x

Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Thomas Friedman singing the praises of tech evolution

His new book Thank You for Being Late is an optimistic view of the fast paced technological changes making our lives better

The latest version of Google's self driving car is outside the Google X labs in Mountain View, California. Getty Images
The latest version of Google's self driving car is outside the Google X labs in Mountain View, California. Getty Images

With the technology sector looking like a valuation bubble in the US stock market, it is the right time for an euphoric book about how it will transform the future, and how this time it will be faster and more radical than in the past.

Maybe this book will also mark the top of the bubble.

Step forward the New York Times columnist and long-time Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman with Thank you for being late, published last month just in time for festive stockings or Kindle downloads.

I remember being impressed by The Internet for Dummies by John Levine in 1999, before the dot-com crash the following year. Friedman strikes a similar evangelistic tone, believing that everything tech shifted up a couple of gears in 2007 and is now growing exponentially.

In the past I used to find his commentaries on the Middle East rather depressing. But Friedman is a more optimistic person these days and a big fan of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well as the potential for new technology to change the world for the better.

Anybody who wants to get up to date with technology ought to find this book useful, whether you are Dubai billionaire like Mohamed Alabar about to launch Noon, a regional e-commerce rival to Amazon, or just an average person struggling to keep up with the mind-blowing flow of developments.

Friedman and I belong to the same generation. Since my schooldays I’ve gone from using a computer the size of a small family home to draw two lines on a graph to having more computing power in my mobile phone than they used to land on the Moon.

Actually, I prefer Friedman’s analogy of what would have happened to a Volkswagon Golf from the mid-70s when subjected to similar changes. It would apparently have a top speed of 300,000 mph and run for a lifetime on a single tank of petrol.

To say present car technology is still low-tech is something of an understatement. But Tesla and Elon Musk are about to fix that, too.

In the book, Friedman goes for a ride in Google’s driverless car and feels safer than being driven by a human.

In computing, the ultra-fast speed of change is down to Moore’s Law. Scientist Gordon Moore decreed in the 1970s that the amount of circuits you could squeeze on to a microchip would double every two years, later amended to one year.

Remarkably, that law still applies and it has resulted in an incredible compounding of computer power around the world to its current heights.

I liked Friedman’s interview with the man himself, Moore, age 87, admits he had completely failed to grasp the importance of the internet.

Friedman also gives the example of a supercomputer in 1997 that cost US$70 million and how the Sony PlayStation of 2006 vintage, just nine years later, contained the same amount of computing power and cost $200.

However, there are limits.

Data is now flowing around the world at about half the speed of light and it won’t be able to get any faster than the speed of light as we are all still governed by the laws of physics.

Pulitzer Prize winning Friedman sees 2007 as a standout year.

That was the year the iPhone launched, a revolutionary combination of mobile telephony, the internet and computer applications.

It also did away with a physical keyboard, paving the way for the equally innovative iPad.

The year 2007 was also when websites such as Airbnb and Facebook emerged and other things happened under the hood to make the internet of just about everything happen quicker and faster.

What does this all mean for our future?

It is here that Friedman’s expertise in the byzantine world of global politics helps him segue from technology to its wider social, political and economic implications.

His first insight is that technology explains why many of us are feeling uncertain, confused and anxious about the future. The pace of change has just got too fast.

The rise of nationalism, as evidenced by the election of the US president Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union, is apparently partly a reaction to technological change running out of control as rules and regulations just cannot keep up with it.

Friedman gives the example of how, during the sudden wave of undocumented migrants into the EU in 2015, the European Commission directed that any boat in the Mediterranean with a handicapped person on board was to be given priority.

Within a week every boat was carrying somebody in a wheelchair. Word had spread across social media and other electronic channels like wildfire. Perhaps not so surprisingly, on landing, most migrants asked for water and where to charge their mobile phone.

You will have to read the book to see if you agree with Friedman’s conclusion that the speed of change at many levels in our society will accelerate over the next 20 years with many unexpected changes, mostly for the better.

There are also chapters on climate change and population growth that vie with the best futurology.

Overall, this book is a masterly exposition of the state of the modern world by one of its leading journalists.

RELATED ARTICLES
Recommended