A whole new scale of togetherness
Thomas Friedman wants the wired world to let in the other half of humanity
In working on his third book about global trends, Thomas Friedman discovered that the world has become smaller. In fact, so small it's "flat." A columnist for The New York Times, Mr. Friedman loves to travel our round planet like a photon in a fiber optic cable, picking up this hot new trend and that advice from a notable achiever, then collating it all into a globe- spanning metaphor of mega-meaning.
In "The World Is Flat," this modern Magellan even admits, "I'm exhausted just writing about all this."
Flatness is his metaphor du journey because it simply describes a great leveling going on, driven by new technology and software that allows individuals from Canton, China, to Canton, Ohio, to collaborate and compete on a whole new scale that "is the single most important trend in the world today."
Like futurologists of the past, such as longtime crystal-baller Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock," Friedman thinks big. Wireless mobility, for instance, is a "mobile me" revolution that will have its "full flattening effect by freeing people to truly be able to work and communicate from anywhere to anywhere with anything."
He identifies 10 "flatteners" that are reshaping lives, business, and politics.
The first is the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall that allowed the world to be seen as a single market.
In 1995, Web browsers connected a new digital world, which then led to standard, Web-based software applications that spawned whole new business methods and businesses, such as eBay.
The "open-software movement" then opened up new ways for grass-roots voluntary collaboration among programmers that humbled giants like Microsoft and IBM.
The new technologies helped push the outsourcing of intellectual and clerical work to low-wage, highly educated Indians and also the "offshoring" of manufacturing to China. Both these trends created "global supply chains," best seen in Wal-Mart's computer-connected purchases of $18 billion of goods from 5,000 Chinese suppliers.
Then Friedman spots "insourcing," in which a multitasking company like UPS will manage many basic functions for a global company to allow it to focus on its speciality, such as designing products. Or suppose you send a laptop to Toshiba for repair. "UPS actually repairs the computer in its own UPS-run workshop dedicated to ... repairs at its Louisville hub."
For Google users, he sees a trend he labels "in-forming," or using the Web to build one's own supply of information, entertainment, and self-governing niche communities. Finally, he says certain new technologies, such as Internet phoning and life-like video-conferencing, will amplify these other trends "like steroids."
While many of these trends and tools could be spotted decades ago, Friedman says they really came together around 2000 in a way that is quickly transforming the world and reaching billions of people. He does tip his hat to one early predictor of these trends, Karl Marx, whose "Communist Manifesto" (1848), written with Friedrich Engels, foresaw that "all fixed, fast, frozen relations" will be swept away by new technologies driven by capitalist investments.
Friedman is more of an optimist than Marx and many other "technological determinists." He sees, for instance, outsourcing helping American workers if they can learn to be perpetual learners and develop "lifetime employability."
He believes countries that have a share in making the same goods, such as Dell computers, won't go to war with each other. (He follows the global path of Dell making its laptop from order to delivery.) And he says the Internet forces its users to be honest, open, and trusting.
But the book is sprinkled with warnings on how these trends will impact social cohesion, religious communities (especially Muslims), and nationalism.
Those who have opposed globalization have lost the battle. Now the challenge is how to guide it, and smooth out the inevitable transitions and tensions. Friedman calls this "the great sorting out."
This book is really a manual, or an idiot's guide to surviving in the computer age. It provides specific steps for individuals, companies, and poor nations to adapt to a "flat world." Friedman's advice to his own daughters: "Girls, finish your homework - people in China and India are starving for your jobs."
But he also gives advice to leaders on such policies as free trade and how to help that half of humanity which still lives in the unflat world. He warns that those not plugged into new technologies can actually do harm, because in a flat world, "if you don't visit a bad neighborhood, it might visit you."
He wants business and government to show more imagination in using and expanding this new world.
No one today chronicles global shifts in simple and practical terms quite like Friedman. He plucks insights from his travels and the published press that can leave you spinning like a top. Or rather, a pancake.
• Clayton Jones is the Monitor's chief editorial writer.