“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.
John Thackara2005-11-22T08:08:31+00:00November 22nd, 2005|development|
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