In his new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nov.), bestselling author and renowned columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that the world today is moving faster than ever before and will only get faster. All the more reason, he argues, to slow down, reflect, and maybe read a good book. We recently caught up with Friedman to talk about the dizzying pace of change we now live with, and why he’s hopeful we will find a way to cope.
Let’s start with the title. Why are you thanking people for being late?
Yeah, the title—so, as I explain in the introduction, I often meet people in Washington, D.C., for breakfast and occasionally people would come 15, 20 minutes late and they’d say, “Tom, I’m really sorry. It’s the weather, the traffic, the subway, the dog ate my homework.” And I couldn’t remember whom I said this to first, but one morning I spontaneously said to one of them, “Well, actually thank you for being late. Because you were late, I’ve been eavesdropping on this conversation—it’s fascinating; I’ve been people watching in the lobby. And I just connected to ideas that I’ve been struggling with for months.” And people actually got into it and they started to say, “Well, you’re welcome!” But they also understood what I was saying, that I was giving both of us permission to slow down, to stop and to think. And in this time of acceleration, I just think that’s more important than ever.
In the book, you point to 2007 as a watershed year, when the pace of change began speeding up to disorienting levels. Explain why 2007 is such a notable year in human history?
Well, the big, headline-grabbing thing that happened, of course, was the iPhone, which launched the whole smartphone revolution. But another really big thing that happened was [distributed-computing framework] Hadoop, which really for the first time created the possibility of big data for the masses. That was the technology that allowed us to string together literally millions of computers, so you could store so much more stuff, and search so much more stuff. That’s why Facebook happened, Twitter, Android, Kindle, Airbnb, IBM’s Watson. None of those things could have happened without that foundation of mobility. And third, there was the cloud. The cloud was made possible in many ways by innovations by Google and Hadoop. So, those three things together—mobility (I can now have a computer in my hand); broadband (I can connect with this thing called the cloud anywhere); and then, of course, the cloud itself, which can store infinite files, infinite intelligence, and infinite software apps—that all really started to come together in or around 2007.
You refer to the cloud as “the supernova,” and you put it up there with fire and electricity as one of the things that will fundamentally change human history. Why?
The term supernova came from my friend Craig Mundie, who was head of research and strategy at Microsoft for many years. He chose the term because a supernova is the largest explosion in nature; he was just trying to express the extraordinary power of the convergence of mobile, broadband, and the cloud. And Craig, I think, says it very well—fire and electricity were enormous, but they don’t have this kind of intelligence that the cloud has. And we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I think we’ll look back and realize that 2007 was truly a Gutenberg-scale moment in history. You know, I always tell people that after Gutenberg invented the printing press, some monk said to some priest, “You know, this is really cool. I’m not going to have to write all this stuff out longhand anymore!” I think you and I are alive at a similar moment.
You write about Moore’s law, and how it used to take 20 or 30 years for technology to make a big leap forward. Now it happens about every five to seven years. Can people, cultures, and institutions adapt to such a rapid pace of change?
Well, that’s one of the central questions of the book. And I can’t answer, because we’re literally in the middle of it right now. But one of the reasons the book is called Thank You for Being Late is because I wanted to give people permission to slow down, to feel you don’t have to keep chasing this. You know, I talk the talk of globalization, but I’m actually a pretty disconnected person. I’m not on Twitter. I don’t have a big Facebook presence. And that’s nothing against them, it’s just because I really need my solitude to think. One of my favorite quotes in the book is from [author and columnist] Dov Seidman, who says that when you press pause on a computer, it stops. But when you press pause on a human being, he or she starts. Dov also coined the phrase “pausing in stride.” And I like that, because you don’t want to just stop and curl up in a ball under your bed, but people do need time to stop, think, and reflect.
You have a great discussion in the book about artificial intelligence. You write that a chess grandmaster was asked “what do you bring to a chess match with a computer?” The answer was “a hammer.” With computers now starting to write news articles—and maybe, someday, books—are writers and publishers going to need hammers?
That’s a very good question. But at the end of the day, I don’t think so. Machines can do a lot of things, and, yes, they can come up with a sonnet, or a poem, a sports story, and maybe, you know, one day, maybe even some kind of opinion. But people have bodies and souls. And there’s the ability to read those, you know? To read and interpret the raise of an eyebrow, or the curl of a lip, or the wink of an eye, the fall of a grin. I still think that writing like that is going to be something uniquely human.
You write that the task before us is to turn AI into IA: intelligence assistance. Explain that?
That really gets to that adaptation point—which is, how can we really make AI work for us? How can we make all this technology work for us? I was very heartened by some of the examples I came across in writing this book, but there’s one thing I really took away from writing this book, which I think people can’t run away from: and that is, that you have to be a lifelong learner. There’s just no question. There’s going to be fewer safety nets in the future, and you’re going to have to bounce the trampolines.
On that score, you feature the philosophy of AT&T executive John Donovan in the book as an example of the fact that, despite all the disruptions, you can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner—that employees must learn new skills or risk being left behind. And you suggest this is angling toward something of a new social contract for the digital age, correct?
Yes, exactly. More than one in fact—one is the social contract between you and your boss, and I think it has to be the AT&T one: we will actually give you the courses, and we’ll even pay the tuition in some cases for your lifelong learning, but you will have to do it on your own time. And then there’s the contract between you and yourself, which is, if I want to advance, I’m going to have to do things on my own, after I’m out of school. And then, there’s got to be the contract between you and your government, which is to create both the financial incentives and the possibilities for people to become lifelong learners.
You quote a Tom Goodwin TechCrunch piece in which he notes that Uber, the world’s largest taxi service, has no vehicles; Facebook, the world’s most popular media company, owns no content; Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory; and Airbnb, the largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Extrapolating that out, how do you see the book business?
I personally think that there’s going to be a backlash against all this acceleration. And I still think curling up and reading a good book, whether it’s on a Kindle or on paper, that there’s something deeply human about that. Now, I don’t know how these books will be delivered in the future, but being totally absorbed in reading a good book, I still am a big believer in that.
Speaking of how books are going to be delivered, what are your thoughts on Amazon or other accelerations that are changing the book business?
Well, cards on the table, Jeff Bezos is a very dear friend. But I’ve always felt that when it comes to technology—and I have this line in The World Is Flat—whatever can be done, will be done. The only question is will it be done by you, or to you. So when distributing books in this wholly new digital way could be done, it was going to be done. Now, I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. All I know is that for me, personally, I still love going into an independent bookstore and sitting there and sipping coffee, and just the serendipity of surfing through the shelves, seeing what’s there, picking up a book. The independent bookseller to me is one of the great institutions of my life. And there’s something about that experience that I think is wired into our DNA. Because of that, I think someone will always make a business out of it.