Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Lesson from Thomas Friedman

Like many Americans, I have spent much of the past 18 months trying to understand what is happening in the United States since the reins of government were turned over to Donald Trump and his collaborators in the Republican Party.  We have gone from laughing at their gaffes, staring wide-eyed at their lies (even as it became clear that the lies were intentional and not simply the products of ignorance or naivete), and bowing our heads in anger and shame at their treatment of others, whether they be fellow citizens suffering in the wake of Puerto Rico’s hurricanes or Hispanic families seeking refuge from turmoil in their homelands.  This week’s “no tolerance” policy that separates migrant families, putting thousands of children into make-shift concentration camps, has marked a new low, not just for Trump and his gang, but for our country as a whole.  As we sink further into the mire of racial hate and economic war, we need to turn away from the spectacle and look for solutions.  We need to ask what it will take for our country to regain its honor.
            While one Gallup Poll reported this week that Trump’s popularity rose to 45%--on a par with other presidents at this point in their first administration—CNN’s new poll showed him at 39%, down from 41% in May.  That suggests (although we have no idea what the current humanitarian crisis over separating children from migrant parents may do) that Trump’s popularity with the base population that elected him is holding fast.  Looking ahead, it is almost impossible to imagine how to respond to Trump without knowing more about the underlying issues that drive his core support and what is needed to lead us to the changes that, very obviously, are needed.
            Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late, explores some dimensions of the problems that we don’t hear about on the nightly news.  Friedman describes two kinds of change:  technological and social.  Technological change evolves rapidly, doubling its power and reach every few years.  Imagine, for instance, what has happened technologically in the two decades since the first web browser was launched in 1995 and compare that innovation with today’s cloud computing!  It is difficult, Friedman notes, to capture “the transformational nature of what has been created.”  The result, he says, is “a tremendous release of energy into the hands of human beings to compete, design, think, imagine, connect, and collaborate with anyone anywhere” (p. 83).   This same force has greatly multiplied the power of one person to change society, but it is also amplifying what Friedman calls “the power of many.”  “Human beings,” he reports, “as a collective are not just a part of nature; they have become a force of nature—a force that is disturbing and changing the climate and our planet’s ecosystems at a space and scope never before seen in human history” (p. 87).  However, Friedman also notes that social change takes place at a much slower pace than technological change.  At some point, the speed of technological change outpaces our ability to adapt to it, creating social disruption and leaving some people behind as others race to catch up.
            It forces the question:  Where do people whose training and experience are with the technology and industrial models of the older technology fit into this new world?  That is a question that is critical for people who work in mining and traditional industrial communities around the nation.  Most of these people are descended from people who came to the United States from northern Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  They have been told by political opportunists that new immigrants challenge their right to good jobs.  However, the real problem is that those jobs are no longer available to anyone.  Change has created a new working environment for everyone.
            Friedman acknowledges that gap between the pace of technological change and social change is a cause of serious concern and anxiety, especially in the political realm.  “It is time,” he concludes, “to redouble our efforts to close that anxiety gap with imagination and innovation and not scare tactics and simplistic solutions that will not work” (p. 202). 
            Part of the solution is a societal commitment to lifelong education that will help all members of society to keep pace with technological change so that they can continue to thrive in a rapidly evolving environment.  We need to acknowledge that, even with a commitment to universal K-14 education, this only prepares students to find their skills.  At the same time, we need to acknowledge that, as Friedman notes, an undergraduate degree simply prepares a grad for his/her first job.  Education must become a lifelong resource to help people adjust their careers to changing circumstances and then to an active role in the community after retirement.
            Beyond that, Friedman argues that, in order to keep pace with technology-related change, we need to innovate “in everything other than technology.”  He writes:
“It is reimagining and redesigning your society’s workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics, and community—in ways that will enable more citizens on more days in more ways to keep pace with how these accelerations are reshaping their lives and generate more stability as we shoot through these rapids” (p. 199).

            At the end of the day, the issue is not returning to a long-lost past but learning to innovate as individuals and communities to create a new social environment that can prosper in a world in which humans—and their technology—are a force of nature.   

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