The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

A flat world is a connected world. We owe this buzz largely to an American called Thomas L. Friedman. It is an interesting story. Friedman is a reputed journalist with The New York Times who has three Pulitzer Prizes in his kitty. He is widely traveled and has written internationally acclaimed books like From Beirut to Jerusalem, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Longitudes and Attitudes – on some of the burning topics in the world today. The book under review ‘The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century’ came out in April 2005. It became an instant non-fiction best seller. Friedman was suddenly the Pied Piper of Globalization. The genesis of the book is a meeting that he had with Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani in the latter’s Bangalore office. After explaining to the journalist how what he saw in Bangalore was the creation of a platform where intellectual capital could be delivered from anywhere, Nilekani summarized, ‘Tom, the playing field is being leveled’. Friedman rolled that phrase in his head for a while and then it struck him that what he heard was nothing short of a message that ‘The World is Flat!’

The book is an enquiry into how this flattening has been happening, the world over. It is divided into five sections dealing with flatness vis-à-vis the world, America, developing countries, companies and geopolitics. In this context we are told, the incidents of 11/9 are as important and 9/11. If you are wondering what the former date is, well that when the Berlin Wall fell – 11/9/89. Friedman identifies ten flatteners. They are, apart from the above two, the rise of Netscape and the dotcom boom that led to a trillion dollar investment in fiber optic cable, the emergence of common software platforms and open source code enabling global collaboration and the rise of outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining and insourcing. The name Infosys appears in at least 15 places of the 500 page book. Wipro figures an equal number of times. Because he refers back to the interviews with Nilekani, Friedman mentions him in 10 places. But then you will encounter Wipro’s ex-president Vivek Paul as frequently as you cruise the book. The importance of China can never be stressed enough in this globalization age. Time magazine in a recent cover story dubbed the twenty-first century as ‘China’s century’. In 2004 Walmart alone imported $ 18 billion worth of goods from its 5000 Chinese suppliers. No wonder the writer devotes his attention to the dragon country as much as he does to India where his quest began. These two mammoth economies, both liberal yet still in developing stages, virtually represent the offshoring hub of the world. The potential they together hold is even more enormous. Yahoo, Google, Blackberry, blogging, podcasting, VoIP and SoIP are today passé. The revolutionary iPod is now ubiquitous and we are awaiting iPhone. If you want to hear all about how they came about, go for this book. Picture these: Drones flying in Iraq for the war are remotely directed from Air Force bases in Las Vegas. Homesourcing, or women working as reservations agents from homes in between cooking, babysitting and exercising, was a successful idea of JetBlue Airways. A call center operator in Bangalore gives directions to her American customer over phone as though she was in Manhattan and overlooking out her window, ‘Yes, we have a branch on 74th and 2nd Avenue, a branch at 54th and Lexington….’ it goes. Accounting firms in Hyderabad prepare tax returns for American businessmen. An Indian links up with an Israeli company to transmit CAT scans via internet so that Americans can get a second opinion from an Indian or Israeli doctor. Fiber optic cables under the sea connect Bangalore, Beijing and Bangkok with the developed world. Friedman spices his account with tidbits like this one on what he would tell his daughters, ‘Girls, when I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, “Tom, finish your dinner – people in India and China are starving”. My advice to you is: Girls, finish your homework – people in India and China are starving for your jobs.’ In a flat world, he says, there is no such thing as an American job. There is just a job and it goes to the best, smartest, most productive or cheapest worker – wherever he or she resides. Friedman also ponders on the flip side of globalization – the Bin Ladens using the possibilities of the flat world to further their nefarious agendas (Refer sub-section ‘Infosys versus Al Q-Qaeda’). His yen for high drama is evident in chapter headings like ‘The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention’. It states that ‘no two countries which are part of the same global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other’. This could be a flawed argument. Critics call his rhetoric ahistorical. Shashi Tharoor points out that Friedman loses sight of inconvenient hillocks in his sweeping celebration of the flat world. Has the world really moved from one dominated by superpowers to one dominated by supermarkets, asks the diplomat. Can we wish away the fact that of the three billion people entering the global market, most live under $ 2 a day?

The publisher describes Friedman’s book as an update to his earlier work The Lexus and the Olive Tree (The luxury car here is a symbol of modernity while the olive tree represents one’s yearning for cultural roots). While the first book was intellectually heavy, The World is Flat is a lighter read. It is intended for the layman. The author is no economist or technologist but an outstanding journalist who keeps his eyes and ears wide open. In fact he is like a curious child constantly asking questions and getting breathless in his narration of what all he discovers in response. This is the kind of book I would buy for my father – a non-technology person who however cannot avoid using internet for his communication every now and then.

(Feb 07)

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One thought on “The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman”

  1. Biju,

    I read this book on my brother’s recommendation last year. It indeed is an incredibly interesting non-fiction — nothing less and nothing more. As you have summarized towards the end, the auther is neither an economist nor a technologist — but merely an extremely lucky journalist who could get to visit the place and meet the people as he likes. No harm will be done if the reader would just use him as a window to the world/events carefully filtering out his sweeping generalization remarks. In this context, one would be amused to see the body of criticism Friedman has provoked — a sample of which is available at the wikipedia against the entry on his name/book. Maybe you’ve read, but if you haven’t, please read this piece: “FLATMAN I’m sorry, but the world’s still round — criticism by Siddharth Varadarajan”. Thanks.

    — Govardhanan.

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