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

Author: Thomas L. Friedman

by / August 3, 2005
The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
By Thomas L. Friedman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
$27.50 hardcover

Thomas L. Friedman's newest book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, is a disturbingly accurate assessment of what our world has become. The book is not an apocalyptic glimpse of a far-off future, but a report card on the rapid advance of globalization over the last five years.

Friedman is not just any columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree and Longitudes and Attitudes, and has numerous well deserved Pulitzer prizes to his name. Friedman has distilled and made sense of the megatrends of the past several years in a way no other contemporary writer has achieved, and he is probably one of the most influential journalists of the last 20 years.

The World Is Flat is worth any IT professional taking the time to read. It is worth reading not only because Friedman is the author, but also for what he says about the role and future of technology in a "flattened world."

Why "flattened"?

First and foremost, the availability of cheap telecommunications is driving the services sector. Telemarketing, accounting, engineering, scientific research, and especially computer programming and data management will continue to be outsourced to any place where English is spoken, primarily India.

Manufacturing for the most part will continue to go to Asia, primarily China. If you are living in a developing country like India or China, the distinct possibility of upward social mobility brought about by globalization is cause for rejoicing.

Even in these countries, the vast majority will, as Friedman points out, not get to participate. What about the rest of the underdeveloped world -- is there any opportunity for them? Not yet, and according to Friedman, as the education and resource gaps widen, there probably never will be. The new "flat" world is one in which, according to Friedman, "economic stability is not going to be a feature." As a result, the weak will fall further behind.

Friedman points out that the Western world and the United States might just get left in the dust. The United States is singled out as a high risk for failure in the new world order because our underperforming public schools and universities no longer produce students with the requisite skills to compete.

Friedman is unabashedly and unashamedly an advocate of unrestricted globalization. In a nutshell, he is loved and adored by the large, multinational corporations, and with good reason -- he heaps praise on everything they do. While Friedman does briefly touch on problems with globalization in The World Is Flat, he is such a loud and outspoken advocate for the system that his insightful analysis and criticism will gleefully go unnoticed by the talking heads that regularly quote Friedman's contagious enthusiasm for all things global.

It is his belief that globalization is not only desirable, but also unstoppable. According to Friedman, globalization is the Borg -- assimilate or else -- and like it!

The standard globalization mantra he repeats is that our American workers will instead create value through leadership and sell personality. We are told that we will become a nation of Joe Isuzus happily selling the rest of the world on the "imagination economy."

I'm sorry, but it still sounds like the imaginary economy to me. In The World Is Flat, India has a real economy and so does China, but we are supposed to add long-term value only by helping promote consumption, becoming a doctor, or sinking to wage parity with the rest of the world.

I can leave all of this alone, but Friedman's book really kicks the technology community where it hurts. The reason that the world is flat, that we're going to lose our jobs, is the fault of the technologists, according to Friedman. In our never-ending desire to solve problems, we have put our own pink slips in the hands of the multinationalists.

"I call certain new technologies the steroids because they are amplifying and turbo charging all the other flatteners," Friedman writes. "They are taking all the forms of collaboration ... outsourcing, off-shoring, open-sourcing, supply-chaining, insourcing and informing -- and making it possible to do each and every one of them in a way that is digital, mobile, personal and virtual."

Because we have led the world with our advances, the corporate elites are going to take these advances and maximize their profits at the expense of the working class, which has now been expanded to include most skilled white-collar jobs. Depending on where you stand politically and financially, this is either great news for your portfolio or somewhat sobering. This would have been the end of the story too, if it weren't for the rise of Al-Qaeda and others who also want to use the same "steroids" to destroy the system.

Friedman doesn't use the analogy, but he spends about 100 pages making the case that Al-Qaeda is an evil version of Neo in the film The Matrix raging against the Western machine. While Al-Qaeda is using the exact same technologies, the difference is that India and China want to take what's left of our jobs, whereas Al-Qaeda wants us dead, along with the system. The World Is Flat is not a book on cyber-security, but Friedman's coverage of Al-Qaeda's strategies is right on point.

What a difference five years has made to our view of the world. Please read The World Is Flat. A whole lot may depend upon it.
Keith Comstock Contributing Writer