In the Times a couple of weeks ago, Thomas L. Friedman wrote one of the most interesting, alarming, and possibly prophetic pieces I have read this century. Let me quote it at length:
“It’s hard to have a conversation today with any worker, teacher, student or boss who doesn’t tell you some version of this: More things seem to be changing in my world than ever before, but I can’t quite put my finger on it, let alone know how to adapt. So let me try to put my finger on it: We now live in a 401(k) world — a world of defined contributions, not defined benefits — where everyone needs to pass the bar exam and no one can escape the most e-mailed list.
“Here is what I mean: Something really big happened in the world’s wiring in the last decade, but it was obscured by the financial crisis and post-9/11. We went from a connected world to a hyperconnected world. I’m always struck that Facebook, Twitter, 4G, iPhones, iPads, high-speech broadband, ubiquitous wireless and Web-enabled cellphones, the cloud, Big Data, cellphone apps and Skype did not exist or were in their infancy a decade ago when I wrote a book called The World Is Flat. All of that came since then, and the combination of these tools of connectivity and creativity has created a global education, commercial, communication and innovation platform on which more people can start stuff, collaborate on stuff, learn stuff, make stuff (and destroy stuff) with more other people than ever before.
“What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online. But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.
“If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it. ‘’
There is so much about this column that struck me at the core. I do feel that the world is changing far beyond my understanding. It is astonishing that the i-Phone and Facebook and so on have become so amazingly significant in so short a time. I find it bewildering that Twitter has been enthusiastically adopted by so many people; to me, it is like a newfangled dance whose steps I cannot master, choreographed to music I just can’t stand. By extension, it is also amazing that so many things that were once significant are fading away. I’m talking about books, and newspapers, and cinema, but more generally, the idea of cooperation—-cooperation in government, yes, but cooperation in the workplace. The idea that “we’re all in this together’’ seems to mean less, and less, and less.
More now rests on you. This is a frightening thought. The major reason is that I know how very limited I am. However good my best is, I know I am not at my best every day. And however good my average performance is, I know I am not average every day. In the world I lived in most of my life, I was confident that if I hit for a high average, my company would carry me through the rest. If I was in a slump, or ill, or on vacation (there’s a long-gone idea), somebody else at my magazine would be brilliant that week or month, and I would be supportive, and encouraging, and find some other way to contribute as I concentrated on the next cycle. Working in a group, valuing the group—that was important. Apparently that’s not so today.
Think about this quote from Friedman: “What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online.’’ Does it allow someone to just work? I’m not so sure; I don’t think Friedman is sure. But not everyone wants to live the thrillingly unstable world of the freelancer—going from gig to gig, bobbing along in the current, flush when the money is in and scrimping when it stops. Most people don’t want that. They want a job, a house, health insurance, reasonable security. We’re seeing a world that is being divided between the secure and the insecure, and between those who are insecure and are fine with it, and those who are not. Friedman, a man who is personally very secure, thinks the insecurity is great. I don’t. I see people buying guns and gold, and getting it while they can.
Friedman finds the “more rests on you’’ society exciting. I think it’s scary. It’s a return to Hobbes’ state of nature. It is a return to where there is a war of all against all. “”In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hyperbolic on my part? The Tsarnaev brothers were recently empowered to access learning online. How exciting was that?
There is a fast-moving kleptopoly that is taking over the world, taking ownership of things that we don’t even necessarily think of as ownable. It’s like when the European colonists came to America and took ownership of a continent whose inhabitants never thought of ownability. Napster just stole the ability of artists to control the sale of their music. Google now controls vast amounts of the world’s public domain books. Some drug company is trying to patent the human genome! When people talk about the exciting world of driverless cars and trucks that just around the corner, well, Brother and Sister Teamster, say goodbye to your job. When people talk about the exciting world of online education, they are actually talking about eliminating and/or cheapening teachers’ jobs.
It’s not that I begrudge the rulers of the universe their cut. Hardly; as Jesus might have said, the rich with you. But for most of my life, the rich took their cut and allowed the rest to dribble down, sustaining the poor and rewarding the rest of us for our industry and bidability. But then came Reagan and Greenspan, and the dogma of the free market. Then came Milken and the takeover artists, who forced business owners to squeeze labor and cut excess and maximize the shareholders’ end. So the rich can keep becoming richer. In April, the Pew Research Center found that from 2009 to 2011, the richest 7% of Americans saw their net worth climb an average $697,651 — equal to a 28% gain—while the rest of the country saw their net worth drop an average $6,079, the equivalent of a 4% loss. The share of wealth held by the top 7% rose to 63% in 2011, up from 56% in 2009. Pew said this disparity is a result of stocks and bonds rallying over these years, while the housing market remained flat.
You have to believe that years from now, this period may be perceived as The Great Digital Con, when fortunes were yanked away, and the moral basis of society was fundamentally altered for the worse. And Thomas Friedman stands to be remembered as its visionary apologist.
I’d be happier with the Leviathan.