ebanks is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat and Anna Gawel is the managing editor.



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