History, a professor once told me, is like the parent of a teenager. It tries through many languages, over many aeons of time, with tiresome, incessant repetition, to instruct and save its civilizations from themselves. However, its efforts, like those of all well intentioned parents through the ages who have ever raised teenagers, usually fell flat. The teenagers aren’t listening, and they will repeat their parents’ mistakes before enlightenment sinks in. And so we have History repeating itself and the cycle goes on in an endless loop.
All that may be about to change, if we believe Thomas Friedman’s latest book, Thank You For Being Late, an optimist’s guide to the warp- speed acceleration of change in our time.
This is a book which makes sense of the incredible technological and social changes our generation has lived through in just the past 20 years, and tries to process the significance of these changes for our future in an informal, almost chatty, style that is easy to absorb. And at the end of this dizzying ride, which takes us through transformations in technology and the financial markets and our globe’s climate and shows us how they interact to create a tsunami style impact on our lives, we come up for air with a better understanding of the forces that are spinning faster and faster around us, making us feel helpless and alienated.
So, from the point of view of the above mentioned teenager, History cannot repeat itself anymore since it is mutating faster than the speed of light.
Friedman calls himself an explanatory journalist, who translates from English to English, picking out the mega trends that power monumental change in society. His central premise is that the dizzying speed of change is straining the almost infinite human capacity to adapt, and it’s not going to get better anytime soon. However, he claims, there is hope for the future. He focuses on the three major drivers of this metamorphosis----technology, financial markets and climate change. And he traces the impact of all these on his small home town in Minnesota, as a model of how pervasive and deep reaching these transformations are.
The analogies and examples he uses throughout the book are instantly absorbable. In 2008, after the introduction of the Android and the i-phone and Kindle, software began “eating the world” with a speed that had never been foreseen. Friedman gives us this analogy: In the world of software, Moore’s law dictates that the power of microchips will double every two years. If we applied the same microchip evolution rule to the development of motor cars the 1976 Volkswagen Beetle would travel today at 300,000 miles an hour, cost 4 cents and use one tank of gas over its entire lifetime.
And we learn how this enhanced power is creating the kind of inter connectivity which can cause instant havoc across the globe---- It doesn’t take more than a tech savvy geek holed up in his parent’s flat to cause the Dow Jones average to flash crash 9% in 5 minutes (Navindar Sarao in 2010). Friedman recalls how in 1976 he used to phone in stories from a British telephone booth. Now he can email a story out from deep in Africa, have it instantly appear on the New York Times website, and get an immediate reaction from China.
All this we know already--- casual observation, the i-phone, the internet, email, instant messages, whatsapp and a million other apps, have produced a savvy body of consumers. What Friedman does for us in this book is make us stop and process and think about the momentous impact these changes have for the future. He shows us the overarching patterns of our technology infested lives by leading us into intellectual deep space, but without the technicalities which would make for ponderous, heavy reading, and with many interesting anecdotes to illustrate his points. It ‘s like watching our brilliant blue-green earth from the safe portal of a rocket in space—we see the weather patterns, the clouds, the changes in air flow, heat and moisture across its surface, and we begin to understand our planet a lot more intimately.
He’s been criticized for being too folksy in his style and too simplistic in his assumptions about the interconnectivity of things and how fast the pace of change will continue. While some of that may be true, his was the only book I’ve read about sociological and technological changes in our world which I could finish without feeling that I had just been weighted down with a basketful of convoluted words.
I’d give it a thumbs up as a good read.