The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

By Thomas L. Friedman

488 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.50.


By Miranda Kaplan




"I had come to Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, on my own Columbus-like journey of exploration." So writes Thomas Friedman on the second page of his latest release The World Is Flat, and from there expands a lighthearted comparative device into the basis for a weighty treatment of the present and future of the globalizing economy. "Columbus accidentally ran into America but thought he had discovered part of India. I actually found India and thought many of the people I met there were Americans ... Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery. I returned home and shared my discovery only with my wife ... 'I think the world is flat.' "


Such rhetoric, while arguably spawning the most creatively written pages in the book, may lose its luster if the reader recalls that Columbus, undoubtedly a "globalizer" of no little import, also went down in history as the executioner and enslaver of thousands of Americans, and something of a megalomaniac more generally. Friedman acknowledges this, but doesn't seem to mind drawing the parallels anyhow, knowing that most of his readers will overlook Cristoforo's nastier habits and accentuate the positive results of his enterprise  --  and by extension, those of Friedman's. That kind of carefully thought out harmony between author and intended readership is a theme that seems to persist throughout the book.


The World Is Flat is subtitled A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, but its scope is more ambitious than that  --  it is a history, geography, geopolitical commentary and technology update in one, and occasionally doubles as a guide to a successful business (despite the author's claims to the contrary). In the first 200 or so pages, Friedman draws a convincing and illuminating map of life on a small (or, as he prefers, "flat") planet, its dwindling size due to the growing ability of individuals, corporations and entire nations to connect with each other via ever more potent broadband, digital and cellular technology. In the helpful second chapter, "The Ten Forces That Flattened the World," he translates bits of lingo like insourcing and supply-chaining into more or less plain English and successfully explains the basis of such once-esoteric notions as open-source applications  --  a blessed action on behalf of those who still stand on the periphery of the digital landscape.


The book goes on to project the dramatic results of these phenomena and exhorts America to lumber off the couch and onto the future training field, in hopes of preserving its coveted position as the world's foremost economic power. The entire text is strained through Friedman's trademark humble folksiness, a style that often separates his foreign affairs column from the nests of vitriol that tend to surround it on the New York Times op-ed page. He sets the book up as the travelogue of a Minnesota-born "regular guy," an old fogey trying to learn what all the kids are up to these days. Bouncing to and from expeditions in northeast China, in Bangalore, in Mexico City, he strives to convey the notion that his own education as well as the reader's is at stake.


Friedman, an eager student indeed, keeps up plenty of steam in the first few chapters, letting the genuinely impressive nature of human achievement in the past 15 years do much of the work for him. Gradually, though, his voice begins to falter as he attempts to analyze an uncomfortably significant downside  --  American jobs lost to emerging overseas competitors, troublesome standards for working conditions and health benefits in other countries (along with questionable standards for the same in our own country), an ominous energy shortage lurking just around the corner, and the all-too-well-connected Al Qaeda and its ilk beating us at our own game to dark ends. It's hard not to notice that, after romping through nine pages on the efficiency of Wal-Mart's restocking system, Friedman devotes a hasty few paragraphs to the retail behemoth's storied mistreatment of its employees, its union ban and the low wages driving those impossibly low prices.


Later, Friedman uses Wal-Mart as a jumping-off point to pose a number of good questions about increased needs for government regulation and a durable social safety net, but takes no side and makes no argument, instead hurrying on to a new point. Naturally, Friedman must have felt the pressure of having a scant 488 pages in which to exalt the names of Industry and Telecom, and certain cuts had to be made; but, in the interest of balance, he might have given a more thorough review of what can be done to counteract the growing corporate rapacity Wal-Mart so readily embodies. As the author admits, there are plenty of other examples out there to constitute a trend of such ruthlessness.


The same bias governs his discoveries in China, where offshore factories produce cheap goods for American corporations at bargain-basement prices, thanks in part to the country's relatively weak labor laws. "Critics of China's business practices say that its size and economic power mean that it will soon be setting the global floor not only for low wages but also for lax labor laws and workplace standards," Friedman writes. Then he darts to change the subject: " ... But what is really scary is that China is not attracting so much global investment simply by racing everyone to the bottom. That is just a short-term strategy." He then moves on to a segment, interesting enough in its own right, on China's recent growth in the service sector and entrepreneurial ambitions, while those critics' charges remain unanswered. Does the reader notice? Clearly Friedman believes that he or she will put more stock in Friedman's priority list than in that of a few anonymous critics.


Discussing the geopolitical ramifications of globalization, The World Is Flat} becomes altogether indifferent toward members of the global populist or no-global movement, dismissing a large chunk of the protestors at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) conference as "lots of pampered American college kids, wearing their branded clothing, [who] began to get interested in sweatshops as a way of expiating their guilt." While the no-global movement may be misguided in its quest to halt globalization in its tracks  --  a futile attempt by any standard of realism  --  it has no less a place in the procedure than do gleeful "pro-global" advocates of deregulation and the dissolution of trade barriers. A lively grassroots movement against the globalist tide is essential as a counterbalance to a fast and furious worldwide push to "flatten." Friedman is, and sounds, out of place in assigning motive to the anti-global protestors, and his harsh words would quickly alienate a lot of readers.


Putting together the above illustrations, it's easy to discern what many of his critics already know  --  that Friedman is no neutral observer, and not quite the dutiful pupil of the global classroom he makes himself out to be. Having already assembled something of a following through the much-lauded Lexus and the Olive Tree and his foreign affairs columns in the Times, Friedman seems simply to cater to a prescribed congregation of believers, a solidly American, middle- to upper-middle-class readership that is already well convinced of the author's validity. If his detractors call his optimistic stance an apologia, he can at least count on his readers to call it realism. The WTO protestors might take umbrage at his characterizations, but no matter  --  after all, they'll hardly be the ones to buy a book with his name on the jacket.


The strategy asserts itself through tone as much as content. Friedman's conversational, highly anecdotal style gives him the air of a layman, and he uses stock phrases from folk songs and tales to punctuate his movements. (A sentence begins "I guess you could say it all started...," and one can almost hear Arlo Guthrie striking up the steel guitar in the background.). He mulls over outsourcing on the golf course and energy crises while visiting Beijing with his family. The effect is mixed  --  his casualness is quite readable at first, but cannot be sustained, as the more sluggish prose in the last hundred or so pages testifies.


Even, or perhaps especially, in his choice of sources, Friedman continues to betray a desire to affirm his own beliefs. A careful reader will note how many of the people with whom he speaks are chief corporate officers or government finance ministers. He does not interview a single working-class citizen  --  American or foreign, lest we chalk the omission up to language barrier  --  who has lost her job and is struggling to retrain herself to fit the dictates of the flat world. More than that, one finds that bits of Friedman's lexicon  --  "flat world," to give an obvious example  --  pop up periodically in his interviewees' speeches. The old-pal synchronicity here between researcher and source doesn't lend much credit to Friedman's case.


Writing for a specific audience is by no means an uncommon practice, but in the case of The World Is Flat}, a book containing a good deal of timely information and some provocative ideas, it is a disheartening one. Friedman raises questions that everyone can and should consider relevant: how will we bear out the rising energy requirements of an increasingly productive and industrialized world? What can the government do to get American adolescents interested in engineering and science, fields in which China and India are slowly outstripping us? How might the role of U.S.-hatched international trade and finance organizations  --  like the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund  --  change as other countries gain economic strength, to say nothing of the U.N. Security Council? None of these are concerns meant for business executives and middle-class America alone.


Friedman's perspective on globalization is a relatively simple one; to him, we confront the challenge of making the inevitable as kind, humane and painless a procedure as is allowable. It is to be hoped that he has not forgotten the more disquieting challenge looming above it  --  the challenge of determining firmly, cooperatively, knowing the human race's capacity for short-sightedness, exactly what is allowable as we begin to crack open the floodgates.