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The Next 100 Years: A Review

By - April 17, 2011

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For my next book (no really, I’m starting to work on it in my copious spare time), I’ve begun to read in earnest. I’ve got a rather long list, and I’m not sure I’ll get to them all, but for those that I do read, I plan to do a quick review here, if for no other reason than to prove I read the damn thing, and had an opinion.

Because the next book is a report from the future, I figured I may as well start with the NYT bestseller The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman, a fellow who apparently is the leader of a consulting company his publisher calls “the shadow CIA”. (And yes, that link is an Amazon affiliate link. I’m trying to make a few bucks to pay for the sorry state of publishing overall. Someday I’ll write a post about the process of selling my next book, but that day is not today).

Anyway, this book (first published in early 2009) came highly recommended to me by a very well known person in the Valley. It’s not a technology book, if anything, it’s the equivalent of a geopolitical romp, if ever there was such a thing. It’s reasonably well reviewed on Amazon, averaging three and a half stars, and I’ll admit it’s got some fun stuff in there.

But I have to say, it pretty much missed the entire boat when it comes to the impact the Internet is going to have on geopolitics, culture, and society over the next 100 years.

Now, I’m not going to do a classic book review here, but rather give you what I might say if you asked me what I thought of the book at, say, an industry cocktail party. And when I get to all the rest of the books, I’ll be doing the same. Deal? Deal.

So the premise of Friedman’s book is that certain geopolitical facts will never change. Nations need security, and those nations who can fend for themselves will attempt to defend that security. Some nations will fail and be dissolved into larger, more powerful neighbors, others will flex new muscles and create new (or in some cases very old) spheres of influence.

What makes the book so interesting are the author’s predictions, the most radical being this: That by sometime mid century, we’ll have a world war between two major sets of allies: On the one hand, the US, and the other, Turkey and Japan. Friedman lays this all out using a classic “past as prologue” approach, and I have to say, if you hold pretty much everything else constant, it actually makes a lot of sense.

But I find Friedman’s analysis sorely lacking when it comes to the potentially disruptive nature of global connectedness. Friedman argues from essentially this point of view: Countries are always worried about borders, access to commodities, and preserving national identity. They will always act to protect and preserve all three. He makes compelling cases for this by pointing to many centuries of history, from the Ottoman Empire to Germany in the 1900s.

Problem is, to my mind, we’re at a pivot point in human history, and I’m not convinced that national identity and protection of borders is going to drive folks to war in the way it has in the past. Until recently the human race has been bound by geographical regions of interest. Increasingly, the boundaries have more to do with intellectual (and commercial) regions of interest that are rather agnostic with regard to geography. They are, in a word, stateless. The nation state is not necessarily the end all or be all of how we are going to negotiate our political conflicts in the future. And we have the global Internet, still in its infancy, to thank for that.

Anyway, that’s what the book got me thinking about. I highly recommend it, even if I disagree with some of its premises. It’s a quick read, it’s rather fun to speculate, and it’ll get you thinking. Not a bad combination.

The next book I’m reading is In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives” by Steven Levy. I’m about halfway through, and better finish soon, because I’m in conversation with Steven, who I’ve known for a very long time, at the Commonwealth Club this Tuesday in San Francisco.

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14 thoughts on “The Next 100 Years: A Review

  1. “The nation state is not necessarily the end all or be all of how we are going to negotiate our political conflicts in the future.”

    I agree with this statement a great deal, and much else in your quick review.

    I’ve considered reading this one as well. I have too many others in my “need to read” stack that I’ve already purchased.

    Two in my stack that might be relevant to your “report from the future”:
    Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants
    Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

    Another I read in the past year that would be good to include would be:
    P. W. Singer, Wired for War

    I assume you’ve probably already read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.

    I look forward to your further reviews, and eventually your future perspective.

    cheers,
    Chris

  2. It is reasonable to describe Friedman’s company, Stratfor, as a shadow CIA. They provide intelligence reports from around the world that are well-informed and fascinating to read. It’s the level of analysis that I used to expect from newspapers but they always left me disappointed. Anyone can subscribe for not-a-lot-of money, although I think their clients are mainly governments and corporations. Predictions are always risky but Friedman is well placed to predict the geopolitical future. That said he is quite old-school, i.e. looking at the kinds of geopolitical factors that have been in play since caveman days, and I can see how a twenty year old technology might not be big on his radar. Much of Stratfor’s thinking and analysis is guided by the question “is this going to end in a war?”. You could argue that the reasons for wars (money, power, land, religion) have been the same regardless of new technologies such as fire, gunpowder, airplanes or the internet.

  3. G Rosemary Ludlow says:

    I found this interesting, more because you are thinking ahead to the effect that the internet will have on the future. I would recommend you look at the Trilogy written by Robert J Sawyer. The books are called Wake, Watch and Wonder and deal with the emergence of consciousness in theWWW. His view of the Web and its ramifications are very interesting.

  4. Tim says:

    Although I’d be just as skeptical as you are about predicting WWIII, I would not say it’s a new thing that “boundaries have more to do with intellectual (and commercial) regions of interest that are rather agnostic with regard to geography.”

    It was like that in antiquity and the Middle Ages, where academic schools of thought, the Church, and trade relationships drove a lot of what was going on.

    The spreading of Greek (and later Latin) as international languages of learning (with their respective literary corpora); the Dark Ages being brought on by the destruction of much of those ancient libraries; the rediscovery (renaissance) of those ideas later — all these were driven by a combination of intellectual, economic and ideological interests rather than the clashing of national egos.

    As Marx loved to pointed out, the French and American revolutions couldn’t have happened if the Protestant Reformation hadn’t happened first, to convince every man it was okay to decide the big questions for himself and not accept truth only on high authority: an ideological change that swept the Western Hemisphere across all boundaries. And that resulted in wars. Big ones.

  5. Mike says:

    The absence of analysis of the Web’s role in Friedman’s book was surprising. The only application of technology he discusses at all is weapon systems, so he’s discussing the ‘how’ of war rather than ‘who’ or ‘why’. His main thesis is that demographics and geography are the most powerful immutable forces, and that they’ll generally trump the political policies of democratic states. I like your idea better: hyperconnection will create a new definition of ‘state’, one that doesn’t include geography or nationality.

  6. Lauren Peer says:

    You should pick up Macrowikinomics, it has a hundred year long view and dives into more than a dozen industries what’s going on and what needs to happen next.

  7. John says:

    Tim, exactly!! Very well put.

  8. John says:

    Lauren, Chris, et al, thanks for the book recommendations.

  9. Keith says:

    I would be curious to get his thoughts on the role of tech/social media in the wave of political activism sweeping across Africa and the Middle East. Or perhaps he would say these are simply new tools that self-interested parties will leverage to achieve their goals.

  10. Art says:

    The ways in which people organize themselves is fascinating and the internet is clearly having a profound impact. Democracy seems like a pretty good organizing principle though it’s remarkable how many people in this country are so down on government. The internet has amazing potential as a foundational component of Democracy.

  11. Carol Mann says:

    Have you read ‘The Master Switch – The Rise and Fall of Information Empires’ by Tim Wu.

    Kicks off nearly 100 years ago with Theodore Vail of AT&T demonstrating a wireless phone! Wonder just how clearly they saw today 100 years ago! Wish I was a fly on the wall… both 100 years ago and 100 years hence :) – fascinating stuff.

  12. Adding to the chorus of reading recommendations flowing to you from this post (just what you need is more books on the list I’m sure :).

    If you want to stay on the same track of globalization, borders, and connectivity, Thomas Barnett (Author of Great Powers, The Pentagons New Map, and blogging at http://globlogization.wikistrat.com/) is someone I think you might enjoy checking out.

  13. Brad Jobs says:

    Actually, someone should write “Next Year : 2012″ book. It is going to be the end of the world next year. So 100 years is a silly idea. lol (Just kidding!)

  14. Hamed from Iran says:

    Hi friends,

    I am an Iranian boy (Master of computer).

    This book of Mr Friedmann is absolutely his imaginations about future and has no document!

    I have some questions:

    1) As we all know the U.S. society has many problems such as economic, family foundation, Latin grow up population, and … .

    As we know after 2050 the population of blacks will be more than whites in the U.S. but there is no mention!

    Why he did not see these issues?

    2) Who believe that Turkey will be a power and conquer Iraq, Syria,
    Jordan, Kurdestan,… all these countries needs billions of dollars to war
    with and sure Turkey has not (and will not have) such power. Look to
    the low price of their currency!

    3)He mentioned about Iran so less! As all the geopolitics say Iran
    has the first influence in the middle east. In Lebanon, Iraq, Syria,
    Afghanistan and Yemen. Iran causes many costs for the U.S. now and we
    know the final goal of Iran is spreading Shia Islam in all the world,
    but first in Sunni moslem countries.

    4)He mentioned that Europe be came weak!

    If you look at the industry of countries you will see Germany is the
    most industrious country in the world. The jobless rate in Germany,
    Austria, Switzerland, … is less than 10 percent. But in the U.S. is so
    higher.

    Thanks for your Topic.

    Best wishes

    Hamed

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