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November 22, 2005

Flat out

“I’m exhausted just writing about this” says Thomas Friedman on page 170 of The World is Flat. The book does move swiftly along, but I'm sure its author is perked up by today’s news that he has won $50k as winner of the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs business book of the year award. The World is Flat is filled with anecdotes about change in different parts of the world that threaten our fatcat lifestyles in the North. “One cannot stress enough: Young Chinese, Indians and Poles are not racing us to the bottom, they are racing us to the top” writes Friedman. He adds that “in China, when you are one in a million, there are 1,300 other people just like you” and quotes the chairman of Intel saying that “they will get to the same level as us in a decade”. Friedman writes brilliantly about the logistics that underpins the globalisation of smartness. UPS, we learn, maintains a think-tank, Operations Research Division, which works on supply-chain algorithms. Thanks to a school of mathematics called “package flow technology”, two percent of the world’s GDP can be found in UPS delivery trucks or package cars on any given day. Friedman also reminds us that globalisation is not a new phenomenon. The trend was first highlighted by Karl Marx who first wrote 150 years ago about “the inexorable march of technology and capital to remove all barriers, boundaries, frictions and restraints to global commerce”. So far, so good. But I lost sympathy with the book when it became clear that Friedman buys into the inexorability argument 100 percent. It's not that he is unaware that downsides exist: He lets slip at one point that “when you take the middleman out of business, you also take a certain element of humanity out of life”. He also agrees that some obstacles to a frictionless global market are “institutions, habits, cultures, and traditions that people cherish precisely because they reflect non-market values like social cohesion, religious faith, and national pride”. But for Friedman, a resolute free marketeer, non-market values are second-order. For him, the trend towards commercialised flatness is unstoppable and, on balance, a good thing. In the end, I recommend you read this book for its reporting - but what you make of it comes down to values. Friedman travels widely, but he betrays scant understanding - and no empathy that I can detect - for the non-American cultures he dips into. Towards the end, Friedman's smug insularity turns nasty. He writes about the “backwardness and stagnation” of the Arab world, and commands: “either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of technical advance”. By this point, the author’s technological determinism becomes cultural bigotry.

Posted by John Thackara at November 22, 2005 08:08 AM



I think you have Friedman pegged exactly right as a technological determinist. I also agree with your statement: "So far, so good. But I lost sympathy with the book when it became clear that Friedman buys into the inexorability argument 100 percent. It's not that he is unaware that downsides exist" However, I think perhaps you are too generous.

I recently summarized a central problem with Friedman's approach, especially as it relates to his points about innovation. It is ironic that the limits of his points about innovation are evident just by asking a very traditional question, How does innovation benefit business?:

"The key question to ask about innovation is what benefit it provides to the businesses that pay for it. You might think Friedman’s point on innovation is correct for no other reason than its cheaper to hire educated staff with technical and creative skills in India and China. No doubt, that is correct. But, cost isn't the basic concern for organizations that innovate better. It isn’t clear at all that spending less to buy more time from creative people in R&D will change the impact of innovation on business results. The cost and benefit of innovation is more closely tied to the organization of business processes and dialogue with customers than the amount of creative time bought."

In my opinion, dialogue with customers defines the limits of a flat world.

Posted by: Larry Irons at November 26, 2005 06:50 PM

The Indian activist Vandana Shiva reviewed The World is Flat for ZNet and for Resurgence magazine.
I'm not going to try to summarise her view other than to say that she argues, pretty persuasively, that for the world "to be flat", first it has "to be flattened"; the role of multilateral organisations and corporations in doing this has been a function of power, rather than technology.

A couple of extracts:
"Friedman tries desperately to argue that Globalisation is a leveller of inequalities in societies. But when you only look at the worldwide Web of information technology, and refuse to look at the web of life, the food web, the web of community, the web of local economies and local cultures which Globalisation is destroying, it is easy to make false and fallacious arguments that the world is flat. When you look at the world perched on heights of arrogant, blind power, separated and disconnected from those who have lost their livelihoods, lifestyles, and lives - farmers and workers everywhere - it is easy to be blind both to the valleys of poverty and the mountains of affluence. Flat vision is a disease."
And she takes issue with his simplification of world history into Globalisations 1,2,3, with their arbitrary dates [1492/1800/2000] - which would make sense, in my view, only to a white American:
"Friedman's false flat earth history then enables him make two big leaps - results of coercive, undemocratic "free trade" treaties are reduced to achievements of information technology and corporate globalisation and corporate control is presented as the collaborations and competition between individuals. The WTO, World Bank and IMF disappear, and the multinational corporations disappear. Globalisation is then about technological inevitability and individual innovativeness, not a project of powerful corporations aided by powerful institutions and powerful governments.
Neither e-commerce not walmartisation of the economy could take place without the dismantling of trade protections, workers protections, environmental protections. Technology of communication do not make long distance supply of goods, including food products cheaper than local supply. Low wages, subsidies, externalisation of costs make Walnut cheap, not its information technology based supply chain management.... Friedman presents a 0.1% picture and hides 99.9%. "

She says it better than I do: The whole review is at:



Posted by: Andrew Curry at November 30, 2005 06:23 PM


Thanks for a review that's refreshing and right on target. I read Friedman for the same reason many people read Friedman, i.e. because he's an entertaining opinion leader who many in (or close to) power actually seem to listen. That doesnt mean he's right, and in fact his coverage of Iraq and the Middle East as NY Times columnist was dead wrong. He reminds me of many parochial friends in New York who travel much and learn far too little.

Friedman has that one salient disadvantage that sometimes turns into a fatal flaw for journalists: he has no capacity for wonder and empathy. He views those he interviews as a particularly squeamish entomologist examines roaches. Parochialism and arrogance make for very poor judgement; that's why Friedman is forever reporting the day before yesterday's news. He does so persuasively, eking out the fears in his middle America and suburban readers (think of Friedman's books as a Texas-size blinking neon sign: Your kid has to compete with Indian and Chinese geniuses who can do differential equations in their heads!).

Overrated and superficial, his views unfortunately have wide reception. For good reads on globalization one may want to check out John Ralston Saul (The Collapse of Globalism), Alan Rugman (The End of Globalization), and anything by Richard Florida (the world isn't flat at all, but rather has spikes).

Posted by: Roberto Saco at December 1, 2005 03:19 AM

On a more personal note, is it just me, or is half of all the literature that Friedman unleashes, about himself and how marvelous he is in his travels. I feel like Friedman is his own biggest fan.
My opinion is based upon having read "lexus and the olive tree" as opposed to his latest work.

Posted by: Thomas at December 2, 2005 02:37 PM

This is an excellent exchange of perspectives on globalization. One of the most informative books I've read on the subject is a few years old and was written by a conservative British economist, John Gray in his book "False Dawn." Here are two of my favorite little excerpts that drive home the whole sphere of concern to which Friedman seems completely oblivious...

"The laissez-faire policies which produced the Great Transformation in nineteenth-century England were based on the theory that market freedoms are natural and political restraints on markets are artificial. The truth is that free markets are creatures of state power, and persist only so long as the state is able to prevent human needs for security and the control of economic risk from finding political expression. ....Encumbered markets are the norm in every society, whereas free markets are a product of artifice, design and political coercion. Laissez-faire must be centrally planned; regulated markets just happen. The free market is not, as the New Right thinkers have imagined or claimed, a gift of social evolution. It is an end-product of social engineering and unyielding poltical will. It was feasible in nineteenth-century England only because, and for so long as, functioning democratic institutions were lacking. The implications of these truths for the project of constructing a worldwide free market in an age of democratic government are profound. They are that the rules of the game of the market must be insulated from democratic deliberation and political amendment. Democracy and the free market are rivals, not allies."


"Global laissez-faire is a moment in the history of the emerging world economy, not its end point. Either the present system will evolve into something its architects could scarcely have envisaged and certainly do not intend, or its institutions will become ineffectual and marginal.

If they do not begin to reflect the diversity of a more plural world, the transnational institutions that embody global laissez-faire will lose their remaining authority. Soon they may be as powerless and irrelevant as the League of Nations between the two world wars.

So, too, if the rules of global free market are not reformed to match the needs of the emerging economic powers they will be flouted. This is happening already, with China infringing copyright and ignoring many intellectual property rights. A world economy in which the property rights recognized by transnational organizations are unenforceable is not a free market. It is an anarchy.

America's resources as the only remaining global power will not enable it to achieve its objective of projecting free markets worldwide. But they are enough to allow it to veto any reform of global laissez-faire.

A regime of global governance is needed in which world markets are managed so as to promote the cohesion of societies and the integrity of states. Only a framework of global regulation – of currencies, capital movements, trade and environmental conservation – can enable the creativity of the world economy to be harnessed in the service of human needs.

The specific policies that should be implemented by such institutions are less important, for the purposes of the present inquiry, than the recognition of the need for a new global regime. A global tax on currency speculation, as proposed by the economist James Tobin, may be an example of the kind of regulation that could render world markets more stable and productive.

Whether or not such policies are workable is uncertain. What is beyond serious doubt is that organizing the world economy as a single global free market promotes instability. It forces workers to bear the costs of new technologies and unrestricted free trade. It contains no means whereby activities that endange the global ecological balance can be curbed. If – as seems clear – global warming is a real threat, the global free market contains no institutions to deal with it. Organizing the world economy as a universal free market is, in effect, staking the planet's future on the supposition that these vast dangers will be resolved as an unintended consequence of the unfettered pursuit of profits. It is hard to think of a more reckless wager."

The point about democracy and the free market being rivals is what Fast Track is all about, what the WTO and NAFTA all the rest are about - creating a system of financial power that exists above the control of local or even national governments. That this will ultimately do harm to those very same governments is lost in the glorious appearance of some sort of economic nirvana - of the sort that the Neocons envisioned in post-occupation Iraq. Iraq was to be the free-trade, market-fundamentalists wet dream...just turned out that the wetness was blood red instead of red, white and blue... When George Soros came up with the term "market fundamentalists" to describe these people he was right on the money (so to speak).

Vandana Shiva has a MUCH bigger world view than Thomas Friedman - I'd love to see the two of them in a face-to-face debate sometime.

Posted by: David Eisenberg at February 8, 2006 05:16 AM

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