02 August 2005

I'm sorry, but the world's still round

2 August 2005

Review of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat – A Brief History of the Globalized World in the 21st Century (Allen Lane, 2005).
(A shorter version of this review was published in The Hindu on 2 August 2005).

I'm sorry, but the world's still round

'Flatman' is to globalization, what Dr Pangloss was to Candide's world, a breathless narrator of how good the going is. For the real picture, you'll have to look elsewhere.


Siddharth Varadarajan

Ever since I experienced, at first hand, Nato's bombing runs over Belgrade in the summer of 1999, I've had little time for Thomas Friedman or his ruminations.

In those days, Mr Friedman – a widely syndicated New York Times columnist and an advocate of corporate globalisation and American military intervention around the world -- used to peddle the silly idea that countries with McDonalds would never go to war against each other. Well, before he could say 'take-away', the United States bombed Yugoslavia, while Pakistan and India fought a war over Kargil. All these countries had McDonalds (OK, the Indian ones don't serve beef) but they still went to war. I don't know whether the Panamanians ate Big Macs in 1989 but even if they did, I suspect George Bush (the elder) wouldn't have thought twice about invading them.

In The World is Flat, Mr Friedman ditches McDonalds in favour of another lemon, the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention: "No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell's, will ever fight a war against each other so long as they are both part of the same global supply chain”.

This prediction is typical of the ahistorical approach Mr Friedman adopts in order to argue that corporate globalisation is the panacea for the world’s problems. Open up your economy, be less corrupt, create institutions of good governance, let companies hire and fire workers more easily – this is essentially what those who are not benefiting from globalisation must do.

If Mr Friedman had read a little business history (instead of merely talking to CEOs) he would know that cross investment and extensive trade relations have never prevented countries from going to war against each other.

Mira Wilkins's pioneering work on international investment before 1914 and between the two world wars, for example, has shown that trans-oceanic flows of capital were significant even then. U.S. companies invested hugely in Nazi Germany: General Motors bought a stake in Opel and Standard Oil of New Jersey (known today as Exxon) had an alliance with IG Farben, of Zyklon-B fame. Others with substantial interests were Westinghouse, Eastman Kodak and International Harvester. ITT – as the late Anthony Sampson documented in The Sovereign State of ITT (Stein & Day, 1973) – not only took a stake in
Focke-Wulf, the German firm which made the FW-190 fighter-bombers, but managed to win $27 million in compensation in the 1960s for damage inflicted on its share of the Focke-Wulf plant by Allied bombs during the war.

Nor was inter-war globalisation restricted to goods alone. There was outsourcing of services too. "Specialized banks, law firms, and trading companies that focused on opening the German market to U.S. capital sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic", notes Christopher Simpson in The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law and Genocide in the 20th Century (Grove Press, 1993). None of this prevented Hitler from starting World War II.

The reason this conflict-prevention theory is so important to Mr Friedman is because "supply chaining" (as exemplified by Dell) is one of 10 "flatteners" central to the book's overall thesis – recent innovations or developments that have made the world "flat". By flat he really means 'level'. On page 7, the author tells us how he was sitting in the office of Nandan Nilekani in 2000 when the Infosys CEO said the international playing field for corporations and countries was being levelled by the new information technology. Mr Friedman had an epiphany. "My God, he's telling me the world is flat!"

Stripped of the gush, what flatness boils down to is the ability of businesses to use new communications technologies in order to push the frontiers of cost-cutting by speeding up the work process and sourcing labour and inputs from every corner of the globe. Among the 'flatteners' are Windows, the Internet, workflow and open-source software, outsourcing, off-shoring (i.e. foreign direct investment), supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming (i.e. Google and other search engines) and digital, wireless communication. Flatness, Mr Friedman contends, is making the world less hierarchical, more prosperous and equal (eg. by allowing Indians to work in call centres or process American tax forms), more transparent and democratic (thanks to blogging), and less prone to war.

Flatman gets so carried away with his discovery that he loses the big picture early in the book. On page 39, he visits a U.S. military base in Babil, Iraq and marvels at the live feed being relayed on a flat-screen TV from a Predator drone flying overhead. The drone is being manipulated by an expert sitting in Las Vegas and its feed monitored by a low-level officer who is accessing information earlier available only to his commanders. The Great Discoverer is overawed that Bubba’s been given a laptop. "The military playing field is being levelled', Friedman writes, without a hint of irony. Remember, he's in Iraq, a country that's just been flattened by the U.S. military.

At the Arkansas nerve centre of Wal-Mart – a company he admits has labour practices that are a little unethical – Flatman finds more flatness. . Workers who are not able to move pallets piled high with boxed products fast enough are told to speed up by a "soothing" computerized voice delivered instantly through wireless headphones they must wear at all times. "You can choose whether you want your computer voice to be a man or woman, and you can choose English or Spanish", a Wal-Mart executive says proudly. Flatman is duly impressed. This is what makes the Wal-Mart supply-chain efficient. This is what makes the world a flatter place to live.

In this flat world, threats basically come from those opposing flatness -- from Al-Qaida and disgruntled elements unable to cope with the changes taking place. Flatman calls them Islamo-Leninists. At no point does he concede the possibility that the flatteners might be the ones disturbing the peace. That Iraq, for example, is in turmoil today, because of the high-tech rednecks who invaded it and not because of the 'Islamo-Leninists' fighting back.

Wal-Mart apart, Mr Friedman does best when he examines his own society rather than the rest of the world -- about which he clearly knows far less. There are genuine insights in his discussion about the crisis in U.S. education, for example, or about how the post-9/11 restrictions on entry into the U.S. are undermining American competitiveness in the core sciences, but these get lost in the general clutter of flatness he spins out (Besides his other sins, Friedman also loves to mix his metaphors).

The basic flaw in Flatman's analysis is his inability to separate quantitative changes from qualitative ones. New communication technologies have speeded capitalism up but they have not led to – nor are they capable of leading to – a fundamental social transformation, a change in the way economic, social and political power is exercised nationally and internationally. When a Harvard professor, Michael J. Sandel, points him in the direction of Karl Marx – who wrote about capitalist globalisation 150 years ago -- to understand the same phenomenon he thinks he's discovered, Flatman confesses it is "hard to believe" Marx has said it all already.

Another person who said it all, and better, was the Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg. "Cars don't have a homeland", he wrote in The Life of the Automobile, his classic 1929 novel on the political economy of the automotive supply chain. "Like oil stock or classic love, they can easily cross borders. Italian Fiats clamber up the cliffs of Norway. Ever worried specialists in Renault taxis jolt around the bumpy streets of Moscow. Ford is ubiquitous, he's in Australia, he's also in Japan. American Chevrolet trucks carry Sumatran tobacco and Palestine oranges… The automobile has come to show even the slowest minds that the earth is truly round, that the heart is just a poetic relic, that a human being contains two standard gauges: one indicates miles, the other minutes". (Pluto Press, 1985, tr. Joachim Neugroschel)

How much has the world changed since then? Thanks to Wal-Mart, the standard gauge of minutes has been upgraded to headphones. And workers in Indian call centres have names like Jerry and get to pretend they're from Kansas. But the world is still round, not flat. The real value addition is still creamed off by the big guys in the richest countries. And in this round world, countries sometimes will go to war because of supply chains.

In Ehrenburg's novella, Sir Henry Deterding dreams of an empire of oil. The automobile needs gasoline, rubber for tires, tar for roads. "He already saw a grand coalition. Only, not a word about oil! Talk about the blood of the people shot down, the desecration of the Church, freedom of speech, talk in verses if you like, talk and talk, eloquently and sincerely!"

Flatman backed the invasion of Iraq. I wonder whether any of this sounds vaguely to familiar to him.

40 comments:

Kalyanaraman said...

An excellent rebuttal. Globalization and international economic interdependence are not irreversible. A good example is what happened in Europe in the wake of the First World War.

One can already espy anxiety and apprehension building up in the current bastion of free trade, induced by the flooding of its market by cheap Chinese goods, the recent controversy over CNOOC's bid to take over UNOCAL, the bogeyman of jobs being lost to outsourcing, and fears about China's dollar holdings and the Yuan's low value.

Paul Samuelson's argument in the run-up to the US presidential elections last year that the United States will not be able to maintain its technological lead forever -- nothwithstanding the rebuttal of Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati et al -- is bound to impact on US policy at some point in the future. One can hazard a guess as to 'a' direction American policy could veer towards -- protectionism and the erection of trade barriers.

Economics may flatten the world in the near term here and there, but geopolitics may ultimately trump geo-economics in which case barriers would quickly rise from these flattened parts of the globalized world.

Mooser said...

I am happy to have found this blog.
Fiedman is popular in the United States because he embodies the willful myopia typical of the US.
His bloodthirstiness and general stupidity has been noted, more than once.

Anonymous said...

your face is a cartoonist's delight :)

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this gem of a review purely by chance. Thanks dude!

Anonymous said...

Neither you nor Flatman seem to understand the material from which your viewpoint cloths are woven: the human being, evolved to live in small clans, unfinished, out of his niche, unable to assimilate the tasks of his masters, the purposely unknowing analysts.

Get real. Humans can't handle this pace of change. As Lenin was pointed out to Flatman, May I point you to the most accurate surveyors of human inflexibility, Stephen Pinker, of Blank Slate fame, or Ted Kaczinski, of the Freedom Club.

Anonymous said...

The truth of your review of Friedman's textbook guide to globalization is so obvious. It is so clear to so many AMericans NOT sitting in Washington DC. Why is it so difficult for so many in Washington to get it? A few do get it and say it aloud: Pete DeFazio, congressman from Oregon, basically laughs at their many defenses of globalization and pronouncements of its "inevitability."
What I would like to know is, were Bill Clinton and Robert Reisch actually taken in by these promises that globalization would make war impossible? How could they be? How stupid is that?? Yet when one is in a certain closed environment, such as the highly charged US capitol, one can be easily taken in. (Example: how democrats in Washington did not understand that the majority of Americans did not give a thin damn about Bill Clinton's fooling around, and those dems. tried to put as much distance between themselves and him as possible, sometimes to their own political detriment.)These two guys seem sincere in their belief.
I went to hear Reisch in Portland Oregon, was sitting in my seat, and when he came on stage, I realized I could not bear to hear this man who seems to have so many concerns for working people defend this nefarious scheme in public. Despite paying good money to attend, I got up and left. What does anyone think about whether some apparently humanitarian liberals who seem to be buying this nonsense, have actually been gulled, or whether they have merely been bought. Please make your case one way or the other and support it. I think we need to know the answer to this puzzle in order to know how to fight this catastrophe in the making.

Vikram Sood said...

An excellent review. It is so good I will have to buy the book ! Friedman writes well, he engages you but that is precisely the danger. He has the ability to turn facts around to advantage and skim over ohers. There is nothing wrong in projecting and protecting your own country's interests and we should know how to do that for our own. But do we? Or are we still living in Jehangir's Court?

Anonymous said...

"One can already espy anxiety and apprehension building up in the current bastion of free trade, induced by the flooding of its market by cheap Chinese goods, the recent controversy over CNOOC's bid to take over UNOCAL, the bogeyman of jobs being lost to outsourcing, and fears about China's dollar holdings and the Yuan's low value."

That's called America yellow peril xenophobia. During the 1980s, there was a similar nationalist backlash in the USA against Japan with hysterical cries that the "Japanese were buying up the USA" and Detroit complaining about the Japanese auto industry. Today, the USA seeks to scapegoat China for its economic problems--and conveniently deflect blame from the capitalist system itself--through this laundry list of allegations.

Who knows? In the future, it may be India's turn to be the USA's favorite whipping boy.

The Capitalist rhetoric about "free trade" and "free markets" is pure propaganda to begin with. In general, it means opening up *foreign* markets for one's own corporations,, while denying reciprocity to the business of other nations.

Neelakantan said...

I havent read Friedmans book, "The world is flat", but your review gives me a good idea of what it is about. Countries which have deep business interests with each other will not go to war. Trade wars are the wars of the future. China will not go to a conventional war with Taiwan or Japan or the USA. The trade relations that you talk about as historical examples measured in dollar terms would be piddly amounts compared to the global trade that goes on today.

Globalization is a reality, Communism wont be back. Communications, will evolve and slowly the "transformation" that you are waiting for, will happen. Already, with the e-governance initiative in some states, it is happening. People have information at their fingertips. These things take time Siddharth.

You say "Real value addition is still creamed off by the big guys in the richest countries". I view globalization as the green signal at the start of a traffic jam, who will move forward first? The rich, since they are at the head of the line. There can be no such movement where the poor slumdwellers become rich followed by the tycoons.

In Karnataka Deve Gowda says he works for the poor. If he neglects Bangalore, pray tell me, who will bring in the money to save "his poor"? If Maharashtra loses Bombay, will the whole of Maharashtra be saved? If the rich werent rich, would their servants be paid? Ditto at the global level. Face it we were a poor country. We have gained, because of offshoring. Because our call centers employ graduates, because our factories need more helpers, because our IT industry needs more drivers. What would our graduates do without call centers. Stand at the end of a long queue at the employment exchange. http://ecophilo.blogspot.com/2005/07/call-center-debate.html

Your review seemingly takes a contrarian view, but in reality is just taking potshots at Friedman.

Anonymous said...

Globalization is nonsencial bunk promoted by Neo-liberal apologists like Friedman.

In reality, globalization means economic warfare waged by the Rich nations (and their allies) on the poor.

Just look at India's designs behind SAFTA and its "free trade" agenda. In reality, this is just a pretext for India to wage trade wars against Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other nations.

blokes said...

Thank heavens there r still some sane people like u writing to counter the wave of "liberal" writings like Freidmn. Its all about hype. High time they get quartered and hanged by their own words!

sakreha said...

Globalization cant be reversed or stopped. After globalization what can be expected is universalization, but definitely not isolation. So there is no point in trying to stop it, by building frail walls. It is better if we can work towards making best use of it.

There has always been inequalities. During Pre globalization it was like this.

All countries had rich and poor.
There were poor countries and rich countries.

This was the equilibrium state.

This state was maintained because there were many impediments becuase of geography, culture, language as a result work couldnt flow and hence wealth couldnt freely flow between these countries. Now that these are slowly being taken apart due to the technological inventions in the past few decades, the old equilibrium is disturbed and we are in a continuous journey of finding the new equilibrium in the John Lennon's world.

Now the new equilibrium will read as:

There are no countries.
There are rich and poor. The rich and poor divide in the new globalized world will be higher than the old non globalized world. The new equilibrium is attained by a lot of people in america getting poorer and the lot of people in say India, getting little richer. Obvioulsy there is difference between the amount of the increase in riches and the amount of decrease in riches. This difference is what people think is the driving force for globalization. This difference goes into the pockets of the common rich of the world, whether it be an Indian or an American.

But then this a dangerous game where there are a lot of unhappy people, suddenly getting robbed off their standard of living. This is not only about money. Not only money is flowing, so is culture, language. We are heading towards a monoculture where the identities like "nation" and "Religion" becomes little fuzzy. The people who are successful in this kind of atmosphere, would be ok with fuzziness and move ahead. But those unsuccesful and those who are not able to adapt themselves to the changing world order, will try to resist this change through blogs and bombs.

A survival war between the adapters and resistors, is bound to happen and is happening as we speak. What my gut feel is the adapters will prevail in this war.

But then the adapters are very opportunistic and pragmatic, but necessarily visionaries. So they think short term. This short term thinking will lead to long term consequences to the ecological balance of the world. I am not talking about the social ecology's balance as that will be acheived to an extent after the above war. I am talking about earth's ecological balance. This might lead to destruction of our race if we arent brilliant enough by then to control the ecological behaviour of earth or invade other planets and make it habitable or make our physical body adpatable to changing ecological conditions of earth through breakthroughs in genetics and science.

sakreha said...

Erratta:

I meant in the previous comment:

But then the adapters are very opportunistic and pragmatic, but not necessarily visionaries. So they think short term.

Vijay Kumar said...

Outstanding! Was a pleasure to read your excellent review. Makes me proud that you're a fellow Indian!

umeshgeeta said...

It is bit disappointing that one does not find any strong arguments in the review which either refutes or support the main thesis of Friedman. The book review tends to be a satirical take rather than focusing on arguments of the book. I admit that I have not read the book and my understanding of Friedman’s argument is based on his articles in New York Times and his some other articles. As I understand his central thesis is:

Telecom and Internet revolutions of last decade have opened gates for conducting “services” from long distance. It results in bringing in large supply of skilled labor in the global economy and global corporations in the quest of reducing cost move substantial operations to these new locations of cheap but skillful labor availability. It kick starts the positive feedback loop in those remote communities and overall it is a harbinger of dramatic changes in both places – the origin of the work and destination of the work. This has two consequences:
- it opens economic opportunities for communities which were not participating and ignites a virtuous economic expansion and
- it creates fresh challenges for societies, especially for the labor, from where services and work migrate.

Having involved and closely seen this phenomenon in my professional life in last 8 years; I confirm that this really does happen. So what is the argument that outsourcing will stop at some point? I do not find such argument in this book review. Some time back Prof. Jagadish Bhagawati as well wrote an Op-Ed in Wall Street Journal to argue that indeed this phenomenon of “level playing field” is not sustainable or long term. Again if one reads carefully, one does not find any sound reasoning in that essay too.

All other points in Friedman’s argument are disputable and the review points them well - for example, globalization is not a sufficient reason for stopping wars among nation states. But that is bit besides the point. Same is true for Friedman’s Iraq war views. It is incorrect to hold Friedman responsible for mistakes what Bush Administration is doing; as well as it is digression to talk about consistency and validity of those views in this book review. Yes, Friedman gets carried away and I have argued about that point too. (http://21stcenturypolitics.blogspot.com/2005/06/feedback-banglore-hot-and-hotter-by.html). But the question is finding what is wrong with a particular aspect of globalization Friedman is describing – the aspect of job migration to India and China?

The particular assertion in the review that “but in the end value addition goes to rich or owners” is interesting. I suspect that too, but still waiting for convincing proof. It is also not that straight forward. What is obvious is Labor in rich or high cost societies is in big trouble. That much is clear. One can see the clear hardship brought to Labor in America due to globalization and outsourcing does not make it any easy for them. It is also true that American companies reaped benefits, have achieved record cash profits and over all enriched share holders. But things get complicated after that – Bush and right wingers argue that those profits eventually would generate employment when these companies start plowing back that money in America. Indeed, the employment picture in the second Bush term is not as gloomy as his first term. So is the labor not displacing? Yes. Is the labor not finding new work? No, within USA it finds in new roles, new locations and new industries. And at the same time lot of labor in India and China has got employment in fulfilling service and goods demands of USA and EU. So how do we say that it is not win – win situation? I think Friedman’s motivation is to find how labor in USA and high cost countries can cope with this new change. He is relentless in pointing that unless Labor in USA becomes competitive, more skilled, adoptive and always ready to learn new things; American workers will be toast to get gainful employment. And it is misconception that majority in America are shareholders, enjoying prosperity due to “flattening” of the world. That is not the case.

Since Labor is more in number than rich share owners; it is a logical concern whether American politicians finally succumb to protectionism due to sheer force of vote bank. Kerry attempted to run his campaign partly on this agenda (and at times I did get influenced by that too); but we have seen Americans did not get swayed and voted anyways to Bush. (Presidential election of 2004 was quite complex and I do not want to simplify that to only this issue; but it is fair to say that this issue was prominent in the election campaign.) Friedman of course does not subscribe to any such short term protectionist measures; at any time, anywhere, including America. Surprisingly large number of Liberals and workers are against such protectionism even if it means more pains to them. Liberal mouthpiece New York Times urges Congress to pass Cafta and in the end both Senate and Congress passed it. In the slender margins of the bill’s passage one can clearly see the forces of protectionism. If America adopts any narrow protectionist measures; it will be contradictory to whatever she has been preaching so far and will clearly contribute to more friction in the international trading system. This is an open ended question and the bread is not fully baked yet.

In the end, this review as well as many such reviews of the book or Friedman’s thesis, ignore the context of ongoing intense tussle of Labor and Capital within American society as well as international tug of war among Trade, Labor and Capital. I would say internationally “flat” world is beneficial to India at present but really creates a dicey, seriously challenging situation for American Labor. If American Politicians do not rise to handle this situation in a way so that America does not renege on her free trade policies and at the same time do address challenges for her Labor; that is not Friedman’s problem. They have been warned and essentially this book is his attempt to wake up American Decision makers.

Thanks.

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Anonymous said...

Good review, but a bit too tame. People like Friedman are stupid and in positions of power - they are the most danegrous sort around. Their theses deserve to be ripped to pieces, not politely dissected this way.

maverick said...

As his name suggests, he shud be Fried and served up in a dollar store, unfreezed and unpacked. I did watch the idiot being interviewed by an even greater one on TV when he was here. The body language sucked; looked very pompous. And you dont do that when you are close to the call centre of the world.

As to that, call centre, I mean...even that advantage is slipping, thanks to the infrastructure crumbling in Bangalore. Its a bubble waiting to burst.

Anonymous said...

hey yo, i wonder, what other process can serve to provide prosperity? for all the put-down of globalisation, can there be any other process that can alleviate the harms of globalisation without cost to human progression? so what, contradictions are bound to be inherent in any human system, so what if wage wars are fought, so what? for all this cost of human liberty, they are only temporary considering the longer-term advantages brought about by the system of globalisation. although i admit that the current system is imperfect, and leads to many incidents of injustices, but like democracy, it is probably the second-worst system after all... moreover, it is only in this world of half-baked flatness can so many of the poor in china can rise up economically.

can anyone out there propose a system that has minimal disadvantages, yet at the same time, provide no detriment to human development everywhere?

Anonymous said...

god sake . please read the book, understand and then read this review then u will know how narrow minded the review is.

vijay

Chara said...

I was in the middle of reading “The World Is Flat” when I stumbled upon this book review. At first, it seems well argued, but when read closely it is clearly very reactionary and pompous. Let’s make something clear. Friedman is not an academic. He is a journalist, and as such, he has the uncanny ability to report on the different forces shaping the world and explaining them in a way that is easy for any reader to understand.

Agree. He sometimes gets carried away by his awe at all the technological advances that are taking place; but he recognizes that technological advances by themselves don’t bring change. What will bring change, he argues, is how people are taking advantage of these technologies. These advances are enabling people from developed and developing countries to collaborate in business more easily and will eventually allow developing countries to compete head to head with developed countries in the global market place.

Your argument that this collaboration has existed in the past does not hold true. Nobody can argue that in the 1930s, a small company from Peru or Timbuktu could have offered services in the United States with the ease they can now. Reaching the U.S. market required deep pockets, and most likely, an American partner or investor. Today, this is not the case anymore.

I can see it happening already in my field. I work in the United States providing services to corporations doing business in Latin America, and have recently outsourced work to Latin American countries numerous times because technology has made it easy for us to do so. When we outsource, we know we are also providing knowledge and information to the people who collaborate with us. We know that eventually, they will not need us as the middle man. Eventually, they will offer their services directly to our clients, and make very good money doing so. That’s the nature of the beast. What we can do to survive is to develop new, more high-end services and continue to evolve. So, yes, these forces are not just benefiting the developed markets; they are also benefiting the developing ones; and creating a marketplace in which innovation will be even more important for survival.

Now, the developed markets have the benefit of bigger pockets…. but developing countries can easily make headway in ways they could not before.

Anonymous said...

Friedman himself responds to your arguments in Chapter 11 of his book (which shows you are not saying anything new). Following please find excerpts of the introduction of this response in pages 373-375:

“…ever since I began writing about globalization, I’ve been challenged by critics along one particular line: ‘Isn’t there a certain technological determinism to your argument? To listen to you, Friedman, there are these ten flatteners, they are converging and flattening the earth, and there is nothing that people can do but bow to them and join the parade. And after a transition, everyone will get richer and smarter and it will all be fine. But you’re wrong, because the history of the world suggests that ideological alternatives, and power alternatives, have always arisen to any system, and globalization will be no different.’

“This is legitimate question, so let me try to answer it directly: I am a technological determinist! Guilty as charged.

“I believe that capabilities create intentions. If we create an Internet where people can open an online store and have global suppliers, global customers, and global competitors, they will open that online store or bank or bookshop… The history of economic development teaches this over and over: If you can do it, you must do it, otherwise your competitors will—and as this book has tried to demonstrate, there is a whole new universe of things that companies, countries and individuals can and must do to thrive in a flat world.

“But while I am a technological determinist, I am not a historical determinist. There is absolutely no guarantee that everyone will use these new technologies or the triple convergence, for the benefits of themselves, their countries, or humanity. These are just technologies. Using them does not make you modern, smart, moral, wise, fair, or decent. It just makes you able to communicate, compete, and collaborate farther and faster. In the absence of a world-destabilizing war, every one of these technologies will become cheaper, lighter, smaller and more personal, mobile, digital, and virtual. Therefore, more and more people will find more and more ways to use them. We can only hope that more people in more places will use them to create, collaborate, and grow their living standards, not the opposite. But it doesn’t have to happen. To put it another way, I don’t know how the flattening of the world will come out.

“Indeed, this is the point in the book where I have to make a confession: I know that the world is not flat.

“Yes, you read me right: I know that the world is not flat. Don’t worry. I know.

“I am certain, though, that the world has been shrinking and flattening for some time now, and that process has quickened dramatically in recent years. Half the world today is directly or indirectly participating in the flattening process or feeling its effects. I have engaged in literary license in titling this book ‘The World Is Flat’ to draw attention to this flattening and its quickening pace because I think it is the single most important trend in the world today.

“But I am equally certain that is it not historically inevitably that the rest of the world will become flat or that the already flat parts of the world won’t get unflattened by war, economic disruption, or politics. There are hundreds of millions of people on this planet who have been left behind by the flattening process or feel overwhelmed by it, and some of them have enough access to the flattening tools to use them against the system, not on its behalf…”

the boris said...

Marvelous review. Thank you. I read the book for my book-club and was absolutely appalled by it.

I found your blog while looking to arm myself with more arguments for my book-club meeting. Very eloquently written and what a delight to hear the input of someone in India, a country that Flatman claims to know so much about.

Write on!

Roy Mathew said...

A very well written article.
People like Friedman are magicians--what you see is not as important as what you dont see. If you add the income of Bill Gates and a starving street child, and divide by two to find the average, you will come up with a figure in the billions!

Of course globalisation has led to economic growth--the question is for whom. Even the World Bank admits that though China's GDP will grow by 9% from 2001-2007, farmers income will shrink by 7% in the same period.

Though the US economy has grown rapidly in the last 30 years, the average working class income has remained stagnant.

Writers like Friedman chose to highlight part of the reality--the conjuring trick is to convince everyone that this part is the whole.

Anonymous said...

Come on ... it's just a guy and his opinions ... much like your blog :-)
I just read the book, and kind-of liked it - unlike your blog ...

Harsh said...

To me Siddharth and Friedman seems to be equal in intellect for this debate but I would say that the book itself is outstanding in thought that could make people think who are unaware of such happenings. Good work must be appreciated !!!

mgragg said...

Personally, as a baby-boomer from California, I found Friedman’s book entertaining, eye opening and thought provoking. As I was reading the first part of the book I had a lot of comments and arguments for rebuttal building up, but in the later part of it, Friedman addressed many of these arguments. Yet just having me to be able to write a response on this blog, regarding a critique by an editor in New Delhi, which I came across on wikipedia while surfing to find a way to contact Friedman directly with my comments, proves part of what he was talking about in flattening world barriers for communicating through technology and innovation.

However, being an early-retired manual laborer (who was lucky to be born in America at the time in history when I was, so that through the efforts of unionism I could earn a middle-class income, medical benefits and a decent pension plan) I see life differently than Friedman, with his higher education, higher ambition, higher motivation to embrace unregulated capitalism, and trust in greed driven entrepreneurs and businessmen. Reading Friedman makes me think he would accept Gordon Gekko’s speech, from the movie Wall Street, that “Greed is good!” as he uses Wal-Mart and Bill Gates to make his point of doing whatever it takes to make even more money, and ensnare more people world wide in material consumerism, the plundering of natural resources and destruction of the environment.

Like most free-trading, multinational capitalists, Friedman buys into the notion that you set up shop where the labor is cheapest, regulations are fewest, environmental concerns do not impede you, and where laws are set up to protect business interests over human interests. Only in Friedman’s case, he naively hopes that when it all flattens out, the majority of the people on the planet will benefit by it, as the Gates’ and the Walton’s of the world use their brand of trickledown economics and humanitarianism to lift up certain segments of the underprivileged parts of the globe, and that technological advances will eventually makes things right with the environment as they find new sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. Hey, exploitation is exploitation, no matter what part of the planet you live on.

My biggest complain about the book is that Friedman never actually questions if any of this uncontrolled technological growth for the sake of capitalism’s greed off of scientific discoveries is worth the cost it has on both the environment and on humanity. Nor does he talk about Big Business becoming the Big Brother of the twenty first century, with George Bush as their puppet for directing America’s military might to be their enforcer for protecting multinational business interests’ globally.

Yet whether you like what Friedman is exposing with regards to what is taking place, or not… it is going on. And that’s scary. Or it should be if you accept the idea that pride and greed are at the root of all evil.

Anonymous said...

As noted by MGRAGG, the ability to allow me to read and comment on your posting is a symptom of the convergences discussed in the book of Mr. Friedman.

With few exceptions, I look at every book as a compilation and snapshot of one perspective. In the case of American business and government (I am from California), it is clear to me that most organizations do not see this train coming. Few understand that globalization (or as we used to have in the US, migration of cloth and shoe manufacturing from Massachusettes to rural Southern states) affects us all. The "flatteners" listed by Mr. Friedman certainly lubricate the process and not only that, make it so that an individual or small group can participate as well as the major multinationals. I worry most about the governments, from local to national, not being able to see the changes in revenue, service requirements and the like. Internet purchasing is an example where business close, not being able to compete with an Internet provider, no matter where they are located. And another example of the Ebay or Yahoo sellers that reduce or eliminate the business tax revenues.

I am not sure about the correctness of the policies of international business during our times, but I am sure that the book placed many ideas on the table that people generally have not considered. My vote is that people should read this book anyway, even if it offends your sense of justice and benefit.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that this very critical review is posted on a "blog." If only Thomas Friedman could see how one of the "flattening" platforms mentioned in his The World in Flat (ie. blogs) enables people around the world to read and discuss ideas.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Friedman's book (a bit late getting to it...). Although I am left with the feeling that he does tend to overgeneralize and oversimplify some points, and perhaps does not spend enough time addressing the many geopolitical and georeligious forces always at work in our world, at the end of the day I think this book was a worthwhile read.

Like another anonymous commenter in this blog already wrote: what it now at work here on the Intranet, in the 'blogosphere' as it were, is precisely a result of, and continues to contribute to, the 'flattening' of the world. Will it last? Will it aggregate to good or to bad? and for how many people or countries? All of that remains to be seen....

Should be an interesting 10 or 20 years in front of us (assuming we are not really entering WWIII as some seem to beliee).

Anonymous said...

Well... What's your point? Any better solutions? The world needs options to assuage current tensions; I am not reading any new ideas from your writing. Ideas, ideas, ideas... That is what this is all about; maybe you would like to offer some new ones.

Anonymous said...

Ray Tapajna, editor and artist at Tapart News and Art that Talks challenges the The World is Flat theories of Thomas Friedman at http://tapsearch.com/flatworld/ and http://tapsearch.com/flipflatworld/

As the tag line goes from the movie Cool Hand Luke, -what we got here is a lack of communication in a a world of instant communication.

Another saying from the computer field applys - garbage in and garbage out......

Globalization calls for everyone being on the same page. It calls for a global economy without borders - centralized under international edicts with most outside any real democratic process.
It also assumes everyone will play the game the same way eventually based on fairness. It combines state run Communist economies with raw Capitalism with a mix of all sorts of totalitarian government controlled economies in between.

Globalization also ignores the basis of Free Enterprise where business is supposed to be based on margins and mark up where the owner can make a decent living and have money left over to pay workers a living wage. It also ignore values of work and products. For things to work properly, the value of work as to be close to the value of commodities people need to survive.
It is impossible to have any success if local value added economies are chopped up into pieces and shipped out around the globe. A working poor class in the more prosperous nations soon replace the middle class with the need for cheaper and cheaper imports to balance things out.
Meanwhile, the desitute impoverished workers who make the products in far away places, do not make enough money to buy the things the more prosperous nations have left to sell. Workers as consumers forget that the value of work has to come first - then, the value of the commodity has to balance with this value after the fact.
The question to ask Globalists like Thomas Friedman is this: how can the overhead costs of long haul shipping and packaging match up with local production? It comes down to the fact that labor is the governing factor and the pressure for cheaper and cheaper labor never subsides.
In the end, you can not do busines with people who do not have money. Even if you provide everyone in the world with an education and a PC computer, it is meaningless, if all are competing for the same jobs.
Friedman also ignores and essential fact. Workers who do not have any voice in their destinies, react in radical ways.
Most of South American is responding with a very loud NO! to Globalization and Free Trade moving to leftist Populist systems.
These systems can easily transform into radical sorts of Communism .
Finally, the bottom line is this. Free Trade is not trade as historically practiced and defined. Free Trade today is about moving production from place to place anywhere in the world for the sake of cheaper labor. The main commodities in this kind of trading are human beings who are put on a world trading block to compete with one another down to the lowest levels of wage slave and even child labor.
Of course, this will fail and we should be preparing for the post-Globalization era rather and dwelling on the Flat World of Friedman who is isolated in a world of his own imagination.
The main site for Tapart News and Art that Talks is at http://tapsearch.com/tapartnews. See also the "unnetted" at http://www.experiencedesignernetwork.com/archives/000636.html

Anonymous said...

well crafted rebuttal ... but Friedman is an easy mark, gushing from ome oversimplification to the next. But, I don't hear your alternatives? Globalization is a rising tide that floats all boats in the long term, it's irrational to condemn it on the basis of the short term view that the evil super-rich get richer.

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Anonymous said...

To truly get a flat world you first need to unite the world on a political scale and then on an economic scale. Only until we care about all of eachothers interests can we start the process of flatanization and lead to economic development on a global scale all around the world. This meaning that rich countries halt their interests to bring poorer countries to the same level. Once everyone is on the same level then we can move forward. But this of course is unachievable if there is a sole military power reigning over everyone else influencing world politics in its favor. The first step to truly achieving a flat world is to strengthen international law. Once this is done then we can move forward

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Anonymous said...

Great article! It really helped me develop and express my arguments against Friedman's theory.

hp samsung said...

It's interesting that this very critical review is posted on a "blog." If only Thomas Friedman could see how one of the "flattening" platforms mentioned in his The World in Flat (ie. blogs) enables people around the world to read and discuss ideas.