I took a day off to attend the New York Times Global Forum at San Francisco's Sony Metreon Center. Their goal was to put together 400 of the most forward thinking and influential minds in the Bay Area, stand back, and see what happened.
It was organized by my old friend, fellow traveler, and veteran journalist, Tom Friedman. Tom and I date back to the old days in Beirut, during their vicious civil war in the early eighties, when working as a journalist meant not knowing if you would wake up the next morning.
Tom worked for the old United Press International, and I for the still prospering Economist. Our mutual friend, the Associated Presses Terry Anderson, the best man at my wedding, was kidnapped out of his apartment and held hostage by Shiite Hezbollah militants for five years, an ordeal he described in chilling detail in his book, Den of Lions.
You know Tom as the controversial and kibitzing resident of the Times Op-ed page. He popularized the concepts of globalization and a flat world in a series of groundbreaking, best selling books, including The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and That Used To Be Us.
I managed to speak to dozens of guests and gained a fascinating read from many different viewpoints of our long-term future. I shall try to distill what I learned in a few lines without any particular attribution. I am always shopping for a new framework with which to view our rapidly evolving planet and I was not disappointed.
The merger of globalization and information technology has been the most important development this century. The new hyper connectivity is changing the world at a breakneck speed that few understand.
In the days of old, you needed an entire country to impact the global economy. Then, only a corporation was required, starting with the Dutch East India Company in the 1600's. Now, all it takes is a laptop computer or smart phone with a broadband connection.
Several disparate trends came together during the nineties to enable this revolution. The PC made possible the authoring of content in digital form. The Internet distributed it globally for free. Workflow software allowed the residents of this a potential Tower of Babel to seamlessly talk to each other. Google gave us unlimited free search, permitting us to all find each other.
A dozen years ago, 4G was a parking space, Skype was a typo, the cloud was in the sky, Twitter was a sound, Facebook didn't exist, and big data was a rap group. Today, the collapse of storage costs has ushered in big data and super empowered innovators. High speed Internet is even available at the summit of Mount Everest. If the entire world were a math class, the grading curve has just risen steeply for everyone.
"Average" is officially dead.
When Tom's predecessor, James Reston, went to the office 30 years ago, he wondered what his seven competitors at the major national newspapers would write that day. Now Tom wonders what his 70 million competitors will write. He is writing for the readers in Chengdu as much as he is writing for the ones in Chicago.
Employment prospects for kids these days are particularly challenging. They have to be innovation ready and not job ready. In fact, the whole concept of a "job" is rapidly dying out. People have to think like newly landed immigrants: unconnected, hungry, and paranoid, but still optimists.
We need to always be in "beta" mode, endlessly improving your value added to the global economy. The moment you think you're finished, you are really finished.
A lot of people will tell you how to invest your 401k, but no one will tell you how to invest in yourself. The Diary of a Mad Hedge Fund Trader is one of the few resources that does this, teaching readers how to prosper in the financial markets independent of the establishment.
The US will not cut or spend its way out of the current economic malaise. It will invent its way out. An accelerating rate of innovation will eventually soak up our current excess workers.
America is now the place where everyone around the world comes to launch their moon shot. That is great for business, and explains the tidal wave of new capital pouring into this country. In the meantime, we need to bolster our safety nets, like Medicare and Social Security, as they will be in much greater demand in this independent world.
I will write more about the conference in coming days, with carve outs on specific topics. The outlook for technology is truly unbelievable.
Two Old Warhorses