Book Reviews

Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat; A Brief History of the Twenty-First CenturyThomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat; A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 488pp.

           By now most readers have had experiences similar to a phone call I made to the customer service number for my computer router. The person was unfailingly polite, patient (he spent over 30 minutes on the phone with me), and in my mind a technical genius. He also answered my call from his home in India. Here in America you might think of this as a low-wage, low-prestige job, but in India it is a high-prestige and high-paying job, so much so that thousands of well-qualified applicants apply for each job opening. Come to think of it, with all of India and China now very much "on line" and ready to plug-n-play, there are now about 3 billion new players out there in the worlds of technology and business. They are extraordinarily talented, ambitious, motivated and hard-working.

           About five years ago, argues Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, we entered a new phase of globalization, what he calls Globalization 3.0, so different, radical and comprehensive in scale and scope as to redefine our entire world. Globalization 3.0 has "flattened" our world in the sense that there is now a much more level playing field for every individual, and not, as in the past, just for large corporations or countries. Friedman identifies ten business revolutions, technical innovations, and major political events that, together, flattened our world. These ten "flatteners" then merged and converged, changed how all business is done, and then added 3 billion new players. Examples are legion. The obscure startup Napster quickly had 60 million visitors a month. Just three years ago Google processed about 150 million searches a day, whereas today it performs a billion searches every day. HP in my own city of Palo Alto has 142,000 employees in 178 countries. Just five years ago they had 87 supply chains; today they have just five, overseeing billion of business.

           Globalization 3.0 is a cause for positive excitement and legitimate dread. At a minimum it already has been and will continue to act as a "hugely disruptive force" (p. 279) for everyone in the world. Friedman admits that he is a "technical determinist," by which he means, I think, that nothing can stop these technological forces and that they all head in the same direction of greater efficiency, complexity, specialization, etc. But he cautions that he is not a "historical determinist." That is, "I don't know how the flattening of the world will come out" (p. 374). Numerous scenarios could thwart, derail or even reverse Globalization 3.0, at least in limited places. A war between India and Pakistan, or between China and Taiwan, would provoke a huge reversal. In Africa there are 800 million people "too sick" who are getting left behind. The "too disempowered" and the "too humiliated" (mainly the Muslim world) likewise. Then there are the problems that Jared Diamond has chronicled in his new book Collapse, what Friedman calls "too many Toyotas." True, unheard of opportunities for wealth creation have lifted millions out of poverty; but they have also taxed planet earth's limited resources. Right now Beijing, for example, adds 1,000 cars every day to its clogged streets. Their appetite for oil will drive gas prices even higher, consequently strengthen the worst political despots in the world, and damage the environment (p. 411). In a separate chapter he explores how non-state actors like Al-Qaeda also take full advantage of Globalization 3.0. So, the powerful convergence of flatteners creates serious losers in its wake.

           Many Americans either ignore or deny the radical implications of Globalization 3.0, says Friedman. They suffer from what one person described to him as the "American Idol problem": they stare in disbelief when they are told that they are not the best, most qualified, or that they are insufficiently talented, disciplined, educated, etc. Still, in one study, for example, America ranked seventeenth in the world in the number of people ages eighteen to twenty-four who received science degrees. One official from America's consulate in Beijing who worked in the visa section for Chinese to come to America put it this way to Friedman: "I do think Americans are oblivious to the huge changes. Every American who comes over to visit me [in China] is just blown away...Your average kid in the U.S. is growing up in a wealthy country with many opportunities, and many are the kids of advantaged educated people and have a sense of entitlement. Well, the hard reality for that kid is that fifteen years from now Wu is going to be his boss and Zhou is going to be the doctor in town. The competition is coming, and many of the kids are going to move into their twenties clueless about these rising forces" (p. 264).

           I thought Friedman's early book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, was overly optimistic. This eminently readable book is far more sober-minded. Friedman is also what I think of as the master "analyzer of the anecdote." He relates interesting stories from all walks of life, from CEOs to average people he meets in an airport, and unpacks and extrapolates from them to interpreting our world. The entire book might be summarized in just one such conversation. Bill Gates told Friedman how a generation ago if you had a choice, you would choose to be born an average person in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., rather than a genius born in Mumbai or Shanghai. Today, says Gates, that choice has been reversed, since today in our flattened, globalized world a genius born in what we think of as the third-world likely has a better chance at prosperity than an average person born in America.

           This might be one of the most important books you could read this year.