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Thomas Friedman – The World is Flat

May 22nd, 2005 · No Comments

Netscape. The Internet. Outsourcing. Supply-chaining. Offshoring. In-forming.

Just some of the forces that three times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman claims are not only breaking down national barriers to trade, innovation, wealth and information. They are flattening the world.

His latest book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The Globalized World In The 21st Century, is his response to what he sees as the groundbreaking dynamics that are shaking up this little geosphere we call home – thus returning us to the horizontal world that existed before the times of Columbus and Magellan.

Friedman travels through America, India, China and Japan putting forward the case for an increasingly globalized, shrinking world, one created predominantly by new communications technologies that compress time and space.

Three distinct historical eras have led to the flattened world of today, according to Friedman.

Globalization 1.0 – started when Columbus set sail in 1492, essentially opening trade between the Old World and the New World, and ended around 1800. An era characterized by the production and distribution of economic, physical and political power.

Globalization 2.0 – from 1800 to 2000, in which the world shrinks from medium size to small, with the driving force of global integration being the multinational companies which targeted global markets and labor.

Globalization 3.0 – the stage we’re supposedly in now, a 21st century shrinking of the small world to a tiny place, flattening the playing field and characterized by the newfound power of individuals to collaborate and compete globally.

This current stage is liberating 3 billion people previously unable to compete in the global economy, he says, creating a new breed of player and a new playing field at the same time.

The revelation that “the world is flat”, came to Friedman in January last year, when he was in Bangalore, India, making a documentary film about the outsourcing of American call centre jobs there. Currently 245,000 Indians are answering phones, with the US service industry steadily losing jobs to the country, $2.5 billion in 1990, $5 billion in 2003.

Friedman writes with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, finding compelling arguments and interviews with CEOs, telecoms and the IT industry to back up his claims. He documents how numerous Asian entrepreneurs have leapfrogged their Western contemporaries by developing cost-effective, hi-tech solutions the suit the needs of the global economy.

Unfortunately, it seems the integrity of his argument failed to escape the steamroller of globalization that is supposedly flattening the world.

“Everywhere you turn, hierarchies are being challenged from below or transforming themselves from top-down structures into more horizontal and collaborative ones.”

I must have missed this one the way to work this morning, or maybe I just forgot to wear my flatvision superspecs. How, for example, are Somchai growing rice in Isaan, Thanom fishing for squid of Koh Mak, the mae baan in the MSN office on Asoke, or a significant proportion of the 3 billion “liberated”by Globalization 3.0 going to benefit, grow and develop in this flattened broadband world?

“It will take time for this new playing field and the new business practices to be fully aligned. It’s a work in progress. But here’s a little warning. It is happening much faster than you think, and it is happening globally.”

Elements of this are hard to argue with. Communications are easier, cheaper and more effective than ever before. A younger generation is arming itself with new necessary skills, and an expanding Eastern workforce of highly educated, competent knowledge-workers, that can challenge and compete with the developed world, is emerging.

Friedman is a self-confessed free-market loving technological determinist. Someone who sees our vertical command and control world being transformed into a horizontal, access-for-all environment, characterized by a generation of innovators who can connect and collaborate on a global level.

But what about those who can’t afford the technology, or simply don’t have the opportunity to work in the flat-friendly industries?

“There is almost nothing about Globalization 3.0 that is not good for capital… others will feel the pain that the flattening of the world brings about.”

Some of those who will “feel the pain”are what Friedman calls the “too disempowered”, people who live in the twilight zone between the flat world and the unlit world. “They have just enough information to know the world is flattening around them and that they aren’t really getting any of the benefits.”

I have another term for them. Excluded.

While The World Is Flat successfully catalogues the development of new technologies that will inevitably change the world in which we live, Friedman continually overstates his case. He spends too much time talking to CEOs and businessmen, when he could have asked some of the “too disempowered” what they thought. Perhaps looking at some of the 999,999 unsuccessful applicants out of the one million he cites often apply for the same job in India. Does this “flatness” only apply at an international level, while the domestic employment terrain gets ever steeper?

Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, Friedman’s puts forward a provoking, if clumsey argument, which definitely provides a good starting point for thinking about how technology is influencing our lives.

For me though, the prospect of living in a flat world has about as much appeal as going mountaineering in Holland

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