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The World is Flat: A Brief History of The Globalised World in the 21st Century

A review of Thomas Friedman's latest book

New Statesman, 29th May 2005

Thomas Friedman is a big man, in more ways than one. This moustachioed bear of a journalist can count many of America's top CEOs and politicians among his friends. He has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. The New York Times calls him 'the most important columnist in America today', and Vanity Fair says he is 'the country's best newspaper columnist, period'.

Impressive stuff. How does he do it? Reading his new book, The World Is Flat, the answer becomes clear: Friedman is an expert at telling the powerful what they want to hear.

The thesis of The World Is Flat is simple. Neoliberal globalisation is 'flattening' the world, breaking down commercial, cultural and even geographical barriers at ever-increasing speed. The result, if we're lucky, will be a super-efficient, hyper-productive world in which we all have wireless-enabled laptops, and everyone from Delhi to Darwin thinks and talks like a Harvard MBA graduate.

The book starts as Friedman goes to India to play golf, where he sees a lot of giant billboards for American products. He then goes to visit the CEO of a fast-growing information technology company, who tells him how quickly barriers to trade are coming down all over the world. 'The playing field is being levelled', he tells Friedman. What to anyone else would have been a throwaway cliché is, to this author, apparently a Eureka moment. 'What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened … Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!' This is not what Nandan is actually saying at all, but no matter. Friedman has found himself a great book title and he's not about to let it go. He repeats it eight times in the next two paragraphs in case we haven't got it, and then he phones his wife. 'Honey', he says, 'I think the world is flat.' Her response is not recorded.

Friedman then whizzes around India, visiting call centres where workers stay up late talking on the phone to Americans whose computers have broken down. They call themselves things like 'Jerry' and 'Sonia', and speak in American accents so as not to cause offence. 100,000 Americans had their accounts done by low-paid Indians in 2004, we are told. 245,000 Indians work in call centres, servicing the needs of rich people elsewhere. American CEOs can now hire a PA in India, who will do everything a PA in America could do for a fraction of the cost. In other words, Friedman's new hyper-globalisation means that all the shitty jobs get done by poor people in the Third World. So much for progress.

Friedman is an optimist, excited by possibilities. This ought to be an appealing trait but it can actually get rather depressing. He talks about the vast array of choices, technologies and opportunities that globalisation presents, yet each of them, after a while, seems curiously similar. It feels like walking through a huge Tesco's marvelling at their range of bread: choice, yes, but within a very limiting framework. In Friedman's brave new world all choices lead, ultimately, to the same destination - a world of urban consumers, living in a market economy, working in offices, getting excited by software.

And there's something else too. After a few hundred pages, you realise that what Friedman is actually doing is scooping up truisms and disguising them as profundities. Internet and email have changed the world! China and India are growing really fast! Computer software is getting cleverer all the time!

How does he get such high praise for such basic observations? Simple: by thinking up slogans. Friedman is less a journalist than an advertising copywriter, and his real talent is for giving catchy names to obvious phenomenon. In 1989, for example, 'the walls came down and the windows went up' (that's the Berlin Wall and Microsoft Windows.) Videoconferencing and file-sharing are 'steroids' which allow the computer industry to take off at light-speed.

This has all led to a 'triple convergence' of computing factors which has created a historical era called 'Globalisation 3.0', in which we all now live. There are still some annoyingly 'unflat' parts of the world - the Middle East, for example - but more consumer opportunities should sort that problem out. After all, the 'Dell theory of conflict prevention' - which makes its debut in chapter twelve - states that 'no two countries that are part of a major supply chain, like Dell's, will ever fight a war against each other.'

No wonder the establishment likes Friedman. He tells us that there's gold at the end of the rainbow, and that all we need to do to get it is keep walking in the same direction, only faster. The world will be made safe for Harvard MBA graduates and smartypants journalists with slogans coming out of their palm pilots. Thank God for the future.