EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The World in 2019
DATE: 5:00pm-6:00pm, 2nd April 2019
VENUE: Committee Room 14, House of Commons
SPEAKER: Thomas L. Friedman
EVENT CHAIR: Lee Rowley MP
Thomas Friedman: And I just spontaneously said that actually Peter, thank you for being late. Because you were late, I’ve been eavesdropping on their conversations. Fascinating! I’ve been people watching the lobby. Fantastic! And best of all, best of all I’ve just connected two ideas I’ve been struggling with for a month, so thank you for being late. People started to get into it. They said ‘well you’re welcome’, because they understood I was actually giving them permission to pause, to slow down, to reflect, in fact my favourite quote from the front of the book, from my teacher Doug Sizeman who says ‘you know when you press the pause button on a computer it stops, but when you press the pause button on a human being, it starts.’ That’s when it starts to reflect, rethink and re-imagine, and boy don’t we need to be doing a lot of that right now.
So this book actually was triggered when I paused and engaged with someone I would not normally engage with. I actually live in Bethesda Maryland, outside of D.C. and I take the subway to work about once a week, that means driving from our home in Bethesda to the Bethesda Hyatt, I take the Red Line into D.C. to The New York Times bureau near the White House, and four years ago I did that, drove to the parking garage got my time stamp ticket, took the Ed Line into D.C., spent the day at The New York Times, took the Red Line back, got in my car, time stamp ticket, drove to the cashiers booth, handed the ticket to the cashier, he looked at it and looked at me and said ‘I know who you are’. I said ‘great!’ He said ‘I read your column,’ I thought ‘great! The parking guy reads my column!’ He said ‘I don’t always agree,’ I thought ‘get me the hell out of here,’ but I said ‘no, that’s good it means you always have to check,’ and I drove off thinking ‘parking guy reads my column, that’s good.’
A week later I took my weekly trip into D.C.: parking garage, time stamp ticket, Red Line, office day, New York Times, Red Line back, car, time stamped ticket, cashiers booth. Same guy’s there. This time he says ‘Mr Friedman I have my own blog, would you read my blog?’ I thought ‘Oh my god, the parking guy is now my competitor? What just happened?’ So I said write it down for me and I’ll look it up, so he wrote it down: odenami.com. I went home, fired up my computer, looked it up, turned out he’s Ethiopian, writes about Ethiopian politics from the perspective of the Oromo people. It was a little rough but it wasn’t bad. I thought about it for a couple days and thought, ‘this is a sign from god’, that I should pause and engage this guy but I didn’t get his email, so all I could do was park in the parking garage every day, which I did for four days. We overlapped at 7 in the morning, I got out of my car, now I know his name, [Unintelligible 2:50-3:00], I said ‘Ode, I would like to send you a message, give me your email, which he did. We began an email exchange that evening which I shared in the book, I saved them all, in which I basically said to him ‘I have a proposition for you. I will teach you how to write a column in The New York Times, if you will tell me your life story,’ and he said ‘I see you’re proposing deal, I like this deal’.
So we met two weeks later at Pete’s Coffee House in Bethesda and I presented him with a six page memo, which I had never done before, on how to write a column in the New York Times, and he presented me with his life story. Ethiopian grad of economics of Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa. Was a political democracy advocate there, for democracy for the Oromo people. He eventually got thrown out. We welcomed him in America as a political exile, we used to do that, and he came over to the States, started blogging on Ethiopian websites but they were too slow he told me, so he decided to start his own blog, ‘and now Mr. Friedman, I feel empowered.’ His Google metrics say that he is read in 30 different countries. This is my parking attendant, and it’s a wonderful story about how anyone today can participate in the global conversation.
I then presented him with a six page memo on how you write a column in The New York Times. I explained to him that a news story was meant to inform, I could write a news story about this event and the Henry Jackson Society people, our wonderful hosts here, would tell me if I had informed better or worse, but what I do, an opinion writer, is I’m actually meant to provoke. I’m actually trying to produce a reaction. I’m either in the heating business or the lighting business, that’s what I do. I’m either doing a heating or a lighting. I’m either stoking up an emotion in you or illuminating something for you, and if I really do it well I do both, but I explained to him that to do that you actually have to combine three chemicals.
First is, what is your value set? What is your set of values that you are trying to push into the world? Are you a communist, a capitalist, a neocon, a neoliberal, a libertarian, a Marxist or a Keynesian? What are the values you’re pushing? Second, and this will be the thrust of my talk this evening, is how do you think the machine works? So the machine is my shorthand for what are the biggest forces shaping more things, in more ways, in more places on more days, because as a columnist I’m always walking around with a working hypothesis of how the machine works, because I’m trying to take my values and push the machine in their direction, and if I don’t know how the machine works I either won’t push it or I’ll push it in the wrong direction, and what have you learned about people and culture? Because there is no column without people and no people without culture. How does the machine moving effect different people and how do they come back and effect the machine? Stir those three together, let it rise, bake for 45 minutes and if you do it right you too can write a column in The New York Times.
Well the more I thought about this, the more I sat back and said ‘well if that’s what a column’s about, what are my values? Those of you who read me know I’m not quite a conservative, I’m not a liberal, because my values actually arise from the small own in Minnesota where I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, in a time and place where politics worked, and nothing has affected my values and outlook more than that. Second, how do I think the machine works today and lastly what have I learned about how it’s impacting people and culture, and that’s what ‘thank you for being late’ is all about. So what I want to talk about now is how that machine works, and how that machine is not just changing your world, it’s actually reshaping your world, and it’s reshaping 5 realms: politics, geopolitics, the workplace, ethics and community.
How does the machine work today? Well I think the biggest forces shaping more things, in more places, in more ways, in more days today are what I call: the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law.
So, Mother Nature for me is climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth in the developing world. If you put Mother Nature on a graph or on a picture plate she looks like, oh she looks like that! Glacier National Park 1913, Glacier National Park 2012. Next slide please. Or she looks like Lake Chad 1963 and Lake Chad that little blue smudge down there in 2013. Next slide please. Or she looks like a graph of global average temperatures, she looks like a hockey stick. Next slide. Or she looks like another hockey stick: a graph of extreme weather events. Next slide. Or she looks the mother of all hockey sticks, a graph of global population growth throughout history. Put Mother Nature on a graph and she’s one accelerating hockey stick.
The market for me is globalisation, but not your grandfather’s globalisation. That was containers on ships and planes. What’s globalising the world today is digital globalisation. Everything’s being digitised and globalised, through online learning classes, through Facebook, through Twitter, through PayPal. It’s digital globalisation that’s knitting the world together. Again, put it on a graph and it looks like, next slide, another hockey stick! Total data consumed for a month, next slide. Or another hockey stick: global cellular subscriptions in the United States or Great Britain or Chad, never mind, they all look like hockey sticks, next slide. Or a graph of global internet users, another hockey stick. Put globalisation on a graph today and it looks like that.
The third acceleration is in Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law was coined in 1965 by Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, the chip company, in a famous article in Electronics Magazine, in which he posited that the speed and power of microchips would double every 24 months and the price would stay the same. Put Moore’s Law on a graph and it looks like, next slide please, it looks like the mother of all hockey sticks, OK? Now Moore’s Law has been alive and well since 1965, 54 years, and every year in the last 54 years someone has written an article saying that ‘Moore’s Law’s over, Moore’s Law’s over’. And what all those authors have in common is that they were all wrong. Moore’s Law is alive and well. My friends Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson in their book: ‘The Second Machine age’, like to tell the story from Silicon Valley, a story often told there, about the man who invented the game of chess, and he had to give it to the king who loved it and said ‘how can I reward you good sir?’ and the man said ‘well I’d just like to feed my family your highness’, and he said ‘it hall be done, what would you like?’ he said ‘you know, your highness, just take one grain of rice and put it on the first square of my chessboard, then put two on the second, four on the next, eight on the next, 16 on the next, 32 on the next, just keep doubling it. My family will be fine. The king said ‘it shall be done,’ not realising that when you double something just 63 times, the number you get is about 18 quintillion. Which is more rice than existed on the planet. That’s what’s happening with microchips, and we just entered the second half of the chess board. When the numbers start to get very, very big, and you start to see some really funky stuff, like cars that can drive themselves, and computers that can defeat any human in chess, jeopardy or go.
A few years ago Intel, to try to explain the power of Moore’s Law, actually got their engineers to take 1971 Volkswagen Beetle and to estimate ‘what if that Volkswagen Beetle had improved at the same rate microchips had since 1971?’ and Intel’s engineers did that and they estimated that if that had been the case, that VW Beetle today would go 300,000 miles an hour, it would get 2 million miles per gallon, and it would cost you four cents. You’d be able to drive it your entire life on a single tank of gas. This computer is running on an Intel 14 nanometre chip, it has 35 million transistors per square millimetre. Last January Intel began shipping their 10 nanometre chip, it has 100 million transistors per square metre, and Intel can tell you exactly how they can do their 7 nanometre chip. This acceleration just marches on. My argument is that these three accelerations are all intertwined with one another, they’re all three in acceleration and the collective intertwining of them is not just changing your world, it’s reshaping it. Politics, geopolitics, the workplace, ethics and community.
I’ll talk about that in a second but I’m just going to do a little deeper dive on Moore’s Law, because it’s the Uber driver of all of them. So my chapter on Moore’s Law in my book is actually called: ‘What the hell happened in 2007?’ What the hell happened in 2007? I know what you’re thinking: ‘2007, what an innocuous year. What’s this guy talking about?’ Well here’s what happened in 2007, the year was kicked off at the Muscone Center in San Francisco, when a guy named Steve Jobs introduced the first one of these babies on January 9th 2007. This is actually a handheld computer, with more compute power in it than the Apollo Space Mission and they tell me it doubles as a phone and a camera. That’s how the year was kicked off.
In 2007, a company called ‘Facebook’ opened its platform to anyone with a registered email address, so old farts like you and me could be on Facebook, and in 2007 it broke out of high schools and universities, and went global. In 2007 a company called ‘Twitter’ split off on its own independent platform and went global. In 2007 the most important software that you’ve never heard of called ‘VMware’ went public. VMware’s what enables any operating system to work on any computer, it’s the foundation of cloud computing. In 2007 the second most important software you’ve never heard of called ‘Hadoop’, named after the founder’s son’s toy elephant, was launched into the wild. Hadoop is what enables a million computers to work together as if they’re one, I think that’s called big data. Hadoop didn’t invent those algorithms. They’re invented by google, they’re called GFS and Macpreduce, but as Doug Cutting, founder of Hadoop, explains in my book: ‘Google lives in the future and sends us letters back home’.
What Google did was leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the open source community for its big data algorithm, so they could reverse engineer it and Hadoop was the free public version of it and every one of your companies is running it in the background. In 2007 the third most important software you’ve never heard of called ‘GitHub’ opened its doors. GitHub today is the largest repository of open source software with over 15 million users and detectives among you will appreciate the fact that it was bought last year by Microsoft. In 2007 Google bought a little known TV company called ‘Youtube’, and in 2007 Google launched into the wild its own operating system, they called it ‘Android’. In 2007 IBM launched the world’s first cognitive computer, they called it ‘Watson’.
In 2007 a guy up in Seattle named Jeff Bezos launched the world’s first ebook reader, he called it the ‘Kindle’. In 2007, the internet had a billion users, 2006 seems to have been a tipping point. In 2007 a company called ‘Netflix’ streamed its first video. In 2007 an anonymous crypto currency expert in Japan launched an essay which launched a crypto currency, they called it ‘Bitcoin’. In 2007 three design students in San Francisco were attending the design conference that year and they noticed all of the hotel rooms were sold out, but one of them had three spare air mattresses, and they thought it might be cool to see if they could rent out their air mattresses to people who couldn’t get hotel rooms, and it worked out so well that in 2007 they started a company called Airbnb, that’s why it’s called Airbnb, because of the founding three air mattresses.
Here’s what else happened in 2007, slightly. This is a graph of sequencing a human genome, the cost of sequencing a genome. It was $100 million in 2001, it fell to $10 million in 2006 and then you’ll notice it goes over a cliff like an EKG heading for a heart attack in 2007. Next slide please. Down to $10,000 dollars, the price of sequencing a human genome collapsed in 2007. Solar energy took off in 2007 as did the profits for extracting natural gas from tight shale, called fracking. Between 2006 and 2008, America’s total natural gas reserves increased by 35% in 18 months, a staggering number. Next slide please. Oh one of my favourites, yeah, this is a graph of social networks, that white line there that sits at $8, that was the cost of transmitting a generating megabit of data back in 2006, and then you’ll notice the price collapses, from $8 to $2 in 2007. The blue line is the speed of transmitting that data, the two lines cross in 2008, as we say in America ‘close enough for government work’. Next slide please. Oh my favourite, a graph of cloud computing. Let’s see, what years do we get statistics, the first year for cloud computing shows up in 2008, which means the cloud was born in 2007. 2007, Intel for the first time went off silicon to extend Moore’s Law and new non-silicon material into its microchips. In 2005, Michael Bell, founder of Bell Computers, retired, and in 2007 he announced he had to come back to work.
Turns out friends, I believe 2007 will be understood in time as the single greatest technological inflection point since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and we all completely missed it. Why? Because of 2008. Yeah, right when our physical technology’s just took off in 2007 like a moving sidewalk in airport that suddenly went from 5 to 50 miles an hour, right when that happened all of our social technologies: the social reform, the regulatory reform, the management reform, the learning reform, you would need with such an acceleration, they all froze because we entered the deepest recession since 1929, and in that gap between what happened to our physical technologies and what happened to our social technologies, many Brexit and Trump voters were born. Because millions of people got dislocated in the gap between those two. So what actually happened in 2007? Well there’s the laptop year, it’s actually got five key components to it, like all computers. It’s got a more evolved processor chip, it’s got a storage chip, it’s got software, it’s got networking and it’s got a sensor or it’s got a camera.
What I do in my book is I trace the history of all five, and what I show is how that all five melded together right around 2007, into this thing we call: ‘the cloud’, the cloud. But I never use the term: the cloud in my book, because it sounds so fluffy, so soft, so cuddly, so benign. It sounds like a Joni Mitchell song. [Sings] I’ve looked at clouds from both sides [audience laughs]. This ain’t no cloud folks. It’s what I call in my book a supernova. Science students among you will know the supernova is the largest force in the natural world, it’s the explosion of a star, because what happened in 2007 was a release of energy into the hands of men, women and machines, the likes of which we have never seen before, and it changed four kinds of power overnight.
First it changed the power of one. What one person can do today as a maker or a breaker is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. In America we have a president who can sit in his pyjamas, in the West Wing of the White House and tweet directly to a billion people now, without an editor, libel lawyer or filter. Or brain maybe too [audience laughs]. But you want to know what’s really scary? The head of Isis can do the exact same thing, from his bunker in Raqqa province in Syria. The power of one individual to be a maker or a breaker has exploded exponentially. The power of machines has changed. Machines are now acquiring all five senses. No member of our species has lived in a world where machines had all five senses, we crossed that line in America at least back in 2011, it was February and it was of all places a game show! There were three contestants, two were the all-time Jeopardy champions and the third contestant simply went by his last name: Mr Watson. Mr Watson passed on the first question, he let the humans entertain themselves, but he buzzed in before them on the second question, see if you can get it. The question was: ‘if worn on the foot of a horse and used by a dealer in a casino’ and in under 2.5 seconds Mr. Watson said, in perfect Jeopardy style, an artificially computer generated voice, ‘what is a shoe?’ What is a shoe, and for the first time we all got to watch, live on TV, a cognitive computer solve a pun-riddle faster than 2 human beings, and the world kind of hasn’t been the same since.
It’s changed the power of flows. In the old days in Britain, what did you want? You wanted stocks! You wanted lots of stocks of stuff and knowledge and goods because the world moved slowly, and the more stocks you had the better you were. Well today you don’t want stocks, today you want to be in touch with the flows. It’s the digital flows that drive knowledge, that drive growth, that drive innovation. Where did you want to build your town in the middle ages? You wanted to build it on a river! Because the river brought you the flow of ideas, of people, of power and of food. You wanted to build your town on the amazon. Where do you want to build your town today? On Amazon.com. You want to build it on the digital flows, because they are now the drivers of growth, innovation, opportunity. And lastly it’s changed the powers of men, because when men, women and machines get this super empowered, we become the largest functioning force on and in the natural world. Which is why the new climate era has been named for us: ‘The Anthropocene.’ These four changes in power, I repeat, they are not just changing your world. They are reshaping your world. They are reshaping politics, geopolitics, ethics, the workplace and community. So let’s talk about that.
Let’s first of all talk about the workplace. Next slide please. So it may be hard for some of you to see in the back, I’ll try to translate. I was working on my book and I had the ideas and I went up to see my friend Astro Teller, he runs Google X, Google’s research arm out in Google headquarters, his title is chief astronaut. I gave him the thesis of my book and Astro went and got three magic markers and he did this spontaneously, and he just made up this graph but it’s rather illustrative, so this blue line across the middle, you can see it’s a, has a positive slope that is very gradual. He labelled that ‘human adaptability’. That’s the rate at which the average person or town or school in the UK or America adapts to change over time. It has a positive slope but it’s very gradual. The white line is technology, so you’ll notice it’s very flat over there, that’s because in the 11th Century not much changed you know, or even in a century! There was no bow and arrow 2.0 in the 12th Century, OK? Yeah it’s very flat. But then we’ve got the scientific revolution, Copernicus and Galileo, and then eventually Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Intel and Microsoft, the line starts to go straight north. They even drew that little diamond there, above the line. I said ‘what’s that Astro?’ ‘Oh Tom,’ he said, ‘that’s where we are.’
We’re at a point now where technology is evolving faster than the average community, individual, parliament can adapt to. Then he went and got another magic marker, next slide please, hard to see, and he drew this little dotted line there, and I said ‘what’s that Astro?’ He said ‘that’s learning faster and governing smarter,’ and that’s the challenge of every parliament, every parent, every school, every mayor. How do we lift the adaptation line so that every one of our citizens and our kids can meet technology where it’s going and get the best out of it? That is the central challenge of the workplace today, which is why my chapter on the workplace is called: ‘How do we turn AI into IA?’ How do we take artificial intelligence and turn it into intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants and intelligent algorithms, so more people, more kids and citizens, can lift the adaptation line and meet technology where it’s going. I’m happy to talk about that in more detail in the Q&A if you want, but let me move on to the other realms, some of which are more central to what’s going on here.
Politics is being reshaped. How is politics being reshaped? Well you may have noticed that pretty much every party in the industrial world has blown up in the last five years. Yours have certainly blown up, the Republican Party has blown up in America, the Democrats will blow up as soon as they’re in power they just don’t know it yet. France is ruled by a guy who has no party he discovered when the Yellow Vests showed up. That party didn’t exist before. Italy is ruled by two parties, far right and far left in a crazy coalition that never existed before. Pretty much every political party in the industrial world is blowing up or has blown up. Why is that? Well I would argue it’s because when the world was slow, all these parties were built on a very simple set of binary choices that were stable for five decades. They were: capital vs. labour, big government, high regulation, small government, low regulation, open versus closed, open to trade or immigration vs. closed to both, social norms to be banned gay marriage, transgender rights, and social norms to be permitted, and green vs. growth.
Those were sort of the five pillars and every party pretty much lined up against one or the other, and those choices were stable over five decades. What’s happened now? Basically another way of restating my thesis is that we’re going through three climate changes at once. We’re going through what I ‘later to now.’ So when I was growing up in Minnesota in the 50’s and 60’s, later was when I could clean that river, purify that lake, rescue that orang-utan. I could do it now or I could do it later. Today later is officially over. Later will now be too late, so whatever you’re going to save, please save it now, because later is over. That’s a climate change.
We’re going through a change in the climate of globalisation, we’re going from an interconnected world to an interdependent world, oh that’s a very different world because in an interdependent world, you get a geoeconomic inversion where your friends start to be able to kill you faster than your enemies. You know if Greek and Italian banks had gone under last night this meeting would have been cancelled. Greece, Italy, wait a minute they’re in the EU! They can kill me in an interdependent world, and in an interdependent world your rival falling becomes more dangerous than your rival rising. If China had taken six more islands in the South China Sea last night, don’t tell anybody, couldn’t care less. Had China lost 6% growth last night? Oh my god, the cabinet would be in emergency session about something other than Brexit. China falling in an interdependent world is so much more dangerous than China rising.
And lastly we’re going through a climate change in business, every business today can and therefore must, first censorise, capture all their data now we’re censors, analyse that data, they can now look at data, find the needle in the haystack of their data as the norm not the exception, optimise off that data, prophesise off that data, you may have seen the IBM Watson repairman ad in America. IBM Watson repairman shows up at a high rise building, says I’m here to fix the elevator, doorman says the elevator’s not broken, he says ‘I know but it will be in six weeks and three days.’ I can prophesise off that date, I can customise off that data just for guys from Minnesota with brown eyes and a moustache. I can localise off that data just for the House of Commons. I can socialise off that data, use social networks to connect out with my employees, my customers and my suppliers, and I can automatise and digitise off that data. More and more jobs, products and services. You put all this together, every business today is going through a climate change.
We’re going through three climate changes at once folks, and do you what those three climate changes have done collectively? They’ve completely blown up those binary choices. Let’s say I’m a steelworker in Pittsburgh. On Monday to Friday I’m with Labour! I’m with Corbyn! I want high regulation, high government involvement in my industry, but on Saturday, just to pick up a little spare change, I try to flip over. And on Sunday I try to rent out my kids spare bedroom on Airbnb. And after I let the guests in I go shopping at Walmart for the cheapest Chinese imports I can find and what I can’t find there I buy from a chat bot on Amazon.com. Oh on the weekend’s baby I’m with Caplan. I don’t want any government interference with any of that stuff. Which party am I in? Am I Labour? Monday to Friday. Am I with the Tories? Saturday and Sunday. My climate change has completely blown up all of these choices.
Now what do you want when the climate changes? You want two things, you want reliance, usually you’ll take a blow because stuff happens when the climate changes. But you also want propulsion, you want to be able to move ahead. You don’t want to be curled up under the desk with people saying ‘Tom come out, the climate change is over’. So I thought about that, but who can I go to then for advice on how you get resilience and propulsion when the climate changes? And then I realised I knew this woman. She was 3.8 billion years old, her name was Mother Nature and she’d dealt with more climate changes than anybody. So I called her up, made an appointment and went out to see her. I said ‘Mother Nature, how do you produce resilience and propulsion when the climate changes?’ She said ‘Well Tom I gotta tell you everything I do, I do unconsciously but these are my strategies:
‘First of all,’ she said, ‘I’m incredibly adaptive. In my world it’s not the smartest that survive, it’s not the strongest that survive. It’s the most adaptive that survive. And I teach that lesson through a process I call natural selection. You may have heard of it. Secondly,’ she said, ‘I’m incredibly entrepreneurial. Wherever I see a blank space in nature I fill it with a plant or animal, perfectly adapted to that nitch. I’m incredibly entrepreneurial. And third,’ she said, ‘I’m incredibly pluralistic, oh Tom I’m the most diverse person you’ve ever met, I love pluralism. I’ve tried twenty different species of everything, I see who wins.’ And she told me something interesting. She told me her most diverse ecosystems are her most resilient and propulsive ecosystems. ‘I love diversity.’ Fourth she said ‘I’m incredibly sustainable. Everything is food, nothing is wasted. Eat food, poop, sleep, eat food, poop, sleep, nothing is wasted. Fifth,’ she said, ‘I’m incredibly hybrid and heterodox and experimental. I’ll try any trees with any soils, any bees with any flowers, no ideological dogmatism for me in this kind of world of rapid change. Seventh,’ she said, ‘I believe healthiest ecosystems all work because they network together and create complex adaptive coalitions between the different plants and animals that improve everyone’s resiliency and propulsion. Eighth,’ she said, ‘I’m a lifelong learner, and I take all of my learning and turn it into new DNA’. And lastly she said, ‘I do believe in the laws of bankruptcy. I kill all my failures. I return them to the great manufactory in the sky and I take their energy to nourish my successes.’
And my argument, is that the political party that most closely mirrors Mother Nature’s strategies for building resilience and propulsion when the climate changes, is the one that will thrive in the age of acceleration. And just to make that point because I was writing my book in 2016, I imagined if Mother Nature were running against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and I created Mother Nature’s political party, with an 18 point platform based on her principles of resilience and propulsion. Of course it’s just a proxy for my own politics but never mind. I do believe eventually if you’re looking for, I think a new way a party has to think about the world, you couldn’t do better than use Mother Nature as a guide.
So let me say a few words about geopolitics and ethics, and then we’ll open the floor. How is geopolitics being shaped? Did the show ‘Get Smart’ ever make it to UK television? This spoof we had in America, it was Don Adams, he was a secret agent, it was a spoof of James Bond actually. Anyways, it was about an American secret agent and the organisation he worked for was called ‘CONTROL’, and their worldwide enemy was not Smirch, it was called ‘KAOS’. So I believe the writers of that show were ahead of their time, because I believe the great geopolitical divide in the world today is no longer East/West, North/South, Communists/Capitalists, it’s between the world of order and the world of disorder, and that’s how pure politics is being shaped reshaped so let me explain.
We know that the world was governed for millennia by empires, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, the Greek Empire. That’s how we governed the world until the 20th Century basically, when we really broke up the world into individual nation states after World War 1 and World War 2 and decolonisation. So much so we woke up in 1945, we looked around at the UN, we had 192 countries. Now the 50 years after World War 2 were a fantastic time to be a weak little country, oh my god if you were a weak little country that was your era. Why? First because there were two superpowers competing for your affection, throwing money at you, building your government house, sending you food aid, sending you foreign aid, educating your kids at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow or Wichita State in America. It’s fantastic. You could be Syria and lose three wars to Israel, and get your army rebuilt for free all three times. Number 1. Number 2 populations were very moderate and there was virtually no climate change. Number 3 and 4 is that no one had one of these, to even see what London looked like, or Paris or Phoenix, let alone just their leader in the valley next door, and lastly China was not in the world trade organisation, so every country could be on the textile lists.
My argument is around 2007, all of that changes, all of that gets swept away because of my three accelerations. Now, number 1, no superpower wants to touch your country, because all they win is a bill. Yeah sure, Russia, Putin’s in Syria, he’s not rebuilding the country, he’s just on a geopolitical ego trip. He’s not spending a rouble on actually fixing the country. No superpower wants to touch you anymore, because all they win is a bill. Second, populations are out of control. By 2050 Nigeria will have more people than America, 411 million people. Africa’s population is set to double between now and 2050 from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion. Climate change is now hammering countries, I did a documentary last year for national geographic on climate refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and we started in villages in northern Senegal, where there are no men ages 18-65, they’ve all fled or they’ve left in search of work because of the combination of population and climate change, small scale agriculture cannot sustain them anymore. Senegal is already at 2 degrees rise in average temperature since the industrial revolution. 2 degrees rise in average temperature, where have I had that before? Oh that’s what the Paris climate agreement was designed to prevent by 2100. Senegal is already there. They’re going to 4 degrees. And lastly, China’s in the World Trade Organisation, so nobody can be in the textile business.
I was in Egypt for the Tahrir Square revolution, went home after the revolution and was gone from my wife for three weeks so I was at the Cairo Airport ‘Treasures of Egypt Souvenir Shop’. Wanted to buy my little Pumpkin something to remind her where her honey had been for three weeks. Let’s see what do they have here? Pyramid ashtrays, no my Pumpkin doesn’t smoke. Sphinx bookends, Pumpkin has enough bookends. Oh here’s something my honey didn’t have, it was a stuffed camel and if you squeezed its hump it honked! And my honey did not have a honking humped camel! So I picked it up and turned it over and looked on the bottom, and what did it say? Say it with me now: ‘made in China,’ yeah you’re the lowest wage country in the eastern Mediterranean, there’s now a country half a world away, can make your honking, humped camel cheaper than you can, ship it and sell it at a profit. So what’s going on?
My three accelerations are taking all these weak states, and the weakest ones are just blowing up. Okay we blew up on our own, and the others are just haemorrhaging people, creating vast zones of disorder, and what’s happening is all these people are now trying to get out of the world of disorder and into the world of order. Welcome to the European and American immigration crises. We’ve got 187,000 unaccompanied minors, orphans, from just three Latin American countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, in the last four years, and I don’t have to tell you what’s going to happen around Europe. The single greatest geopolitical challenge today, in the world that is being reshaped by these three accelerations, is how we collectively stabilise the world of disorder, so everyone does not want to leave for the world of order, changing the politics of the world of order, creating populist, nationalist backlashes called trump and Brexit, and you know the whole story. That’s where it’s coming from.
Let me conclude by talking about one area that doesn’t get enough attention, and that is ethics, how and why ethics is being reshaped. I’ll do this real quick because I want to get to your questions. My chapter on Ethics is called ‘Is God in Cyberspace?’ Is God in cyberspace? Best question I ever got on a book tour, 1999 I was in Portland Oregon selling my book ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’, it came to question time and a young man stood up in the balcony and said ‘Mr. Friedman, I have a question: is God in cyberspace?’ I said ‘ah… ah… ah… ahhhhh. I have no idea.’ And I felt like a complete idiot. So I came home. I called my spiritual teacher, he’s a rabbi I got to know when I was at the New York Times corresponding in Jerusalem, his name is Tzvi Marx, a brilliant Talmudist, he lives in Amsterdam now, married to a Dutch priest, interesting character. I tracked him down in Amsterdam, I said ‘Tzvi, I got a question I’ve never had before: is God in cyberspace? What should I have said?’ He said ‘well Tom, in our faith community we actually have two concepts of the almighty, we have a biblical and a post-biblical concept. The biblical concept says that the almighty is almighty, he smites evil and rewards good, and if that’s your view of God he sure isn’t in cyberspace, which is full of pornography, gambling, cheating, lying, people smearing one another on Twitter and now we know fake news! But fortunately,’ he said, ‘we have a post-biblical view of God and the post-biblical view of God says God manifests himself by how we behave. So if we want God to be in cyberspace, we have to bring him there. Only we can bring God into cyberspace by how we behave there.’
Really liked his answer, put it into the 2000 paperback edition of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, where many of you saw it, and it sat there for sixteen years. I sat down to write this new book and I suddenly found myself retelling that story, and eventually I sat myself down and said ‘why are you retelling that story?’ and the answer became obvious to me. It was for two reasons and one just happened. I think in the last couple of years, we began living 51% of our lives in cyberspace. It’s where you on out to find a date, find a spouse, buy a house, buy a car, sell your house, sell your car, do your broker, do your banking, write a book, read a book, buy a book, sell a book. We’re now living 51% of our lives in cyberspace, and what’s my definition of cyberspace? It’s a realm where we’re all connected and no one’s in charge. It’s a realm where we’re all connected and no one’s in charge, there’s no courts in cyber space you may have noticed, no stoplights, no stop signs, no police, no judges, no one to stop Vladimir Putin from hacking my election. That’s where you’re living 51% of your life, in other words you’re spending 51% of your life in a realm that is fundamentally God free, and at the same time, because of my accelerations, we’re now standing at a moral intersection we’ve never stood before as a human species.
In 1945 we entered a world post-Hiroshima, where one country could kill all of us. If it had to be one country I’d prefer it be mine. I think we’re entering a world where one person can kill all of us, and at the same time where all of us could actually fix everything. These same accelerated powers are creating a world where one of us can kill all of us and all of us could actually, if we put our minds to it now, we now have the tools to feed, house, clothe and educate every person on the planet. We have never been, no member of our species has ever been to that intersection before, where one of us could kill all of us and all of us could fix everything, and what is that intersection? It means we’ve never been more godlike as a species than we are today. Well put those two together. You’ve never lived more of your life in a realm that’s God free and we have never been more godlike, and what does that mean? It means what every single person thinks, feels and believes really matters now. It means every single person has to be in the embrace of the golden rule and every faith and culture has their version of it: do unto others as you wish them to do unto you, because you now live in a world where more people can do unto you, who did unto us in our election, farther, faster, deeper, cheaper than ever before, and you can do unto others farther, faster, deeper, cheaper than ever before. I won’t go into the details of that any further, we can talk more about ethics if you want later.
Let me conclude my talk as my book does. My talk has a theme song and my book had a theme song, I actually explored if I could buy this song so if you opened my book it would play this song like a Hallmark card plays Happy Birthday. The song is by one of my favourite singers named Brandy Carlile, she’s a country-folk singer, some of you may have seen her on the Grammy’s, and she has a song that I believe is the anthem of our time. Let me just explain one thing before I share this song. The view that I conclude my book with which I can talk about in more detail, because I didn’t talk about community, is we’re living in a world today where everyone’s national politics is paralysed by partisanship, in the democratic world. They’re frozen in the face of these accelerations. We’re living that right now in this country. On the other extreme the single family is too weak against these accelerations. It is, I argue, the healthy community that is gonna be the right governing unit of the 21st Century, and that’s why the book actually ends on how community is being reshaped, and that’s why my theme song is Brandy Carlile’s song, called ‘The Eye’. The main refrain is: ‘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.’
You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye. My three accelerations folks, they are a hurricane. We have politicians all over the world who are trying to build walls against this hurricane. I am arguing they need to build an eye. That is the healthy community. It moves with the storm, draws energy from it that creates a platform of dynamic stability, not frozen stability but dynamic stability like riding a bike, where people can feel connected, protected and respected. I believe the great struggle in your politics and in mine, is going to be the struggle between the wall people and the eye people, and my book is a manifesto for the eye people. Thank you very much.
Lee Rowley MP: Well thank you very much, what a tour de force. We have nine minutes for questions so can we have questions rather than speeches and I’ll take three at a time for Mr. Friedman.
Thomas Friedman: Do one at a time, two is too confusing.
Lee Rowley MP: Ok, sir.
Audience member: What happens if we all die while we’re looking for this eye or we’re trying to build the eye? You say there’s chaos all around and you know, what (46:28-31?) happens before a community is built around the world?
Thomas Friedman: Uhm, not sort of what I’m saying, so let me try to make this a little less confusing. Obviously that’s an in-joke, I mean, any crazy thing can happen, but I’m focused basically on trying to get people to understand: ‘what are the real forces reshaping your life?’, ‘how do we get the best out of them?’ and ‘how do we cushion the worst?’, and if I were running for president I’d be running as a progressive localist. I want to push as much authority and power down to the highest trust level, which in America is the community, because government moves at the speed of trust.
So I don’t think in apocalyptic terms, I’m from Minnesota, we don’t do apocalypse, okay? I’m just focused on where I think governance needs to go and where it can work most effectively and that’s what I’m stressing in my book but beyond that I can’t. Yeah.
Michael Green: Michael Green, Henry Jackson Society. Going just slightly off-piece but one of my policies used to say ‘there’s no such thing as an embarrassing question, only embarrassing answers’. Now, if I could say whenever I read the [unintelligible 47:54-57], which I do, almost on a daily basis, they never seem to miss an opportunity to talk about the anti-Israel stance of the New York Times, what are your comments on that?
Thomas Friedman: When did I stop beating my wife too? Look, you know, we never make everybody happy and we’re not going to start now. There are advocates on both sides who are never happy with our coverage. I’m happy to defend the New York Times, I’m actually more happy to defend myself and my own coverage, and what I’ve learned over the years, you know a lot of times people will say ‘both sides are criticising me, I must be doing something right,’ that’s actually the stupidest thing you can say as a Middle East correspondent, because actually, any fool can write in a way that offends both sides, okay, so that is not my standard. My standard is to be taken seriously and be read by both sides, that they both want to know what I have to say, I think I’ve achieved that and so for me I’m comfortable. Thanks for your question.
Lee Rowley MP: The gentleman in the blue top there.
Audience member: I’m just curious, among current world leaders or people who want to be current world leaders, who you think best epitomises or has policies or ideas that wold reflect your views on what should happen in the future.
Thomas Friedman: I’m kind of rooting for monarchy to return [audience laughs]. No. So in my book, basically what I do in the last chapter of the book is I try to explain actually, this is probably the best way I can explain it to you which is relevant I think for UK politics. So the cliché about America is we’re a country divided between two coasts, two coasts that are liberalising, pluralising, globalising, diversifying and modernising, and then there’s flyover America, where everyone is supposed to be high on opioids, voted for Trump and waiting for the return of 1950. That’s kind of the cliché, okay? It’s actually dead wrong, only look at me, as I’m from flyover America, to know that ain’t true. You want to see an amazing community, come with me to Minneapolis.
So what actually I did in the book and what all my work right now, a lot of it’s just focused on, is trying to understand why one community is rising, and this is what the real America is divided between, of communities that are rising from the bottom up and communities that are collapsing from the bottom down, into opioid use, unemployment, divorce and suicide, and by the way some of these communities are right next door to each other, and what I explain in the book is that communities that are rising are all those that have created what I call complex, adaptive coalitions, I take this from nature, and what these look like in the real world is you have the business community partnering with the philanthropic community, partnering with the education community, partnering with the social entrepreneurship community, partnering with the local government, and they build coalitions together to solve problems on one philosophy: what works? You check your politics before you come into the room, and what I do in the end of the book is actually profile the mother of all those, something called the Itasca project in Minneapolis, but they’re actually emerging all over the country.
It’s actually one of the, you want to be an optimist about America please stand on your head, the country looks so much better from the bottom up, than from the top down. Not that there aren’t communities that are failing, there are, but there’s an incredible dynamism going on in the places that are creating these complex adaptive coalitions. It’s a very different, new kind of politics, and they’re all led by people, one of my teachers did a brief scene called: ‘Leaders Without Authority.’ There are people in the community who step up, build coalitions and a lot of them have no authority, very new phenomena, but I think it’s the most exciting thing happening politically in America today. Don’t take Donald Trump as a proxy for politics in America today. There’s bad news but there’s good news, and some of them are actually right next door to each other, and so I’ve spending my time trying to understand the formula of the good news, the complex adaptive coalition.
Lee Rowley MP: We’ll try and take two more questions, the gentleman with the blue pullover.
Audience member: Hi, you talk about sort of the bargain between, sort of, order and chaos, how do you see the nature of, sort of, conflict or kind of war in the world changing in the future?
Thomas Friedman: Great question. You know, I think that uhm, the biggest thing going on, you know we heard a lot about ‘soft power’, you know Joe Nye’s concept during the Cold War, the hard power/soft power, and I’m just starting to think through and starting to write about something that I’ve coined, I call ‘deep power,’ and deep power is Russia’s cyber war, little green men in Ukraine, attacking our election. I’m sure attacking your election. It’s deep in the system, you know, it’s not overt it’s very deep, and using all of these cyber tools and social networks, and it’s a whole new kind of conflict. You know I wrote a book on, which I alluded to, at the end of the Cold War there were multiple books about ‘what is the system that will replace the Cold War system?’, and some of them that got the most prominence were first of all ‘The End of History’ by Frank Fukuyama. He said it’ll be the time for free markets, free people. Didn’t kinda work out. The second was Sam Huntington’s. He said there’d be a clash of civilisations, actually we’ve seen more clash within civilisations, Sunni’s and Shiite’s for instance in the Middle East. Third was Robert Kaplan, he said there would be ‘The Coming Anarchy’. Well there’s been anarchy but there’s also been a lot of stability, and another one was mine: ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’, and what I argued was actually what’s going to replace the Cold War system is an interaction between what’s really old, our olive tree urges: identity, faith, sect, region, tribe, the things that anchor us in the world, emerging in a world being defined by this new globalisation system, which is what I call the Lexus, and that politics, geopolitics after the Cold War, will be an interaction between these ‘olive tree urges’, intersecting with this new globalisation system. So Putin will seize Crimea and send little green men into Ukraine, but he won’t go to Kiev, because the banking sanctions will cripple his economy. You see that it’s a perfect laboratory of the two kind of meeting, and I still think that that theory is standing, as a way to think about where it’s going and the limits of warfare now. Thank you.
Lee Rowley MP: I’m afraid we’ve hit 6 o’clock so I’m going to have to stop the questions but thank you very much for your contributions, thank you so much for a fantastic conversation this evening.