Commentary Magazine


Hack to the Future

For a man who’s obsessed with progress, Thomas Friedman has a decidedly Cold War era grasp on “the future.” Here, from today’s New York Times, are his thought on The Jetsons, bullet trains, and “ultramodern” airports:

I had a bad day last Friday, but it was an all-too-typical day for America.

It actually started well, on Kau Sai Chau, an island off Hong Kong, where I stood on a rocky hilltop overlooking the South China Sea and talked to my wife back in Maryland, static-free, using a friend’s Chinese cellphone. A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train – with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

Maybe if he cured himself of his evident Web and cellphone addictions, he’d have the time to do research instead of travel writing. But as things stand, Friedman’s dropped calls drive him to this eureka moment: “All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us?”

The Chinese live better than us? That’s insulting. No, not to us – to the poor Chinese! With their industrial slaves, toxic red seas, multicolored air, ethnic warfare, human trafficking, forced population relocations, birth fines, and dam collapses, Thomas Friedman gives them an A+ on the Super Sci-Fi Cellular Network Global Connectivity Scale and calls it a day.

Even if we were to rate quality of life by the number of bars on one’s cellphone, just how does Friedman suppose China has achieved this communications paradise? Forget Somalia, the Chinese are the most accomplished pirates the world has ever seen. The country is one booming and unrestrained intellectual property black market. Which is great for jet-setting journalists trying to meet a deadline, but not so great for the cardiac patient whose Chinese-made beta-blocker turns out to be a plastic pellet.

To get a sense of what Friedman is so taken in by, go look at images from an old World’s Fair site. The representations of possible futures turn into embarrassing historical artifacts in about a decade, once the real future has charted its unforeseen course. China’s moving sidewalks and sci-fi bubbles are good fun, but Friedman fails to mention that in the most important up and coming industries America is way ahead of the pack. The United States has issued more nanotechnology patents than the rest of the world combined. And American biotechnology revenue dwarfs that of any of its nearest competitors. But, look, he’s right. Penn Station’s escalators are too narrow.