Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FRIEDMAN'S LATEST....So what did I think of Tom Friedman's new book, The World is Flat? Basically, I spent most of my time rolling my eyes:

Although he takes care in World to warn his readers that the success of globalization doesn't depend on the success of the dotcom revolution, he undermines that warning by spending almost the entire book evangelizing technology. He reprints entire PR messages from eager CEOs without any apparent sense that of course these guys think their companies are doing world-shaking things. I spent the decade of the 90s as a marketing executive at a software company, and these kinds of breathless paeans are sadly familiar to me.

....There are other annoying feature of Lexus that return for encores in World, too. Friedman's tin ear for phrases like globalization 3.0 and compassionate flatism is one. His hagiography of his subjects is another. Every CEO he talks to is brilliant, insightful, and far seeing. Raising his own everyday experiences to the level of epiphany is yet another. He figures out one day that Southwest Airlines allows you to print a boarding pass on your computer, and it immediately becomes a strained metaphor for a global convergence of technology and human psychology. The chairman of Starbucks tells him they offer soy milk because their customers asked for it, and he presents this mundane act of satisfying customer demand as something new and visionary.

It's not that Friedman doesn't have some good points. He does and I mention some of them in the full review. But this kind of stuff makes it impossible to take him seriously. On the soy milk thing, for example, Starbucks began offering it as an option after its managers started getting "bombarded" with requests for it. Sounds pretty normal to me. But to Friedman, "The smartest big companies clearly understand that that the triple convergence allows them to collaborate with their customers in a totally new fashion."

I'm sorry, but this is not "collaboration" and it's not a "totally new fashion." It's just product marketing, and it's what I used to do for a living. When your customers start asking for something, you study it for a while to decide if (a) the demand is for real and (b) you can provide it at reasonable cost. Nothing tricky about it.

What I can't figure out is whether Friedman writes this kind of stuff because he genuinely doesn't realize what's new and what isn't, or if he does it just because he thinks he can get away with it. Whichever the case, it makes reading The World is Flat more torture than enlightenment.

Kevin Drum 7:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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