Labor Day Weekend , the unofficial ending to summer, is nearly upon us. And in the interest of serving the ambitious reader who seeks one more aerobic reading exercise, TMR makes its final summer reading recommendation -- "The World is Flat," by the New York Times', Tom Friedman.
It's Friedman's third blockbuster -- "From Beirut to Jerusalem" in 1989; "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" in 1999. And now, "The World is Flat."
Like everything Friedman writes, this deserves a good look. And like almost everything he puts his hand to, it has its warts.
Pat Conroy, author of Prince of Tides and other big beach books, advises aspiring writers to "Write drunk, edit sober." Friedman got the first part right and the second part not at all.
Still, this is a book you must read if you must know what's making the world go round -- and flat -- these days.
August 27, 2005
Sometimes it takes a flawed phrase to make a sticky message.
Case in point: the war on terror -- a misnomer, but quick and memorable.
Now, some are calling it the global struggle against violent extremism. Closer to the truth, but heavier on the tongue. Close your eyes and see whether you get it right.
Americans prefer quick and memorable:
Takes a licking, keeps on ticking.
Tastes great, less filling.
Be all that you can be.
Where’s the beef?
Have it your way.
Just do it!
And we’re old hands at deciphering flawed language, thanks to celebrities like Yogi Berra:
“He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious”
"Pair off in threes."
“I don't think anyone should write their autobiography until after they're dead.”
"I've gone where the hand of man has never set foot."
And even the President of the United States:
"It's in our country's interests to find those who would do harm to us and get them out of harm's way."
"Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat."
And yet, we know perfectly well what they mean.
Which brings me to this summer’s final recommendation for a must-read book – the New York Times’ Tom Friedman’s, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.
Friedman’s “brief history” (sic) runs to nearly 500 pages.
It will tell you more than you want to know about insourcing, outsourcing, homesourcing, supply chaining, off-shoring, in-forming, work flow software, India, China, XML, SOAP, search engine optimizers, and source codes.
It is saturated with ersatz terms: compassionate flatism; multiple identity disorder, reform wholesale, reform retail, coefficient of flatness, zippies, Islamo-Leninism, the Dell Theory of Conflict Resolution, and sprinkled with an occasional flawed syllogism.
Friedman’s penchant for name-and-relationship-dropping will wear down the patience of even the most charitable reader: “I asked my good friend Thomas R. Pickering, the former U. S. ambassador to Russia;” “I accompanied the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, on a tour;” “I told this story to my friend Nick Burns, the U. S. ambassador to NATO . . . “
His proclivity to sole source intelligence is familiarly on display. I lost count of the occasions on which he quotes Stanford University economist Paul Romer, and Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies political scientist Michael Mandelbaum.
The book was apparently written during a three-month leave of absence from the Times, which brings to mind Cicero’s observation: ”If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."
Friedman is prolific, probing, and provocative. And he is often a puzzlement.
Despite these niggling considerations, if you’re serious about understanding the constellation of factors and forces that are effecting profound economic, political, and social change in the developed and developing world -- and if you’re inclined to read only one book on the subject -- this is the one.
The World is Flat is what Friedman does best. See the big picture earlier and clearer than most observers. Tell stories that make it accessible. Collapse a few hundred anecdotes into a handful of compelling themes. Understand the present better than his peers and, much like the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that frequent his columns and books, anticipate the future.
He’s been doing this for years on the New York Times’ Op-ed page, and in three brilliant books: From Beirut to Jerusalem in 1989. The Lexus and the Olive Tree in 1999. The World is Flat in 2005.
Friedman is sui generis: Talmudic scholar, polymath, incorrigible popularizer, prolix to a fault, and never – never – in doubt.
And, he is as often dead wrong as dead right. Like Babe Ruth, he’s a home run king who strikes out often.
Now, about that sticky message.
The world isn’t flat, of course. Friedman knows that. But saying so sells books.
He means, “The playing field is being leveled.” Level playing field. Flat world. Same same.
In “The Ten Forces that Flattened the World,” Friedman demonstrates how a little history, some new technologies, and a surfeit of fiber optic cable have eliminated the walls and barriers that once divided east from west; north from south, the developed world from the developing world; and empowered the individual to compete against corporations and nation-states.
He questions whether these same factors are fostering homogeneity at the expense of cultural diversity:
“Some obstacles to a frictionless global market are truly sources of waste and lost opportunities. But some of these inefficiencies are institutions, habits, cultures, and traditions that people cherish precisely because they reflect nonmarket values like social cohesion, religious faith, and national pride. If global markets and new communications technologies flatten those differences, we may lose something important.”
Thanks to a conversation with Harvard University political theorist Michael Sandel, Friedman discovers, ironically, that “the sort of flattening process that I was describing was actually first identified by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto in 1848.”
Sandel: “Marx was one of the first to glimpse the possibility of the world as a global market, uncomplicated by national boundaries. . . he described capitalism as a force that would dissolve all feudal, national, and religious identities, giving rise to a universal civilization governed by market imperatives.”
Marx: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
Friedman devotes a short chapter -- “The Quiet Crisis” – to the most significant message in the book – “a quiet crisis in U. S. science and technology that we have to wake up to.”
In conversation with Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a preeminent scientist and educator who is President of Renssalear Polytechnic Institute, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the first African-American woman to earn a Ph. D in physics from MIT, he foreshadows America’s falling standing in the math, science, and engineering professions.
Jackson: The forces at work are multiple and complex. They are demographic, political, economic, cultural, even social . . . For the first time in more than a century, the United States could well find itself falling behind other countries in the capacity for scientific discovery, innovation and economic development.”
Friedman: “the number of American eighteen-to-twenty-four-year olds who receive science degrees has fallen to seventeenth in the world, whereas we ranked third three decades ago.”
National Science Board: The percentage of American papers published in the top physics journal, “Physical Review”, has fallen from 61 percent to 29 percent since 1983.
And then Friedman makes a compelling connection between science and geopolitics in the Kennedy and Bush 43 administrations:
“President Kennedy understood that the competition with the Soviet Union was not a space race but a science race, which was really an education race. Yet the way he chose to get Americans excited about sacrificing and buckling down to do what it took to win the Cold War – which required a large-scale push in science and engineering – was by laying out the vision of putting a man on the moon, not a missile into Moscow.
“If President Bush made energy independence his moon shot, in one fell swoop he would dry up revenue for terrorism, force Iran Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia onto the path of reform – which they will never do with $50-a-barrel oil – strengthen the dollar, and improve his own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming. He would also create a real magnet to inspire young people to contribute to both the war on terrorism and America’s future by again becoming scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.”
The World is Flat is three books-in-one. Or perhaps it is really one book in three uneven parts.
First, it is a story about the flat world, aka Globalization 3.0:
“Globalization 3.0 is shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time. And while the dynamic in Globalization 1.0 [1492–1800} was countries globalizing and the dynamic force in Globalization 2.0 [1800–2000} was companies globalizing, the dynamic force in Globalization 3.0 . . . is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally.
Second, it is a guidebook for countries and companies in a flat world:
“The Dell Theory stipulates: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”
And finally, as it rambles to a close, the pages become canvas on which Friedman creates a collage composed of themes of imagination, hope, self-empowerment, and dreams.
Reflecting on this past decade and a half, during which the world went flat, it strikes me that our lives have been powerfully shaped by two dates: 11/9 and 9/11. These two dates represent the two competing forms of imagination at work in the world today: the creative imagination of 11/9 and the destructive imagination of 9/11.”
Friedman is not the first to be infatuated with the convenient parallelism of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Twin Towers, but it provides the lead-in to The World According to Tom.
There is a wide sweep that reaches from the Bastille to eBay:
“The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Indian democracy, and even eBay are all based on social contracts whose dominant feature is that authority comes from the bottom up, and people can and do feel self-empowered to improve their lot. People living in such contexts tend to spend their time focusing on what to do next, not on whom to blame next.
And finally, a frank and frontal slam at Islam and the American president:
“Where Islam is embedded in authoritarian societies, it tends to become the vehicle of angry protest – Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan.”
“I believe that history will make very clear that President Bush shamelessly exploited the emotions around 9/11 for political purposes. He used those 9/11 emotions to take a far-right Republican domestic agenda . . . from 9/10 . . . and drive it into a 9/12 world. In doing so, Mr. Bush not only drove a wedge between Americans, and between Americans and the world, he drove a wedge between America and its own history and identity . . . This is the real reason, in my view, that so many people in the world dislike President Bush so intensely. They feel that he has taken away something very dear to them – an America that exports hope, not fear.”
You may not be persuaded that the world is flat.
You may determine that the Dell Theory of Conflict Resolution – the successor to his earlier Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention – is more fantasy than fact.
You may decide that Friedman has committed terminal oversimplification in the interest of accessibility.
All this can be true, but if TWIF doesn’t significantly add to your store of knowledge, heighten your concern about America’s political and public policy priorities – and -- stretch your brain in the process, then perhaps it’s time to settle for Who Moved My Cheese? Or, another go at The Bridges of Madison County.