Photo/IllutrationThomas Friedman speaks at a panel discussion on Nov. 9 next to Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, at a symposium co-hosted by The Asahi Shimbun and The New York Times. (Reina Kitamura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The rise of populism around the world is in response to rapid changes triggered by the interaction of developments in the market, nature and computer technology, according to prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

He delivered one of the keynote speeches in a symposium titled "How to Thrive in the Age of Acceleration" held on the campus of the University of Tokyo on Nov. 9 and co-hosted by The Asahi Shimbun and The New York Times.

The event was to mark 90 years of cooperation between the two daily newspapers as well as part of the run-up to the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese newspaper early next year.

Summarizing many of the details he laid out in his 2016 book, "Thank You for Being Late," Friedman talked about both the positive and negative ramifications of the interaction between rapid accelerations in three major areas: nature in the form of climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth; the digital globalization of the market that has led to an unprecedented interconnectedness; and development of ever faster and more efficient computing power.

Friedman said accelerated change in those three areas was not simply changing the world, but “reshaping the world,” especially in the five areas of politics, geopolitics, ethics, the workplace, and the community.

While that interaction may have produced the many conveniences now enjoyed by users of smartphones, it has also created the underlying elements that are causing a major disruption in geopolitics.

Friedman said the most important geopolitical divide in the world now was not between the capitalist and communist worlds, or East and West or North and South, but between "the world of order and the world of disorder."

In particular, the many small nations that are on the verge of collapse because they are unable to deal with the disastrous results of climate change and population growth have produced about 60 million refugees around the world who are seeking to move to the world of order as symbolized by the developed nations in North America and Europe.

But Friedman said that triggered a "populist, nationalist backlash" in many of the nations in the world of order, especially among citizens who feel they are being left behind and could be threatened if immigrants come and take their jobs. Such a backlash has fed the growth of populist leaders who are increasingly taking strident stands against immigrants.

During a later panel discussion, Motoko Rich, Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, was asked if she observed a similar trend in Japan.

"There isn't nearly as much economic and education inequality in Japan as in other nations, such as the United States," Rich said, adding that with manufacturing jobs rising and the farming sector that would be most affected by trade negotiations being such a small segment of the overall economy, there was not the same feeling over a large part of the Japanese population that they were being left behind in an economic sense.

But, she said that Japan may just be slow in catching up with trends in the West, especially because there is no way to judge what reaction would arise if legislation now before the Diet to allow in more manual foreign workers passes into law.

In addressing the many college students in the audience, given the event was held at the Yasuda Auditorium of the University of Tokyo, Friedman also described what would be needed to respond to the effects on the workplace caused by the interaction of the three accelerations.

He used an old concern about a digital divide separating those with access to the Internet and other forms of information and communications technology from those who lack it to highlight what he said would be the next major separation--a self-motivation divide. In the future, those who have sufficient motivation will realize that in order to succeed in life, they would have to be lifelong learners who are constantly learning new skills to keep up with the rapid technological changes taking place.

But despite the many rapid changes taking place, Friedman also said there were some areas where the "old, slow" way was still the best.

He stressed that developing the morality needed to ensure that ethics does not die amid the rapid changes was only possible through the old-fashioned way of learning it over a number of years.

Friedman said the Golden Rule of doing onto others as you would want them to do onto you was also needed in order to maintain cyberspace as an orderly and civilized world.

The theme of old-fashioned values was also taken up by New York Times Publisher Arthur Gregg ("A.G.") Sulzberger in his keynote speech as he stressed the need to clearly understand "what not to change" when considering how to confront the challenges of a rapidly changing digital world.

"We've learned through this sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes exhilarating period of digital transformation that our old fashioned values will guide us on this journey," he said.

With the symposium coming just days after the U.S. midterm elections, many of the questions during the panel discussion were focused on the effects of the results on American politics. The panel discussion was moderated by Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor in chief of The Asahi Shimbun and now chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative.

Friedman said the rancor during the midterm election campaign from both political party camps did not bode well for the next two years as U.S. President Donald Trump gears up for his re-election effort. But he also reflected on the success stories he has encountered at the local community level that gives some hope that the United States might be changed from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

He described his own experience in visiting Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and meeting with the many different coalitions that were working in that city to deal with the problems facing the community without depending on either the state or federal governments. He said a major precondition of all the coalitions in that community was to not bring any partisan difference to the table when working on the issues they were discussing.

But at the same time, Sulzberger painted a more pessimistic picture of what was happening at the local level within what he described as the "journalism ecosystem."

With many local newspapers sharply reducing their newsroom staff and no reporters covering many small towns any more, Sulzberger said, "Those towns are losing the glue of common understanding as well as the accountability that comes with people asking tough questions of people in power."