Thomas Friedman, best-selling author and three times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times, was in London to speak to an audience including MPs and Peers as part of the British Council’s Future Leaders Connect programme, speaks to Insight Editor Alasdair Donaldson about his latest book: ‘Thank You For Being Late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations’. 

Accelerating technological, environmental, and economic change

Thomas Friedman, thank you very much for speaking to Insight. Tell us about your latest book and the lessons you think it might hold for tomorrow’s leaders and policymakers? 

Thank you for having me. My book’s main thesis is that our world is being transformed by three interacting and accelerating forces - technological change (driven by ‘Moore’s Law’), environmental change (driven by a population explosion and global warming), and economic change (driven by globalisation) – and that we must learn to adapt fast. 

You call your book an ‘optimist’s guide’. Science suggests that optimists live longer and are happier than pessimists - but that they are also more likely to be wrong. What would a pessimist make of the ultimate destination of your three macro-trends, and would they have a point?

I think a pessimist would say the same as an optimist: these changes are going to require individual, community and national adaptation, and there is a real question as to whether we are going to be able to adapt. A pessimist would say ‘I think we can’t’. 

The world is too fast. People want to stop it and break it. But I do believe in the incredible adaptability of human beings

These forces – and Moore’s Law in particular – are leading to exponential rates of change. However well we adapt, won’t we find it impossible to learn to adapt exponentially fast, and therefore inevitably be over-taken by technology?

A good question. I don’t know. It’s hard to predict. If you ask me what I most worry about it’s that. That the world is too fast. People want to stop it and break it. But I do believe in the incredible adaptability of human beings to find different ways to do different things. We used to work with our hands. Machines replaced that but we started to work with our heads instead in a knowledge economy. Now computing is threatening many of those jobs. Next I think we’re going to work more with our hearts. We live in the most connected age in history and yet the surgeon general of the US is telling us that the biggest health problem we face is isolation. That tells me there’s going to be a huge industry in connecting our hearts. People are much more adaptive and creative than you might give them credit for.

OK but some of them adapt faster than others. What do we do about people from e.g. older generations or different regions and backgrounds who are less well equipped to adapt to these changes?

We have to really re-think legislation. E.g. If life-long learning to keep up with the pace of acceleration is the single most competitive skill you now need, then shouldn’t all adult education be made tax free? And we need to understand that careers will come from places we would never expect.

In your book you talk movingly about values, the values you grew up with and how they influence you now. But you also point out that politics can change culture and change values. Can religious values from the ancient world of social values from 1950’s small town America (where you grew up) still be of value in this brave new world we’re entering?

That’s why I wrote this book. I’m on a one man crusade to celebrate and remind people of those values and why they are so important. Why what matters is not the things you can down-load but the things you have to up-load the old-fashioned way: good parent to child, good teacher to pupil, good minister to congregation, good government to citizen. We need those values more than ever. Your kids are going to be interacting globally and you won’t be able to peer over their shoulders forever. You’ll need to give them the tools to cope. You’ll need, for example, to school them in digital civics so they can understand what is and isn’t fake news. That’s a very important area for the British Council too, by the way.

A huge political transition

You also talk in your book about the policies you recommend in an American context. Today you’ve been addressing the British Council’s Future Leaders Connect conference, which is about the future of global policymaking. What are the best global policy solutions to the global challenges that these three forces are driving? And how can we put them into effect in an era of a revival of ‘my-nation-first’ foreign policy that is reacting against globalisation?

Let’s not ignore the backlash but also not exaggerate it. A Martian looking at the Earth would see the trend to globalisation (except perhaps in a few recent electoral events, but don’t miss the overall trend for the events). There may be political pressures pushing the other way, but disconnecting in a connected world, and to do so in a way that is better for voters, is probably impossible. That will make it hard for those political pressures to succeed.

We’ve got political parties built to respond to old challenges. We’ll need to move to having political parties that are built to respond to my three accelerations

Would you see those political events as responses to your three accelerating forces? What do they mean for traditional political parties?

Totally. We’re in a huge political transition. People are trying to figure out what to do. We’ve got political parties built to respond to old challenges. We’ll need to move to having political parties that are built to respond to my three accelerations and the way that elections are now being fought and won thanks to social media. That’s why all the old parties are being defeated. They weren’t built to answer these questions. 

I was very struck by you saying in your talk to the Future Leaders, that you were not an active user of social media. Do you feel that some of the political polarisation that we’ve been seeing is being caused by it?

Yes, it’s being generated there. Social media is a giant political arousal mechanism. Now you can immediately see footage or arguments, anywhere in the world of things that can make you mad. This anger gets amplified. And leaders start to join in. We’re living in an age of political arousal. That’s hard to manage.

Speaking of passionate politics, you’ve worked a lot in the Middle East in your career and in the last few years that region has been an epicentre of change (political, social, demographic), not to mention political violence – have you got any policy suggestions for the Middle East or lessons we can learn from it and apply elsewhere?

I think the challenge is to get the basics right: good governance, rule of law and good education. The reason the Middle East fell behind is because it had generation of bad governance, rule of law and education (particularly of women and girls). They’ve got to catch up. My question is: is it too late? Tunisia was the one country in the Arab Spring that created a functioning democracy. That’s because it had better existing civil society and education. That’s why the British Council and organisations like it are so important because they can help share things like that. Get the fundamentals right.

The robots are coming – are we going to fall in love with them or fight them?

Either way, the robots will only win if we let them. The one thing robots can and never will have is a heart, so we’ll end up working much more with our hearts. Connecting hearts to hearts via healthcare, social groups, etc, that will be the future. Lots of companies today look for things on their CVs that show the right social skills. Soft skills like getting up, turning up, cleaning up, dressing up, sitting up, shutting up. They want you to have been in the equivalent of the boy scouts as then there’s a good chance you’ll have those soft skills. That takes you back to the British Council because promoting those soft skills is part of what you do so well and that’s why organisations like yours are more important than ever. 

It’s been a privilege to talk to you. Thank you and I don’t want to make you late for the next thing in your busy schedule…

Thank you. Well, maybe it would be good if I was just a bit late…

Future Leaders Connect seeks out exceptional young people aged 18-35 from around the world, who have the potential to make significant change in the areas of policy and politics. Applications for the programme will open once more in February 2018, find all the information about Future Leaders Connect here.