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.

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.