Can’t keep up? Tom Friedman knows why.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman says people are living in an “age of acceleration.” Photo by Justin Katz
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman says people are living in an “age of acceleration.”
Photo by Justin Katz

The world is being fundamentally reshaped, so much so that people are having trouble keeping up. That was New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s message to an audience at Kol Shalom in Rockville.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discussed his new book, “Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of acceleration,” with 200 members of the Conservative synagogue on Sunday.

Friedman said one of his motivations for writing the book was to help people navigate this new “age of acceleration.”

This is what we should keep in mind for understanding our world:

We have to adapt faster.

“We’re at a place where technology is accelerating faster than societies can adapt,” Friedman said, relaying what Google’s research lab’s director Astro Teller said to him. “Our challenge is to get our social technologies [education, government] to catch up with our physical technologies.”

The way to do that is easier said than done.

“Learning faster and governing smarter. That is the challenge we face today, in a nutshell,” Friedman said.

The recession made us miss the turning point.

Friedman pointed out that 2007 may have been when technological advances overtook human adaptability. But we were focused on the sagging economy.

In that year, Steve Jobs presented the first iPhone, Facebook opened to the public, and IBM created Watson, a computer that famously won the game show “Jeopardy!” in 2011.

Also, Friedman pointed out, Google developed the Android operating system and the cost of sequencing a human genome plummeted from $100 million to $1,200, among other innovations.

That, he said, is why “2007 may in fact be seen in time as the single greatest technological inflection point since [Johannes] Guttenberg invented the printing press, and we completely missed it because of 2008,” referring to the economic recession.

Everything is still doubling.

Friedman’s idea of “acceleration” is a reference to Moore’s Law.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 noticed that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubled each year. The time interval has since been changed to every two years, but for the most part Moore’s law is holding up 50 years later.

Friedman argued that not only did Moore’s hold up, but that acceleration of technology has applied to other parts of computers such as storage chips, networking, software and sensors.

In his book, Friedman profiled Intel and Gordon Moore to demonstrate the acceleration of microprocessors. He looked at Qualcomm to explore networking, General Electric for sensors, Github for software and Hadoop for storage.

We are on the second half of the chess board.

A man invents the game of chess and presents it to the king. The king is impressed and offers to repay the man. The man requests a payment of rice.

“Place 1 grain of rice on the first square, then 2 on the next, then 4, then 8,” the man says.
What the king doesn’t realize, Friedman said, is that when a number is doubled 63 times — there are 64 squares on a chess board — it’ll eventually reach the quintillions — more grains of rice than probably exist in the world.

Friedman told this story to illustrate the effect of technology’s acceleration.

“We’re on the second half of the chess board,” he said.

Human-to-human jobs will still matter.

Friedman said he’s been asked what the jobs of the future will look like.

He discussed the hiring process of big retail stores like Wal-Mart, that often ask applicants to take lengthy tests to weed out people who are either not committed or not suited to the work.

But, Friedman said, one company provides applicants who pass the exam a “coach” button on the dashboard of the company’s website to help them navigate the next step in the hiring process.

“It turns out everybody needs a coach,” he said.

“Coach, what I do I wear to my job interview? Coach, what if I’m going to be late? Coach, what do you think the first question will be?” he said, repeating the questions coaches are asked.

These are the jobs that will survive technological advances.

He said. “I believe everything that will matter most in the future are all the things you can’t download.” n

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