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Hitting The Brakes On Thomas Friedman’s ‘Age Of Accelerations’


Thomas Friedman loves the personal anecdote. In the spirit of his work, then, I offer this story to explain what most confuses me about Thomas Friedman, and his new book, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.

Blood and Land

When I was a college sophomore, I spent eight months in the Middle East. Most of that time was spent in a study abroad program, where I divided my days between Jerusalem (studying with Israelis at Hebrew University) and Bethlehem (taking classes with Palestinians at Bethlehem University). For the final months I taught English in Gaza, and traveled through Egypt and Jordan.

Academically, my program was not demanding. In my plentiful free hours, I walked the streets of these ancient cities, returning again and again to the holy places, and wandering along obscure streets and pathways. Throughout these sojourns, I pondered heavy questions about blood, land, tradition, and God. As a Christian my experience of the Holy Land was naturally infused with a religious sensibility, but the place itself offers abundant stimulation for such reflections. It did really feel to me as though the whole human story converged on those God-haunted streets. If I could penetrate their secrets, it seemed that whole vistas of new understanding might open up before me.

I never achieved that longed-for epiphany. In retrospect, it was the sort of overwrought ambition one would expect from a twenty-year-old. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the experience. Coming from young and optimistic America, I had never before peeked into those unfathomable depths of suffering and hope. It forced me to think about the things people die and kill for, and why some truths endure across millennia while whole civilizations are lost to the sands of time. At the end of my time in Palestine, I bought a small, silver Jerusalem cross, to remind me of the weight of history, and of things that endure.

In some ways, Friedman and I have a lot in common. He is a social critic from Minnesota (my own home state), with extensive Middle Eastern expertise. Both of us were raised with Judeo-Christian faith. As becomes clear is latest book, Thank You For Being Late, Friedman has traveled the road to Damascus both literally and figuratively, but his theories read like a Silicon Valley mission statement. Even his more interesting reflections display only the shallowest appreciation of the deeper things that sustain (or destroy) cultures and civilizations. How could a social critic breathe so much Middle Eastern air, and still be so uncurious about blood, land, tradition, and God? It’s genuinely perplexing.

Futurism in Focus

To be sure, optimistic futurists have their charms. There are compelling elements to Friedman’s diagnosis of our society’s growing anxiety, some of which are seriously underappreciated in contemporary American politics.

Friedman likes to say that we are currently living “the second half of the chessboard”. He’s referencing an ancient story in which a clever entrepreneur uses the laws of exponential growth to con an emperor into promising him a more rice than the world could raise in a lifetime. The emperor has no idea that his promise to double a single grain 64 times over will commit him to such a colossal gift. Exponential growth is tricky like that.

In our case, it’s technology that is throwing the world into the high-gear portion of an exponential growth curve. A century or two ago, new inventions came along infrequently enough that society had time to marvel, make some mistakes, and eventually adapt. Today, we’re hurtling forward at breakneck speed, dragging labor markets, social structures, ecosystems, and trans-national networks into a kaleidoscope of constant change. Understandably, people are disoriented. There’s no time to adapt. Political and social structures can’t keep pace. Technology opens exciting new possibilities, but how can we incorporate it into a stable society that meets people’s social and spiritual needs?

Friedman is at his best when he is addressing that question in specific and concrete ways. His chapter on labor solutions is genuinely interesting, suggesting models that companies (such as Ma Bell) and individuals are using to equip themselves for a rarefied and rapidly-changing marketplace. He points out that, unlike in days of yore, people need to enter the workforce now expecting to go on learning and reskilling throughout their working life. Technology itself can help us to do this, showing people what skills they need to acquire or improve, and helping them to match those skills with particular positions or job openings.

Some elements are exciting. Already, we need fewer and fewer people every year to engage in drudgery. Stimulating work becomes ever more abundant, no longer just privilege of a tiny cognitive elite. As Friedman points out, even janitors have become “sanitation engineers,” using technology to engage in preventative upkeep, troubleshooting problems that haven’t yet occurred. A great many jobs may become more interesting as time passes.

Then there are the downsides: unemployment, stagnant wages, and growing wealth gaps. Plenty of people lose out in a rapidly shifting techno-meritocracy. As Friedman points out again and again, though, change really isn’t a choice. We’re in the second half of the chessboard. Technology will keep pushing us forward at warp speed, so our only real choice is between adaptation and massive social dysfunction. Technology is power, which means that people today have a lot of power. It’s our job to ensure that this gets used for good more than evil.

When Losers Don’t Get Lucky

Friedman loves to tell stories of uncredentialed up-and-comers from non-privileged backgrounds, who successfully break into the new economy by using technology to prove what they can do. This is his main solution to the evils of the new economy. Create lots of entry points, and try to help people find them. Enable as many people as possible to develop their talents, make a contribution, and reap the benefits. Strive to leave no child behind.

On one level it’s hard to argue with this. The modern world offers unparalleled opportunity to those who can to take advantage of it. If you live in a stable democracy and have talent, motivation, and sufficient liberty to experiment with career paths, life can be very good for you. But your gain can easily be everyone else’s, too. We all stand to benefit from the achievements of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Realistically, though, can everyone get in on this action? Is it reasonable to expect that everyone will be sufficiently talented, motivated, and resilient? Does a liberal society have the wherewithal to produce such fully-formed and adaptable citizens? What do we tell the failures?

Thank You For Being Late is, as one might expect from Friedman, packed with platitudes, but no real answers to these questions. The platitudes can be revelatory, though, insofar as they point beyond themselves, showing us where Friedman’s worldview cries out for supplementation. To fill the holes, he needs a thicker anthropology.

Minnesota For Everybody?

Friedman recognizes that successful liberal citizens need to be formed in close, supportive communities. The last two chapters of the book are dedicated to an extended discussion of the sublimely communitarian politics of his home state of Minnesota, which seems to him like an excellent model, especially since it has enabled the success of such noteworthies as the Cohen Brothers, Al Franken, and himself. As a fellow Minnesotan, I hate to argue, but his analysis does seem to gloss over some important ambiguities.

Consider this conundrum: For all his enthusiasm for communities (which should be inclusive of all people, regardless of race, religion, or background), Friedman has nothing but scorn for “tribes.” Communities draw people together, instill shared values, and create natural safety nets. Tribes, by contrast, make people insular and suspicious. Who decides, though, where the community ends and the tribe begins? Friedman? What if we aren’t all willing to sing Kumbaya around his preferred set of “shared” liberal values?

Even supposing we were, it’s hard to believe that a Friedmanesque ethos would be sufficient to address contemporary social problems. He tells us again and again that people can no longer expect the steady, middle-class security of his own 1950s childhood. Technology has pushed us beyond that, into a flourish-or-flunk economy where steady middle-skill jobs are scarce. Why then does he spend two lengthy chapters glorifying the political structure that stabilized and extended this obsolete system? Perhaps he could still make an argument for investment in institutions (public schools, parks, etc), but what about unions, minimum wage, and a heavy-handed regulatory state? Aren’t these prime examples of the sort of retrograde social arrangements he continually urges us to abandon, in the name of adaptation?

This isn’t just about playing “gotcha” by identifying inconsistencies in Friedman’s advocacy. There is a serious question on the table: Can Friedman explain how a liberal society might create the sort broad-minded, capable, and adaptable citizens it needs in order to sustain itself?

Liberals like Friedman tend to frown on deep and enduring attachments (blood, land, tradition, God) on the grounds that they are “tribal,” divisive, and anachronistic. Friedman notes that Americans today remind him more and more of those backwards, impossible Middle Easterners. Stop being tribal! Let go of old superstitions! Adapt!

In breaking down “tribes,” though, we may find that the communities go too. Liberal platitudes may seem adequate to the Al Frankens and Tom Friedmans, who personally benefited from an artificially stable society, and whose own lives have been pleasantly successful. But if he has to look backwards to an obsolete political order by way of explaining how we can go forwards to a dramatically different one, it really seems that Friedman is as clueless as anyone as to how “the second half of the chessboard” can be safe for ordinary humans.

Towards a More-Rooted Futurism

Thank You For Being Late offers a moderately enlightening diagnosis of the anxiety of our present moment, along with some helpful suggestions for employers and brainy-but-frustrated people who would like to be more productive. In the end, though, this is not really an inclusive social vision, because Friedman is relentlessly fixated on helping people succeed, and real societies are filled with broken and failed lives.

A truly inclusive vision must come to terms with this fact. Along the way, it will confront questions about the things people live and die for, and with truths that endure across millennia. Genuine adaptation (on a society-wide level) requires real roots, in the thick and fertile soil of tradition and truth.

Is there a way to combine Friedman’s optimistic vision with a more substantive appreciation of human good? I have a few ideas. But then, I’m still wearing that small, silver Jerusalem cross.