on 14 August 2005
The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman describes how the world is becoming flatter and flatter and how it affects, and will continue to affect, each and everyone of us. Friedman uses the term 'flat' as a metaphor for the fact that "the global playing field is being leveled". In other words, he believes that with today's technology, physical boundaries such as geographical distance are becoming less and less restrictive in the way business is done. Businesses no longer only have to compete with businesses located in their own geographical vicinity, but they have to compete with businesses all over the world.
The beginning of the book deals with how Friedman believed the world became 'flat' in the first place. He does this using his so called "10 Flatteners". These are world events ranging from the fall of the Berlin wall, to the emergence of the internet as a new medium of communication. He describes how in he feels that each of these '10 flatteners' had a major impact on the 'flattening' of the world. I feel that this part of the book is quite tedious to read, since much what Friedman states is just common knowledge. He doesn't charter any territory and anyone who follows the news once in a while will have heard of these ten 'flattening' forces.
The second part of the book is called "America and the Flat World". As you might have guessed this is about how America (and other Western countries) are affected by the 'flattening' of the world, and how they can take advantage of it. Firstly it describes the worrying trend that a lot of jobs previously done in the Western world can today be outsourced more cheaply and efficiently to countries such as China and India. Friedman, however, argues that this is not necessarily a bad thing because it frees up labour in these countries for more 'sophisticated' jobs. As long as people in the Western world keep upgrading their 'skills' through receiving a good education, and keep being innovative, new technologies will spark new jobs for them to do.
The third part of the book is how developing nations are affected by the 'flattening' world, and what measures they should take to get the most out of it. Friedman argues that this flattening of the world presents the developing world with a huge opportunity. Since the general costs of labour are so much lower there than in developed countries, labour intensive jobs will move from the developed countries to the developing countries. However, to take full advantage of this, Friedman believes that these countries will need to follow a 'transparent' policy. Investors will want to know where there money is going. This is why countries like China and India, with a relative transparent economy, have been such attractive places for investment and why some others have not.
The last part of the book is about how terrorists such as Bin Laden have been able to take advantage of the 'flat' world. With the use of the internet, it is very easy for them to transfer their message, and recruit other terrorist from all over the world. Friedman regards this as a possible threat for the 'flattening' of the world.
This book, as has been said by many other reviewers, touches on the effects globalization has on today's society. It does not really charter any new territory, and is simply a basic overview of how the world has changed in the last decade. However, I believe that this book still deserves 4 stars simply because the way in which it was written. It is written in a way which is very easy to understand and makes some fairly sophisticated economical concepts easy to comprehend for the average reader. The book is also full of examples of how individual businesses have been affected by globalization and what measures they have taken to get the most out of it, which is very interesting to read about. All in all, the book does exactly what it says on the cover. It gives "A Brief History of the Globalized World in the Twenty-first Century".
on 9 October 2006
A member of the U.S. Congess donated a photograph to a local shop in Cape Town. He wrote across the bottom: "God bless America." Little did he understand what these words would mean in Cape Town: "America? Should God not bless the world?" The photograph would seem an appropriate metaphor for this book. The idea for the book was born when author Tom Friedman, a celebrated journalist, investigated outsourcing to India -- proof that "intellectual capital" may be delivered "from anywhere". As a result, he considered that "the global competitive playing field was being leveled" -- and decided to pursue the trend.
Is the world really flat (or flattening)? Is it flattening competitively, as Friedman suggests? Early on in the book, Friedman alluded to the dark side of such "flattening". He wrote: "But contemplating the flat world also filled me with dread . . ." My own first thoughts were: "Perhaps he thinks of the avarice of the West, or the deceitfulness and destruction of empire?" Yet he was thinking exclusively of "Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks". This seemed bound to be a one-dimensional book. Did his attitude change as he developed his theme? Essentially, no. Some four hundred pages later, his main concern was "a fundamental interest in keeping the American dream alive".
Friedman considers that there have been "ten forces that flattened the world". #1. The "balance of power across the world" has tipped towards democracy. #2. "The computer and its connectivity [has become] inherently more useful for millions of people". #3. Connectivity has enabled "work flow" to be distributed worldwide. These flatteners, in turn, have empowered "new forms of collaboration", which represent Flatteners #4 to #9. Finally, Flattener #10 serves to amplify "all the other flatteners": the fast advancing digital revolution.
Friedman "always believed in free trade". Should he now? In Bangalore, he looked across "these Indian Zippies", and considered: "Oh, my God, there are so many of them." His first thought: he would not want "any American" to suffer. However, "the way to succeed is not by stopping the railroad line from connecting you, but by upgrading your skills and making the investment[s]". So the advantage comes down to skills and investments. I wondered whether Friedman missed a page in Economics 101, titled "Terms of Trade". He might have spotted the New International Economic Order (NIEO), and how industrialised countries, led by the U.S., opposed much of the agenda, tipping the world scales in their favour.
This book would seem to represent a sobering example of the propaganda of empire -- not to speak of how the deception of empire swallows those who indwell it. Not only is this a book by a celebrated journalist. He won the approval of the Pulitzer Prize committee three times -- which would represent, presumably, the opinions of a large swathe of the U.S.A. I had suspected that such thinking might exist in the U.S.A. This book provides disturbing insight.
The World Is Flat is an easy, if long, read about the nature of global competition among countries, companies and individuals as circumstances stood in 2004.
Let me describe his key points. Mr. Friedman begins by describing ten forces that were powerful in creating today's extreme business competition on a global scale (the fall of the Berlin Wall, advances in computer communications and software, reductions in cost to connect organizations together by computer-directed instructions, new ways of partnering and the rise of portable, real-time information access over the Internet). He then describes a triple convergence that has accelerated change: World-wide, real-time, flexible collaboration that allows more horizontal ways to provide value; companies learning how to use the new technologies to create new types of organizations, services and structures; and the entry of several billion new people into global business competition.
Mr. Friedman goes on to describe the implications of the 2004 world for the future. He sees a need for more education, greater specialization, learning new skills and moving up the ladder of adding more value . . . or a job, a company or a country will see its position degraded or even replaced by a more effective competitor elsewhere. For the United States, he sees a "quiet crisis" as other nations outrace its citizens for advanced education and work harder to compete. Today's lead can soon become tomorrow's obsolescence. In the meantime, consumers will benefit from cheaper imported goods and offshore services.
For developing countries, the challenge is greater. They were behind to start with. Mexico finds itself being displaced by China in serving the U.S. market, even though Mexico is right next door. The key task is to free local entrepreneurs to operate efficiently and to put good infrastructure and education in place.
In geopolitics, much focus will turn to a fight over raw materials as developing nations add great needs for energy and the minerals and food needed to urbanize and industrialize. He also sees severe environmental problems ahead.
The Muslim world is mostly seen as being left out . . . and becoming resentful . . . leading to more terrorism.
Mr. Friedman also encourages companies and countries to find ways to open up this new world to the 3 billion poorest people.
At the end, he describes a world of unbounded opportunity if we only have enough imagination to create a better future.
Mr. Friedman is a good writer, a confessed humanist and a great teller of anecdotes. He traveled to many of the places he wrote about in the book which gives his story depth, color and texture. It also makes his messages more compelling and interesting.
The book has three flaws that will bother many people.
First, his points about global business competition are not new in any way. So this book will be largely a waste of time for those who have been following this development for some time. As a result, this book will be of most value to those who are new to the subject.
Second, his central metaphor of a flat world doesn't really work. Mr. Friedman is arguing that we have a level global playing field except for some minor advantages that already exist (location, raw materials such as oil, education levels, computer and communications access, and knowledge of languages). If he had called the book "The Playing Field Is Level," that metaphor would have worked. He is also arguing that communications place us in great proximity to one another and that trend is continuing. From that observation, it's possible to see the world as a concave bowl with ever rising sides causing all of us to slide closer together at the bottom. "The World Is a Concave Bowl with Rising Sides" isn't much of a book title, so I can see why he avoided that metaphor. Nevertheless, the title metaphor is wrong and it's annoying to have to read so much about it throughout the book. I also found the cover illustration to be annoying for this reason. The world he is describing is one where sailing ships will founder because they cannot survive pitched battles with other sailing ships that have better guns and maneuverability . . . not one where some people are falling off the end of the earth. It's a great illustration . . . but for another book.
Third, many of his solutions are more rhetorical than real. Mr. Friedman would have done better to seek out those who have created major solutions to difficult problems (such as the Grameen Bank in creating entrepreneurs among the impoverished) rather than to describe little experiments that companies have done. But the rhetoric will encourage you to think about what he has to say . . . and perhaps your imagination will be stimulated to see new ways you can contribute. If so, that would be good.
Find new ways to achieve old objectives! And good luck to you as you do.
In "Slaugherhouse Five", Kurt Vonnegut introduced us to the Tralfamadoreans. These bizarre creatures said humans have a confined view of the world. It's as if we were sealed in a container, looking at the world down a long, narrow pipe. Thomas Friedman fits that description well in this book on how "globalisation" has developed over the past decade. Artfully portraying how large corporations are extending their reach around the globe, what he sees is intense and rewarding. What he misses is depressing and possibly calamitous. Although Friedman's sprightly style and unbounded enthusiasm is initially captiviating, a different feeling arises after you close the final page. The worst thing that can be said about this book is that everything Friedman says in it is true.
What is globalisation? Friedman sees it as technology spreading the wealth from industrialised to developing nations. Collapsing barriers, particularly "trade barriers" help promote economic development for both First and Third World countries. He proposes a ten step historical sequence of forces that promoted globalisation. These forces, in his view, enabled the spread of Western electronic technology, encouraging economic growth. From the fall of the Berlin Wall through "outsourcing" to utilise cheap labour, to wireless communication, these forces converged to give us a true "global village". It's more than widening the labour pool. Friedman cheers the idea of his taxes being done in Bangalore or CAT scans taken in Cape Cod being diagnosed in Melbourne. All that concerns Friedman is that the information be turned around overnight ready for delivery the next morning. He claims that the knowledge needed in New York is goading leaps in education to provide it in places like India and China. That "education" includes language-skill classes to enable "help-desk" staff sound more "American". The staff even adopt names like "Betty" or "Rob" to convince callers that they're "right next door" instead of ten thousand kilometres away.
While plodding through the extensive list of successful ventures around the planet, largely foster-parented by highly competitive high-tech US technology firms, you discern that he's quoting the same people repeatedly. Certain figures in India loom large, but it's hard to see how many of these new entrepreneurs are actually in the global market instead of building up their domestic economy. As you encounter these big players, it's hard not to see a top-heavy, unitarian structure emerging. Although these new firms are portrayed by Friedman as uniformly service agencies, the reader can't help but wonder if more Enrons are in the making. More collapses like that, which don't have to be triggered by fraud, will bring down many affiliated or dependent companies. Friedman argues that the international arrangement of "global supply chains" is so tightly integrated now that wars between states in that complex geopolitical structure have become impossible. But it doesn't take a war to collapse an economic bubble.
Friedman argues that his "bubble" will continue to grow, but takes but the merest peek at the societies underlying the inflationary process. We learn nothing of how widespread the technological advancements in the nations he visits are. In what he supposes is a glowing example, he makes a quick jaunt to an "untouchable" village in India, visiting a school teaching English and journalism. These people have little water, no sanitation and food is scarce. Are these the future "help desk" staff? Later, he laments the "quiet crisis" in the US where science and technology education is teetering. Nearly forty per cent of NASA's technical staff, he notes, is over 50 years old. Where will the replacements come from? India, China and Japan are already advancing in space programmes - a field where heavy rocketry and miniature electronics are necessities. And two of those nations possess nuclear weapons.
Friedman's glee at dispersing high-tech services around the globe totally ignores the many costs incurred. He thinks "outsourcing" is a "good thing" for the US economy because it will drive people to secure new talents. He likes having airline tickets electronically distributed. He extols the US business leaders promoting the "flat Earth" without noting that real wages are declining, wealth is being concentrated and skilled workers remain threatened over job security. He isn't aware of environmental issues being exacerbated by some of the factors he applauds. His rosy view of the world needs serious enlargement. Perhaps he might step along the hall at the New York Times and have a chat with his colleague Paul Krugman. He might actually learn something. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 25 September 2005
Friedman is a master of describing complex problems in a simple way. This book runs through a whole raft of issues related to globalisation, such as the now familar offshoring and outsourcing. He uses conversations and examples to keep the book personal without drifting too far from the main argument that the future is not just an extension of the past. Highly recommended reading!
on 3 February 2006
From the first few pages when Friedman leaps from level playing fields to a flat world, it is almost easy to understand why the cover shows ships falling off the edge of an un-flat world [NOTE: The current dust cover, changed since this review was written, no longer depicts ships falling off a 'flat' earth. You can draw your own conclusions as to the motives behind that decision.]. Something is missing here. "Level" is not "flat". And ships don't fall off a flat surface. Is he trying to be ironic?
As a journalist, with seemingly unlimited resources and the once-gilded New York Times brand name behind him, Friedman has leveraged his basic skills into best-sellerdom, all the while seemingly in shock and awe of all the things his rich travel budget allows him to take in. Yet I have to ask, where's the beef?
Yes, the world has shifted from networks based on mythology and monarchies, through manufacturing and Marxism, to today's global marketing, but services aren't a new phenomenon; they've always been with us. And although wireless communication has made the world faster and more competitive, life is no more ruthless, violent or uncertain now than when plagues, expansive military conquest, disease, poor hygiene, inbred monarchies, and wealth-by-acquisition ruled the world as they have for most of human existence. Sure, technology has increased the pace, but each generation seems to think that the last generation had it slow and easy, and that has never been the case. The poor villager who wandered too far away from his hut 1,500 years ago experienced no less a shock than today's global traveler stepping off a plane in Mumbai.
And this outsourcing 'problem' is not new and it is not based simply on information technology. For as long as man has tried to better his life and to leverage his advantages, he has hired someone else to produce the things he needs, be it food, cooking, child care, or production. Like services, outsourcing is not new. That villager from 1,500 years ago thought that outsourcing crop production to the next village over was no less daunting or distant than Americans importing oranges from Israel or roses from Brazil. And you can bet the other villagers were mad as hell at him for taking away 'their' work.
For more than fifty years, columnists, pundits, journalists, armchair analysts, and bad economists have been intrigued by each new emerging economic superpower, from the Soviet Union, to the European Union, to Japan, to China, and now India, and each time all that wonderment and starry-eyed predictions have come to nothing. Like Ayn Rand said, what separates America from the rest of the world is that we were the first to think of making money, not just taking money. And America still does that very well. I still have my doubts about the sustainability of growth in China and India. Sooner or later they are going to hit a consumer-oriented economy and demands for many things their people don't demand today. Besides, their growth has been exaggerated by the fact that they started basically at zero. Bad analysts like straight-line extrapolations. Not only do these growth lines sometimes flatten out, they can nose dive. And what's bigger and more dramatic, 3% growth in a $11 trillion economy or 7% in a $200 million economy?
Maybe the world has become more homogenous with technology and communications. But anyone who thinks that there is some huge melting pot, in America or around the world, would be better served by recognizing the world as a salad bowl, not a melting pot.
on 6 July 2007
Firstly a health warning - it's a REALLY long book. Even skimming some sections it took me a long while to read it. Overall it is a good if somewhat long winded read. As someone working in technology I found it a little patronizing in places but that could just be a function of its target audience not working day to day with some of the technologies he's discussing.
The book lays out a series of trends and technologies that have, in his phrase, flattened the world by making it more interconnected than ever before. He goes on to discuss how this fits with globalization, how companies are reinventing themselves in the face of these changes, some of the problems and risks and what kinds of political and public policy impacts it might all have.
If you are a patient reader this is a good introduction and discussion of the issues facing business and government in the Internet era. If you are not, you might want to find something shorter.
The basic idea behind this book is: by enabling us to instantaneously communicate, the internet has allowed work to be broken into smaller bits and hence (with the rise of new types of networks this enables) the marketplace has become more efficient and competitive. Sound banal? Well, it is.
Indeed, once I got to the end of the book, I wondered why I had bothered to read through it. For anyone who follows the business press and has an interest in economics, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING new to find in this book, except perhaps in some of the details covered, such as the way UPS has transformed itself into a logistics company rather than a simple package deliverer.
Why was I so disappointed? I guess it is because of what I thought Friedman would bring to the book. On the one hand, I had hoped that Friedman might synthesize a vast range of knowledge into a framework that would tie together many disparate trends in a way that makes sense. That is, afterall, what Lester Thurow can do at his best. Unfortunately, what I found here is a half-baked metaphor - "Flatness," implying that the oldprotective barriers are "down" - that Friedman then tried to stretch to fit just about everything under the sun. (By using it as part of the everyday vocabulary of the book, it leads to some laughably tortuous prose: you get "compassionate flatism", "In the flat world you get your humiliation dished up to you fiberoptically" and the like). Alas, like Procrustes stretching his guests to fit his beds, this just doesn't capture enough to genuinely enlighten. He lacks the grounding to theorise.
Indeed, I found that he got many details wrong. First, Friedman is making a kind extension of the Ricardo argument for international economic specialization with the advent of the internet, etc., is for the better is spite of the risks. (This misreads Ricardo, who made an argument for international trade based on static rather than dynamic assets, but that is another story.) As such, this adds nothing new, though his arguments on developing educational skills are well taken (but exactly how new is that advice?).
Second, Friedman approaches a plethora of policy issues, from the unemployment of accountants (as their work is delegated to India) to dealing with Bin Laden (and how his network uses the internet). Rather than fitting it all into a context, it is a kind of shotgun approach that lurches all over the place, incoherently in my view, linked only by the fact that we can communicate faster than ever. He also covers things so superficially that it is appalling. For example, he tells us that Moslem youths feel rootless and humiliated and so turn in rage to religious fanatics. Well, duh.
On the other hand, as a reporter for a first-rate newspaper, I thought he would unearth things that others have not. Instead, what I found was that he talked almost exclusively to CEO-level people, virtually all of whom are visionaries with their heads in the clouds. They entertain some idea of what things might become, but have few thoughts on the gritty problems involved in getting there, the cracks into which great ideas frequently fall and where they fail. It appears to me that what Friedman did was to find some talking head and let him pontificate uncritically and unchallenged. This was simply an awful and superficial performance - anyone who talks to these people, as I must in my work, should challenge them or at a minimum pin them down. Friedman, perhaps happy they are accepting as an equal, does neither.
The rhetorical style of the book is also ridiculously repetitive. In each chapter, he has some glib saying, vaguely related to the chapter's theme, to repeat after an observation, like "this is not a test" or "sort that out". In truly narcissistic style, he acts as if when he puts a label on something, he encompasses it all by virtue of who he is, so he just hammers it into the readers' minds. It is not only boring, but he seems unaware as to how intellectually lax the book is - perhaps because he is so self-satisfied. I bet that, in answer to my assertion that there is nothing new here, he would say it is because he discovered it all first and made it mainstream - but I think he has just become intoxicated with his own mind.
The only person to whom I wd recommend this book is someone who doesn't read the newspapers and wants a superficial introduction to the vast and accelerating changes around us today, which would lead to further critical inquiry elsewhere. Otherwise, forget it.
on 13 March 2006
While overly impressed with fiber optics and call centers in Bangalor India, this is a good read. Friedman captures with a little bit of liberal slant, what has been going on with globalization, and the out-sourcing and in-sourcing of jobs since the new "flattening" of the world has occurred through the global telecommunications networks, and the internet. While a little easy on communist China, and politically neutered in favor of the left, this is still a good book worthy or your time if you want to see what has been going on under our noses.
And FYI, a comment to a previous review. The book ' quest ' by GK is a Barnes and Noble exclusive.
on 28 January 2006
I really enjoyed this book. Friedman weaves together the major changes we have all lived through since the fall of the berlin wall, dot com boom and bust , China joining the WTO, India moves from autarky to trade, to the fall of the twin towers, together with the major changes in technology, distribution and international divison of labour into a coherent one world philosophy. Flat, fast, individualistic, optomistic. The book is interesting, but as those with short attention spans have already pointed out it is long, I think maybe the last 50 or so pages begin to drag These pages are difficult, as its probably too early to draw any useful conclusions, and because maybe whats clear is that America still hasn't properly understood or moved on from the 9/11 attacks/ Bushs' response. What these pages do give, is some insight for non- Americans -how deeply the post 9/11 years have dented the countries optimism and maybe gives the rest of the World a chance to catch-up and develop the flat World with confidence.