Sunday, March 2, 2008

“The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman

As I read “The World is Flat”, I was overwhelmed by many conflicting thoughts. Each chapter markedly changed the review post I had begun to mentally compose. Each chapter resulted in a mish-mash of agreement, disagreement and unease. The short version of my review is READ THIS. The slightly longer version is this isn’t an easy book to read for an American especially but it is I think a thought-provoking, well-researched and well-presented book.

Full post has my thoughts on some of the book’s particular points....

I. The Causes of a Flat World and How We’re Not Ready for It

The first part of the book describes Friedman’s own realization that the world was flattening and what the ten causes of the flattening are. The interesting thing about these causes is how many of them are technology related. In fact the only one not technology-related is the first: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the openness that followed. The remaining flatteners include Netscape going public, the open-source movement, outsourcing/Y2K, supply-chaining and [self] informing through search engines. The author points out later in the book that not everyone is aware of this flattening and not everyone is/will be included in it.

He mentions the youth of America in particular by citing three barriers to American success in the 21st century flat world: the Numbers Gap, Ambition Gap and Education Gap. The first is the fact that a large portion of our most educational technical professionals are nearing retirement age and we don’t have enough new, younger professionals to replace them. The last two gaps are noted differences in how Chinese and Indian students look at the world versus how American students look at the world. Friedman refers to this as the “American Idol” problem. The fact that so few American youth seem to be capable of accurate self-assessment. They want the high-end jobs but they want it quick, in a contest or with a reality TV show prize. When combined with American feelings that because we’ve “always” been number one, we always will be, you get a dangerous sense of complacency.

I can definitely agree with these points for the simple reason that I’m a prime example of complacency. A year ago, I had a startling realization: I was in a rut. This is what led to my Personal Enrichment goals and to this weblog. I wish to be clear. A year ago, I possessed a good job I enjoyed, an apartment, a savings account and a retirement plan. By all measurables, I was comfortably middle-class with no worries. What was lacking was the PLAN. I had no personal goals for the next five years, no expectations for self-improvement outside of my work/financial responsibilities. I intend to work my hardest to ensure I don’t let myself fall into a rut like that ever again. The problem is that too few American workers or students realize they are in a rut or that it’s their job to get themselves out of it. And if we are going to compete with the Chinese and Indians successfully and collaboratively, more people need to have the realization I did and more people will need to do something about it.

I do have some contrasting thoughts on why the Ambition/Education gaps at least may not as big of a concern as Friedman supposes but they are beyond the scope of this book review. See This Post for exploration of those thoughts.

II. When Flatness Goes Astray

The remaining parts of the book detail the prospective future of a flattened world and what could threaten that future. From promoting corporate social responsibility to giving countries pause before initiating violent conflicts, the flattened world has a remarkable potential to change our world for the better. And not just change it but create opportunities for huge amounts of the world’s population to have real economic futures. When it comes to reducing poverty and promoting reform, few phenomena in the world today have the possible transformative power as the flattening world.

One point of credit to Mr. Friedman is that for all his hyping and positive outlook on the consequences of a flat world, he doesn’t shirk from the consequences of incomplete flatness, dangers to flatness and problems transitioning to a flat world. From the book:

“There is absolutely no guarantee that everyone will use these new technologies, or the triple convergence, for the benefit of themselves, their countries, or humanity. These are just technologies. Using them does not make you modern, smart, moral, wise, fair or decent.”
He discusses several ways flatness could go astray, all valid concerns: Backlash by those left behind in the unflat world, terrorism due to the Muslim world’s inability to adapt, the curse of oil, the environmental problem of another 3 billion people living at Western levels of consumption. These are not small or easily solved problems. The book carefully outlines each one, its causes and possible solutions.

One particular worry he had was that when Americans realize that we are unable to compete in a flat world, we could return to protectionism and permanently hurt our economy and place of prestige in the world. In a flat, interconnected world, protectionism is suicide. Recently, this fear has borne fruit with certain presidential candidates advocating the US abandon NAFTA. They told this to economically beleaguered Ohio. You know, there is a real difference between leadership and pandering. Guess which applies here. In what way does abandoning NAFTA help Ohioans better compete in a flat world? It DOESN’T. It shelters them not just from the effects of international competition but from their ability to assess their value in the global market. By abandoning NAFTA, we would be telling the world that the US is for free trade until it makes us look bad, until it requires we change. We wouldn’t be helping Ohioans or Americans. True leadership would be to help Ohioans compete in a flat, open world. True leadership would be to offer job retraining, education incentives for older students, and initiatives to spur small business development. True leadership would tell Ohioans, “The world has changed and that is scary. But please understand, this change isn’t going to be undone. However, I believe that Ohioans can take control of this change and benefit from it immensely. But we don’t expect you to do it alone. My job is to make this change bearable. To ensure you have the tools to take full advantage of the new opportunities.” Unfortunately, America’s current political class is more likely to pander than lead.

There is also a scathing section on the flaws of the anti-globalization movement or as he refers to it, “Keeping Poor People Poor”. He outlines the constituents of the movement and their flaws. But he also goes to great pains to state that valid criticism of how we globalize is 100% critical:
“What the world doesn’t need now is for the anti-globalization movement to go away. We just need it to grow up....You don’t help the world’s poor by dressing up in a turtle outfit and throwing a stone through McDonald’s window. You help them by getting them the tools and institutions to help themselves. It may not be as sexy as protesting against world leaders in the streets of Washington and Genoa, and getting lots of attention on CNN, but it is a lot more important. Just ask any Indian villager.”

On the issue of terrorism and the Bush presidency, Friedman and I have some very different opinions. He appears to have an excellent grasp of the Arab-Muslim mindset that leads to terrorism and ways we can count that mindset through positive developments like promoting Arab-owned businesses and innovation. However, he completely ignores the military aspect of the problem. Indeed, I don’t think he considers there to be a military aspect to the problem.

Please understand, I don’t think bombing countries into submission will fix terrorism. What the military option does is act as a stop-gap, protecting the flat world until the Arab-Muslim world can be reformed. This will take a couple of generations and involve many types of approaches to different aspects of the problem. A terrorist, someone who has spent months or years planning to destroy human life, is not going to reasoned with at an international conference. That person you have to kill or convince. Convincing is unlikely to work but occasionally you give it a shot and the goal is to get better at convincing as time goes on. But first, you’ve got to clear the field of the die-hards. To me, that’s what Iraq and Afghanistan have been about. Using overwhelming force, what the terrorists and their advocates understand, to get those that can stop and think to stop and think. And to kill those that can’t be stopped otherwise. If you first clear the field of the die-hards and scare some into not being die-hards anymore, then perhaps you can get people’s attention long enough to notice there’s elections and parliamentary reform and quit writing off the Muslim world as the one billion person segment of humanity for whom democracy just doesn’t work. Create examples of forcible reform to demonstrate to those passively supporting terrorism that there are other ways to address their grievances. These are the first steps necessary required to get to the wider steps Friedman describes. I agree with most of his proposals but I consider them Anti-terrorism 2.0 not 1.0.

III. Conclusions

All in all, “The World is Flat” is a hugely interesting read. It’s just not a comforting one. Some assumptions about the world are validated and others rendered moot or ridiculous. But I do believe the book describes a real phenomenon that has the potential to greatly improve the world. It remains to be seen whether we will accept and adapt to the full potential of a flat world. In conclusion, here’s a particularly apt quote from Michael Mandelbaum:
“People don’t change when you tell them there is a better option. They change when they conclude that they have no other option.” – quoted in the book

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