Columnist/author Thomas Friedman was actually quoting a friend of his when he shared (with a Minneapolis audience Monday) this Zenlike observation on modern times:
“Never think in the box. Never think out of the box. Today you must think without a box.”
That’s one example of grand, mind-blowing and maybe pretty cool stuff that gushes out of local-boy-made-good Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and St. Louis Park native, when he gives a public talk as he did to the Economic Club of Minnesota at the Minneapolis Convention Center as he passed through town on his way home from China.
Friedman thinks big and conceptualizes ambitiously and grandly, in his column, even more so in his books, and he has developed into a very smooth public speaker. His critics sometimes accuse him of terminal glibness and perhaps a touch of grandiosity. While I get what they mean, I don’t blame the guy for wrestling with and, one might say, globalizing about the biggest trends in the world.
In fact, in the first minutes of his remarks yesterday he said: “What I want to talk about this morning is basically how I think about the world.”
He had a few slides, gave a lengthy overview of his recent insights, and then took questions for (in total) an hour. I’d say he told us less about “how” he thinks and more about his latest big thoughts and conclusions. He swings for the fences. But since this isn’t baseball and there are no real umpires, it’s up to each of the spectators to decide whether he whiffed or hit one out of the park.
“The key thesis of [his latest best-selling book] ‘Thank You for Being Late,’’ he said, is that “the world is not just changing, it’s actually being reshaped, and it’s being reshaped by three nonlinear accelerations all going on at the same time.” I can see why some people get grandiosity from that. But, for the moment at least, I just want to see if I can figure out what he thinks he’s figured out and see if it helps me understand the world and the times we inhabit.
I wouldn’t want to try to summarize the three nonlinear accelerations. Smarter people than I will have to figure out whether they are really occurring and whether they are the keys to understanding our current century and challenges and opportunities and dangers.
If you had the full transcript of his remarks (and especially if you read “Thank You for Being Late”), you might develop an opinion of the keyness of the accelerations. But I don’t mean to imply that Friedman is fraudulent – not at all. Somehow he has acquired a gig that enables him to ask these questions aloud, work up a list of possible answers, then move on to other similar questions. He works hard and he shows his work.
Just now, Friedman said, he’s been trying to figure out “why every political party in the world is blowing up.” Did you notice, he asks, that President Emmanuel Macron, who just finished a White House visit, was the candidate of a party that never existed before but which just beat all of the longstanding French parties?
In America, he said (as far as I can tell Friedman has not written a column along these lines), we have one party that thinks it isn’t falling apart because it is currently governing, but which is, nonetheless and unbeknownst to itself, falling apart; and another party that knows it’s falling apart because it just lost the election. (That one I could follow, and I liked it and agreed with it. The U.S. two-party system is in crisis. I’ve argued that it’s really a four- or five-party system jammed into a two-party straitjacket.)
But his own party, Friedman says in a segue to another topic, is “Mother Nature’s Party,” and we are off to a discussion of global warming and its threat to life on earth. His next topic is the ability of computers to revolutionize the human condition by their ability to (all of these words were in one sentence) “optimize,” “socialize,” “analyze,” “customize,” prophesize,” and (this one is a double) “digitize/automatize.”
Friedman was dazzling, but if you had asked me what his argument was, I would have had trouble framing a summary. What I should have done after his talk (instead of racing to beat the crowd out of the room and start typing) was stop a few members of the audience and ask them what they heard, or thought they heard.
Still, I am worried I’ve come across snotty toward Friedman, so I’ll just mention that he’s won three Pulitzer Prizes and speaks (to my knowledge) three languages, but he may have learned more since the long-ago time when we were briefly acquainted as I profiled him for the Strib.