Thomas Friedman, king of bad metaphors and hyperbole, recently declared four words “over.” The words Friedman is sticking a fork into are “privacy,” “local,” “average,” and “later.” According to Friedman, we’ve lost our privacy, everything is global, everyone’s got to develop new skills, and we’re all doomed. Friedman, so often just straight-up wrong about things, can also, for the sake of jazzing up his articles, take right things and make them wrong.
For instance, none of those words are “over.” Surely Friedman doesn’t actually think the very words he’s talking about are “obsolete and destined to be dropped from our vocabulary.” What he really means is that the concepts those words represent are going to be so dramatically altered by the flat, hot, global, science-y nature of things that we won’t have as much cause to use those words. It’s a metaphor stated as an obvious truth, Friedman’s specialty. It’s not as glorious a metaphor as saying the walls have fallen down and the windows have opened, but it is metaphorical, in the sense that it’s not what’s really happening, it’s just what Friedman says is happening. He doesn’t know the difference. I think the guy actually thinks the world is flat.
Now let’s talk about the words he says are over. “Privacy” is over because Donald Sterling had the racist thing he said spread around in public. This is because of technology, says Friedman. Before cell phones, no one ever got called out in public for saying racist things. There’s a problem with this example explaining the death of privacy. It’s not that Friedman doesn’t have a point, but he makes it so badly, so broadly, so roundly, to use a metaphor, that it becomes a pointless point. Yes, in an age of social media and government metadata collection, we have to be more careful about what we say, and in what context. Does that mean we should just give up, even in our homes? “It may be so,” concedes Friedman. Yep, it’s hard to not be recorded on your cell phone, so let’s jettison “privacy.”
OR we could fight harder to maintain it. Rein in the government’s intrusions, using legislation. It’s been known to happen. Get better filters. I’m sure there are computer start-ups trying to create better firewalls, or whatever kind of walls we’re using these days, to keep strangers from prying into your personal information, because there’s a demand for privacy. You know, that word that still exists and isn’t going away.
Why is “local” on the chopping block? Because Solange kicked Jay-Z on that elevator. Evidently it never used to become international news when celebrities got into fights before. I think that example fits better with the whole lack of privacy thing (note that the people who leaked that private moment to TMZ got fired, despite the death of privacy), but Friedman thinks it explains the dissolution of localness. Yes, Chinese people are going to watch things that are interesting enough, but I assure you, they are not following your PTA bake sale. Super-interesting sexy violent celebrity shit’s going to blow up big, but local is still local.
“Average” is gone because dairy farmers are now using mechanical milkers. Everyone’s a scientist! We all need to develop new skills! Yes, but but but but. The fact that farming is an industrial business shouldn’t be news, and the fact that workers in that industry aren’t hand squeezing doesn’t herald a new class of supermen. I know nothing about these machines, but I’m willing to bet that you don’t need to go to a special college to operate one. Call me jaded, but I suspect that, among the new crop of exceptional milking robot specialists, there are going to be some who are just average.
Lastly, “later.” I agree with Friedman on his politics here. There irreversible destruction of the ice caps is depressing, but at least he’s not willing to give up on saving our ecology the way he throws in the towel on privacy. We have waited too long to fight the Great Weather Choke, and now some things are definitely going to change, like our shorelines, islands, and deserts. Yet again, saying later to “later” is just silly. Things have always been changing, and it’s always getting to be too late to paint the landscape you wanted to paint, which Friedman laments we won’t be able to do because of global warming. The tragedy is not that we want to one day paint a certain patch of Florida shoreline the way we remember it from childhood but won’t be able to. The tragedy is that Florida is going to be ruined. That New York and New Jersey are going to be ruined. That islands will disappear underwater. That monsoons, droughts, and tornadoes will become more frequents and more powerful. Some things are going to get bad. We’ve got to get together as a planet and work very hard to make sure it’s not worse than bad, and we’ve got to do it immediately.
The answer isn’t to get rid of “later.” The answer is to grasp the meaning of “now.”