Friedman is the archetypical trend spotter. If trends didn’t exist — and, happily for him, they do — he would have to invent them.
For decades, Thomas Friedman has been selling himself as America’s top producer of labels for global trends that nobody else has noticed. Just last week, he discovered some new “big trends.” He describes this awakening as a lucky break, important for the permanence of his employment and personal productivity, because he, like so many others, had been sucked into the vortex of the media’s obsession with Donald Trump, to the point of forgetting his true mission.
As he explains, the focus on Trump created the risk for perspicuous people like himself of “not having the time to learn and report about the big trends now reshaping the world — trends that one day will surprise your readers and leave them asking, “Why didn’t I know this?”
But what does he mean by trends? Let’s try answering that.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Trends, pl. noun:
Historical shifts that only very perceptive, articulate people manage to notice and describe, providing them with the principal source of their livelihood
Friedman is the archetypical trend spotter. If trends didn’t exist — and, happily for him, they do — he would have to invent them. The key to his success in the profession of trend spotting is to dispose of an infinitely extensible travel budget from The New York Times. True trends — as opposed to ephemeral trends such as styles of pop music or feminine fashion — are only detectable in remote geographical locations that Americans never think about because the inhabitants of those zones are too poor, unsophisticated and generally dark-skinned for the average American to show any concern or take seriously.
In his writings over the past two decades, Friedman has made sure that we all understand that most trends originate in the teeming, inscrutable metropolises of Asia. As he informs us in his latest discovery: “In a world where data is the new oil, China and India are each creating giant pools of digitized data that their innovators are using to write all kinds of interoperable applications — for cheap new forms of education, medical insurance, entertainment, banking and finance.”
There is no greater proof of a trend than “giant pools of digitized data” — especially when they are the sticky pools of “the new oil.” Pools deep enough for the civilized world to develop a fear of death by drowning, like the mammoths and dinosaurs in Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits!
Friedman’s greatest claim to fame was launching the global trend of believing that the “world is flat.” That was the title of his international best-seller of 2005. For a lot of people, his thesis — that technology puts all nations and all entrepreneurs on a footing of equality — has become a kind of postmodern orthodoxy, the standard justification of the ineluctable globalization of the economy.
The corollary of this proposed axiom is something like a techno version of Francis Fukuyama’s since discredited thesis, “The End of History.” It assumes that the developing world — especially Asia — is ready to function exactly the way the United States (led by Silicon Valley and Wall Street) has been functioning for the past three or four decades. The moral of the story for Americans is this: We, the flame-bearers, need to join hands with them and escort them — with our technological and financial wizardry — into digital utopia. His unstated central dogma is that this will permit the United States to maintain its cultural leadership and impose its values of civilization.
Ironically, perhaps the greatest proof of Friedman’s success with the “world is flat” thesis is that it has given new life the literal Flat Earthers — deniers of basic astronomy — who have re-emerged with force to earn their precious minutes in the news cycle, relaunching what was never really a debate as to whether the Earth is flat or spherical.
The question was pretty definitively settled by Aristotle’s time, two and a half millennia ago, without the help of satellite imagery. And contrary to the legends about Christopher Columbus, no educated person thought of the Earth as flat in the 15th century. But in our evolved world, where any outlandish claim becomes a saleable commodity (provided it is stated with vehemence, a strong tone of indignation and some level of apparent sincerity), the authority of the ancients or the moderns is seen as just a “differing opinion.”
Finally, we have just learned that the very latest trend announced by Friedman is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s initiation of an “Arab Spring” in Saudi Arabia. For Al Jazeera, Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi lucidly analyzes Friedman’s depiction of the trend called “Arab Spring” and concludes: “Thomas Friedman is the latest in the long panoply of Lawrences of Arabia dashing in and out of the peninsula in search of their oriental fantasies, of brown reformers facilitating their white imperial rule of the region.”
So, Friedman himself is on stage in a trend dating back to Lawrence of Arabia!
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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