My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The subtitle of this book is “An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”. Thomas Friedman shows how the combination of the 3 “M’s” “Moore’s Law, Market, and Mother Nature” are disrupting our world. Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. This doubling is what makes laptops and mobile phones possible.
Miniaturization allowed Google to come up with “two design innovations [which] meant we could suddenly store more data than we ever imagined and could use software applications to explore that mountain of data with an ease we never imagined” [Loc 917] These advancements are behind the success of Google, Amazon, Facebook and dozens of other companies. Why is this disruptive? Friedman explains “the recording, storage, and dissemination of information has become practically free. The previous time there was a such a significant change in the cost structure for the dissemination of information was when the book became popular. Printing was invented in the fifteenth century … and had a huge impact in that w were able to move cultural knowledge from the human brain into a printed form. We have the same sort of revolution happening right now, on steroids, and it is affecting every dimension of human life.”[Loc 968]
These changes in technology make collaboration easier on a global scale. People, companies, and nations who can adapt to the new reality are able to thrive; those that cannot, will not. We see the impact of globalization everywhere around us – it was behind NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership. Unfortunately, humans ability to react is slower than the pace of change. “If many Americans are feeling overwhelmed these days by globalization, it’s because we’ve let all the physical technologies driving it (immigration, trade, and digital flows) get way too far ahead of the social technologies (teh learning and adapting tools) needed to cushion their impacts and anchor people in healthy communities that can help them thrive when the winds of change howl and bring so many strangers and strange ideas directly into their living rooms. Warning: in the age of accelerations, if a society doesn’t build floors under people, many will reach for a wall – no matter how self-defeating that would be.”[Loc 2663]. If we let fear of accelerations make the United States opt out of international agreements such as the Paris Climate Change accords and TPP we cede control to other countries and we risk falling behind the countries who are more adaptable. As I heard Friedman say in a radio interview, you can’t build a wall strong enough to withstand the hurricane forces of accelerations we are facing; rather, we need to get in the eye of the hurricane to thrive.
If the threat of technological innovation and globalization weren’t enough we are also facing a threat from Mother Nature in climate change, increased fertility, and decreasing mortality. Climate changes threaten to decrease food supplies just when emerging nations are demanding a place at the table. We are just not addressing the threat. “It’s only been in the last eleven thousand years that we have enjoyed the calm, stable climate conditions that allowed our ancestors to emerge from their Paleolithic caves and create seasonal agriculture, domesticate animals, erect cities and towns, and eventually launch the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the information technology revolution.”[Loc 2788] Just because we’ve always enjoyed this epoch doesn’t mean it will last. “‘We are threatening to push Earth of of this sweet spot,’ said Rockstrom, and into a geological epoch that is not likely to be anywhere near as inviting and conducive for human life and civilization as the Holocene. This is what the current debate is all about.”[Loc 2803]
We are also facing population growth unheard of: “At current rates of growth, nearly forty countries could double their population in the next thirty-five years”… “If you go from high mortality to low mortality and don’t also go from high fertility to low fertility, you create enormous strains.”[Locs 3005 & 3030]
Friedman has said that in the post war decades of the 50s and 60s you had to have a plan to fail.The United States dominated the world economy. “In those ‘glorious’ decades … before the Market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s law all entered the second half of the their chessboards, you could lead a decent lifestyle as an average worker with an average high school or four-year college education.”[Loc 3435]. “Well say goodbye to all that too. The high-wage, middle-skilled job has gone the way of Kodak film. … There are still high-wage, high-skilled jobs. And there are still middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs. But there is no longer a high-wage, middle-skilled job.”[Loc 3450]
Today we are headed toward a society where only a few people have access to opportunities “the massive redistribution of wealth that would be required to support such a society is not politically sustainable.”[Loc 3501] To solve this problem, “in the age of accelerations we need to rethink three key social contracts – those between workers and employers, students and educational institutions, and citizens and governments. That is the only way to create an environment in which every person is able to realize their full talent potential and human capital becomes a universal, inalienable asset.”[Loc 3509].
Friedman closes his book with some suggestions on how to succeed in this world of accelerations. He talks about how his hometown of St Louis Park, Minnesota became a rich flowerbed that led to a high number of successful people such as himself, Al Franken, the Coen brothers, and more. The key is interdependence “What does health interdependence look like? It looks like all of Mother Nature’s killer apps working together at once – adaptability, diversity, entrepreneurship, ownership, sustainability, bankruptcy, federalism, patience, and topsoil. In political terms the United States and Canada have a healthy interdependency – they have risen together; Russia and the Ukraine today have an unhealthy interdependency – they have fallen together.”[Loc 5281]
Thomas Friedman is a great explainer; he does a fantastic job of taking the complexities behind the world’s problems and clearly explaining the causes and impacts as well as a path forward. Our current president’s drive toward Nationalism may feel good to some, but it is clear that trying to build walls to stop progress is a fool’s errand. For our species to survive we need to adapt and work together.
An excellent, excellent book.