Interview with Thomas Friedman

How the world is connected now 'changes everything'

THE same connectivity that allows a student in Asia to study online at the best United States universities can also enable a minority in the US Congress to shutter the government and hold the country hostage.

The New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman cited those examples of how technology has led to a "hyper-connected world", changing everything from business to culture to politics.

Mr Friedman, best known for his 2005 book on globalisation, The World Is Flat, will be in Singapore on Oct 25 to host a forum on how the world has become "hyper- flat". It is the first New York Times Global Forum Asia and its theme is "Thomas L. Friedman's The Next New World".

Readers of The Straits Times will get a special price for tickets to the event as ST is the exclusive local newspaper partner of the forum.

Speaking by phone from the US amid a government shutdown, he said that the impasse was possible only because technology now allows some politicians to raise money on their own through online campaigns and to use detailed demographic data to create strongholds. They could thus pursue an agenda to hold the government hostage over their opposition to health-care reform.

"They've been able to leverage technologies and money-making techniques and they are using big data to draw gerrymandered districts down to the atomic level."

He made it clear that he believes the current shutdown is a critical point for US politics, saying President Barack Obama made the correct decision in pulling out of upcoming meetings in Asia to focus on the issue.

"I think it is vital (Obama) win on this and that he win decisively," he said. "Because if not, it would mean no issue is ever resolved in America. The minute some minority decided they were against it, they find some way to attach it to the debt ceiling which comes up regularly. We would see no end to this."

But he is also keen to talk about the brighter parts of what he calls the "Next New World". He is a big believer in massive open online courses, or Moocs, where universities have put some courses online for free. His wife, he said, is taking a poetry class online from a University of Pennsylvania professor.

"I think they are going to be a huge part of higher education. I think you will see every model, people getting certificates, people getting degrees, people like my wife, taking them to expand their knowledge."

And while he acknowledged some limitations - most who enrol in online courses never finish them - he said it's early days yet.

All of it adds up to what he considers a major shift in the wiring of the world since the turn of the century.

He said: "Something really big happened in the last seven or eight years, something that was disguised by the sub-prime crisis and post-Sept 11 (terrorist attack). The world went from connected to hyper-connected, it went from inter-connected to inter-dependent.

"The theory of our conference is that you really cannot understand the changes affecting every business, every economy, every education institution and every worker today without understanding what basically happened in the past eight years."

Mr Friedman said the speakers at the forum, who include Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman and Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Andrew McAfee, are "the best people for making that argument".

As to the choice of Singapore as the venue for the first NYT Global Forum Asia, he said: "It is a very globalised place that is very interested in the convergence of biggest trends in technology, education and business."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg