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His World is Flat

Monday, August 1, 2005

Thomas L. Friedman.
The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 488 pages. $27.50

One of the most enjoyable things about researching this book,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his new book The World is Flat, “has been discovering all sorts of things happening in the world around me of which I had no clue.” Indeed, this account is full of eye-popping discoveries of a world that is much altered in the past decade, a kind of primer on the revolution in information technology, or it, that has changed the way a huge number of ordinary things are done.

Friedman’s 1999 The Lexus and the Olive Tree explored similar themes at a time when many of the decisive elements of the new economic order had yet to take shape. In his new book, he argues that the global economic playing field has been leveled — that the world has, in effect, become “flat” — such that individuals and companies around the world now have a far greater opportunity to compete for jobs and customers than ever before. He builds his thesis around ten major developments, or “flatteners,” of the last decade and a half: (1) the collapse of the Berlin wall, signifying the victory of capitalism and end of the Cold War-era division of the world, yielding a single global market; (2) the invention of the Netscape Internet browser, which has dramatically increased the universal sharing of information; (3) the emergence of “work flow” software, such as Outlook, Ebay, and Paypal, which enables people to collaborate on projects and conduct commerce from remote locations; (4) open-source programming, which has forged a culture of information-sharing that has dramatically reduced costs; (5) outsourcing of off-site services, such as answering phone calls, around the globe, especially to India; (6) “offshoring,” or relocating factories to places like China, which both lowers costs for consumers and develops the economies of poor countries; (7) “supply-chaining,” which means using the new it tools to track purchases, reduce inventories, and streamline distribution of goods; (8) “insourcing,” or the importation of one company’s workers into another in order to perform specialized tasks more efficiently; (9) powerful search engines such as Yahoo! and Google; and (10) the emergence of handheld devices and wireless communication, which radically increase the flexibility with which individuals may deploy the new technologies. While some of these may seem less decisive than others, Friedman nonetheless reminds us how different things were just a few years ago, and that alone makes for a thrilling ride.

Friedman vividly describes his travels around the world, where he has witnessed first-hand the effects of the great “flattening.” In a Bangalore calling center, 2,500 young Indians answer calls from the other end of the planet, imitating accents of various English-speaking countries as they help Britons reboot their laptops and Americans refinance their homes. In Mexico City, one finds statuettes of the country’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, manufactured in China and imported through California. Meanwhile in Salt Lake City, a Mormon housewife named Dolly takes airline reservations for JetBlue. Off to a 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas, where scores of white Wal-Mart tractor-trailers working round the clock bring goods in at one end of the building; the boxes flow through a river of robotically conducted conveyor belts, and another flotilla of trucks at the other end carts them off to Wal-Mart’s 3,000 stores, every item tracked from factory to consumer by barcodes and embedded radio transmitters. Meantime, in Vail, Colorado, a university president listens to a doctor lecturing on a new study on prostate cancer and challenges him by quoting the abstract from the study itself, which he just downloaded on his pda. And in Beijing, the author’s own teenage daughter sends her friends a pile of postcards without the aid of an address book: She just “Googles” their addresses in her hotel room.

All these are potent illustrations of how it has rewired the world, fueling growth in the U.S. while pulling hundreds of millions around the world out of poverty. It is truly an amazing story, and Friedman is doing right in telling it. And yet, the more one reads, the more one senses that something is amiss with Friedman’s worldview.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a journalist dedicating a mostly anecdotal work to the dramatic changes that the global economy has undergone. Yet one gets the impression that for Friedman this story is, on a deep level, the only one worth telling. We could easily chalk up the book’s ambitious title, with its unsubtle subtitle, “A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century,” as marketing excess were it not for the fact that every major global issue Friedman tackles — and he is no stranger to broader global problems — seems to wind up either eclipsed or radically reinterpreted by the workflow revolution. The predicament of the Arab world, for example, is not, in his telling, fundamentally one of ideological enthusiasm, misplaced honor, or political violence, but of inadequate technology. “Although massive amounts of foreign technology are imported to the Arab regions,” he writes, “very little of it is internalized or supplanted by Arab innovations. . . . There are just 18 computers per 1,000 people in the Arab region today, compared with the global average of 78.3 per 1,000, and only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access. . . . They produce only 1 percent of the books published, and an unusually high percentage of those are religious books — over triple the world average.” And when he defends the superiority of Western civilization against Muslim aggression, the only examples he can evince are drawn from the same technological world. The trouble with Muslim radicals, he writes, is that they “do not see, and do not want to see, the openness . . . that has made us powerful, the openness that has produced Bill Gates and Sally Ride.”

The broader problem of war and rogue states is passed through a similar filter, with the underlying cause of global instability and totalitarian regimes understood as fundamentally an economic issue. “Obviously,” he asserts, “since Iraq, Syria, south Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran are not part of any major global supply chains, all of them remain hot spots that could explode at any time.” His solution is what he calls the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, named after the laptop on which he wrote his book and to which he dedicates the penultimate chapter. “No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s,” he avers, “will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are part of the same global supply chain.”

A similar prism is at work in his unusual take on the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. In Friedman’s version of events, 9/11 triggered no national awakening of the American public, carried no echoes of Pearl Harbor and its presidential call to duty, and was followed by no nationwide mobilization against a mortal enemy bent on the destruction of the Western way of life. Rather, the real story of 9/11 was the failure of the Bush administration to respond by significantly reforming the American economic and educational systems in line with the new global economy. “When we got hit with 9/11,” he writes, “it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to summon the nation to sacrifice, to address some of its pressing fiscal, energy, science, and education shortfalls — all the things that we had let slide. But our president did not summon us to sacrifice. He summoned us to go shopping.” Similarly, the greatest threat posed by Islamic terror today is not against freedom, democracy, or enlightenment, but against the continued advance of the world economy. “Should there be another attack on the United States of the magnitude of 9/11, or worse,” he warns, “walls would go up everywhere and the flattening of the world would be set back for a long, long time.”

This is twisted but not entirely false: Here, as in so many other places, Friedman tells a story that is factually enriching and substantively interesting while ignoring much of the larger context in which this history is unfolding. His belief in the supremacy of economic life leads him even to indulge in an all-too-familiar kind of determinism. About halfway through the book, for example, he starts singing the praises of none other than Karl Marx, whose materialistic view of man has far outlived his political and economic recommendations. “While the shrinking and flattening of the world that we are seeing today constitute a difference of degree from what Marx saw happening in his day,” Friedman writes, “it is nevertheless part of the same historical trend Marx highlighted in his writings on capitalism — the inexorable march of technology and capital to remove all barriers, boundaries, frictions, and restraints to global commerce.” Friedman is similarly “in awe at how incisively Marx detailed the forces that were flattening the world during the Industrial Revolution . . . [and] would keep flattening the world right up to the present.” This is capped off with the longest quotation in the book, a full page from the Communist Manifesto.

Friedman is surely no Marxist when it comes to property and liberalization. Yet his insistence on the “inexorable” march of economic progress and his reduction of all major global issues to questions of production are a throwback to Marx’s underlying metaphysics — the belief that all human life comes down to economic forces beyond our control. In this view, mankind is itself flattened, reduced to a profit-seeking, business-launching, lot-improving being without the significant contribution of values, culture, ideas, poetry, literature, philosophy, or even politics toward the ultimate texture of human experience. And insofar as religion appears at all, it is only as the irrational bad guy, a catalyst for radical Islamists still trapped in the “unflat world.” It is Wal-Mart, JetBlue, I-Tunes, Netscape, Linux, brown-shirted ups delivery boys, ambitious Indians, and cheap Chinese laborers who diligently download redemption over fiber-optic cables.

This approach possesses little explanatory power. The economic revolution Friedman describes poses profound moral questions, and yet Friedman’s view leaves him without tools for answering them. In a chapter entitled “The Great Sorting Out,” Friedman seems vaguely aware of the problem, raising some of the more important issues while never even attempting an answer, instead leaving his readers to “sort things out.” On the question of whether engineers in India were being exploited by the Indiana state government in a 2003 outsourcing deal, or whether in fact it was they who were exploiting the Americans — in other words, on the crucial moral issue of whether globalization takes unfair advantage of poor countries — Friedman merely suggests that we “sort that out.” On the extremely fateful question of how to maintain regulatory authority over the safety of medications without inserting great inefficiencies into the pharmaceutical supply chain, he again leaves it to his readers to “sort that out.” And on the question of whether your intellectual property stored on a Web-server can be bequeathed to your descendents — a problem which touches on the very nature of property in a digital age — Friedman is again reduced to pleading, “Somebody, please, sort all this out.”

Even on the question of how national identities will survive the lowered barriers and protections — arguably the most fertile ground for considered inquiry on the subject — Friedman offers little that is new or insightful. He describes the nation-state as the “biggest source of friction” preventing a “frictionless global market.” “The more the flattening forces reduce friction and barriers,” he writes, “the sharper the challenge they will pose to the nation-state and to the particular cultures, values, national identities, democratic traditions, and bonds of restraint that have historically provided some protection and cushioning for workers and communities.” He acknowledges that national commitments and cultural traditions might have a positive value, but he cannot identify what they might be, or explain how they could help rather than hinder the global economic juggernaut. Of the classic bonds that hold together peoples and nations, he can only ponder: “Which do we keep and which do we let melt away into air so we can all collaborate more easily? This will take some sorting out.”

This is a shame, because it is precisely the question of national identities in a post-protectionist world that could have offered the most interesting exploration of our uncharted future. It is true that insofar as national identity is bound up in economic self-sufficiency and legal protections, globalization undermines national identity. Yet one could easily make a countervailing case: Far from eliminating distinctions, the lowering of economic barriers can also mean a more energetic translation of national identities into economic advantage, in much the same way that individuals under a liberal economic regime become more specialized in accordance with their natural strengths. So, just as a math whiz is more likely in a liberal economy to make a living as a programmer or engineer while “outsourcing” the plumbing and farming to others, nations may move away from protecting failing industries, which in any case weren’t so good, and toward those industries that give them an enduring advantage. If the French excel in sensual aesthetics, the Germans in precision engineering, and the Americans in entrepreneurship, then we can expect each to invest in their own strengths and press their advantage, withdrawing from some industries and dominating in others, to the ultimate benefit of all. Yet Friedman’s analysis lacks any serious exploration of these things, and the result is that his insensitivity to anything other than commerce has the odd effect of rendering him tone-deaf even with regard to the future of commerce.

At bottom, The World Is Flat is a missed opportunity, one that flows “inexorably” from its author’s belief in the supremacy of the material and the necessity of the revolution. Friedman’s world, indeed, is much flatter than he knows. Rarely has someone worked so hard to provide so many fascinating examples of a phenomenon so very important while having so little to say about what it all means. In the last few years — really ever since the Internet bubble burst and terror struck — most Americans have become well aware of what Friedman does not recognize: that no matter how beneficial or fascinating the it revolution may be, the history of the twenty-first century will not begin and end with Global Crossing and Geek Squads. Peace and politics, war and friendship, democracy and tyranny, poetry and song, love and commitment, parenting and virtue, morals and devotion and God himself — all these have yet to be digitized. For the most important things, our world, like a vintage record album, is still analog, still round.