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  • Geoff Mulgan

The problem with gurus and when the silences speak volumes

I recently saw a great talk by the columnist and author Thomas Friedman at the OECD. He was clear and engaging, and had some nice messages, mainly based on advice he gave his daughters – how to think like an immigrant without assumptions or entitlement; the virtues of curiosity and passion over IQ; staying fresh and thinking entrepreneurially. He also talked about how he had learned to see phenomena (like the Syrian civil war) through the triple lens of nature, business and behaviour, in the case of Syria, for example, seeing the effects of drought, displacement, uiquituous mobile phones and suggestibility (as people saw the crowds on the streets of Cairo and across the middle East).

Friedman also had a nice line about changing his business card to describe himself as working on ‘humilitation and dignity’, recognising how much of the world is now shaped by feelings of humiliation and the search for dignity and respect.

But there were two striking gaps in his talk which were as interesting as what he did say. He mentioned with pride his book ‘The World is Flat’, published in 2004 at the highpoint of globalisation, prompted by a visit to Infosys in India. The book was a huge bestseller and almost defined its era - and modestly called itself a history of the 21st century.

But he said nothing about how, within a few years, much of his diagnosis had turned out to be wrong, as the world became ever less flat, with the revival of nationalism, trade protection, war and sanctions. His hunch on the direction of history turned out to be flawed, quite dramatically (he wasn’t the only one). That he had nothing to say about this gap between his prediction and the reality baffled the audience.

There was also another fundamental gap – in both the book and his account – which perhaps explains the first gap: there was no mention of what many see as the defining challenge of our times, the mismatch between political and economic power. This is most visible in the rise of tech giants that shape our everyday lives and that national governments struggle to regulate. It’s affected everything and helps explain why feelings of powerlessness and humiliation are so prevalent, and why so many have looked to politics for an answer, unlike in the 2000s when business saw itself as the answer to every question.

By his own account Friedman spends a lot of time hanging out with business leaders so perhaps it’s understandable that he should see that as less of a problem than others. His is very much the perspective of Davos man: pro globalisation, pro technology and optimistic about a world of open borders. But to show no sense of the problems, no sense of the ways in which the world moves dialectically not in straight lines, was odd, especially for a colulmnist on foreign affairs speaking in 2022.

A discussion ensured amongst ministers and others at the event I was at on why this was. The conclusion was that this may be a more general phenomena of gurus these days. Once a writer becomes a global brand, as Friedman certainly is, it becomes hard for them to admit error or to visibly learn. They spend so much of their lives hearing their own voice, or reading their own writings, that they may find it hard not to convince themselves that they are uniquely brilliant. The powerful dynamics of confirmation bias means they seek out the praise and screen out the uncomfortable errors and criticisms. Meanwhile there are none of the critical mechanisms that help science and academia to advance.

Perhaps a good rule to teach schoolchildren, students and anyone else is always to ask, when you hear a really compelling, well-delivered talk: what was missing and why? The silences speak volumes.

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