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
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
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.