The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

By Thomas L. Friedman
New York, 2005
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Pamela A. Chaiet
Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat  is an historical review of the future. The earth is transformed by science and the future is now the present. The book is not science fiction. It is a philosophy for a new age, a projection of improving world order. The author begins with an analogy to Christopher Columbus and his discovery that the world is round. Friedman believes that today the reverse is true:  the world has become flat. Columbus and Friedman were looking for the source of India’s riches. Columbus was seeking hardware in the form of precious metals, silks and spices. Friedman’s quest was for software, brainpower, transmission protocols and call centers.

Friedman is a respected journalist who has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. He is a New York Times columnist with brilliant insights in deciphering complex foreign policy and economic issues. His book is inventive, readable and human. The reader and author share a walk on a futuristic path, meeting and talking to people along the way; they know each other intimately. Friedman shares family stories and shuns despair while embracing the future with all its’ challenges.

The chapters open with quotes that set a mode for constructive, confident interpretation:

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.  From discord, find harmony.  In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity. “ Albert Einstein

Friedman’s writing style savors the imprint of a Talmudic Scholar presenting and interpreting a story that holds extended moral meaning. The first third of the book is fervently dedicated to the defense of his flat earth thesis. It then appears to run out of steam before the author reasserts himself slamming into an optimistically insightful ending.

According to Friedman the transformation of the earth took place while we were sleeping. It consisted of a massive investment in Broad Band, a pervasive distribution of computers and globalization. This in turn opened an era of competition in which only the best at achieving relationships, exhibiting leadership and creating strategies will survive. The books’ direct hard hitting journalistic vocabulary scolds the lazy and challenges the strong while preserving wit and companionship. It tames difficult technological subject matter by transforming it into fun through the use of creative names and theories.

The “ten forces” that flattened the world in Friedman’s story are the destruction of the Berlin Wall (11/9/89), Netscape going public (8/9/95) and the inventive concepts of Work Flow Software, Open-Sourcing, Outsourcing, Insourcing, Offshoring, Supply –Chaining, In-forming and The Steroids being created.

These new streamline work processes are explained as Friedman escorts the reader through the realm of The Triple Convergence, The Quiet Crisis, and The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention. Through his inventive tagging the author allows for the painless absorption of massive amounts of technological, economic and political information. He demystifies our bewildering global evolution and provides a quick study on where we are now and where we are headed. 

Today represents a New World order where former enemies are now business partners and ignorance is not bliss. The author insightfully warns that change will be hardest for those that are caught by surprise and he demands that, “Americans don’t realize the challenge to the extent that they should” for there is no end to learning or “what can be done by whom”. America must lead or die.

When the Berlin Wall fell it put an end to the Cold War and the struggle between capitalism and communism. Latin America, Asia and the Middle East became a single market and ecosystem. This new era brought with it advances in human rights, recognition of the contributions made by woman, lower childhood mortality and greater political dialogue. It also witnessed an expansion of wireless communication technology imaginatively called the age of the “mobile me”. The world no longer functioned in a vertical hierarchy but rather with horizontal connectivity. It required new standards and a new platform on which to manage the rising forms of multiple- collaboration. 

The Triple Convergence, when all of Friedman’s ten flatteners take effect will result in an era of new freedom. The global economy once controlled by the G-8, IMF and the World Bank is now driven by the individual and the internal framework of business displays a global distribution of functional divisions. The workforce has grown by several million people and exhibits greater ethnic diversity primarily from India and China.

The reader feels a great foreboding that the future may bring negative changes in work conditions when Friedman discusses the “China Price”. He uses this concept to build dramatic tension by describing how China may set the standards for low wages and poor labor laws. Then as fast as he has driven the readers to a fearful crescendo he reverses his stand and lightens this apprehensive expectation by assuring them that it is his belief that a rising Chinese middle class will offset these trends. He anticipates that this will be accomplished by their demands for political reform and a free press.

However, the American workers are advised to remain on the safe side and constantly update their skills. They must remember that China intends to outrace both the EU and US to the top and that there will be an equal challenge from India’s “Zippies”, a new class of bright, confident and creative workers who feel no guilt about making money. This sense of estrangement and loss of job footing may be exacerbated by a depletion of expected forms of social cohesion such as religion and national pride.

The Quiet Crisis according to Friedman is America’s eroding scientific and engineering base. America he says needs new leadership with new vision that will provide today’s youth with a national challenge like the race to the moon in the 1960’s. He says that the only way not to be left behind is through new Grand Collaborations like Bill Gate’s “Grand Challenge in Global Health”. Americans cannot be afraid to do what they do well, that is to think big, work hard and know that thoughtful original application of ideas can make the impossible possible. One is reminded that any nation that determines itself to be so important that it does not feel a need for improvement will not maintain a competitive advantage. 

In the fray of all the demands for intensified competition there are benefits. The Flat World will have less conflict because as stated in Friedman’s Dell Theory of Global Conflict no two countries in the same supply chain can benefit from war. The use of political sanctions may be less effective when all cultural and monetary systems are globally interconnected. The stoppage of economic flow at any one point will affect all.

The irrationality of terrorism is one of a few detrimental exceptions to this logic. Friedman blames terrorism on the passive Islamic Majority for not adapting The Qu’ran to the demands of the Post Modern World. He sites Iran’s call for the destruction of Israel and its’ development of nuclear weapons as another irrational world anomaly.

He says that in the end technology cannot keep us safe. We must be vigilant in our awareness of threat but not paralyzed by it. He relates the story of the Tower of Babel where man tries to build a tower to heaven and become God. In retribution God banishes Man taking from him his one language. The intent is to prevent Man from speaking and plotting for evil. Friedman says Man again has one language via the Net. If he has the will he can now create goodness. He can now advance and unite civilizations, minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence. Friedman declares with sanguinity and hope that America must lead for it is still the world’s dream machine. 

The ultimate challenge that The World is Flat offers is summarized in its’ “Conclusion: Imagination”, where the reader is tempted by a quote from Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. This means that the future is more important than the past or as stated metaphorically in the book “today starts an era of 11/9 vs. 9/11”. This thought echoes the books’ plea to this generation not to “live in fear of terrorists or of tomorrow”. If we want to be masters of our own fate we must see ”what is” and mold what we want “to be”.

The world is flattening and it is not going to stop but we can flourish in a flat world if we have the right imagination and motivation. We must be “strategic optimists” and a generation that lives more for dreams than memories. Friedman has built the philosophical framework. He has set out a stepping-stone and with parental encouragement incites the readers to accept the dare. The future is ours. It is our responsibility to formulate the “best of all possible worlds”.


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