Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US
THOMAS L. Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late, quickly ascended to the top of many bestseller lists. That was expected since the American journalist has written several books that found very large readership across the world. His previous popular books include The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 20th Century and Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How it Can Renew America. The book reviewed here, in fact, constitutes the third part of a trilogy in which the author develops a thesis that should be of immense interest for readers in Pakistan.
The World is Flat, published in 2005, used the extraordinary growth of the sector of information technology in India to present a hypothesis about the emerging global economic system. The ease with which people and enterprises around the world were able to communicate with one another was hastening what economists had begun to call the process of globalisation: “Just as we finished creating this new, more horizontal playing field, and companies and individuals primarily in the West started quickly adapting to it, three billion people who had been frozen out of the field suddenly found themselves liberated to plug and play with everybody else,” he wrote. A “flat world”, Friedman suggested, would also be a more equitable one. There were several reasons why India became the place to which hundreds of Western companies, large and small, went in order to get “back office” work done cheaply and quickly. A physician in the United States at the end of a busy day would dictate into a machine the content of his interactions with his patients. His words would be transcribed by a worker in India and would be available to the doctor when he returned to his clinic the following day. This fast flow of information across the oceans and over thousands of miles was knitting the world together and produced the flat world.
Why did India become a leader in the outsourcing industry? It had several attributes that Pakistan also possessed, including a large and young population with good, working knowledge of English. But it had one thing Pakistan had not developed: a system of world-class institutions of technology that produced a large number of highly qualified engineers. Many of them, not finding jobs in the then slowly moving Indian economy, went abroad in search for employment. The US was a favoured destination. Some of those who had migrated to America are now heading large information technology corporations. The current heads of Microsoft and Google are of Indian origin. Twice on his visits to the US, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi addressed thousands of Indian technology workers employed in hundreds of large and small enterprises across the country.
Friedman further developed his theme of technology changing the world in the book that followed three years later in 2008. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded the focus was not on India, but on the US. Ever the optimist, the author was impressed by the way companies and individuals were putting technology at the service of mankind: “And though some of these ideas are wacky, the number of people experimenting in their garages and local communities certainly tells me that this country is still bursting with vitality from below.” The American youth “want our country to matter again, they want to be summoned, not just to do nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to do nation-building in America — to restore and revitalise something they cherish, but feel is being degraded.”
India had several attributes Pakistan also possessed, including a young population with knowledge of English. But it had one thing Pakistan had not developed: world-class institutions of technology that produced qualified engineers.
The new book picks up on these themes and applies them to the current situation — a situation complicated by the arrival of Donald Trump, a non-politician, to head the US’s political system and from that position, impact the world. As a reviewer of the Friedman book for The Wall Street Journal put it, “in a country torn by a divisive election, technological change, and globalisation, reconstructing local social ties so that people feel respected and welcomed is more important than ever … Rather than build walls, healthy communities can now face their problems and solve them. In Friedman’s telling, this is the way to make America great.”
The book’s main argument is that only by empowering local communities to solve their problems will the disgruntled in America cease to be sour about their situation. By working together, the citizens in these communities will be able to overcome the pressures that have been exerted on them by technological change and globalisation. Friedman makes this point tellingly by revisiting his hometown of Minneapolis and describing how the place of his birth has created a relatively inclusive, homogenous, harmonious, and pragmatic style of governance. As he wrote in his second book, “there is a Chinese proverb that says, ‘when the wind changes direction, there are those who build walls and those who build windmills’.” Friedman wrote this book before the full impact of Trump’s rise had begun to be felt; the book was issued a few days after the real estate tycoon upset his country’s political system.
The “Thank You” in the title of the book refers to the opportunities created by technological change to knit the world together, not split it apart. Friedman writes a weekly column in The New York Times in which recently he worried about the rise of Trump and what he could do to the world to damage the links that had been formed largely because of technological progress. The pace of progress has accelerated. A good part of the technological advance is occurring because of the work being done in the US. Two features of this change should be of interest to places such as Pakistan that have been largely left behind by globalisation.
The first is that some of the pioneers of technological advances are working mostly on their own. The algorithms they use to put new ideas in the marketplace don’t need laboratories well-stocked with expensive equipment. All that is needed is knowledge acquired through education, and desktop and laptop computers. The second important feature of rapid change is the fast pace at which it spreads across the “flat world.” Uber is a good example. The taxi-hailing system was not known a couple of years ago; now it is being used the world over by millions of people, including in Pakistan. What impresses Friedman the most, according to his new book, is the ability of the members of small communities of people to interact with one another. The Arab Spring of 2011 became possible by how people, unhappy with the political systems in which they lived, were able to mobilise. Social networks were used to bring people out in the streets of Aden, Cairo, and Tunis. These networks have also been used in Pakistan to stage demonstrations. It appears to me that in Pakistan social networking will replace the biradari system as a way for political mobilisation. Those in the Pakistani political world who are able to take advantage of the accelerated pace of communicating with one another will have the advantage in the country’s highly competitive political world.
The reviewer is an economist, formerly with the World Bank.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 29th, 2017