Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
Reviewed by: John Stokdijk
Thank You for Being Late is a strange title for a book. But Thomas L. Friedman explains his choice with an interesting anecdote in the beginning pages of his latest book. One day he got a few minutes of unscheduled time to sit and think when a guest arrived late for a breakfast meeting.
Friedman wants us to sit and think about the big theme of his book. There are, he says, three large forces reshaping our world and they are all accelerating. Those forces are technological change, globalization and climate change.
The idea of accelerating change is not new. Decades ago I read Future Shock by Alvin Toffler which was published in 1970. But surely Toffler’s premise that "too much change in too short a period of time" is traumatic for human beings rings more true today than ever before.
Friedman identifies 2007 as a pivotal year in which technological change significantly accelerated. He explains Moore’s Law and the impact of exponential growth. The results are now familiar - iPhones, Twitter, YouTube, Airbnb, the Cloud and much more.
I hope to live for at least 30 more years. Accelerating change means that I will see more change in the next 30 years than I have seen in the past 30 years. In 1987 I could not have imagined buying Friedman’s book online and having it available on my iPad in less than sixty seconds. Likewise, I cannot now imagine what the world of 2047 will be like. That thought is indeed shocking.
I was not familiar with the term “black elephant” but I liked the way it was used to describe climate change.
A “black elephant,” it was explained to me by the London-based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan, is a cross between a “black swan”— a rare, low-probability, unanticipated event with enormous ramifications— and “the elephant in the room: a problem that is widely visible to everyone, yet that no one wants to address, even though we absolutely know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”
Far beyond the scope of this book, but of considerable interest to me, is the idea that the black elephant of climate change links to our intuitive knowledge that humans, collectively and individually, will inevitably die. Denial of this insight may be a barrier to solving the problem. Secular spirituality may possibly be a path towards overcoming that barrier and finding a solution before it is too late.
Friedman chose a clever title for Chapter 8 about artificial intelligence, Turning AI into IA. Turning artificial intelligence into intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants and intelligent algorithms as a means with which to solve the problems of the age of acceleration strikes me as simplistic and naive. However, I have nothing better to offer. But I do not share his optimism.
I agree with Friedman’s description of the state of the world today, dividing it into “the World of Order” and “the World of Disorder.” Which will overwhelm the other? This, in my view, is an open question, an unanswerable question. The assertion of Friedman - “Fact #1: The necessary is impossible. Fact #2: The impossible is necessary.” - does not reassure me.
In Chapter 10 Friedman shares with us the 18 solutions of Mother Nature to the problems of the age of acceleration. Of course, these are the solutions of Thomas L. Friedman himself which he projects onto her. I like these solutions, a reflection of my political alignment with the author. But why not embrace these ideas directly? Attributing them to the wisdom of Mother Nature does little to elevate their importance.
I greatly enjoyed the last three chapters of Friedman’s long book, although they seemed somewhat disconnected from the earlier chapters. He describes in detail the community and the state in which he was raised. St. Louis Park in the State of Minnesota (Minnesota Nice has a nice ring to it) shaped his life in profound ways.
Friedman intuitively concludes that pluralism is an important element of a vibrant community. After WWII St. Louis Park was welcoming to Jews but, unfortunately, this was not a widespread attitude in the USA at that time. A deep understanding of pluralism seems to be declining in America today.
Building pluralism, making one out of many, a great American tradition, does not happen automatically or easily. Real pluralism never comes easy, because it has to be built not just on tolerance of the other but also on respect of the other, trust of the other.
Friedman tried to capture the idea of rapid technological change as a supernova, not an effective label in my opinion. I found his use of the word in this way annoying and he used the word a lot! But I acknowledge that he is a very good writer, many levels above my skill level, and earned the right to write as he pleases long ago.
Friedman’s sub-title is “An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” but I do not think he makes the case for optimism in his book. Perhaps he is optimistic by nature but he did not inspire me with hope of a better future. My life experience tells me that the future is uncertain and unknowable, but this did not diminish my appreciation for Friedman’s effort.
Thomas L. Friedman remained an optimist to the end.
But it is impossible for me to believe that with so many more people now empowered to invent, compete, create, and collaborate, with so many more cheap and powerful tools enabling us to optimize social and commercial and governmental interactions, that we won’t develop the capability to solve the big social and health problems in the world... Of course, that is hard to see right now (emphasis mine).
Yes it is, Thomas. Yes it is.
11 months ago — John Stokdijk
The July, 2019 ABC selection is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.
Two of the greatest thought leaders of the 21st century– Yuval Noah Harari and Thomas L. Friedman – discuss the Future of Humanity on March 19, 2018, with moderator Rachel Dry, The New York Times.