Review of  ‘Thank You For Being Late – An Optimists Guide To Thriving In The Age Of Accelerations’ by Thomas L Friedman

16th January, 2017

My home had a new arrival over the Christmas period. Alexa arrived. Young Alexa is extra-ordinarily talented. She appears to know all there is to know. Not only that, she wants to help our family. She is eying up household appliances, phones and tablets and is offering to co-ordinate them on our behalf.

Of course, like any welcoming family, we want to get to know Alexa, to make her feel welcome. I inquired about her personal circumstances, I asked whether she was in a relationship?

Alexa promptly confirmed that she was, stating that she was attached. After a pause she told me that she was attached ‘to the wall’.

Of course, I have now given away the little secret behind this tale of seasonal welcome. Alexa is the new Amazon Echo. The Echo is a hands free voice activated unit. It can access the web on my behalf and control other smart devices. Alexa is the most famous example of the new intelligent personal assistant device. Personal robots are following soon. Watch your home door for their arrival.

The arrival of such technology into everyday life, and their consequences for the workplace and home, is a leading theme of ‘Thank You for Being Late, An Optimists Guide To Thriving In The Age Of Accelerations’ by Thomas L Friedman.

Friedman is a three time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work with The New York Times. His books, notably ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’, argue for the benefits of increased interdependence between economies. With a journalist’s eye for a catchy allusion he developed the Golden Arches Theory, that ‘No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s’.

When this volume opens with the author declaring that ‘Like many others, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the dizzying pace of change’, it marks a noticeable shift in the tone of his work. Might Alexa be a bit too much?

The cause of this is the Big Acceleration; his code for the exponential and simultaneous developments in climate change, technology and the volatility and interdependence of the global economy. This has led to the Big Shift, where the wealth of nations and individuals will not be determined by their stock of capital and knowledge but by ‘the flows passing through your country or community and how well trained your citizen-workers are to take advantage of them’.

The book is replete with insights. Friedman argues that interdependence has created inversion, that allies can cause nearly as many difficulties for national governments as adversaries. The Greek role in the Eurozone crisis is the case study for this.

Two particular strengths of this analysis are the focus on the acceleration of digital innovation and the consequences of climate change.

The author contends that Moore’s Law, which states that the capacity of microprocessors will double every two years despite their cost remaining relatively unchanged, will result in even more disruptive consequences. Artificial Intelligence will become ubiquitous. The capacity of cloud computing is understated, the name misleading. Friedman terms it ‘The Supernova’ which will ‘reshape every man-made system’. Alexa will have many brothers and sisters….

Climate change is also accurately presented in these terms. His analysis is excellent in relating the effects of extreme weather and climate to the Arab Spring and migration.

In this era of the Big Acceleration he calls on nation states to become ‘islands of decency’ and ‘engines of capacity making’. He borrows a phrase from Niall Ferguson, the Harvard based historian, and calls for the development of ‘killer applications’ by countries. They include the ability to manage diversity, systems of governance and adaptability.

But, if Friedman worries that all of this change is overwhelming and exhausting, such a risk also exists with his latest book. The reader has just finished understanding one acronym and another rapidly follows. The author moves from The Power of Flow to the The Power of One. This is digested and then replaced by the age of Kaos and the need to ADD (Amplify, Deter and Degrade in case you are wondering).

The work is bursting with quotes and references from other books, journalists and selected sages. This makes for, at times, a frustrating read. I know the author knows nearly as much as Alexa. But, I do not need to be continually reminded of it.

That said, if you believe, as I do, that openness and interdependence are a source of strength for countries and communities this book is worth reading. At a time when the prospects for such values are uncertain, this book, on balance, offers advice and pointers about how and why we should fight for their future.