Skip to content

Big Global Trends: An #AAM2022 Keynote by Thomas L. Friedman

Category: Alliance Blog
Thomas L. Friedman standing next to a podium and speaking

Thomas L. Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, author, and journalist, opened the Museums in Society focus area of the 2022 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo with his keynote, “Big Global Trends,” followed by a Q&A with Jorge Zamanillo, Founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino. Watch the full video or read a transcript below.

Grace Stewart:

Now, please welcome to the stage Jorge Zamanillo, Vice-Chair of the AAM Board of Directors and Founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Jorge Zamanillo:

Good morning, everyone. Buenos días. First, many thanks to Chevy and Laura for those words of inspiration and the review, really, of more than two years of amazing AAM accomplishments. After two years of Zoom conferences, it’s a real thrill to be here with you face-to-face and to reconnect with so many friends. On behalf of the American Alliance of Museums Board and the Smithsonian, thank you for joining us today for this keynote session. I’d like to give special thanks to ERCO Lighting for their generous support of this keynote address. Here’s a brief message from Richard Fisher, National Culture Manager of ERCO.

Richard Fisher:

Welcome to the 2022 AAM Annual Meeting and Expo, and this morning’s keynote presentation, “Big Global Trends” by Thomas Friedman. Despite being in front of you in video form today, after two years of virtual meetings, we’re thrilled to be together in person again and honored to be a contributing sponsor to this year’s conference. My name is Richard Fisher, and I do hope we’ll have a chance to connect during the conference.

As today’s topic addresses global trends, we thought it’d be interesting to take a journey across the Atlantic to Lüdenscheid, Germany, and the location of ERCO’s light factory. Here, we focus on the design and manufacture of one thing, the world’s leading light for museums, galleries, and architectural projects. This singular focus has led to the creation of light that could be found in art institutions around the globe from Berlin, London, and Bilbao to Sydney and Singapore. Here stateside, you’ll find ERCO light at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, the West Baton Rouge Museum, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, just to name a few projects.

As the first established luminaire manufacturer with a portfolio based entirely on LED technology and through years of development, ERCO is able to ensure the highest levels of quality and consistency to meet the most demanding of applications, illumination of artwork and exhibits. It’s in museums and galleries that light is put to the greatest test, allowing today’s visitors to view works and conserving them for generations to come, and ERCO Luminaire has been developed to meet this challenge from the very beginning.

Whether it’s the visual comfort and the innovative dark light lens of the Eclipse, the uniformity of a Parscan, the light that reaches an exhibit from an ERCO Luminaire is unmatched. We invite you to learn more about ERCO and see the light for yourself in Booth 737, or join us for a presentation on creating inclusive visual environments for museum audiences this afternoon at 3:00 PM on the Expo Floor. Thank you, and enjoy today’s keynote presentation.

Jorge Zamanillo:

Thank you again to ERCO Lighting for helping to make this event possible. Again, you can catch the presentation on Inclusive Visual Environments in the museum’s Expo Solution Center today at 3:00. Before we get started, please be sure to download the audience interaction app Slido to share your questions at the keynote. I’ll be back towards the end of the hour to pose a couple of questions to our speaker. With that, it’s now my pleasure to introduce you to an internationally renowned author, reporter, and columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of seven best-selling books. Tom has been described as an acute observer of the world with his finger on the pulse of global shifts and trends shaping and often disrupting our lives. His writings not only identify these trends, but Tom helps make sense of them.

I’m sure many of the audience are regular readers of Tom’s insightful and influential New York Times columns and have read his books. It’s been 17 years since The World Is Flat was first published, but it’s still read today and has sold more than 4 million copies in 37 languages. I’m sure you’re also familiar with Thank You for Being Late, as well his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which called for a green revolution.

We’re so fortunate to have Tom join us today, especially with Tom’s connection to Boston as well as the museum field. After growing up in Minnesota, Tom attended Brandeis University, which isn’t too far away, in Waltham, but his personal connection to museums actually has more to do with his wonderful wife, Ann. Not only a colleague on the AAM board, but she is a founder and CEO of the new language arts museum in Washington, DC, called Planet Word. The next time you visit Washington, please take time to visit. Tom’s voice is one we should all be listening to as we strive to better understand the complicated geopolitics and the context in which our museums operate and adapt to best serve our communities. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Tom Friedman.

Thomas L. Friedman:

Thank you, all. It’s a treat to be here today. I am Mr. Ann Friedman. So I’m known in Washington these days. Also known as the Vice-Chair of Planet Word, and in my spare time, I write a column for The New York Times. That’s actually a little bit what I like to talk about today. I’m actually known for being an optimistic guy, but today’s lecture will come with a warning. I have to do this actually before every dinner party in Washington these days because I tell everyone I can actually ruin any dinner party these days, and I also do weddings and bar mitzvahs if anyone is interested.

So I’m going to try not to ruin your day today too much. We’ll have time for questions, but in my talk, I’m going to share with you actually something I’m working on now. It’s a new book on how to write a column. Since we live in an age where everyone wants to be a columnist, whether on Twitter, or Facebook, or Reddit, or wherever, I thought I’d write a book about how I did it. But more than that, it’s a book about why I wrote, how I learned, what were the biggest lessons I learned, and what I saw. I hope if we can go through that in the next half hour or so, I can give you basically the framework through which I look at the world, and then we can go to the Q&A.

So, why do I write? Why do I write? I actually write for three reasons. The first reason I write is I actually write to learn. I wish I could say I start out with every column or every book with an outline, an idea, and I just go from top to bottom. It actually doesn’t work that way. I actually write to understand what I think. I actually don’t write my books or my columns. I discover them in the process of the writing, and the way I do it is… I can give you an example.

Just the other day, I started a column, and it was going to be about reparations, how much the Russians might have to pay the Ukrainians out of their foreign reserves for the terrible damage they’ve done to Ukraine. In the middle of that column, I just tossed in a line and said, “You know, this war is actually the first world war.” Yeah, not World War I, not World War II. This is the first world war because this war is the first war where almost three quarters of the world now has a smartphone to watch it, to participate in, to opine about it. In World War I and World War II, half the world was colonized. Many people were subsistence farmers. They weren’t connected to this. This is actually the first world war.

I wrote that line in the middle of the column, and then I kept writing about reparations. Then, that line just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I kept thinking about it more, adding to it. By the time it was done, the column was called “This is the First World War,” and reparations was one graf. Never would’ve gotten there had I not started by writing. I write to think, and it’s the same with my books. I start with an idea. “It feels like the world is flat. It’s like a block of granite.” Then, I start chiseling away, and I see an elbow, and an ear, and a knuckle, and an ankle, and suddenly, the book reveals itself.

Second reason I write is it’s my form of idealism. When people ask me what I do for a living, I explain to them that I’m actually a translator from English to English. I take really complex subjects and break them down so I can understand them, so hopefully others can understand them because I live by the motto of Marie Curie: “Now is the time to understand more so we may fear less.” Now is the time to understand more so we may fear less because we live in an age where it is now big business to make people stupid and frightened, and I think my job, my form of idealism is not to preach any particular ideology, but do the best I can so people can understand more, fear less, and make better decisions and better choices about their politics and their leaders.

Third reason I write, I confess, is… It’s because I need the eggs. You remember that line from Annie Hall where a guy goes to his doctor, he says, “Doctor, doctor, I’ve got a terrible problem. My brother thinks he’s a chicken,” and the doctor says, “Well, just tell him he is not.” He says, “I can’t. I need the eggs.” There is something quite irrational about what I do. The way I can explain it to you is a few weeks ago, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. This happens sometimes, and a column had written itself in my head. I just woke up and tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The paragraphs just were coming at me.

I got out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, ran up to my office, wrote the column down, went into my editors, woke up at 8:30, told them I had a column, they liked the idea, they arranged for a copy editor and a fact checker, and by 2:00 in the afternoon, that column was on the homepage of The New York Times, shared with 8 million people around the world. Friends, I have to tell you, that is the most fun you could have legally that I know of. Okay? Illegally, I can think of some ways, but legally, that’s as good as it gets, and that’s what I mean by I need the eggs. So that’s why I write.

How did I learn? We all learn differently, and I developed a way of learning that was unique to me. I didn’t start out this way. I wish I could say that 40 years ago, I started by saying, “I shall learn this way.” No, this was looking backwards at how I learned, and I’d learned by going to the edge of three different realms because it’s at the edge where all the best learning happens, and it’s at the edge where you see things first and can often name them like The World is Flat.

So I learned by going to the edge of three different realms. The first edge I went to early in Ann and my’s marriage is I was The New York Times and UPI Bureau Chief in Beirut, Lebanon. For over four years, we lived inside a civil war. Through that experience, I got to see how human molecules behave at very high temperatures. I got to see things. People do things for great kindness and great depravity in ways and extremes that I never would’ve seen growing up in a small town outside of Minneapolis in the ’60s and ’70s. It really enlarged my sense of human behavior.

What it did even more importantly was Beirut taught me to be an anthropologist because in Beirut, there was no data. The only data was talking to another human being, and so that got me to really develop my ear for quotes. I would literally do any story, just walk out on the street with my notepad, and start interviewing people. When you develop that ear, especially in a civil war, you hear things, again, you wouldn’t hear in Minnesota in the ’50s, like the hostess who turns to you at a dinner party and says, “Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?” I didn’t hear that growing up in Minneapolis much.

I confess though that being in a city where there is no data, because there was no government, I confess this in Beirut to Jerusalem. I did make up the weather report. In those days when I was a UPI reporter, we had to contribute to the worldwide weather highlights. You are probably too young to remember, but in the ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s, you actually had to go to the newspaper if you were going to Beirut to see what the high and the low was. Well, when I was there, there was no weatherman. So I would turn to Ahmed and say, “Ahmed, feel about 75 today?” “Oh, yeah, Mr. Tom. Yeah, a good 75.” “How about last night, Ahmed?” “Ah, a little cool, Mr. Tom.” “60, would…” “Yeah, 60. High Beirut, 75. Low, 60,” and thus was the weather report filed from a city where there was no data. The only data was talking to another human being. It really taught me to be an anthropologist.

The second edge I went to was the edge of technology. I’m actually the foreign affairs columnists for The New York Times, but I developed a habit of going to companies, big companies on the edge really spearheading technological change because if you want to know about the future, hang out with people who are defining it. I would come to these companies and say, “Not interested in your quarterly earnings. Not interested in your stock price. Not interested in your revenues. Not interested in your next CEO. Just want to do two things, want to hang out in your research lab and your Human Resources Department. I want to know what’s going on at the tip of your spear and how you’re training your people for the tip you’re inventing because I think that’s going to come to a neighborhood near me.”

That’s what brought me to Bengaluru, India, in 2004 to a company called Infosys, the leading outsourcing company in the world at that time. I hung out in their research lab and was blown away to discover that my lost luggage was being traced on Delta Airlines from Bengaluru. Then, I hung out in their HR Department to see how they were training their people, and then I sat down with their CEO at the end of two weeks, Nandan Nilekani, with my laptop on my lap outside his office, and Nandan said to me, “Tom, I’ve got to tell you. The global economic playing field is being leveled, and you Americans are not ready.”

Oh, I wrote that down in my little laptop. “The global economic playing field is being leveled, and you Americans are not ready.” Got done with the interview, got back in my Jeep, took the hour ride from Electronic City back to my hotel in Bengaluru, and the whole time, I’m rolling over in my mind, “The global economic playing field is being leveled. What he’s actually telling me is that the global economic playing field is being flattened. Oh my God, India’s premier engineer entrepreneur just told me the world is flat.” I wrote that down on my notepad, “The world is flat,” on that Jeep.

I got back to The Leela Palace in Bengaluru, ran up to my room, called my wife. I said, “Honey, I am going to write a book called The World is Flat.” She now says she thought that was a brilliant idea. Not exactly how I recall the conversation. We have a little dispute about that, but this is how I learn, and I do this all the time for companies, all the time, because going to that edge gives me an edge, I think, in understanding not only what’s coming, but what’s going to have to happen in education in its wake.

The third way I learned is… Ann was on the Board of Conservation International for 20-something years, and for the last 25 years, I’ve traveled the world with CI to visit the most pristine and endangered ecosystems on the planet. The US Navy took me on their submarine exercise, ice exercise underneath the Arctic. I’ve been to, really, the edge of nature, and I went there for two reasons. One, to understand it, to preserve it, and to appreciate its beauty. But I went for another reason because over time, I realized that this globalization system I was describing was so complex and so intertwined, there was only one other thing that was as complex and intertwined, and that was actually natural systems. So if you understood what made for a stable ecosystem in nature, it would give you an insight in what would make for a stable community in human societies.

Then, my design innovation was I arbitrage all three of these together, and that’s how I look at the world. I’m always looking at the world in 3D. I’m asking, “What’s going on in the natural system? What’s going on in technology? What’s going on in human behavior?” So let me give you a simple example of how this manifests itself in my writing. I actually got my BA in Arabic and Middle East History and graduate degree from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. I graduated in 1978. If you were to bring forward that Tom Friedman of 1978, plunk him down here, and I could interview him, I would ask him, “Mr. Friedman, what do you think just happened in Syria?” because they had a civil war.

Well, that Tom Friedman would’ve said, “Well, they had a coup. It was like when Adib Shishakli overthrew Mohammed Jones in 1953.” I would’ve given you a very one-dimensional historical answer. You ask this Tom Friedman what happened, he’ll tell you that between 2006 and 2010, Syria experienced the worst drought in its modern history. A million Syrian farmers and herders left their crops, and their livestock, and their land, flock to the cities, overwhelmed the infrastructure, President Assad did nothing for them, then they got on these babies [points to smartphone], watched the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, and then they blew the lid off the place. It was the market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s Law all coming together. If you don’t look at the world in 3D, you will never see what’s happening. So that’s why I wrote. That’s how I learned. What are the big lessons I learned?

Well, the biggest lesson I learned, and I’ve got a whole drawer full of them. I’ll just share with you a few. The biggest lesson I learned is that humiliation and dignity are the two most powerful human emotions, and nothing else is even close, which is why five years ago, I actually changed my business card from “New York Times‘ Foreign Affairs Columnist” to “New York Times‘ Humiliation and Dignity Correspondent” because I have spent 40 years covering people acting out on their feelings, either real or perceived of humiliation, and questing for dignity. It could be Oriental Jews versus European Jews in Israel, Palestinians versus Israelis, China speaking about a century of humiliation, Vladimir Putin telling us that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. All of these are people acting out on their sense of humiliation and questing for dignity. Basically, I have spent 40 years covering that process.

Second big lesson I learned, and it’s related to the first. It’s actually the working title of my book. It’s called What You Say When You Listen. What you say when you listen. Whenever young journalists come to me and ask, “I want to do what you do. What do I need to know?” I say, “We need to type fast. That’s good. You got to know some history, and some science and grammar, and all that stuff. But the most important thing is you need to be a good listener for two reasons, and the second is more important than the first. The first is what you learn when you listen. Oh, I can tell you all the mistakes I’ve made were because I was talking when I should have been listening. But second and more importantly is what you say when you listen. Listening is a sign of respect, and it’s amazing what people will let you say to them or even about them if they think you respect them. If they don’t think you respect them, you can’t tell them the sky is blue or that this room is dark.”

That was really my survival mechanism. So I’ll tell you a little secret. I’m actually a little Jewish kid from Minnesota who wanted to cover the Arab Muslim world in the ’70s. That was not a natural thing. Okay? It was not an easy thing. At The New York Times, we actually had a rule. You couldn’t be Jewish and serving Beirut or Jerusalem, and I broke both those codes. If you follow my stuff on the Middle East, it’s hot. I’m not out there to make everybody happy or tell people what they want to hear. I’m in people’s face a lot, but I’m still one of the most widely read columnists in the Arab Muslim world because people know one thing about me. I’m a good listener, and I want them to succeed.

I’m not there to put them down. I will say harsh things. I will say tough things, but I will also listen, and it’s amazing. You can go into a room, in my case, with a group of young Arabs. They’ve got your columns printed out in front of them. They’re ready to carve you up, and you listen to them for an hour. I mean, deep listening, not just waiting for people to stop talking. At the end of that hour, everyone’s got their cellphone out, and they want a selfie with you because it goes back to dignity and respect. The greatest poverty in the world today is not a poverty of food, hunger, or money. It’s a poverty of dignity, and there are so many people, wounded souls who are just looking for a little respect, and it’s not only important for diplomats, it’s vital to be a successful journalist.

So those are a couple lessons. I’ll give you a couple more. Third I think most important lesson I learned is that in the history of the world, in the history of all mankind, no one has ever washed a rented car. I know, I know. I’m going to get off the stage, and someone is going to come up and say, “I once washed a rented car.” But generally speaking, in the history of human civilization, no one has ever washed a rented car, and no one frankly has ever washed a rented country, or a rented museum, or a rented classroom. When ownership is in the room, good things happen. When a kid owns their own education, when a teacher owns her classroom, when a principal owns her school, when young people feel they own their country, they wash it. Good things happen. When ownership is not in the room, bad things happen.

I think the last most important lesson I’ve learned, it’s from my teacher and friend, Dov Seidman, who likes to say, “Trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug.” Trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug. When there’s trust in the room, it’s like a hard floor. Even a short guy like me might be able to dunk a basketball off a hard floor. When there’s no trust in the room, it’s like the sand in the Syrian Desert. You can’t jump a millimeter. So building trust as a journalist is so important for what I do, and we unfortunately live in an age in America where the two pillars of our democracy, which are truth and trust, because without truth, we don’t know which way to go, and without trust, we can’t go there together, and if you can’t go together, you can’t do anything big and hard, are now being eroded.

So those are the reasons I wrote, some of the… the way I learned, a few of the lessons I learned. What did I see? What did I see? I’ve been doing this since 1978. I actually saw something really big, and you all were here with me. Yeah. We were here for something really, really big. We were here for what I call a Promethean moment.

So Prometheus was the mythical god who stole fire from a closet on Mount Olympus, really pissed off Zeus, and gave it to humans to build civilization. We all know what Promethean moments are. They’re moments where we get the introduction of a new technology or way of thinking that doesn’t just change one thing, it changes everything, how we govern, how we learn, how we educate, how we do commerce, how we build a museum. Okay? We know what those Promethean moments are. They’re the printing press, the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and this moment we’re going through now. Yeah. You are here for something really big.

Remember, someone was alive when Gutenberg invented the printing press, and you can bet that some monk said to some priest, “Now, that’s really cool. You mean I don’t have to write these Bibles out longhand anymore? I can just stamp them out?” But you all are here for a similar Promethean moment. When I first came to this conclusion, again, waking up one morning, and I woke up one morning and realized that I had written seven books, but they were all about the same thing. Oh my god, I wrote seven books, but they’re all about the same thing. I was describing a giant elephant sometimes from the trunk, sometimes from the tail, sometimes from the hoof, sometimes from the back. I’ve been describing this Promethean moment. By the way, this elephant keeps moving, which is why it takes seven books to describe it. So what is this Promethean moment?

Well, the best way I can explain it to you is to go back to the previous Promethean moment, the Industrial Revolution. So when the Industrial Revolution met capitalism, we got the steam engine, the combustion engine, electrification. It blew us out of the futile era by that release of energy, and that release of energy was so destabilizing. It melted so many traditional relationships that it took us a century to figure out how we harness the best of it and cushion the worst. We had to go through two world wars, and colonialism, and imperialism, and fascism till we all finally settled on a system to get the best out of it and cushion the worst, and that was market forces plus something called the welfare state, the welfare state. China had a version of it. Russia had a version of it. Western Europe had a version of it, and America’s New Deal was our version of the welfare state that would enable people to get the best out of this Industrial Revolution and cushion the worst.

This welfare state was a set of walls, ceilings, and floors that would enable workers and capitalists to get the best and cushion the worst, and our politics, our left/right politics for the last 75 years, became a debate between how high the walls should be. Left said high walls. Right said low walls. How thick the floor should be, the safety net. Left said thick floor. Right said thin floor. How tight the ceiling should be. The ceiling was on incomes and the pace of change. Left said low ceiling. Right said no ceiling. That really governed left/right politics for the last 75 years.

Then, one day, I looked around, and I realized all those left/right parties had blown up. Haven’t you noticed? The Tories in England, an international business party, became a Brexit party. The liberals in England disappeared. Their former leader is now the spokesman for Facebook. I couldn’t make that up. The Labor Party became Marxist. Republicans became a Trump cult. Democrats are blowing up before your eyes. Just give them a chance. I have no idea who governs Italy today, but I’m pretty sure they’re not called Christian Democrats.

France is the only country in the world that is a leader without a party and an opposition without a leader, and Israel’s government is so crazy between Islamic fundamentalists and Jewish settlers. Labor and Likud have completely disappeared. Oh, folks, something really big happened. The parties, the left/right parties that shaped our lives for 75 years, our choices and our governance, they’ve all blown up. What happened? What blew them up? A new Promethean moment. A giant release of energy that blew off the ceiling, blew down the walls, crashed through the floor, and left these parties not fit for purpose. So what do they all do? They fall back on identity politics to hold their adherence.

What was this energy release? Well, it had a technological component, and it had a environmental component. That was the source of the energy. Basically, we developed technologies that enabled humans to reach farther, learn faster, and think deeper with the aid of machines than ever before in the history of the world. So let’s think about that for a second. Enabled us to learn faster. That’s because we developed an ecosystem of sensors… Sense, digitize, process, learn, share. Sense, digitize, process, learn, share. Sense, digitize, process, learn, share.

We start out with sensors. They tell us… I know when I come here, again, God willing, in 10 years, each one of you are going to have a sensor on your chair, and they’re going to tell me when you slouched down and when you laughed, and I’ll be able to analyze everything afterwards and know just which lines worked because we’re going from an internet of people to an internet of things to an internet of parts. We are putting intelligence into everything in the form of sensors that can see, touch, feel, smell, measure temperature, you name it. We then take that information, we digitize it, we process it, we turn it into learning, and then we share it. That loop is going around everywhere.

So, five years ago, IBM actually did this at Lake George in Upstate New York. They took the lake, and they put sensors everywhere, on every bank, at every depth, in all the muck, and John Kelly who ran IBM Research at the time told me, “You know, Tom, this lake has been talking to us for centuries. We just couldn’t hear it, but we can now hear so many more things, process that information into learning, and share it.” That’s one ecosystem that’s going around.

The second ecosystem is we have made machines with intelligence greater than humans ever evolved with. No member of our species has ever done that, and that’s because primarily, the advance in both bandwidth and microchips have enabled us to build computers with such deep neural networks that mimic the brain. We now have machines that can outthink us. So just look at the continuum that started. 1962, a guy named Arthur Samuel invented a software program that could beat any human in Checkers. Yeah, 1962.

Then, in 19… sorry. In 1995… 1996, excuse me. IBM developed a program called Deep Blue that it thought could beat the world’s chess champion, Gary Kasparov. It lost in the first time it played Kasparov, and a year later, it improved and defeated the all-time World, at the time, Chess Grand Master. Deep Blue. Then, in 2011, IBM came up with a computer called Watson that defeated the two all-time Jeopardy! champions on a very famous show that year, and the key question, see if you can get, was, “It’s worn on the foot of a horse and used by a dealer in a casino.” Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, da. Watson popped out the answer before either the humans. What is a shoe? For the first time, we watched live on TV a computer in just natural language and analyzed a pun faster than two human beings, but nothing stopped. Nothing stopped.

Then, 2015, Google developed through its DeepMind subsidiary a program called AlphaGo to see if it could beat the world’s all-time Go champion. Go is a Chinese game of strategy that is millions of more options than chess. They took on the world’s… at the time, the European Go champion, 2015, and they beat him. 2016, they took on the world champion, and they beat him in Go. You know what the difference between the two years was? The first time they beat the European champion, they beat him by training this computer with neural networks so efficiently on old games of Go. They just took all the best games of past Go champions, dumped them into the computer, and trained it to win. A year later, they just gave AlphaGo Zero the rules of Go, it played against itself, and one day in that championship, you can look it up, it made a move, it’s famously called Move 37, where no one in the room knew what the computer was doing. No human understood the move because the computer had trained itself.

So we can now learn faster, we can learn deeper, and through social networks, we can reach farther. We now have a world, thanks to bandwidth and social networks, where one of us can talk to all of us without an editor, libel lawyer, or filter. We’ve never been there before. We can suddenly hear each other whisper. We can hear each other whisper. We can now hear each other whisper, and we were never meant to hear each other whisper because we whisper crazy stuff. Okay?

So these three technological changes, the ability to learn faster, think deeper, and reach farther, were incredible releases of energy, but what’s different about our Promethean moment? It was paralleled by an incredible release of energy in nature. Yeah. We are also the first species to ever drive itself from one climate era into another. We have been in the Holocene for the last 11,500 years. The Holocene was distinguished by the fact after millennia of ice ages and warming periods going back and forth where all we could be were nomadic herders, we suddenly had 11,500 years of the Garden of Eden of four distinct seasons, and that’s what allowed us to build cities, domesticate animals, have crops, and build civilization.

Yeah, that’s what we’ve been in, and beginning in the 1950s, thanks to emissions, we are driving ourself out of this Holocene into a new era called the Anthropocene, a manmade era of climate that will have none of the stability of the Anthropocene because we have supercharged nature. I don’t know if you noticed it, but on March 29th, the average temperature in the Antarctic, March 29th, was 70 degrees above the norm. The same week, the temperature in the Arctic was 50 degrees above the norm. Wait a minute. These are on opposite poles. One is supposed to be hot, the other is supposed to be cold, and nowhere near that extreme. We have supercharged nature. We are getting super extremes. So we have basically super-empowered people through social networks, we have supercharged computers to think deeper than we can, and we have supercharged nature.

Friends, the convergence of these three things has just blown off the ceiling, blown down the walls, crashed through the floor, and fundamentally changed their relations between humans and machines, humans and humans, humans and nature, humans and states, and states and states. Well, I’ve already described how relations between humans and humans have changed, humans and nature, humans and machines. Let’s talk for just one second about humans and states. Oh, this is something Vladimir Putin didn’t quite understand because what’s happened is that we now have superpowers, but we also now have super-empowered people.

I live by the Princess Diana rule. You may have remembered that Princess Diana once said, “The problem with my marriage is that there were three people in my marriage.” Well, Vladimir Putin just discovered there are three people in his war. There’s his side, there’s the NATO Ukraine side, and there’s suddenly this whole new group of people called super-empowered people. Who are they? They’re the people who woke up one day early in the war and said, “If I take out my smartphone, call up Airbnb, reserve a room in the Ukraine for someone I don’t even know, and don’t occupy that room, but just send them money, I can actually participate in this war.” In three weeks, about a hundred thousand people did that and sent $20 million to Ukraine. They did that faster than USAID was even tying up its shoes. Okay?

Putin didn’t know where that came from, and then one day, Putin discovered McDonald’s is leaving. Wait a minute. Joe Biden didn’t tell McDonald’s to leave. Oh, here’s what happened. McDonald’s employees went on TikTok and saw terrible video of massacres in Bucha. Then, they posted it on their Facebook page. Then, they went into Slack or whatever the in-house internet is in McDonald’s, and they didn’t ask the CEO of McDonald’s. They told the CEO of McDonald’s, “We are out of Russia.” 30 years after McDonald’s opened in Russia, in one day, 804 McDonald’s were closed not by a superpower, Biden had nothing to do it with it, but by super-empowered people.

Of course, relations between states and states have changed because we are now so interconnected, and we’ve removed all the buffers that instability in one node gets transmitted to all the nodes in a flash second. So, Vladimir Putin, based on some crazy fantasy about Russia in the 14th century, decides to invade Ukraine, and a week later, farmers in Argentina cannot plant their crops because Russia is the biggest fertilizer supplier in the world, and they can’t get fertilizer, and the price of diesel has gone up through the roof because Russia and Ukraine are both exporters of fertilizer, Russia, and gas, and oil. The ability now to transmit instability from one state to the other has gone through the roof. So what does all this mean, and what the hell does it have to do with museums?

Well, I’ll tell you what it means. What it means is the only way to stabilize this world, friends, I’m going to go back to what I learned from nature, is not through left/right binary parties. The only way to stabilize a world where relations between humans and machines, humans and nature, humans and humans, humans and states, and states and states goes to this edge. The only way to stabilize any of these, and get the best, and cushion the worst is through what I call complex adaptive coalitions, complex adaptive coalitions. I just stole that from nature, which ecosystems thrive when the climate changes. It’s those that have complex adaptive networks where all the elements of the ecosystem have healthy interdependencies to maximize their resilience and propulsion.

Now, nature does it in a rather brutal way, in an emergent way. The deer eats the grass, the lion eats the deer, et cetera. We have to do what nature does emergently. We have to do it intentionally. We have to build complex adaptive coalitions. Let me give you just a good example, the one that was vivid for me. I was in Israel in February 2020 before Delta, the whole COVID thing, and I ran into Amnon Shashua who runs Mobileye, the Israeli autonomous driving company that Intel bought for $15 gazillion because Intel wanted to be a car company.

Amnon said to me, “Hey, Tom. Have you ever driven in a self-driving car?” I said, “Amnon, I was just at Google’s Waymo last month in Mountain View, drove in their self-driving car.” He said, “Mountain View? That’s a grid. Try driving in a self-driving car in Jerusalem where there are no two parallel streets.” So I came up to Jerusalem, drove in their car, up, down, sideways, donkeys, camels, Jews, Arabs. Amazing, and I’m looking over, and there’s nobody driving. There’s a person sitting there, but he’s not driving. We got done. He told me an interesting story. He said, “Tom, to actually test cars, test self-driving cars on the streets, you need an insurance protocol that defines what constitutes safe self-driving. Otherwise, anything you hit or anyone hits you, you get sued.”

Well, it turns out that the rabbis who run Jerusalem don’t know a lot about self-driving cars. So Mobileye had to convene a complex adaptive coalition, Volkswagen, their car supplier, Mobileye, the rabbis who run Jerusalem, and the Israeli Ministry of Transportation, and they collaboratively wrote the law. It was so good that Russia’s Google, Yandex, now test their self-driving cars in Israel, and China just took the whole Israeli law, translated it into Chinese, and made it their law.

You think we can solve climate change without complex adaptive coalitions? There’s not a chance. Do you think we can govern machines smarter than us without complex adaptive coalitions that also speak about the morality of some of these devices? There’s not a chance. Education? Do you know how fast when… Technology is moving this fast. Do you know what that means for education? Do you know how fast things are going, folks? I got to tell you. I wrote The World is Flat in 2004, 2004. I went out on a limb. I said, “I think the world is flat.” Do you realize that when I wrote that book, Facebook didn’t exist, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking place, LinkedIn was a prison, application is what you sent to college, Big Data was a rap star, and Skype was a typographical error? All of that happened since I wrote The World is Flat. That’s a crazy pace of change. What does that mean for education?

I read about those parents who bribed that guy to get their kids into USC. I want to call them up and say, “Come over here for a second. If you’re going to bribe to get your kid into a university, could I suggest you bribe to get them into IBM’s in-house university?” because if I showed you IBM’s in-house university, it would blow your mind, okay, because it’s built on just-in-time learning, not just-in-case learning. Okay? IBM’s in-house university, they have a program that says, “Tom, you might want to know that the other three people doing your job are taking these in-house courses. Oh, and we also estimate your job will expire in three years and 46 days.” So what’s the answer? More and more colleges are now collaborating with IBM, both nourishing their programs and being nourished by their insights. You need a complex adaptive coalition.

Friends, we live in a world where interdependence is not a hobby. It’s not an option. It is the condition of our life. It is now the condition of our life, and the only question out there, the only question is, will we have healthy interdependencies or unhealthy interdependencies? What you see between Russia and Ukraine today is a vivid example of exactly what an unhealthy interdependency looks like. Our job. Where do healthy interdependencies come from? They come from communities, healthy communities where people can feel connected, protected, and respected. What is the job of museums? It’s to serve communities, to help people feel connected, protected, and respected.

If you have any mission, whether you’re selling words like we are, or math, or art, it’s to serve the community so more people can learn from other people about other people to feel connected, protected, and respected. My favorite song is by Brandi Carlile. I’m a big Brandi Carlile fan. She’s got a song. It’s called Eye, E-Y-E, and the main refrain is, “I wrapped my love around you like a chain, but I never was afraid that it would die. You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.” You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye. Friends, we are going through a hurricane, a whole new Promethean moment. What is the eye? The eye is the healthy community where people can feel protected, connected, and respected. The healthy ones move with the storm, draw energy from it, but don’t try to stop it.

We’re all in the same business. I’m in the healthy interdependency business, so are you because we need to build the cement in an age of acid rain. We live in an age where so much politics, so many social networks are pouring acid rain everywhere, and our job is to build the cement. I’m just going to leave you with one image. If you want to know what it looks like. So this is from a story in The Washington Post last Christmas. This is from Rodgers Forge. It’s a town outside of Baltimore, and the story is that… There was a guy named Matt Riggs who lived across the street from a woman named Kim Morton, and he knew that Kim had been going through some hard times and was very lonely, and COVID had really set her back.

So he was stringing his Christmas lights last Christmas, and he on the spur of the moment said, “You know what? I’m actually going to use the telephone wires, and I’m going to string the Christmas lights on my house without asking her over to her house, and I’m going to light up her house too.” Other neighbors in Rodgers Forge saw what he did, and they all started to mimic it. They went and cleaned out Home Depot, and everyone started to string their Christmas lights horizontally.

They created that sign above the town, “Love lives here,” and he was interviewed later. One of the neighbors said about Riggs, “It was light pushing back on the darkness in our little town.” So whatever you do, whether you are in the museum business or not in the museum business, we are all in the business of pushing the light against the darkness. Whatever you do, string your Christmas lights horizontally. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

Jorge Zamanillo:

Thank you, Tom, for thought-provoking remarks. We got time for a couple of questions from the audience. First one is, “If you were to write an afterword today for your book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, what would it be?”

Thomas L. Friedman:

If I were to write an afterword for my book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, what would it be? I actually did write an afterword, but not lately. Let me put that book in context for those of you who haven’t… Some of you, I know, haven’t read it, and those of you haven’t, I know who you are. Okay? You can go on Amazon right now and order it. So, after the Cold War, this is a book that came out in actually 1999. After the Cold War, people were asking a very big question, “What is the system that will replace the Cold War system?” because the Cold War was a system, and there were four books that got a lot of attention at that time.

The first, of course, most famously, was Frank Fukuyama’s book, The End of History. He said the Cold War will be replaced by the triumph of free markets and free people, what he called the end of history. It turned out at best to be premature. Okay? Second book was Sam Huntington. He said, “Oh, what’s going to replace the Cold War is going to be a clash of civilizations.” Well, he sure got that wrong, because what we’re watching between Ukraine and Russia is a clash within a civilization. That’s actually Slav versus Slav. In the Middle East, Sunnis versus Shiites. I mean, that wasn’t right.

Robert Kaplan said, “Oh, it’s actually going to be becoming anarchy, becoming anarchy.” Well, there’s been some, but I wouldn’t say we’re in an anarchic world. What I argued was that it’s actually going to be an interaction between something really old, what I called our olive tree urges, the things that connect us, and root us, and anchor us in place and with each other, sect, tribe, faith, religion, family, region, emerging in a world where we’ve got this whole new globalization system of warning.

If you want to understand international relations, it’s about the interaction between our olive tree urges and this new globalization system. Sometimes our olive tree urges will burst right through that globalization system as Putin has done in Ukraine. Then, sometimes the globalization system will quickly get its revenge, and McDonald’s will pull out 804 restaurants overnight. So I still think that that book is relevant. I would just update it for the present. So, thank you.

Jorge Zamanillo:

Thanks. We’ve got time for one more. The world saw the conflict coming in Ukraine, but do we have any global blind spots, and what other parts of the world should we be watching?

Thomas L. Friedman:

We saw the world… Yeah. Do we have blind spots? What should we be watching? I think there’s nothing more important to be watching right now other than Ukraine would be China because… I’m not going to get real political here, but you’ll read my column, you know what I think. In the last five years, we saw something we’ve never seen before. The leaders of the three biggest countries in the world, United States, Russia, and China, all tried to make themselves president for life.

Our system stopped it. Theirs didn’t, and they’re now paying the price of having presidents for life because systems with presidents for life are very low-information systems. So Putin is doing something really crazy in my view. He woke up and said, “I’m going to take on Moore’s Law. I’m going to launch my army out of date with dumb bombs against NATO-supplied mobile Ukrainian units, small units armed with precision missiles.” It hasn’t worked out real well.

Xi, President Xi of China, may be doing something even crazier. He said, “I’m going to take on Mother Nature. I’m going to have a national strategy against a global pandemic.” Well, it worked for a couple of years. He just locked down China, and the Sinovac, his homemade vaccines, worked against Delta, but they worked so well that 180 million elderly Chinese decided they didn’t need to get vaccinated at all. Then, of course, Mother Nature threw him a curveball, Omicron. Suddenly, he discovered his vaccine was completely ineffective against Omicron, and he had 180 million elderly who weren’t vaccinated. So all he could do was lock down Shanghai and a bunch of other cities, 370 million Chinese living under lockdown to try to basically chase down the Omicron variant.

We in America, because we’re so nuts, half of the country wouldn’t believe in the virus, so went out, and got it, and developed native immunity, and half the country believed in it and got vaccinated. So we have some crazy herd immunity in this country. It’s not exactly how you would’ve designed it, but we got it where we can now live with the virus, we hope, if it doesn’t mutate. But China, what are they going to do?

Either they’re going to have to import Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from the West, which if you’re just about to name yourself president for life is a little bit embarrassing for Xi since you bragged that your vaccines were superior, or they’re going to have to open up, or they’re going to have to keep locking down. It’s the biggest question in the world right now, friends. If you want to think about something out there that could really affect your life even more than the gas prices and food prices that have flown out of the Ukraine-Russia war, keep your eye on that story because that story is not over.

Jorge Zamanillo:

Thank you, Tom. That’s all the time we have for today. So please give a big hand thanking Tom Friedman.

Thomas L. Friedman:

Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Thank you. Thanks so much.


AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.