Imperfections in Friedman's flat world


THE GREEDY CORPORATE FIGURE: Thomas L. Friedman's analysis overlooks fundamental realities that most of the world's people still wake up to. PHOTO: REUTERS

THE GREEDY CORPORATE FIGURE: Thomas L. Friedman's analysis overlooks fundamental realities that most of the world's people still wake up to. PHOTO: REUTERS  


THE new book by the New York Times' columnist Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, combines the vaulting ambition, limpid clarity, irreverent wit, and analytical passion that readers have come to expect from his columns and three previous books. The World is Flat is written with an abundance of those qualities which have made Friedman that rare figure in American letters, an effective populariser of ideas about the world at large to an audience whose instinctive insularity cannot be underestimated.

In performing that valuable service, Friedman has also acquired something of a reputation as a cheerleader for globalisation, a development in human history he embraces with unconcealed enthusiasm. The basic thesis of this book is consistent with his worldview, and articulated inconsiderable (and often compelling) detail. Stripped to its essence, this is that the "levelling of the playing field" which has occurred as a result of the overcapacity built up during the "dot-com boom" (particularly in technological infrastructure and international fibre-optic cabling) has "flattened the world", producing a convergence of opportunities that allows any company in any country anywhere the chance to join a new global supply chain in both services and manufacturing.

Fine — but my concern is with the sweeping conclusions he draws. I fear that in celebrating the flatness of his world he loses sight of more than one inconvenient hillock.

Friedman wrote some years ago that we have moved from a world dominated by superpowers to one dominated by supermarkets. Friedman's basic idea remains that geopolitics has ceded place to the primacy of globalised economics. In this book he builds on that perception to argue that the era of state domination has given way to a world flattened by networked global trade. But this analysis overlooks at least four fundamental realities that most of the world's people still wake up to.

The first is the nature of the state itself, whose withering away Friedman posits with an almost Marxian glee. Yet the state is still indispensable to most people. It provides, or should provide, physical security, law and order, economic infrastructure and basic services. For most people in the world, however, the problem is that their state is not strong enough to deliver on those vital requirements. One can rejoice at the rising living standards of Indians working at call centres, tracing lost luggage and reading CAT scans for Americans, but what is the condition of the country they return to? Friedman waxes lyrical about the Infosys campus outside Bangalore, an oasis I too have visited, which would not be out of place in the West — but the managers of Infosys have to organise their own electricity, their own "mass" transportation, their own health club, and so on, because these facilities are absent, unreliable or dilapidated in the city itself.

More serious is Friedman's seeming obliviousness to the spectres of poverty, disease, and malnutrition stalking his flat new world. He writes of three billion people entering the global market, but forgets that most of them (and indeed three billion people overall) are living under $2 a day. The threat of the combination of poverty, conflict, famine and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa — arguably the most elemental challenge facing humanity at the start of the 21st Century — features nowhere in the book.

Friedman's third (and given his theme, perhaps his most lamentable) omission is that of the digital divide. His eagerness to hail "levelling" and "flattening" makes sense in the West, since the Internet has certainly made information far more widely accessible there. But that is not yet true in the developing world, except for a tiny minority of the empowered. The stark global reality of the Internet today is that you can tell the rich from the poor by their Internet connections. The gap between the technological haves and have-nots is widening, both between countries and within them. The information revolution, unlike the French Revolution, is a revolution with a lot of libert�, some fraternit�, and no egalit�. So the poverty line is not the only line about which we have to think; there is also the high-speed digital line, the fibre optic line — all the lines that Friedman hails, but which exclude those who are literally not plugged in to the possibilities of his flat new world.

Finally, in advancing what Friedman calls his "Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention", under which no two countries will go to war if they are both part of the same globalised supply chain, he forgets that most human conflict is fuelled by emotions rather than calculations. Economics cannot explain everything. As Francis Fukuyama discovered before him, it is not yet time for "the end of history". Culture, religion, and national pride all continue to play their part in world affairs. In the flat world, maybe geography is history, but history itself is not yet history. Friedman, intent on his high-tech crystal ball, ignores the rear-view mirror.

But these four objections do not invalidate the worth of the book or its basic analysis, which is laid out with that mixture of research, extensive travel and personal anecdote that I am coming to think of as trademark Friedman. It's a stimulating — and, as this column shows, provocative — read.

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