The World Is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman

by Robert A. Parker

Friedman is a journalist, not an historian. The thinking behind his columns have helped make him one of my favorite sources of worldwide trends. I agree with much of what he says, and I like how he illustrates his points through his own personal experience and using as examples real people and real situations.

He does this again at the start of this new 2005 work. He explains what he means when he says that the world is flat, and then narrates how he arrived at that conclusion. Basically, he says, the economic playing field is being leveled by technology. That is, people can now collaborate and compete on different kinds of work from different corners of the world—and all on an equal footing. Result: a single global network of knowledge.

Friedman offers a provocative prediction when he says the future may bring together social liberals, global service workers, and Wall Streeters on one side, and on the other side social conservatives, local service workers, and labor unions. Twelve years after his writing this, one can see those trends beginning. Such as today’s reaction to free trade.

Friedman asks, “Should I believe in free trade in a flat world?” And his answer: “Even as the world gets flat, America as a whole will benefit more by sticking to the basic principles of free trade.” This will work, he says, as long as the global pie keeps growing and new technology advances. That as long as large companies move overseas, small companies will arise at home and create new jobs. Also, wages will rise overseas, creating wealth and more customers for those here.

But U.S. workers will need to upgrade skills that cannot be outsourced. And government and universities will need to help. The problem, Friedman says, is that we have seen a “steady erosion of America’s scientific and engineering base.” He cites other countries catching up, while Republicans reduce funding of National Science Foundation. One result is fewer students here getting college science degrees. In China it is 60%, in the U.S., 31%. And for engineering degrees: China, 46%, U.S. 5 %. This difference will impact us in 20 years, he says.

Reasons: Chinese youth are ambitious and patriotic. U.S. students have different priorities, many wanting to be lawyers and bankers. Also, U.S. has no national education programs; all are controlled in the states.

Friedman says that the flattening of the world began on 11/9/1989, at the fall of the Berlin Wall. This opened up communication and relationships between the East and the West, and the new technology quickly increased the possibilities of trade. The greatest fear for him is the rise of protectionism. Because trade promotes good relationships among countries, not antagonism. It also promotes openness inside countries, and these countries enjoy the most freedom.

Trade, he says, stimulates innovation and connects knowledge centers. To stop the flattening of the world, on the other hand, would curtail human development. When a society has more memories of the past than dreams of the future, its end is near, he says. It has lost its imagination and its ambition.

To sum up, this book has a theme more than an argument. It is about the world turning flat, about the new technology connecting everyone and allowing everyone to work on an equal footing, including individual workers, companies of every size, and countries at every stage of wealth. But the message is communicated through anecdotes rather than a sustained argument. That is, Friedman quotes individuals from all over the world to illustrate his points, mostly individuals from business. And this is a journalist’s approach, which Friedman is.

The book apparently began when the author went to India to create a television documentary on the business world in India, and this opened his eyes to the economic growth that was happening as a result of the new technology. And then he realized that what he calls the flattening of the world was happening everywhere, not just in America.

His book concludes with an exploration of the Arab-Muslim word. Why the violent agenda there, even if it is not a majority agenda? His answer is that some look at the Western world and see its openness but not its freedom of thought. Rather, they see decadence and promiscuousness. He reminds us that al-Qaeda is a political organization, not a religious one. That the young men who join it have lost their sense of identity, of rootedness, of dignity. That they lash out at a world they see as having deprived them of those qualities. Thus, 9/11.

These terrorists have entered the world of politics, because their lives have not improved as a result of their faith. And the flatness of the world is what has made them aware of this. They want their power of the past, of the 7th century, in this 21st century. But, at the same time, they deny the free inquiry, the creativity of today that is what has left them behind. Result: they are humiliated. The cause of terrorism, Friedman says, is not economic, the lack of money; it is frustration and rage. That I why so many in the Arab world were happy to see the United States humiliated by 9/11. It was revenge for their own humiliation from our support of both Israel and the unjust, backward world of Arab rulers

As the book jacket says, “when scholars write the history of the world [between] Y2K and March, 2004, what will they say was the most crucial development? The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 and the Iraq War?” Thomas Friedman’s answer is this book, and its answer is “the convergence of technology and events that allowed India, China and so many other countries to…create an explosion of wealth in the middle classes of the world’s two biggest nations and giving them a huge new stake in the world of globalization.”

What helps make his work valid today, a decade later, is the explanation of how the flattening of the world has coincided with the expansion of world trade. Each supports the other, he says. And he argues that together they have remarkably improved the standard of living worldwide. Which is particularly important in the U.S., where the expansion of trade has resulted in the loss of factory jobs. His argument, however, is that, long term, U.S. workers will benefit, because more customers will exist worldwide for U.S. products. To benefit, however, U.S. workers must be retrained to have new skills, that the government must support such retraining, and that both must have the patience to wait for the results.

Overall, Friedman makes a good case for the flattening of the world. But it is not a carefully organized case. It is a journalist’s first person accounting of his travels through the world as he talks to businessmen and government officials who support his case. There are no counter-arguments to his thesis here, no data to support an alternate case. What he is intent on is explaining the flattening, how it affects companies and individuals, and what is needed to adapt to this change.

While very informative, indeed educational, the book is somewhat disappointing because it takes the short view of journalism rather than the long view of history. It is more involved in the details of flattening, how it is happening, rather than the long view of how it will change the world.