On a recent episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, New York Times writer Thomas Friedman talked about the importance of media outlets like the Times, why Twitter is a waste of his time and how the future of work is changing.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about foreign affairs, globalization and technology for the New York Times. He’s the author of several best-selling books including “The World Is Flat.” His new book is called “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” I’ve known Tom for a while. I remember you came to one of my talks on AOL in the '90s, right?
Tom Friedman: Exactly, that was a while ago. [laughs]
So welcome to Recode Decode.
Great to be here, Kara.
Talk a little bit about this book. You wrote “The World Is Flat,” which was about these themes, the idea that we are all being brought together by technology, for good or worse, really. Talk about the title, “Thank You For Being Late.” It’s very clever.
So the title comes from meeting people in Washington, D.C., for breakfast where I live — I don’t like to waste breakfast by eating alone when I can learn from somebody. So I schedule a lot of breakfasts and every once in a while someone would come 10 - 15 minutes late and say, “Tom, I’m really sorry, the weather, the traffic, the subway, the dog ate my homework.”
And one day one of them, this was about three years ago now, Peter Corsell came late and he was flustered. And I just spontaneously said to him, “Actually, Peter, thank you for being late. Because you were late I’ve been eavesdropping on their conversation, it’s fascinating. I’ve been people-watching in the lobby, fantastic. And most importantly, I just connected two ideas I’ve been struggling with for a month.”
Right, so you sat there quietly. Which is unusual, because you always have your iPhone or whatever at the ready.
But I just was reflecting. And people started to get into it. They’d say, “Well, you’re welcome.” And in fact my favorite quote at the front of the book is from my friend Dov Seidman 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. It starts to rethink, reimagine, reflect.”
And what the book is basically arguing is that in the age of accelerations — and people talk about that — I think there’s so much rethinking, reimagining and re-engineering and reflecting we need to do. And this book is basically giving permission and celebrating slowing down to do that.
All right, that’s been a theme for a lot of people. Arianna’s doing it. A lot of people who have been embracing the digital age have been talking about that. There’s a guy named Tristan [Harris], he has a whole group that’s trying to get people to stop, warning against the evils of social media, and we’ll get into that.
But talk about these accelerations. Obviously, it’s a theme you’ve written about a lot. You’ve written numerous columns about it. “The World Is Flat” is really about technology.
The short explanation I can give you, to tie this book with the earlier ones, is: I think technology moves up in steps. We know it moves up in steps. You have a new platform, a whole set of technology is at scale. And then you give birth to a new one. So we’re always moving up that way, whether it’s from the typewriter to the main frame to the iPhone.
Right around the year 2000, we took a really big step up. And it was based on a price collapse. It was a collapse in the price of fiber-optic cable, because of the dot-com bubble boom and bust. And ... “Honey, I shrunk the world.” [We] didn’t mean to, but we made fiber-optic cable so cheap that, around the turn of the century, when we faced the issue of Y2K and remediation, companies woke up and discovered they could suddenly access 150,000 engineers in India to remediate all these computers.
I called my mom back in Minneapolis one day, and said, “Mom, what’s new?” And she made clear that I was disturbing her, and I said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “I’m playing bridge on the internet with someone in Siberia.”
So what happened because of this price collapse is connectivity. And connectivity became fast, free, easy for you and ubiquitous to a whole new degree. And difference of degree that was different in kind, in that I could suddenly touch people I never imagined touching before, and I could be touched by people I never imagined touching me before. And I gave that moment a name.
And it was easy. It was easy, rather than the modem ...
It was fast, free, easy for you and ubiquitous. And I gave it a name: I said, “The world is flat.” And I actually wrote the 1.0 of that in 2005, 2.0 in 2006 and 3.0 in 2007. And then I stopped. I thought I had enough framework to understand things. It turns out, Kara, that 2007 was a bad year to stop sniffing glue, as my stock broker says [KS laughs], because what happened in 2007 is that technology platforms made another big step up.
Well, the iPhone, earlier, was really the impetus for that.
So yeah, but basically what happens in 2007 is the iPhone comes out. So we begin a process of putting a handheld computer connected to the internet in the palm of, basically, we’re on our way to everybody on the planet. But of course what also happened in 2007 was Facebook, in late 2006, breaks out of high schools and universities, goes global. Twitter goes global in 2007, started in 2006. Hadoop is started in 2007, gives us the foundation for big data. GitHub is started in 2007, gives us the world’s now biggest open source.
Yeah. Android came on in 2007, Kindle came out in 2007, IBM Watson was started in 2007, Airbnb started in 2007, the price of sequencing the human genome collapsed in 2007, fracking started in 2007, solar energy took off in 2007.
All right. I get the point.
And Intel went off silicon for the first time in 2007, introduced non-silicon materials into its transistors to extend ...
So all of these combined, and I would argue the iPhone debut was really the ...
Well, that was what kicked it off.
And by the way, the cloud was born in 2007.
We’ve always had a cloud.
No, but the cloud as we know it today really was born in 2007. It turns out 2007 may be seen, in time, as one of the greatest technological inflection points in history because what it did — it was also based on a price collapse. But it collapsed the price of compute-and-storage, so much so that we could now leverage all that compute-and-storage to change four kinds of power, we change the power of one. Holy mackerel, we have a president-elect who can sit in his penthouse and now tweet directly to tens of millions of people around the world.
Which others could do before and hadn’t availed themselves of.
Right, but here’s what’s new: So can the head of ISIS, from Raqqa province. Now this thing is scaled to everybody.
Second, it changed the power of machines. Machines now have all five senses. They’re cognition, they can think, they can design. IBM Watson two weeks ago co-wrote a song. So machines, suddenly, were endowed with these new kinds of power. It changed the power of flows. Ideas now flow and circulate at a speed and scale we haven’t seen before.
You know, President Obama, five years ago, said marriage is between a man and a woman. Five years later, he’s following Ireland in saying blessed be so, marriage is between any two human beings who love each other. So ideas are not changing faster in scaling.
And lastly, it’s changed the power of many. So we, as a humanity, because of these amplified powers, we’re now a force of and in nature — so much so that the new geophysical era is being named for us, the Anthropocene. So my argument is these four kinds of power aren’t just changing the world, they are reshaping the world. And they’re reshaping politics, geopolitics, the workplace, ethics and community.
Some say for the worse at this point. This election has been difficult for some, thrilling for others. And we’re going to talk about the election in a minute, but these accelerations are this, climate change ...
The accelerations are in three things, what I call the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law.
So Moore’s Law is a proxy for technology: This being the power of microchips, we’ll double it roughly every 24 months. The market for me is not your grandfather’s globalization. It’s digital globalization. It’s what you and I are doing right now. Digitizing everything and globalizing it. And if you put that on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick. And if you put Moore’s Law on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick.
And lastly, Mother Nature is biodiversity loss, climate change and population. If you put that on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick. So we’re really in the middle of three hockey-stick accelerations all at the same time.
So let’s talk about each of them. We’re going to focus less on climate change, although it’s of great interest to our audience for sure, but talk about what happens when that happens with the market. Let’s start with the market.
With a digital globalization. What it’s doing is, again, it’s shrinking the world just one more notch. Let me give you one of my favorite examples: PayPal. How many people know that PayPal last year gave out about $2 billion in loans around the world without using a single FICO score? So Kara runs a sari shop in India and she uses PayPal all the time. So PayPal actually knows you, it knows your business.
I interviewed Jack Dorsey last night about Square Capital.
Yeah! They know about your business, they know, “actually, Kara’s running a nice little business there.” Suddenly there’s a flood in Kara’s town and Kara needs a loan. PayPal knows Kara is good for it, so they don’t use any FICO scores, they just use their own big data and they’re using this to become a huge global lender. And it’s all being done digitally.
Oh, absolutely, and that’s why I think this is scaling. But it’s being done around education, it’s being done around media — everything that can be digitized is being digitized and simultaneously globalized. So these flows, they actually become the new energy source in the world.
Where did you want to build your town in the Middle Ages? You wanted to build it on a river, because you had transportation, you had food, you had ideas and you had power. You wanted to build your town on the Amazon. Where do you want to build your town today? On Amazon.com.
Right. [laughs] Nice, Tom. Clever man. ...
So that would suggest that this is good news, that we have this idea that you can be anywhere. A lot of people in Silicon Valley use programmers all over the world, and talentism is everywhere, that kind of thing. It doesn’t turn out that way in practice. Part of this election has been about how these pockets of innovation are very geographical.
Yeah, there’s no question. They’re concentrated in urban areas, which are highly diverse. So you have a lot of high-IQ risk takers. And in some of these rural areas, they’ve clearly fallen behind.
They don’t have the skills to do this stuff.
Yeah, and that’s all part of it. And that’s why the book is also called “Thank You for Being Late,” because if you don’t marry these technological advances with all the things you can’t download — good values, good teaching, good educating, things that take time and are slow — if you don’t put the two together, you’re going to have a problem.
So when you have a market that’s moving completely to digital, what happens to all these other markets? Detroit happens. Lots of things. Like things that now have political implications.
So it depends. What happens really depends on if you have your thinking cap on. There’s a concept in education called blending learning. A lot of people think, oh, we just give kids a computer and they’ll be fine. No, you actually want the computer to do things that it can do best, but still have a teacher to do the things that a teacher, another human, can do best. And what I’m trying to celebrate in the book is that there are a lot of human-to-human skills now that are going to be needed more than ever, and there’s going to be huge job opportunities in that.
That’s what Silicon Valley says, even as they destroy jobs.
But I actually think it’s true.
I’m going to point/counterpoint with you on this, because I think a lot of the advances in AI and a lot of what is happening is actually just destroying jobs and not creating a situation where we get more. There’s no training, things happen very quickly.
So radiology is something ... we aren’t going to need radiologists very soon, because of AI. We aren’t going to need lawyers. There’s all kinds of jobs, real jobs, that start to really get destroyed. Not just manufacturing jobs, but others. And Silicon Valley, as they move forward and talk about innovation and future and everything else, isn’t providing an answer to what happens when real jobs get lost. And that has societal implications, as you know.
Absolutely. This is certainly one of the things that terrifies me, but the fact is with all this AI and everything going on, we have 4.6 percent unemployment. Yes, they say a lot of people have dropped out of the work force, but wages have now been going up for the last few months. So I have a little more faith in the creativity of human beings.
On Thanksgiving, we had some family friends [over], and one of the sons is a restaurant business consultant, food consultant, and I said, “What are you doing these days?” And he said, “I’m actually working for a company …” I think it’s called Painted, I may not have this right. They create these paint-by-numbers classes for adults in bars. Exploding in popularity.
You … you paint by numbers?
Yeah, literally you teach adults to paint. And exploding in popularity. Now who ever thought there’d be a career? Maybe designing paint-by-numbers, doing paint-by-numbers. That’s related to another strand of the book. You know, I interview our surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, and I asked him, “Vivek, what’s the biggest disease in America today? Is it heart disease, diabetes or cancer?”
I would think heart.
No. It’s none of those. He said it’s isolation. And I said, “Isn’t that interesting.” We’re in the most connected era in history and the surgeon general is telling me that the most prevalent disease is people feeling isolated. I think there’s going to be a huge amount of jobs around people-to-people connections in this world, and you’ll never see it coming.
The guy who’s running the Painted bar? He needs a massage at the end of the day. And he might enjoy a good cappuccino with someone playing guitar. So it may be that we’re going to think about all of these things differently. I can’t say for sure whether they’ll pay as much, I don’t know, but my argument is: Keep yourself open, make sure your safety nets and trampolines are strong — this world will be too fast for some people — and educate the hell out of everybody, and I think the miracle of America will work.
Okay, so you’re sounding very Trumpian. [laughs]
Oh, I’m not sure ... I don’t think he understands this at all.
No, but it’s interesting that the last time I saw you, you were in Silicon Valley in the backyard of some rich person [TF laughs] and you were giving a speech about jihad and the dangers. This was 10 years ago. And you were warning about the prevalence of jihad, how it was going to get worse. How climate change, how the reliance on oil ... It was not the happiest message to this group of people who only like happy messages.
What changed? What has changed here? Most people feel we’re entering a darker era right now, again. So tell me how you look at that.
Well, let me just say as an aside, I can ruin any dinner party [KS laughs] and I do weddings and bar mitzvahs for all your listeners. I’m not a Pollyanna about this at all. And my book, we just talked about the technology one, I’ll talk about the climate and globalization ones, and I basically make the point it’s empowering makers and breakers.
All right, explain makers and breakers.
So when the world’s good for 3-D printer designers and people who can leverage that to make things now at incredibly low cost and globalize it, it’s also good for breakers. When the world’s good for the individual starting a company, it’s good for ISIS. They can communicate, they can pack so much more power in what they do. They can act like a government. So I have a whole section in the book on geopolitics about that worry.
My view is not like “it’s all going to be great and it’s all going to be wonderful.” What I always tell people about globalization is: It’s everything and its opposite. And if you think it’s all one thing, you don’t understand it. It can be incredibly empowering and incredibly disempowering. It can be incredibly homogenizing and particularizing. It can be democratizing and incredibly authoritarian. It’s about the values we bring to it.
And the source of my optimism is that I go around our country — if you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head, because the country looks so much better from the bottom up than the top down. I see healthy communities. I see unhealthy communities too, many voted in this election. But I see amazingly healthy communities, including the one I grew up in in Minnesota where people are coming together, there’s politics but it’s much more muted, and they’re actually figuring it out.
Hey, what does the world demand by way of education? Let’s give our companies the opportunities they need to globalize, to take advantage of this new system. In the workplace, around work and education, my book is full of stories you will never have heard of. Amazing adaptations people are doing to lift the skills of their workers. So yeah, there’s good news, there’s bad news, it’s all about how you tilt it, and I think there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
All right, we’re going to talk about that and the future of work when we get back. I’m here with Tom Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times who has a new book out called “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” And he’s very optimistic which is unusual [laughs], since last time I saw you ...
[laughs] Drugs, lots of drugs.
You were on drugs.
Don’t tweet that. [laughs]
But first ...
I’m here with Tom Friedman, well known newspaper columnist for the New York Times and also author. His new book is called “Thank You For Being Late” and has a lot of technology in it. One of the areas you cover is the future of work, which is a big interest [at] Recode. We talk about it a lot. We do a lot of interviews about it. We’re at the center of it in San Francisco.
I always say, with the sharing economy and all the different companies that exist and experiment here, I call San Francisco “assisted living for millennials.” [TF laughs] You know what I mean? They get whatever they want.
But we are in the era where work is completely changing. I think half of millennials are on this kind of sharing economy, the contract work. Obviously there’s talent all over the world. Talk a little bit about where you see work going, because I think it’s one of the most interesting things — and possibly destabilizing at the same time.
So my chapter on that is called “How We Turn AI Into IA.”
You have so many clever terms and phrases.
How do we turn artificial intelligence into intelligent assistance, A-N-C-E, intelligent assistants A-N-T-S and intelligent algorithms. What I found out in the workplace is that people are doing amazing stuff, precisely to leverage these new technologies to enable workers to live in an era where we’re seeing a really significant change in the pace of change.
So let me just give you one example: Intelligent assistance. So this is the HR policy of AT&T today, pretty important company. 360,000 employees, competes every day with Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint. So what they basically do, in a nutshell, is their CEO, Randall Stephenson, now begins every year with a company-wide speech, radically transparent. “Here’s where we’re going, folks, this is the business we’re going to be in, these are the skills you’re going to need to work at AT&T.” Let’s say he divides those into 10 different skills now. Then they put every employee at AT&T on their own in-house LinkedIn system. “Kara Swisher, you have seven of the 10 skills you’re going to need to thrive in the AT&T of the future, but you’re missing three.”
Then they partnered with Sebastian Thrun of Udacity and created nano degrees for all 10 of those including a $6,000 online masters degree with Georgia Tech in computer science. And then they came back to Kara and they said, “Kara, we will give you up to $8,500 a year to take the courses you need to have the skills you need to work at the AT&T of the future. Just one condition, you have to take them on your own time.”
If Kara says, “You know what, I climbed up one too many telephone poles, I don’t want to do this,” AT&T now has a wonderful severance package for you, but you really won’t be working there anymore. If Kara is ready to do that, their bargain with you is that when the new jobs open up you will get the first crack, we won’t go outside.
So, forced learning.
Well, what is the social contract now between that employer and its employees? It’s “you can be a lifelong employee at AT&T, but now, only if you’re a lifelong learner.” And I believe that is the new social contract for the country, and the job of government, I think, is to help enable that. To encourage, inspire and enable every employer to create both the coursework and the resources. So every worker can take these, but your job is you have to have a different social contract with yourself.
So let’s unpack that a little bit. Because some people might feel like you had a job at AT&T, you devoted yourself to it. They told you what to do, it was essentially a top-down kind of thing. I think a lot of people would start to bristle at the idea that they tell you what skills ... they know what skills they need, but which ones you’re good at and what you need to do them. And then you do them working not eight-hour days, they’re twenty-hour days, essentially, in order to hold on to a single job.
And how is that different from when I joined the New York Times and they said, “Tom, you’re good at this kind of writing, you’re not good at that, if you want to thrive here at the New York Times you have to write better leads, you have be a stronger reporter.” They once told me, “You need to show that you can cover more business.” They made me the international economics correspondent for two years before they would make me a columnist. I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in that.
Okay, so when you think about this, and they’re doing this through digital means. You mentioned several different companies, LinkedIn, Udacity, Learnup and others. So when you’re a worker today, one, you have to be a learner. You have to learn all the time or change based on what the company decides it needs. What else?
The way I put it more broadly is I talk about Minnesota in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, which was the golden age for blue-collar work and even white-collar work. I had an uncle who worked as a loan officer in a bank and he never went to college — you know, you could have that work.There’s a congressman from Minnesota who’s speaking about Minnesota back then when you could have high-wage middle-skill jobs. And they were so plentiful. And he said, you know, Minnesota in the ’60s, ’50s, ’70s, you actually needed a plan to fail.
You really had to suck.
You actually had to have a plan to fail because we stood astride, the world was so much industrial prowess post World War II and so you needed a plan to fail, there was just so much opportunity for blue-collar and white-collar work that would give you high wages for middle skills.
What’s new today, Kara, is that you need a plan to succeed, and you have to update it every six months. I didn’t do that. I swear to you. But this book is part of my personal plan to succeed so I’m always engaging with the world. What world am I living in? What have I learned, how are things changing? Because my job is to explain the world, and if I don’t keep my own operating system fresh and up to date, why does the New York Times need me? I mean, New York Times readers will go to Vox or Recode or somewhere else. The opportunities are manifold.
So don’t think I’m sitting back here lecturing people. I just killed myself for three years writing a column and writing a book in order to keep my relevant ...
Tom, you’ve gotta relax.
So when you’re in this era, it’s something I talk about a lot because there’s a lot of internet startups in the media, for example, that I compete with and I work with and I look at. And one of them, Jessica Lessin, The Information, uses a term I don’t love called reporter-preneur.
Everyone who’s a reporter, we both know this media very well, this job area very well. But beyond that, everyone has to be an entrepreneur. Can that happen? Because entrepreneurs are special, you don’t run across a lot of them and there aren’t [a lot of] people who do that. Most people just do the bare minimum, really. Does everyone have to be an entrepreneur going forward?
I think everyone does have to be entrepreneurial. So the story I always used to tell — this is from my last book, which I did with Michael Mandelbaum, “That Used To Be Us,” about America. And I had five lessons, because people always say, “What do you tell your kids?” And I would give them my five lessons of what I tell my girls. I won’t go through all five, but I’ll give you lesson No. 5.
Lesson No. 5 was [to] always think like a waitress at Perkins pancake house in Minneapolis, my favorite restaurant. So I came from eating at Perkins one Sunday morning with my best friend, Ken Greer, very early, and I order three buttermilk pancakes and scrambled eggs. And Ken ordered three buttermilk pancakes and fruit. And after 15 minutes, the waitress came back, she put our two plates down, and all she said to Ken was, “I gave you extra fruit.” [KS laughs] I gave her a 50 percent tip. Why did I give her a 50 percent tip?
Because you’re a Minnesotan.
No, no. Because that waitress, she didn’t control much, but she controlled the fruit ladle. And that was the source of her extra, she was being entrepreneurial. “Maybe if I give them another dollop of fruit, it’ll end up in a tip.” And I so applaud that.
I think whatever you’re doing today, you always have to think about “how can I fork off here, fork off there, find another job, find another opportunity for myself or my company.” Why? This gets to Trump. Because the days when a carrier is coming to your town with a 25,000-person factory, that’s actually over.
That factory is now maybe 50 people and 500 robots.
Yeah, exactly. They’re worried about the Mexicans, I’m worried about the robots. What are you talking about?! [laughs]
No, it’s not Mexicans, it’s microchips. So what is it then that we need? We need everyone starting something. I need three people to start a job for seven. Seven to start a job for 20. Just what you guys are doing. You know, 20 to start a job for 50. That’s how we’ll get that 25,000 again, but to get that, we all need to become more entrepreneurial.
How, though? Because it doesn’t just happen. I think we’re outliers. Believe me, I’m waiting for people to copy what we’ve done. And I’m friggin old, you know what I mean?
Exactly, you’re an entrepreneur in your space.
Walt’s older. There’s not that many.
But you employed this guy here ...
Yeah, I know, he’s lucky to have this job. So what do we do to get a workforce like that? Especially in this age, where they feel, as you say, from technology, isolated, they feel constantly pummeled by information. How do you get a workforce?
Well, I realize not everyone’s built that way, and so ...
How do we build them that way?
... that’s why we need three doing it for seven and seven doing it for 20. One of the programs I’ve always supported is called NFTE. In ninth grade, they go into high schools and one of the ways they teach math is [that] every student has to have a year-long program in entrepreneurship and everyone has to design a company. Has to design a business plan. Has to show how they’re going to go out and raise money for it.
Many of them start companies, and in recent years President Obama, at the end of every year, would actually give an award to the 10 best NFTE companies. And [he] said we need to be teaching entrepreneurship from absolutely junior high or high school.
What about coding and computers?
I’m all for that. It’s not for everybody, but for the people it’s for ...
Not basic coding for everyone?
I would encourage that. I don’t think everyone’s going to be a coder, but I certainly would be encouraging that. But more so entrepreneurship. I don’t care if you make cupcakes, recirculated prom dresses, I mean all of these things ...
Paint by numbers.
Yeah, paint by numbers. Because, you know, once you’ve painted by numbers all day or led that class, you’re going to need a massage at the end of the day. And you’re going to want a really good baked good and maybe sip some coffee in a coffeehouse where someone’s playing guitar. You’ll never see it coming.
What about the lost workers? Because there are lost workers. You know, I just finished “Hillbilly Elegy,” there’s like nine books about the lost people of the United States. What happens to them?
I argue in this book for stronger safety nets and trampolines, but what I would object to is turning the whole economy around for them. Stopping trade, you know. Please take my money and take care of these people, which we have not done well enough. But at the same time, my friend Bill Maher likes to say, and I agree with this, “I’m also angry at the people who are angry.” Because you know, if you read “Hillbilly Elegy,” a lot of it’s about ...
J.D. Vance got out of there, though, because he looked around and said, “All these people around me made bad choices.” They married, multiple times, the wrong people.
They got into drugs, they were lazy, they did not know what world they were living in and didn’t try to change. They had very bad habits. So I’m supposed to stop the TPP to choke off the drivers of the economy, and we never challenge these people.
Well, that’s an interesting thing, and we’ll talk about that next. But I was having dinner with the CEO of eBay last night, and he was talking about this: Why is this country theirs, why is it mine.
It was really interesting.
Yeah, that’s why I say I’m angry, also, at the people who are angry.
I think it’s the attack of the elites. A lot of Silicon Valley people are like, “Yeah, I know we haven’t done it.” I’m like, “You’ve also created most of the wealth. Mostly for yourselves, at this point.”
But what was interesting was that sentiment, and secondly, he was telling me he was over in Australia and got into a kerfuffle with the PM there, because they were trying to put import taxes on a lot of things. Anything that came in, and everything in Australia is imported. And he was like, “There’s all these entrepreneurs in Australia, how are you going to do it?” He was worried about global trade being cut off. And he was like, “I cannot believe, in this day and age, that this is what wins in an election.”
That’s right. And I am there. This is my country, too. And it’s your country, too.
Yes, I know that. It’s mostly my country.
And we have benefitted, and this growth and these opportunities have enabled and empowered so many people.
And because you didn’t take advantage of it, because you didn’t go to school, because you dropped out, because you didn’t rise to the occasion, because you got married before you could raise kids or even had a job, you made bad choices, we’re supposed to cut off everybody else? Is that what we’re going to do?
To me it’s not one or the other; I sympathize with a lot of people. My book is full of ideas for how to bring them along, but a bit of realism here, you know? Thank God for Amazon and Apple and Google and the opportunities they’ve created precisely to educate more of these people. More people who need these opportunities, to give them more ability to start a business. I think we’ve gone too far.
So when we get back we’ll talk about that, because what’s interesting is sort of the tech being left out of this new administration, not being part of it. There might be a tech summit next week, a lot of people haven’t been invited. I’ve talked to key executives here and none of them know anything about it. We’ll talk about that and more when we get back with Tom Friedman, whose book, “Thank You for Being Late,” just came out. Tom is a well-known author and columnist for the New York Times.
We’re here with Tom Friedman, the author of “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” Tom is also a columnist for the New York Times, a longtime columnist and a very powerful one. You’ve written about technology from the get-go. One of the few actually, it was interesting.
Where do you think technology is right now? I asked this question of Jack Dorsey, and he felt that we have to start giving back, we have to start paying attention. He comes from the St. Louis area, and he feels that we’ve done a lot of one-way communication with a lot of people and haven’t been listening. That would be like him to think like that, but in a lot of ways Silicon Valley has been the driver for the economy, and some of the indications from the Trump Administration are very hostile to technology. It feels hostile — he attacks Amazon, he’s attacked Apple, he’s attacked pretty much everyone. [TF laughs]
He has one adviser, Peter Thiel — again, he’s not reaching out to the real leaders of Silicon Valley, although Peter’s a very powerful one. Talk a little bit about where technology is going, because it’s been an unprecedented era of expansion for technology as a driver of the economy.
I want technology to do what technology does, which is keep expanding our capabilities. Because when you do that, you expand not only the capabilities to sell a book or to search, but you also expand the capabilities to teach, to learn, to lift people up faster.
Let’s remember this era of globalization, this terrible ugly monster, brought more people out of poverty than any era in [the] history of mankind. So it happens many of them were in India and China and not here, and I take that very seriously ...
Which was an issue in the election.
Right, but if you stand back and see what is actually done. So I want technology to do what technology does. I don’t want them to run safety nets, I want the government to be doing that. But what I argue in my book is that I think the federal government is not the proper governing unit of the 20th century. We need them for army and for central bank.
And I don’t think the single family is either, because I don’t think the federal government or the single family, particularly a single parent, can actually ... they don’t have the adaptive capacity for an age when we’re seeing a change in the pace of change.
So what does each of them look like? Start with the single family.
Let me just say where I do think a government should be: It’s the healthy community. I think that the healthy community can be close enough to people, people can reach it, it can reach them, and it’s flexible enough. That’s why I profiled Minneapolis, what’s going on there, 2.9 percent unemployment, almost 20 Fortune 500 companies.
One of the ways it runs so effectively is they’ve got something called the Itasca Project. And once a week, the leaders of the community — philanthropic, business, education, government — they meet, they decide on what the priorities are in a very apolitical way. Their symbol is a dining room table that everybody gathers around, and they govern that place in a very adaptive, fast way for the benefit of a lot of people. And I tell that story, Kara, for a very simple reason: I don’t think anything has to be invented today. Wherever I go in this country, I find crazy, amazing adaptions going on in terms of our social technologies, they just need to be scaled.
So that’s an interesting thing because technology has been dinged, and I think deservedly — for not being part of the civic community. Here in San Francisco one of the issues is how little. Back in the day when Wells Fargo or the banking institutions ruled, their leaders were part of the civic society, part of the city. Technologists just aren’t. And they live in their towers.
And that is just ... libertarian.
Yeah, “Hey, live and let live.”
And that critique I not only endorse, I have led it in the past. This kind of libertarian bullshit, that “just keep the government out of my life.” Where do you think the roads, the plumbing, the wiring, the educating of your workers happen? So I have an allergy to that point of view. If the community is the right building block of the 21st century, then you have got to be a part of it. In every way, shape or form.
Which they tend not to do, which is really interesting.
I don’t care if you don’t want to go to Washington, but you better be involved in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View, where it is.
One of the interesting things recently has been around fake news, as you know. Big controversy, perhaps a little hyped, but at the same time a lot of the companies that are involved in it try to abrogate the responsibility. They go, “Oh, I’m just a platform, it’s not me.” That’s their excuse. “Oh, it’s a gray area.” They have all kinds of excuses to be stupid when usually they pretend they’re the smartest people on earth.
So it’s a really interesting thing of abrogation of responsibility that technology has for the impact of its tools, like isolation. Like weaponizing of social. All kinds of stuff like that. How do you solve that? Because technology still really acts like a particularly spoiled 14-year-old boy.
It is utter bullshit. Let me get this right, you platforms. So you want all the New York Times readers or you want all the New York Times advertising, but you don’t want to have the New York Times editors.
Or the responsibility of the New York Times.
Exactly. So that is bullshit. I have a column, it has hundreds of comments every time it comes out. But you know what? If somebody goes in there and puts something fake about me, we actually have an editor, an actual person, who will prevent that comment from going up, scaling and going global. And we have to pay that person, I don’t know, probably 50, 60, 70 grand a year in total compensation. And that’s what makes the New York Times.
So when Facebook and Google and all these people say, “Oh, we’re going to let the algorithm do it,” really? I tell a story in the book how YouTube was running Miller beer ads and ISIS videos. Of course they weren’t doing it deliberately, the algorithm was doing it.
We were talking about Uber before. You know, Uber had surge pricing in the middle of a terrorist attack in Sydney. That’s when you just let the algorithm do it. We are letting algorithms do things that human beings should be doing. And by the way, there’s work there for human beings, and it is necessary.
Right, so how do you change them? How do you force them into that?
You shame them. You want all our readers, you want all our advertisers, but you’re not going to do that? That’s bullshit.
So where do you imagine technology going? When does it start to grow up like that? It’s a theme that I talk about a lot because I think it’s really quite astonishing.
You know, we just have to shame them, Kara.
One of the other things I always say is, Silicon Valley is a lot of big minds changing small ideas. It’s a photo app, it’s stuff like that. Where do you see hope — because this is a hopeful book — in moving through health care? Because whenever you think about Uber, the idea of transferring transportation is a big one, it is not a little one. The same thing with health care, the same thing with a lot of these apps, they start to really diagnose, and using AI, using algorithms to do that. What do you think is important for technology to do, going forward, as a group of people?
I’m going to go back to the blended concept. If it’s all algorithms, I don’t think it’s going to work. So I profile, in the book, LearnUp.com. Startup by Alexis Ringwald; some of my friends, Reid Hoffman, have invested in it. It’s very interesting. It’s for employment — we’ve been talking about work. So one of the biggest employment challenges we have is these big retailers, Old Navy, Walmart, whatnot, they get overwhelmed, their HR systems, with applications.
So Learnup came along, they created a platform. You go to Learnup, “I want to apply at Old Navy,” but you have to take a test, it’s like a two-hour test, beforehand. Do you know how to fold a shirt, do you know how to operate a cash register, do you know how to deal with a customer? And — only if you complete that whole exam — then they automatically make a job interview appointment for you.
Right, okay, so it removes the friction.
Right. First of all, it weeds out a lot of people who aren’t serious, but the most important thing is if you go to their site they have a button up in the right-hand corner, I think, of their platform. It’s called the coach button. And it gets pressed more than anything. “Coach, what should I wear to my interview? Coach, what if I’m going to be late? Coach, what do you think the first question is going to be?” When you blend these human-to-human things with technology, then I think you get the ideal result. You get the best of both. When you try to entirely replace humans, I think you get aberrant behaviors.
So I want to end up on two things: One, social isolation, which I think you talked about, the disease of social isolation. And then lastly, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the situation in the Middle East and with ISIS and others. This is something you’ve written about; your great book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” was a seminal book for me to read, I remember it.
I want to get a sense, let’s start with that. They do have these tools to reach people across the world. They have digital tools. Where does that end up with this at this point?
It’s very scary. To me, the most important chapter in this book is the one called “Is God in Cyberspace?” Because it really is raising the values question. Twenty years ago I was selling The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a man stood up at a theater [at] question time and said, “Is God in cyberspace?” And I went to my rabbi, I put it in that book.
But then I started asking that question again. Why, Kara? Because what we’ve learned, what’s basically happened since I wrote that book 20 years ago, everything’s moved to cyberspace. It’s now where we find our dates, it’s where we find our friends, it’s how we communicate, how we learn, how we do commerce. So everything’s moving to a realm where, I say, we’re all connected, but no one’s in charge.
And when we’re all doing business now in a realm where we’re all connected and no one’s in charge, well, you get some really aberrant behaviors. You now get fake news, you get Russian hacking, you get banks being hacked. And I think what’s really unnerving to me is that we are seeing so much now move to this realm, and we’re understanding, “Now wait a minute, nobody’s in charge.”
Nobody can stop it.
Nobody can stop it, necessarily, and everyone’s got to have their own wall and their protector and their own firewall and police force and whatnot. So what the chapter’s about, again, it gets back to the human thing. Why the most important things in life are all the things you can’t download. The things you have to upload the old-fashioned way. One human to another at a time, with strong values, good community, good parenting, good religious values.
There was an interesting article in the Atlantic this month, the weaponizing of social media and how they created fear online as they moved into Mosul and places like that. And a lot of it was fake, a lot of it feels like Nazi propaganda, essentially.
Well again, part of the challenge of offline education is ...
And Twitter just recently got rid of some of them. Just only recently.
Yeah, well, these guys gotta wake up. The internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information. And if you don’t have citizens, kids and neighbors who have the built-in filters to understand what’s fake —
Which they don’t.
A lot of them don’t. It’s going to be a huge career, job, in the future: Educating people and grounding them in values.
Well, they hate to intercede. They’re always talking about not wanting to intercede. Facebook got rid of its people [on] staff because they got pressure from conservatives and said, “We’ll rely on the algorithm.”
Can I call bullshit again? You know what I mean? We don’t let our readers write the front page of the New York Times.
I don’t think you should.
And I don’t think we should either.
I just had an argument with a reader who didn’t like something. I said, “Get your own fucking website.”
[laughs] That’s right! Exactly, that’s right, exactly.
It’s my website, I’ll say whatever I want.
It’s our newspaper, too, and if we’ve built enough trust with our readers around the world, then we’re going to have those and we’re not giving it over to you. Want to mail a comment in? God bless you. Want to send a letter to the editor? I’ll even read it. But we are built on real journalistic values. We’re not perfect, we’re human beings.
And so these companies have to, the ones that are the gatekeepers now.
Exactly, you’ve got to step up to it. You know, Steve Jobs was a friend, and one of the last conversations I had with Steve was about this issue.
He had a sense of this.
He understood it. And he wanted to form a board, basically, which we talked about. About how to bring editorial judgement to these things.
Right, he did care about this. He was one of the last few.
Absolutely, Kara, absolutely.
You cannot get the rest of them to think about it, anyway. Because they throw out words like false positives and false negatives. I’m like, “Yeah, but what about sense?”
Can I call bullshit a fourth time? [laughs]
Yeah, I had an argument with Jack about, I think Trump put up an actual lie on Twitter and I was like, “It’s a lie, it’s a provable lie.” And he was like, “Well, you know, everyone has a chance to have their opinion.” I was like, “No they don’t.” It was really interesting.
Not when people are getting their news primarily from ...
Because everything is relative.
So let’s finish up on social isolation, when you talked about that idea. People are constantly staring at their computers, they’re constantly staring at their phones. You go anywhere, anywhere, nobody engages no matter what you are. And it’s a trope, but it’s a very true trope. You can’t get people to look up, you can’t get people to put their phones down. It’s an addiction, it’s clearly an addiction.
You worry about it with your kids. Anyone who has kids thinks about it. How do you solve that problem? What do you think about it? On one hand, it’s amazing, it’s astonishing that you can pull anything down from anywhere in the world from a single device you’re holding. And it’s moving to VR, it’s moving to stuff that’s going to live on our bodies. It’s going to become more immersive with time. Almost completely immersive.
Elon Musk talks about neural networks that we get plugged in to so we become the computer. Can you talk about what this could mean? What has to happen if that’s the case? Because it’s inevitably headed that way.
I can only tell you about my own life. I talk the talk of globalization and technology but I do not walk the walk. [KS laughs] I’m a late adopter of everything.
You don’t use Snapchat, Tom? You don’t look like a Snapchatter.
I wouldn’t know Snapchat from a Snickers Bar.
What’s wrong with you?
Exactly. I actually don’t look at Twitter. I’m on Twitter, I have followers, but if you want me to tweet something about your show, Kara, call me and my assistant will do it.
Aha! You don’t look at Twitter?
I do not know how, I don’t look at Twitter. And I don’t have a Facebook page. Because I know who my friends are.
That’s fascinating! Why do you do that? How can you resist?
Because I really know who my friends are, and they’re not a thumb up or a thumb down. The people I want to be in direct contact with, I will — so again, blended model. I use a cellphone to make it better for me to be in touch with my good friends around the world. But I’m not on Facebook, I don’t participate on Twitter. If you’re tweeting about me, have fun.
And they are, Tom, just FYI. [laughs]
Oh believe me, I can see from the comment section. I’m just not interested.
And why is that? Many people can’t resist — I can’t resist, for sure. I engage all the time.
I’m in a slightly different position. Because if you’re a columnist at the New York Times, you’re really a lightning rod. Everybody is tweeting at you. I’ll tell you what I found it like, Kara. I have my own Nielsen point ratings. If I’m walking down the streets here in San Francisco or an airport, what really matters to me is somebody stops, does a double take, turn[s] around ...
Right, because you’re well-known.
... and says, “You know what, Mr. Friedman? I read ‘The World Is Flat’ and because of that I changed my job, I changed my career.” That person, to me, represents a million tweets, you know what I mean? There are so many trolls out there, so many people who aren’t really engaged.
It’s twitchy, it’s very twitchy.
What matters in life is only what people will say to your face. The rest is ... I could sit back and mortar people, fire off blasts on Twitter.
This is very wise Tom. I might take your advice.
I’m only interested in what people say to my face. Good or bad. And it’s not like I don’t get criticism or it doesn’t filter through. I’ve got a comments section on my column, I can see what people are thinking. But I’m also keenly aware that a lot of people aren’t doing that. And they’re reading you and they’re appreciating you and they’re not caught up in all the dish.
Because I sit where I sit. Everyone wants to fire at you. But if you take all that in, you start to think, “The entire world hates me.” And it’s really unhealthy. Because you’re not really getting a proper survey. It’s all the people on Twitter. Then all the people on Twitter have time to do this, you know? And I just think it’s a subset. I’m not saying ignore it, but I’m just not interested.
The way I lead my life is, I’m always on to my next book. Catch me if you can, you know what I mean? I told the New York Times this. I can spend my day answering email or I can spend my day thinking about the next story. And I’m an old fart enough that they leave me alone to do that. So that’s how I wrote seven books and wrote a column twice a week, because I don’t waste my time.
So it [raises] the question, we have a president who is the twitchiest person on earth. He can’t stop tweeting. It’s addictive. I think it’s addictive to him, it plays into [his] narcissism.
It’s really dangerous, yeah. Because I believe that you write your columns, you write your books, at the end of the day somebody’s going to add that up. Now, I can’t go tell you this book is better than it is. Either people are going to buy it on Amazon or their bookstore, or they’re not To my critics, I say, “You’ll have fun,” but people are either going to buy it or not. What you say isn’t going to matter.
Go back and read the reviews of “The World Is Flat.” It sold 4.5 million copies in 42 languages. So if I got caught up in all those reviews, I would never write another book.
Yeah, that’s true.
So I really go through life with a bit of tunnel vision, a little cotton in my ear, and focus on being the best reporter and thinker I can. And at the end, somebody will add it up.
So in that vein, and this is the last question, how do you look at media now, today? The New York Times has obviously been under pressure financially, still a fantastic publication, one of my favorites. I think possibly my favorite. The Washington Post’s thriving under Jeff Bezos now, it seems.
Yeah, really good.
Yeah, great editor.
I mean, it was a good paper, but I think they have a great editor.
Great editor, great publisher.
I think they have a great editorial page editor. It’s a really great paper.
Great technologist, actually.
And I celebrate that. I want all these papers to thrive.
So how do you feel about the media? You and I are both at the tail ends of our careers, but how do you look at where it’s going?
My reading habits are, I like curated news. I like news that’s edited. So I read, in the morning, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal.
And I also go to Real Clear Politics, because I like to make sure I’m seeing news from the far left, the far right, the center left, the center right, that I wouldn’t normally see in these newspapers. So I really like to get a range of opinions, but I thank God for the New York Times. We don’t do fake news. We make mistakes, we’re humans, like any newspaper. But people there come to work every day committed to writing about the world without fear or favor. And I thank God every day I work for the Sulzberger family that allows me to do this and will stand up to those forces.
But in media in general, I mean, here you have Facebook sucking out all the value.
I’m really worried about it, I’m just really worried about it.
So what happens? [laughs] Someone from Minnesota figures it out.
The Perkins pancake house, that lady.
I’m hoping. [laughs] That’s right. I’m hoping.
“Here’s more fruit.”
[laughs] That’s right. I’m hoping that the pendulum will swing back the other way with fake news. You know, in the last month, don’t hold me to these statistics, but I think we got over 100,000 new online readers.
You did, yeah, which Trump incorrectly tweeted about.
Exactly, so that is such a ...
I’m using “incorrect” in a wide way.
Exactly, yeah. That is such a huge source of optimism for me. Because people say fake news and I want the New York Times even more.
So you want good things. But in terms of how we get our news. Go crazy: In 50 years, how are we going to get our news?
I don’t know.
We’re going to eat it?
I think it’s going to be the blended model, there’s going to be something like a Facebook where we’ll get it from our friends, some of it. And there’ll be all kinds of new hot startups like Vox and Recode. But I hope, and I think, there still will be a place, just like there’s always going to be a place for that teacher in the classroom, I think there’s still going to be a place for the New York Times.
Ah, Tom, you’re such an optimist. What’s your next book?
[laughs] My next book is about golf but not the Persian Gulf.
[laughs] Ohhh, you saved that one for the end. It’s really about golf?
I’ve been threatening my publisher that I want to write a book about golf.
Oh you men and your golf, oy oy oy. All right, well, I look forward to that. You will not be on my show for that book, I’m sorry to tell you. [TF laughs] Tom, thank you for coming in, it was a pleasure, it was great talking to you.
Really great to be here.
Thanks for coming by.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.