Modern life: the big challenge we face

Tom Friedman’s latest book made my head spin. It’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He’s a bigger optimist than me.

The “accelerations” in question concern technology, globalization, and climate change, all transforming the world at breakneck speed. Faster, indeed, than human psychology and culture can keep up with.

Friedman

What spun my head was Friedman’s rundown of technology’s acceleration. He sees 2007 as an inflection point, with the iPhone and a host of other advances creating a newly powerful platform that he calls not the Cloud but the “Supernova.” For instance there’s Hadoop. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t. It’s a company, that also emerged in 2007, revolutionizing the storage and organization of “Big Data” (as best I understand it), making possible explosions in other technologies. And GitHub — 2007 again — blasting open the ability to create software.*

All this is great — for people able to swim in it. But that’s not everybody. A lot of people are thrown for a loop, disoriented, left behind. Bringing them up to speed is what Friedman says we must do. Otherwise, we’ll need a level of income redistribution that’s politically impossible.

The age-old fear (starting with the Luddites) is “automation” making people obsolete and killing jobs. It’s never happened — yet. Productivity improvements have always made society richer and created more jobs than those lost. But Friedman stresses that the new jobs are of a different sort now. No longer can routine capabilities produce a good income — those capabilities are being roboticized. However, what robots can’t substitute for is human social skills, which are increasingly what jobs require. AI programs can, for example, perform medical diagnoses better than human doctors, so the role of a doctor will become more oriented toward patient relations, where humans will continue to outperform machines.

But schools aren’t teaching that. Our education system is totally mismatched to the needs of the Twenty-first Century. And I can’t see it undergoing the kind of radical overhaul required.

I’ve often written how America’s true inequality is between the better educated and the less educated, which have become two separate cultures. Friedman says a college degree is now an almost indispensable requirement for the prosperous class, but it’s something children of the other class find ever harder to obtain. All the affirmative action to help them barely nibbles at the problem.

On NPR’s This American Life I heard a revealing profile of an apparently bright African-American kid who did make it into a good college, with a scholarship no less. But he had no idea how to navigate in that unfamiliar environment, and got no help there, left to sink or swim on his own. He sank.

Friedman talks up various exciting innovative tools available to such people not born into the privileged class, to close the gap. But to take advantage of them you have to be pretty smart and clued in. I keep thinking about all the people who aren’t, with no idea how they might thrive, or even just get by, in the new world whooshing up around them. I’ve written about them in discussing books like The End of Men and Hillbilly Elegy. It wasn’t just “hillbillies” Vance was talking about there, but a big swath of the U.S. population. A harsh observer might call them losers; throw-away people.

I’m enraged when charter schools are demonized as a threat to public education. That’s a Democrat/liberal counterpart to Republican magical thinking. These liberals who spout about inequality and concern for the disadvantaged are in denial about how the education system is part of the problem. Public schools do fine in leafy white suburbs; schools full of poor and minority kids do not. For those kids, charter school lotteries offer virtually the only hope.

Of course, the problem of people unfitted for modernity isn’t unique to America. There are billions more in other countries. Yet most of us don’t realize how fast an awful lot of those people are actually coming up to speed. But there’s still going to be a hard core who just cannot do it, and no conceivable government initiatives or other innovations will be a magic wand turning them into fairies. Instead it seems we’re headed toward one of those future-dystopia sci-fi films where humanity is riven between two virtually distinct species — the golden ones who live beautiful lives, forever, and the rest who sink into immiseration. I do think most people can be in the former group. And I hope they’ll be generous enough to carry the others at least partway to the Eden.

But what Friedman keeps stressing is the need for culture, especially in politics, to change along with the landscape. He applies what he says is the real lesson of biological evolution: it’s not the strongest that thrive, but the most adaptable. In many ways America does fulfill this criterion. Yet in other ways we’re doing the opposite, especially in the political realm where so much of the problem needs to be addressed. The mentioned need for radical education reform is just one example. Our constitution worked great for two centuries; now, not so much. Our political life has become sclerotic, frozen. Add to that our inhabiting a post-truth world where facts don’t matter. Can’t really address any problems that way.

Friedman enumerates an 18-point to-do list for American public policy. Mostly no-brainers. But almost none of it looks remotely do-able today. In fact, on a lot of the points — like opening up more to globalized trade — we’re going the wrong way.

He concludes with an extended look at the Minnesota community where he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. It echoed Robert Putnam’s describing his own childhood community in Our Kids. Both were indeed communities, full of broad-based community spirit. Friedman contrasts the poisonously fractious Middle East where he spent much of his reporting career. He also reported a lot about Washington — and sees U.S. politics increasingly resembling the Middle East with its intractable tribal conflicts.

I’ve seen this change too in my lifetime — remembering when, for all our serious political disagreements, adversaries respected each other and strove to solve problems in a spirit of goodwill. Most politicians (and their supporters) embodied civic-mindedness, sincerity, and a basic honesty. No longer. Especially, sadly, on the Republican side, which for decades I strongly supported. Now it’s dived to the dark side, the road to perdition.

Friedman wrote before the 2016 election — where America turned its back on all he’s saying. Can we repent, and veer toward a better road, before it’s too late?

*Microsoft has just bought GitHub.

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2 Responses to “Modern life: the big challenge we face”

  1. Paul Landsberg Says:

    I tried to read Friedman’s book and actually got disgusted with it. Friedman loves to name drop. He gets to meet with the head of XYZ and goes into a swoon about the pablum, platitudes, and dreck the senior executives feed him. I simply got tired of having to bail 200 pounds of chaf for 1 gram of wheat.

    That said, your inferences are spot on. Education is a particular sore point with me from Pre-K all the way through college. The number of tribes fighting to tilt education to telling “their side of the story” includes the “strange the gov’t by killing funding” crowd and so there really can be no happy ending to this story.

    And as you point out, if we cannot even agree on facts, how will we ever accurately identify problems, solutions, and paths forward?

    AARGH!

  2. frankzollo Says:

    This alarming article addresses some of the same points raised b your review. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/

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