The World Is Flat By Thomas L. Friedman

The World Is Flat is a book I should have read when it came out in 2005. And it’s a book every member of Congress and the president should be required to read and do a book report on. Friedman elaborates on his observations of how technology has “flattened” the world over the past twenty years, leveling the playing field for much of the world. The version I went through was the 2006 update on audio.

Basically, Friedman posits that two concepts have made the world a flatter place: The Ten Flatteners  and The Triple Convergence. What are those?

The Ten Flatteners are something we deal with on a daily basis in our 2010 world without a second thought. The collapse of the Berlin Wall is now history. Web browsers – Well, you’re reading this on one, aren’t you?  Workflow software, which you see every time you shop online. Uploading, in the form of web sites, blogging, podcasting, YouTube (still in its infancy when this book was written), etc.  Outsourcing.  Offshoring.  Supply chaining. Insource, that is, taking on the functions of your customers to speed their processes up. (Guess who fixes that laptop you handed off to UPS to send to HP? UPS does.) Search engines, of course.  And the “Steroids”: wireless, smart phones (at the time this was written cell phones and PDA’s), digital phone, video conferencing, and broadband.

What is the Triple Convergence? Well, the Berlin Wall made Soviet-style socialism very unpopular, and even open societies that practiced it shifted to open markets. (No, Virginia, socialism is not practiced in the United States. Only stupid or paranoid people believe that.) In the wake of the opening of Russia and China, and the marketizing of India and Eastern Europe, the Ten Flatteners emerged in the wild 1990’s. Around 2000, these all came together to create the world we live in now.

Friedman is convinced that any individual with access to this technology, with as few barriers as possible to using it to its potential, and a willingness to collaborate with anyone anywhere who can make their ideas a reality can succeed and thrive in this new world.

He warns us, however, that it’s not without its dangers. The same technologies that make it possible for Dell to have a call center in Banaglore tell a factory in Malaysia to ship a partially completed laptop to Nashville for assembly before you get it also makes it possible for al Qaeda to organize and plan its brand of terrorism. Putting up walls, says Friedman, is not the solution, however.

Instead, he says, much of the Muslim world needs to be opened up. Al Qaeda, he says, doesn’t really recruit well in free societies because in free societies, when you get access to technology and capital, you tend to want to participate in the world, not throw rocks at it. Hopefully, Arab Spring – which is going into fall now – will begin that process.

Friedman doesn’t reserve criticism for oil-funded dictatorships, either. He has a few words for the US and Europe, saying they need to start focusing again on science and technology and less on Wall Street. Harvard and Yale may be good at turning out presidents, but they need to start turning out presidents who understand that the nation that does not value science and engineering will ultimately fail. So if you want to know where the deficits in America and Europe came from, listen more to Michio Kaku than Sean Hannity.

But the tone of the book is mostly hopeful. Anyone anywhere willing to educate themselves on what to do and to do what it takes to compete with someone across the globe can, in fact, succeed.