Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Al Gore and the age of hyper-change

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 27, 2013 21:04 UTC

This book review was originally published in The Washington Post.

Sprawling, earnest and ambitious — its modest title is “The Future”—Al Gore’s new book embodies both the virtues and the flaws of its author. But those hardy souls who slog past the weaknesses will be rewarded by a book that is brave, original and often fun. Inevitably, there’s a lot here about the two signature Gore preoccupations — climate change and technological innovation — but what really makes “The Future” worth reading is two newer ideas.

The first is the premise. Gore believes we are living in a “new period of hyper-change.” The speed at which our world is changing, he argues, is unprecedented, and that transformation is the central reality of our lives. The technology revolution, Gore writes, “is now carrying us with it at a speed beyond our imagining toward ever newer technologically shaped realities that often appear, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘indistinguishable from magic.’ ”

This is not a truth universally acknowledged — some economists, such as Tyler Cowen, argue that innovation has stalled and that our low-growth economies are the result — and that is part of what makes “The Future” interesting.

Characteristically, Gore doesn’t play down his conviction that this time, things really are different. He thinks that the world is experiencing “exponential change,” that the transformation is different not just in degree but in kind from previous periods of tumult and — in one of the leaps across millennia in a single paragraph that are a leitmotif of this book — that our Ice Age brains are struggling to cope with a world governed by the kind of exponential increases suggested by Moore’s Law.

Gore’s thesis of hyper-change is the justification for the vast, messy range of this book. It is risky to write about all of human and geological history, about the whole world, about all the important frontiers in science, about business and politics and society and nature. But Gore makes no excuses for this widest of lenses. On the contrary, his thinking demands it. If humanity is changing more profoundly and faster than ever before, you have to try to connect as many dots as your Stone Age neocortex can bear — and if the result isn’t the neatest of narrative arcs, that hardly seems to matter.

China, technology and the U.S. middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 15, 2013 16:27 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. Jason Reed/REUTERS

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech this week confirmed it: The pre-eminent political and economic challenge in the industrialized democracies is how to make capitalism work for the middle class.

There is nothing mysterious about that. The most important fact about the United States in this century is that middle-class incomes are stagnating. The financial crisis has revealed an equally stark structural problem in much of Europe.

Even in a relatively prosperous age — for all of today’s woes, we have left behind the dark, satanic mills and workhouses of the 19th century — this decline of the middle class is more than an economic issue. It is also a political one. The main point of democracy is to deliver positive results for the majority.

Globalization, the tech revolution and the middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 21, 2012 15:04 UTC

YALTA, Ukraine — One of the paradoxes of our age is that we are simultaneously living through a time of positive economic innovation and also a time of the painful erosion of the way of life of many middle-class families.

Listening to Yuri Milner, the Russian Internet investor, at a conference in Ukraine a few days ago brought home this contrast. Milner is a billionaire thanks to his Internet investments: He has done well both in his homeland, supporting some of Russia’s most successful start-ups, and, even more spectacularly by venturing abroad, taking pioneering stakes in Facebook, Zynga and Groupon.

When Milner talks about the technology revolution, he paints a dazzling picture of literally unprecedented innovation, bringing tremendous savings and benefits to consumers.

The world’s new crucible

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 26, 2010 21:13 UTC

The theme of this year’s Quebec City Conference, a gathering of some of the world’s pre-eminent private-equity investors and venture capitalists, is innovation and globalization. Chrystia was in attendance earlier this morning and interviewed one of the event’s keynote speakers: Glenn Hutchins, co-founder of Silver Lake Partners, a $14 billion private-equity firm that focuses on the technology sector.

Hutchins’ remarks focused on the shift of economic power from the U.S. to China. He noted that as long as China grows much faster than the United States, multinational corporations will shift more of their business there. But his other insight was that for the first time businesses are tailoring products to the Chinese consumer rather than just selling the Chinese products developed for American consumers:

It used to be that to be a global company you had to forge your business model in the crucible of competition in North America–potentially Europe, but usually North America–where you define your business model, define your product set, define your customers, and then once you were successful there took it outside the world and essentially sold the same products and services to a strata of groups and people around the world who can consume it.  Today what you’re seeing is companies that are growing up–we talked a little earlier about Huawei being a very good example, but there are many, many others–whose business models are being forged in the crucible of competition in the emerging markets.

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