(Originally published Feb. 16 on Medium)
Tom Friedman was interviewed by Al Hunt on Charlie Rose Tuesday night. He was pitching his new book: Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. And he offered, as he always does, a modular understanding of the world.
There are, Friedman says, three things driving our acceleration. I always feel a certain ambivalence when listening to Friedman anatomize the world in this way These “modules,” let’s call them, are both disturbing and useful. Disturbing because they feel like intellectual decelerations, the world too simplified. Useful because these modules do give him coverage and breadth. And that’s the good thing about Friedman. He has a courage for coverage.
The intellectual strategy here is to “chunk” the great complexity of the world into thinkable parts. And when Friedman gives us a module, we are meant to treat this almost as a digital icon that signals the existence of an understanding more fully treated and crafted elsewhere. Take this as a placeholder, Friedman seems to be saying. (And he says this as much in manner as in content. He rushes through his exposition as if to insist that we consult the larger argument.) Still it feels sometime like a “near thing,” as the English say.
Things are more appealing when Friedman begins to put the modules together. And this he does as well as anyone. Because lots of people don’t even try. We live in our silos. We work from our silos. People ask for our advice and we proceed as if it doesn’t matter that all we know are our silos.
But of course it does matter. Especially in a world as dynamic as our present one, so filled with black swans and other disruptions. The good thing about Friedman is that he accepts that he should be talking about most everything if he wants us to take seriously his treatment of anything. Who else is doing this? Not many people. (My one complaint about Friedman coverage: not nearly enough about the cultural matters here. This is a blind spot.)
But surely we need to cultivate Friedman’s courage. Because there are more and more silos. So mastery of one silo gives us less and less. To make matters worse, the silos are coming alive, so to speak. They are increasingly conscious. They know about themselves. (Which wasn’t always true by any means.) They are better at spotting their limitations and blind spots. They are more mobile. To make matters still worse, they know about other silos and they are prepared to visit these competitors without permission or notice or any sort of sympathy. (In the contemporary world, disruption is never not the plat du jour. I was giving a talk in the investment world recently and I thought to say, “somewhere out there there is a disruption with our name on it.” A hush of recognition fell upon the room.)
The problem is not just achieving breadth and coverage. The problem is also the skill, the nimbleness with which we can move from top to bottom, and back again. It’s a question of control of focus even as we change the focal plane (and metaphor, sorry!). Can we move faultlessly up and down? The historical community prizes people who are nimble in this way. (I’m reading Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop. Holy Toledo!)
Is this part of any curriculum? Is anyone training us to hold understanding even as we scale? If you watched Chance the Rapper on the Grammys, you got to hear someone who has figured out how to manage scale. (His Someday in Paradise, not performed, is even more remarkable. By my count, it changes “altitude” 15 times.) But as far as I know, Chance the Rapper isn’t teaching anywhere. Though clearly he should be. (Somewhere out there, there is [or ought to be] an academic chair with his name on it. Someday…in paradise.)
But the problem is not just a) knowledge side to side and b) knowledge made manageable even as we scale. The problem is also knowledge writ broad and fine. This is, I venture to say, the single most pressing problem for communicating in our new culture. The advent of better story telling gives us the ability to speak with great nuance. But not everyone has risen to the new literacy. There are still some people who are using the old rules to read TV and Hollywood and every other kind of culture content. They find the new culture a little daunting, impenetrable even.
The solution is broad plus fine. We want big fat themes that are sit unmistakable at the opening of the story “view corridor.” And then we want a series of less obvious story points built into the view corridor and moving away by stages until we get to the far horizon where plot points are vanishingly subtle. Something for everyone.
This allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Popular culture is allowed to get better, so to speak. Eventually, it drops the adjective. It becomes culture plain and simple. But even as it becomes something Matthew Arnold would admire, it remains stoutly democratic, the sort of thing that is intelligible to readers who like things kept simple. (And all of us are that reader some time. This is pop culture’s holiest cause, its deepest promise. No viewer left behind.)
Our case in point here could be Maggie Siff who was interviewed by John Micklethwait on the same Charlie Rose episode that gave us Thomas Friedman. Siff was talking about her role on the FX show Billions. This is a show with themes big and unmistakeable. Two men contesting. But how thrilling to hear Siff talk about how her role. There’s no actorly pretense, no ‘observe how impossibly sensitive is my craft,’ just a wonderfully thoughtful and articulate treatment of “Wendy Rhoades,” the woman she becomes.
As popular culture got better, this was a question. Would there be a short fall in the supply chain? Would this cultural form have all the talent it needed as it got, quite suddenly and ferociously, better? The answer is Maggie Siff. (Smart studios should be reaching out to the best and brightest talents in the writing and acting world. They must improve their chances to access this top talent when particular projects come along.)
Summing up: 3 options
The world gets more complicated.
We remain rooted in our silos.
We need to cultivate several very particular intellectual abilities to survive the new complexity
(This list is not exhaustive.)
The Tom Friedman option
We need to get better at let’s called it the Tom Friedman option: learning to craft particular arguments and climbing up into the high rigging of real generalities. This is the single biggest problem for academics who do not train for it or encourage it enough. This means, tragically, academics are not very good at making it an outcome of the liberal arts education, or any education for that matter. (They are of course free to disappoint themselves. We should be less forgiving when they disappoint the rest of us.)
The Chance the Rapper option
This is a matter of managing scale. As we move from the finely crafted observation to the honking great generalization, can we control the argument? Or do these bust apart? Can we emulate Chance the Rapper and manage knowledge even as we move swiftly between altitudes?
The Maggie Siff option
This is a matter of communicating our “stories.” We want to step up and take advantage of the sudden improvement of popular culture and craft our work with new subtlety. But we DO NOT want to abandon those who are not (or not yet) transformed by this astonishing trend. We want to remain democratic. We want to continue to talk to everyone. The solution is the Maggie Siff option, to make stories that accessible to all even as they explore complexity and nuance.