Friedman visits Schenectady


At 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9, author and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman spoke on the main stage of Proctors, discussing the topics covered in his new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” The talk was co-sponsored by Proctors and Union, which ensured that Union students could attend for only $20.

The talk was entitled “The Big Trends Shaping the World Today: Economics, Technology and Geopolitics,” and lived up to the name, covering these topics and more in a broad yet cohesive presentation which lasted a bit over an hour.

After the main presentation, Friedman sat down with President Stephen C. Ainlay to answer a curated list of audience questions which ranged from robotic professors to the relationship between journalists and the new president. In both his talk and during the question and answer session with President Ainlay, Friedman offered clear articulations of his beliefs, supported by interesting anecdotes from Friedman’s own life.

The speech itself ranged across numerous topics, all tied together by virtue of their relationship to the “machine,” Friedman’s term for “the biggest forces shaping more things in more places in more ways in more days.” Friedman introduced the term early on, while discussing the incident which prompted him to write his latest book.

As it turns out, the parking attendant at his workplace in Washington, D.C., maintained a blog concerned with the goings-on of the pro-democracy movement in Ethiopia. Upon reflection, Friedman realized that, as a columnist, his goal is to provoke a reaction from his readers, be it positive or negative; to do so requires, according to him, three things: a set of values, a conjecture at how the “machine” works and some understanding of people and culture.

The second point, understanding the machine, was the most important and the rest of the talk illuminated Friedman’s conception of the machine. The machine, he posited, is subject to three kinds of forces: market forces, natural forces and Moore’s law. In market forces he included concepts like digitization and globalization and he composed natural forces to feature ideas like bio-diversity and population growth. His vision of Moore’s law referenced the conventional definition: the “law” of technology development which states that the number of transistors on a chip will double every 24 months, but Friedman expanded this to a broader picture of exponential technological growth.

Moore’s law, and the exponentially accelerating growth of human technology, seemed to be the focus of the talk. Starting, he claims, in 2007, rapid technological growth has brought about a dramatic shift in the power of four things: the power of an individual, the power of a machine, the power of an idea and the power of many people.

These four factors, he asserts, “aren’t just changing our world, they are fundamentally reshaping our world.” Individuals from President Trump to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can send a single tweet and rouse millions of followers, machines can analyze huge amounts of data in record time, ideas can spread like a wildfire across social media and humanity’s impact on the world is so great we’ve created a new geological era, the Anthropocene.

Friedman goes on to say that this radical shift in power alters five realms: the workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics and community. Friedman explored the effect of technology on the workplace first, asserting that the challenge of our time is “how do we learn faster and govern smarter” in order to keep pace with the rapid rise of technology.

To do so, we have to turn artificial intelligence into intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants and intelligent algorithms, “so that more of us can adapt at a faster rate.” AT&T, for example, uses AI to ensure that its life-long employees are also life-long learners.

After exploring the changing workplace, Friedman went on to illustrate how he sees technology changing the political and geopolitical spheres. He used “Mother Nature” as a guide, inventing the “Mother Nature Party” in response to three changing climates: the climate itself, the globalization climate and the technological climate.

Weathering drastic climate changes requires both the resilience to endure change and propulsion to keep moving ahead and “Mother Nature” has both in spades. Continuing this analogy, Friedman enumerated the strategies employed by nature to overcome climate changes: brutal adaption in the form of natural selection, an entrepreneurial spirit which seeks to fill all niches, pluralism and diversity which lead to robust ecosystems, sustainability to eliminate waste, co-evolution to promote resilience and utilizing the laws of bankruptcy, killing failures to nourish the successes.

A government which mirrors these strategies, he ended up asserting, will be the most resilient and produce the most propulsion. At the end of this portion of the talk, Friedman made two poignant claims.

The first was that radical entrepreneurship, such as eliminating corporate taxes, should co-evolve with better safety nets such as single-payer healthcare. Advocating for radical entrepreneur -ship shouldn’t exclude you from pushing for improved safety nets.

The second point, larger than the first, is that the parties of today are fractured because they answer outdated questions. The party platforms, developed during and after the Great Depression, sought to answer questions engendered by the New Deal, the industrial revolution and early civil rights movements.

Now, in an age of rapidly accelerating technology, they fall flat. After making these bold claims, Friedman moved on to another challenging area: changes in ethics. He began by asking the question, once asked of him, of whether God is in cyber-space. His response, after years of deliberating, is that God manifests himself in our behaviors and as we migrate our lives to the digital realm, “only we can bring God into cyberspace.” “Our lives have moved,” he notes, “to a realm where we’re all connected, but no one’s in charge.” Moreover, given the massive amplification of power endowed by technology, we have reached an unprecedented intersection, “where one of us could kill all of us, and all of us could actually fix everything.”

As a result of this conundrum, where individuals wield more power than ever before, the “Golden Rule” becomes ever more important. Rejecting this naïve wisdom, he notes, is perhaps even more naïve, since it means “thinking that we’re going to be ok, when we are now living a majority of our lives in a realm that is god-free, and we as a species have never been more god-like.” He smoothly transitioned into the final realm, the community. It is at the community level, after all, where people learn the “Golden Rule.” Friedman used his own experience of growing up in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minn., to illustrate both the challenges and the power of a community.

As he told it, after Hubert Humphrey cleaned out anti-Semitism in Minneapolis, the Jewish population migrated en masse to St. Louis Park, previously nearly 100 percent white and Christian. He used the integration and inclusion challenges this presented back in the 1950s as a parallel to the many inclusion challenges American communities face today.

Communities across the nation are struggling with the challenges of the new age, including immense inclusion challenges, and individuals in all of them are applying hope to the problem.

The power of communities means that “the country looks so much better from the bottom up, than from the top down.” To wrap up his talk, Friedman spoke a few lines of the refrain from the “theme song” of his new book, “Eye” by Brandi Carlile: “I wrapped your love around me like a chain \ but I never was afraid that it would die. \ You can dance in a hurricane \ but only if you’re standing in the eye.” The three accelerations of market forces, natural forces and Moore’s law are a hurricane sweeping the world, and political leaders here and in Europe are selling a wall against the hurricane.

Friedman instead wants to sell an eye, “where people can feel connected, protected and respected.” After the talk itself, Friedman kindly sat down with Union’s very own President Ainlay to answer several questions posed by audience members in advance. Sitting opposite each other in comfy armchairs, the two intellectuals proceeded to fulfill the curiosity of the audience.

The first question Ainlay brought up, and perhaps the most relevant to us as college students, asked what the relationship should be between residential colleges and other methods of learning. Earlier in the talk Friedman provided the impetus for the question, mentioning that as part of the technological acceleration we’re experiencing today, the paradigm of a four-year college education teaching you enough to maintain a life-long career has gone by the wayside.Instead, workers must also be learners.

Friedman’s answer focused on what he called “STEMpathy jobs,” jobs which are located at the intersection of technical aptitude and emotional connection. Although robots will be able to do many of the things we need humans to do now, they will not be able to make the emotional connections we as humans need.

The most valuable jobs in the future will involve both gathering data through technology and relating it to humans empathetically. Ainlay’s next question was a hard-hitting query on the nature of leadership in government. Referencing a passage in Friedman’s book where he writes about the importance of paddling faster, rather than slowing down, in order to overcome rapids, Ainlay pressed Friedman to name any “fast paddlers” in government today.

Although Friedman avoided naming any particular names, he did make a fascinating point about the nature of government. The federal government is unable to adapt as quickly as it needs to, and so the most exciting developments are coming at a community level. When philanthropies, businesses and communities interact, that’s when innovation happens. After several more questions, the Q&A session was ended, and President Ainlay lead the crowd in thanking Mr. Friedman for his time and thoughts.


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