The World is Flat

Thomas Friedman

Read December 2005

Thomas Friedman has written a fat, breathless, energetic, pointed, compelling, flawed book that may just have the right effect for the wrong reasons. The short version of his message is that, as America grows lazy, the world grows restless to usurp America's crown (or at least to shatter it). This is not news to any immigrant, but it may just be to many Americans. And if this Yourdon-esque book is what people are stuffing in each others' stockings at Christmas or discussing over canapes at cocktail parties, perhaps that is for the best (at least for America).

I have never especially liked Friedman's New York Times op-ed pieces. His genius lies in finding a compelling anecdote, usually in the form of an person of allegoric proportion; from this, however, he has a marked tendency to extrapolate wildly. While this can be suitably entertaining, sometimes in a rubber-necking sense, it should not be confused with actual social science. This book, then, is better and worse than Friedman's essays: better because he has the space and time to weave a stronger basis for his arguments, and worse because he almost fails to do so. Instead of one anecdote we get several, but that still doesn't make it social science. And just as hard cases make bad laws, compelling anecdotes can make bad policy (which dictum can be taken as a short history of protectionism).

The book's superficial flaws are many. For the first third or so of the book, Craig Mundie of Microsoft could fairly demand co-authorship credit, so often does Friedman quote him. In general, Friedman rarely meets a quote he doesn't like (or so it seems). Carly Fiorina is another hero for her work integrating Hewlett-Packard; yet at least the short-term support for this is pathetically bad. (A charitable reading of Fiorina's problems at HP might be not with her ideas but with her handling of their corporate culture, but Friedman neglects to discuss any of this. And as with HP, so with the world at large, as I discuss below.) He is sometimes in such a rush that he even fails to get some basic facts right: mushing IT details, misunderstanding the ``law of large numbers'', thinking a post-doc is a degree, mixing up Hindi and Hindu, and so on. And his writing grates with its never-ending repetition of the notion of flatness (enough, already), his sometimes juvenile style, and the word-play, which eventually becomes all too much.

It is, however, unfair to take Friedman to task for details; that is not his strength nor, to his fair, his point. What he does well is present a strong case for globalization along classically liberal lines. His critique of the anti-globalization movement strikes me (doubtless because I share his analysis) as being spot-on. His coverage of the Gates Foundation's programs is very cogent. Some of his anecdotes, such as his discussion of UPS, are very strong. His moon-shot proposal is renewable energy, which is rather less sexy but far more urgent. Friedman has written is an excellent primer for the uninitiated to the world in which technology rewrites rules.

Despite its flaws, Friedman's book will no doubt be read by the great and good. If means justify the ends, and if the ends do not end up being undesirable (after all, one reaction to flatness is to erect walls), then these flaws will not matter. Indeed, given the wide audience this book was bound to have, I wished he had taken on many more issues, such as the paradoxical nature of US educational visas (which US embassies must enforce), which force students to ``prove'' (as I once stood in a line and did) that they will return home upon finishing their studies.

While Friedman doesn't take on visa policies very much, he does briefly tackle the centrality of the modern university in America's dominance. But what will it take for these institutions to remain competitive? It's intriguing to ponder this: the American economy is as strong as it is thanks to several characteristics: the free flow of capital, the rule of law, and a liberal bankruptcy process. But universities don't go bankrupt; indeed, as institutions, they are remarkably conservative, taking few risks (in part because they must offer a largely homogenous product to their audience). Will a future innovation in American higher education be a notion of bankruptcy of significant universities?

Like all great polemicists, Friedman pays just enough attention to counter-arguments to lull the careless reader. But reading this book, you would think cities like Bangalore are vast paradises of empowered technophiles. How many Indians speak English? Use PCs? Can afford a Dell? Want to answer phones for the rest of their life? Yes, Friedman acknowledges, there are problems: poverty, illiteracy, disease, and so on. But exactly how these problems interact with his glorious vision is hard to say. (And for that matter, Friedman assures us that all these jobs being exported are not really a cause for concern, because they do lead to a balance of trade (all those hackers in Bangalore are drinking Coke and running Windows on Dells). But for how long?)

This leads us to a discussion of the book's deeper flaws:

No, the world is not flat. As Richard Florida has already argued, network effects matter, as much to people as to abstract standards; he tells us, more compellingly, that the world is ``spiky''. And so on the arguments will go.

Friedman has given us a compelling verbal metaphor, and forced each of us to answer his focal question: ``When did you realize the world was flat?'' I may not believe the world is flat, but I did have one epochal moment that reshaped my imagination. I was about fifteen when my friend Al Vinjamur took me to the HP office in Bangalore to meet his cousin. We all knew the HP office: it was the one with its own satellite dish! But who knew for what? Anyway, Al's cousin (who worked in that most dazzling environment, the cubicle!) snuck us in after work and sat us at a terminal. He showed us a little bit of Unix. And then he showed us the same commands again...except they ran a little slower. That's when he dropped the bombshell: he was running those commands on a computer in England. It was an unforgettable experience, just watching that directory listing.

Thanks to the Fislers for loaning the book (and demanding that I read it in three days!).