ChatGPT Will Never Replace Thomas Friedman

No amount of technological innovation will ever hold a candle to the very special brain that is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s.

Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas L. Friedman speaking in New York City, 2018. (Sean Zanni / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Over the years, many a lesser writer has had the audacity to lampoon New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize–winner Thomas L. Friedman and his peerless prose. Like too many cooks trying to break the camel’s back, they have chuckled at his propensity for convoluted imagery and mixed metaphor. His Swiftian style has been written off as boring, repetitive, and boring. Countless more pedestrian practitioners of the op-ed form have mocked his incessant reliance on anecdote and conversations with fictionalized, salt-of-the-earth types they have never deigned to consult themselves. The same ersatz wordsmiths have somehow missed the incandescent brilliance of flourishes like: “The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been — but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned,” which somehow manage to reinvent the laws of space and time.

These second-rate scribblers have all buttered their bread and will now have to lie in it. And, tempting as it might be to score cheap points by mocking the great man, I will not be joining in. Friedman’s March 21 op-ed proves beyond any doubt that he has attained a mastery of the craft that no other being, whether man or machine, could ever match. The opus, a sprawling free jazz riff about artificial intelligence and The Wizard of Oz, may well, in fact, be the most perfectly Friedmanesque Friedman column ever written.

Entitled “Our Promethean Moment,” a headline that reads like it was written by an algorithm asked to generate titles for hypothetical Friedman columns, the piece is a tour de force execution of the author’s signature Big Idea™: that profound, revolutionary, and vaguely defined things are occurring at an ever accelerating pace that will require transcending the old formulas — for the era of ChatGPT. Like many entries in the Friedman catalog, it begins by quoting a conversation (in this case, with Microsoft executive Craig Mundie):

“You need to understand,” Craig warned me before he started his demo, “this is going to change everything about how we do everything. I think that it represents mankind’s greatest invention to date. It is qualitatively different — and it will be transformational.”

Having spent a few paragraphs marveling at ChatGPT’s capabilities, our intrepid columnist proceeds to explain that we have entered what he deems a “Promethean moment” not unlike the tornado at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. This moment, Friedman writes, both encompasses and promises to change, well, absolutely everything:

“[It is] one of those moments in history when certain new tools, ways of thinking or energy sources are introduced that are such a departure and advance on what existed before that you can’t just change one thing, you have to change everything. That is, how you create, how you compete, how you collaborate, how you work, how you learn, how you govern and, yes, how you cheat, commit crimes and fight wars.”

Soon after, we learn that the proverbial tornado poised to sweep creation, competition, collaboration, work, learning, governance, cheating, crime, and warfare into the future is not, in fact, a single technology at all but rather a process called a “technology super-cycle” that is at the same time driving other processes, the sum total of which constitute a new era that is also (somewhat confusingly) a moment and an age:

“We know the key Promethean eras of the last 600 years: the invention of the printing press, the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution combined with the industrial revolution, the nuclear power revolution, personal computing and the internet and . . . now this moment. Only this Promethean moment is not driven by a single invention, like a printing press or a steam engine, but rather by a technology super-cycle. It is our ability to sense, digitize, process, learn, share and act, all increasingly with the help of A.I. That loop is being put into everything — from your car to your fridge to your smartphone to fighter jets — and it’s driving more and more processes every day. It’s why I call our Promethean era ‘The Age of Acceleration, Amplification and Democratization.’ Never have more humans had access to more cheap tools that amplify their power at a steadily accelerating rate — while being diffused into the personal and working lives of more and more people all at once. And it’s happening faster than most anyone anticipated.”

Having been swept away from Kansas into a new land — or rather moment/era/age — we are just as quickly returned to the subject of ChatGPT and informed that it is actually a “meta technology” (a classic Friedman move is affixing intensifiers to every concept) that is like an ordinary technology, only better.

Before we have even a second to catch our breath, the author throws yet another neologism into the whirlwind: this time, by arguing that our Promethean era of meta technologies requires the development of what he calls “complex adaptive coalitions” where “business, government, social entrepreneurs, educators, competing superpowers and moral philosophers all come together to define how we get the best and cushion the worst of A.I.” The column then concludes with typical Friedmanite liturgy about the need for a “very different governing model” that goes beyond “traditional left-right politics.”

As ever, Friedman sounds anxious about the rapidly accelerating pace of people, technology, and stuff. But, in truth, he needn’t worry in the slightest. No computer program, no matter how powerful or sophisticated, will ever replicate his unrivaled ability to convert impenetrable neoliberal horseshit into prose, columns, and books.

May AI become the steam engine of meta technologies. May America become Uber, but for democracy. May the Cloud become the new Silk Road of Global Trade. May Saudi Arabia become the start-up nation of our dreams. May Tom Friedman always be with us, like a modern Delphic oracle pronouncing on everything, and therefore nothing, like no one else ever could.