A Flat World Still – Friedman Reflects

Thomas Friedman travels about 200 days a year of which a third of his time is spent outside of the US. After his whistle-stop visit to India, he is scheduled to go to Riyadh. We (at NASSCOM) were indeed privileged to host him and got him to interact quite extensively with 7 startups from diverse areas of MedTech, EdTech, Gaming & AR / VR, AgriTech, Environmental Sustainability & FinTech. Most importantly, these startups represent what is arguably the coming of the second wave: a far cry from times when it was common enough to see founders wanting to replicate successful American ideas and adapting for Indian conditions. Undoubtedly, some worked well but perhaps we have come to now look at the bigger picture. Increasingly, we are witnessing a whole new breed wanting to solve India’s problems through advanced technologies. The 7 startups who spoke at length to the celebrated writer and NYT Columnist, are a part of this new genre, exhibiting a deep understanding of the problems being attempted including the challenges that lie ahead.  Most striking was their confidence in scaling up which has been the pet peeve of many.  

Thomas Friedman, in his inimitable style, likened the tech giants such as Google and Facebook to “Giant Arousal Platforms” which only care about keeping users in a heightened state of arousal perpetually through the incessant flow of information. In such a world it is very easy to lose balance and perspective to only focus on issues that are “trending”. He was very pleased to be in India and interact with young people who are making a huge difference to millions of lives by addressing their most pressing needs. Also, in conversation with our illustrious guest was the President of NASSCOM, Mr R. Chandrashekhar who had something very interesting to share. Technology, he believes, all-powerful & ubiquitous, was unbiased about who it empowers – be it the citizens or their governments. But increasingly the onus is shifting onto governments, and for them to decide whether it should be used to empower the former or make themselves more powerful. Surveillance State, now common enough with many governments across the world.

In 2016, the digital edition of NYT witnessed a spurt in circulation – up by as much as 300k, a reflection of how news was being consumed. In an environment where there is a surfeit of information, fake news is a huge concern and can be most damaging to how opinions are formed. In the US today, journalists are tempted to write about President Trump all the time because he is always trending on social media. But, if they give in to this temptation frequently then the rest of the world is ignored. Friedman is very clear that he does not wish to fall into this trap. That’s why he thinks nothing of taking 18-hour flights to the farthest corners of the world where he can experience new ideas and learning. He believes that if one writes only for visibility and not substance, then readers end up being stupid and harbour myopic views about the world.          

Back in 2004, he wrote the bestseller, “The World is Flat” which became instantly popular and gained an expanded readership worldwide. Globalization, a powerful idea was making the world flat. Fast forward to 2017, and with the wave of protectionism doing rounds, the sheen of globalization seems to be fading. Is it? The outcome of the Brexit referendum being a case in point and Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, he remarked with a touch of sarcasm. If a Martian were to land on earth, what sort of a view would it have about us? Well, it would depend on the lens being used. China today is attempting to go cashless for 1.3 billion people. Inasmuch, India today can boast of a unique identity for 1.1 billion people: these examples reinforce the idea that globalization is far from dead.

Managing perception versus generating substance is a constant pull that we have to manage on social media. Till sometime back, platform providers were reluctant to take responsibility for the content generated on their platforms and a free-for-all regime ensnared millions in an unregulated environment. The way things have panned out and taken a vicious turn, the need to manage content is imperative and requires the same amount of efficiency that is reposed in its generation. It is a personal choice of Friedman that he chooses to stay away from some of the popular platforms. He is aghast that even public figures indulge in spats on social media and situations get messy. The phone he says is like an MRI machine which can get into our heads to know what’s exactly going on inside. Flip it, and it becomes a global megaphone. For instance, a white policeman beats up a black kid and a 30-second video clip goes viral. There’s a danger with this kind of selective reporting. The viewers do not get the complete information about the incident and yet form myopic opinions based on limited footage which leads to dangerous consequences.

That, giant-sized arousal platforms are ubiquitous, makes it imperative that we disconnect periodically to gather a more balanced perspective. On a lighter vein, he remarked that the President of US is the Chief Arouser – given his penchant to grab headlines continually and concurrently for reasons more than one. Though he believes that there’s a method to the madness, and oftentimes, it is deliberately orchestrated to send out a messaging to his voters. One has to reflect on human actions that need to be incentivized including the ones that have to be dis-incentivized, strictly. In his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late” he mentions three major forces that are reshaping the world: Market, Mother Nature & Moore’s Law. The computing power of microchips is doubling every 2 years and that has been the trend for the last 52 years, and it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. It’s an incredibly fast-paced world and those who get derailed will not able to get back on their feet so easily. The sheer speed of it all can be overwhelming. That’s why the import of leadership is so critical. Emotions run high, accentuated by Reach Algorithms (selective) which manifest in synthetic opinions being formed. There are huge economic consequences to this. In comparison, print media is static. The adverse effect of fake news is increasingly being felt and even modern day legends like Zuckerberg missed its ill effects in the beginning. Only when 128 million Americans were impacted did he truly fathom the malaise. Is this making the world less flat, asks Friedman?

Friedman had done a similar exercise with NASSCOM startups 4 years back. From that time, things have changed quite rapidly and the ecosystem is approaching its own hockey stick moment. While Bangalore still remains the most popular destination, other regions (especially NCR) were on a hard chase. For one, the sector is fast maturing as B2B solutions have started to gain prominence and increasingly making their presence felt. Moreover, diversification is evident now especially in the areas of fintech, healthcare and edtech.

What the hell happened in 2007?

Steve Jobs launched iPhone, Facebook opened its doors to the world at large, Twitter became an independent platform, Hadoop was born, VMWare went public, Kindle, IBM Watson, Airbnb all came to the forefront, cost of genome sequencing collapsed, Flipkart started operations – huge step-ups to name a few of that year. But how did we miss that year (in hindsight) despite the fact that so much had happened? Perhaps it had something to do with the next year, 2008, as the world experienced meltdown and everything froze.

It was a dislocation of sorts in 2008. Now “Cloud” has brought on a different kind of dislocation as well. Friedman doesn’t favour the word cloud so much, he would rather call it “Supernova” which has driven change of cataclysmic proportion:

  • One individual has the power to break the world. And, collectively, all of us now have the power to prevent such a thing from happening. We are a step closer to being God-like!
  • Machines are capable of acquiring all 5 human senses.
  • The exponential power of information flow.
  • Re-shaped beyond recognition: Politics & Geo-politics; Workplace; Ethics & Community.
  • In the past, humans had created great civilizations by the side of rivers. Today, is the world’s most powerful marketplace. Objects seen in the side-view mirror in cars are closer than they appear. Something similar can be said of the future today – it’s closer than we think!

In 1999, Friedman wrote the book, Lexus and the Olive Tree. A reader had asked him,” Is God in Cyberspace?” It baffled him to such an extent that he asked the Rabbi to throw some light on the subject. According to the holy man, post-Biblico, God manifests himself in the way we behave. While the question remains unanswered but our generation may like to ponder on the simple fact that more than 50% of our life today is spent in the cyber-world!    

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