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In future, we’ll work with our hearts. A machine can never have that: Writer Thomas L Friedman

Thomas L Friedman on the future worker and why it is too early to write globalisation’s epitaph.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
Updated: November 19, 2017 12:32:10 am
Thomas L Friedman The world is more interconnected than ever: Thomas L Friedman. (Source: Bangalore News Photos)

Twelve years after you wrote The World is Flat, globalisation and its certainties seem to have been overturned.
The book was about how we had created a global economic playing field, where more people can connect and collaborate. The technologies that were flattening and integrating the world are alive and well. They are even more powerful than when I wrote the book. Some people are trying to resist the implications of that and shaking their fists at change.

But something like Brexit is a big blow.
Those are real big blows. But the world is more interconnected than ever. And in such a world, you get a geopolitical inversion: your rival’s fall is more dangerous than its rise. If China takes six more islands in the South China Sea, I couldn’t care less. But if China loses six per cent growth, this hotel [in Bengaluru] will be affected. Those forces are very much at play. It does not mean that no one will resist them, but the price you pay in resisting them will be bigger than ever.

Your most recent book, Thank You For Being Late (2016, Allen Lane), tries to understand the future of work in an age of “accelerations”.
Once a vast majority of us worked with their hands, then came a time when we worked with our hands, and in the age to come, we will work with our hearts. Because that’s the only thing a machine will never have.

In the book, I interview Vivek Murthy, the Indian-American surgeon general who Donald Trump fired. I asked him what the most lethal disease in America was. Cancer, heart disease or diabetes? He said, ‘None of those. It is isolation.’ If that’s the case, connecting hearts to hearts will be a big industry.

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What does that mean?
For example, take Paint Nite, the fastest growing restaurant chain in America in 2015. It allows adults to come together in bars, they paint by numbers and have a drink together. The thing is that people want to be connected. The more we are online, the more we want to rub up against another human. And I think that’s the next growth industry.

You write that the worker of the future has to be someone who is constantly updating herself. Isn’t this just the kind of psychological pressure that people are unable to keep up with and that led to the anger against globalisation?
Yes, no question. One of my teachers, Heather McGowan, says that the days when you would get a four-year degree and then expect to dine on it for the next 30 years are over. Because what you learn in your first year is going to be outdated by your fourth year. So, the single-most important competitive advantage is to be a lifelong learner. She also says that you should never ask a kid today what you want to be when you grow up. Because whatever it is, unless it is a cop or a fireman, the job isn’t going to be there. Only ask: how are you going to be who you are? Are you predisposed to be a lifelong learner? A lot of people are built to do what they are told. But doing what you are told is not going to be enough. That has a lot of people freaked out. And I think it is frightening to people to be in a constant learning mode. And that’s going to be a challenge.

But can this be something left to the individual alone? What role do governments and corporations have to play in this?
Very good question. The reason my book ends in my hometown of Minnesota is not because of nostalgia. I believe that as the world accelerates, national governments are not going to be fast enough to cope with this pace. At the other extreme, the single family is way too weak to resist these accelerations. So, I am arguing that the proper government for the 21stcentury is the healthy community. There is a lot more civic trust at that level. If I were running for president, which I am not, I would run as a progressive localist…In the book, I talk about AT&T. The tech company has created in-house nano degrees and is giving its employees money to take the courses and train themselves. Its social contract with its employees is that you can be a lifelong employee but only if you are a lifelong learner. And that is the social contract coming to a neighbourhood near you.

How does education cope?
I have written about Opportunity@Work, an NGO which uses an intelligent algorithm to match what you can do to a job available. Many employers are no longer interested in your pedigree, but if you can do a job. And if someone can badge you — saying yes, you have this skill — an employer will say, I am going to hire you. It is a great avenue for those who started but could not finish college. These are all ways to accelerate learning.

How far can globalisation go without fixing its inequality problem?
Yes, the top one per cent is getting fantastically rich. But the bottom is also rising, and I see that whenever I am in India. The gap is not getting bridged. That’s what tax policy is for, what governments are for. But I don’t think you tear the whole system down.

How divisive has the Trump presidency been?
I knew it was going to be bad, I didn’t know it was going to be this bad. It is a full-blown disaster. I believe Donald Trump is a disturbed person and he is also an indecent man. We have never had someone who is such a casual liar as our president. I see a steady breakdown of norms, which keep a society in check and moving forward.

How do you see the press holding up?
We [The New York Times] are standing up. Our digital subscriptions are through the roof, and that’s partly thanks to Trump. Because people don’t want fake news, they want real news. The Washington Post is thriving. The war between the NYT and WaPO is a beautiful thing to watch. Two outstanding newspapers, based on real news value, every day going head to head, breaking stories.

In the future, will we need oped writers?
Can you programme a robot to have an opinion? I am sure you can but the idea to write The World is Flat came when I was talking to a bunch of human beings. I don’t think a computer can do it. It doesn’t have that kind of intuition.

Why do taxi drivers/parking attendants feature so much in your columns?
Actually, I have never quoted a taxi driver in my column. There are a lot of people who like to criticise me by saying that because they are very lazy. Let me say something immodest: I can talk to anybody in the world. Why would I talk to only taxi drivers? But I do learn from anyone around me. I get my best insights from people I meet randomly but also from people I take appointments to meet, like Nandan Nilekani or Bill Gates. That’s what you are supposed to do as journalists, talk to people.

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