Friday, January 27, 2012

Thomas Friedman's 'Lake Wobegon' America

Thomas Friedman trips over his own words with his claim, "Average is Over". He skips over the easiest ways to join the wealthiest Americans - being born rich - and the second best way, his personal method, marrying an exceptionally wealthy heir or heiress.
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
This is fair to a point. I do sense that unless you're firmly ensconced in the privileged class, a typical job of the future will demand a lot of you - continuously working to stay at the top of your field. Fewer and fewer jobs will let you coast, or allow you to be the person who knows the way things used to work.

But Friedman doesn't appear to understand the law of averages, or the joke of Lake Wobegon. Average is determined mathematically, so even if everybody improves there will remain an average. It's not possible for everybody in every field to find an "extra" that makes them above average. People who can distinguish themselves and prove their value will find it easier to earn a decent wage, and some will rise in wealth and position, but that won't eliminate either the average or the fact that our society includes a lot of dead-end jobs in which being above average simply means you work harder for the same or a slightly higher rate of pay.

Friedman is excited at the idea of going to a restaurant and ordering his food using a tablet rather than being served by a waiter. I expect he's excited for the rest of us, as it's difficult for me to imagine Friedman spending much time in a restaurant where his napkin is not recovered and folded neatly, awaiting his return from the restroom.1 That is to say, Friedman is in a class of wealth that makes it unlikely that he wants to play with a tablet computer to learn what's on the menu, or where he would have to tap the equivalent of a call button to get his water glass refilled.

I think a tablet could be an effective tool at restaurants where people presently queue to place their orders. Rather than waiting in line, trying to decide what you want, you can sit down, take your time, and not have the person behind you sighing loudly at your lack of familiarity with the menu.

There's something else that Friedman is missing in his excitement over iWaiters. The fact that they're not actually a labor saving device - they're a labor shifting device. Perhaps that's why I see them falling into place in a restaurant that doesn't have waiters. In those restaurants you're already used to having what was once the restaurant's job shifted to you - collecting your food at the counter, carrying it to your table, filling your own drink, throwing away the trash at the end of your meal. Banks use ATMs and online banking, grocery stores have self-serve checkout, bag your own groceries. In most states it's rare to find a full-service gas pump. The need for labor hasn't disappeared - it has just been shifted from the provider to the customer.

Friedman is also excited at the idea that a Chinese factory can retool on a moment's notice, and can pull its thousands of workers out of their dormitories to be retrained for the new system. "Sorry for waking you up - here's a biscuit and a cup of tea." No American plant can match that? Well, yeah. But for those of us who don't fetishize China, it would not be such a big deal if workers were trained on a more human schedule when they came to work from their homes, where they live with their families. As excited as Friedman gets about the idea that China is turning all of its workers into highly educated high performers, his anecdote belies that idea - he's describing a society of drones. Where does the reward of not being average fit into that world? "Good for you, you were 3% more efficient than your peers in fitting screens into frames. You get another biscuit."

Friedman is also excited about Siri, the voice interface to the latest iPhone. He quotes an executive of the company that developed the software, gushing about how good it is.
“Siri is the beginning of a huge transformation in how we interact with banks, insurance companies, retail stores, health care providers, information retrieval services and product services.”
Well, yeah, I guess I can see how Siri and similar programs going to take over the world's voice mail systems, perhaps reducing the frustration of the absurd menus most companies impose on consumers by allowing you to have a "conversation" with a computer. But we're not even to that point of the revolution. And many people, particularly those with more complex problems, will still prefer to talk to a human being.

I can imagine the frustration, also, of having a computer keep redirecting you from real answers to your issues, a'la Comcast, because the last thing they want to do is actually help you resolve a problem that should involve their crediting your account. Siri may become smart enough to understand what you're asking, but I can see her being programmed to give you a partial or inaccurate answer, anyway.

Friedman states that, as we enter an era in which "average is officially over,... nothing would be more important than passing some kind of G.I. Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post-high school education." Friedman should take a hard look at China, or at least his perceptions of China, as if he thinks about what is happening in that country he should be able to see that they are not trying to turn everybody into an "above average" performer. They'll help the children of the wealthy and of party elites through special schools and opportunities, and will identify some students by talent and nurture that talent, but in large part they understand that they need a lot of drones and, ultimately, their system collapses if their drones become too few or too expensive.

By G.I. Bill, does Friedman actually mean a G.I. bill? Join the military, get a college education? It seems not - I think he means a "G.I. bill" that does not actually require being a G.I. I agree with the sentiment that every American should have access to college, and will take it a step further and state that they should also have access to a K-12 education that gives them a chance to succeed in college. But I think Friedman falls into the class of people who believe that school makes you smarter, and that everybody is or can be college material. We will do better for our society by recognizing that some people aren't cut out for college, or should do something else first, than by trying to push everybody into college without regard for interest or aptitude. We do our nation no favors by pretending that everybody can be above average, or that everybody needs to be. We're a long way from being a true meritocracy.
1. In fairness, perhaps Friedman believes the iWaiter tablet will have an app that refolds his napkin.


  1. I'm guessing you're not a singularitarian. Oh well, it's the future.

  2. Science fiction has its time and place but, if that's what you're asking, we can't all share your fantasy world.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.