Respond to this Article May 2005

Falling Flat

Thomas Friedman's recycled view of globalization.

By Kevin Drum

Critics have accused Tom Friedman before of being willfully obtuse, but give him this much credit: He does not actually believe that the world is topographically flat. Friedman lives his literary life in a world of endless metaphor, and in his latest book he uses “flat” in the sense of “level playing field.” His thesis is that a broad set of related trends have converged in the past decade, and this convergence allows almost anyone to do almost anything these days. Indians in Bangalore can write software as well as Americans in Baltimore; small companies can do the same things big ones can; freelancers can compete with IBM, and so forth.

The World Is Flat
by Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.60

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. Despite the fact that Friedman claims to have discovered many of these trends only recently (about which more later), The World is Flat is really a sequel: It's The Lexus and the Olive Tree on steroids. A friend of mine once referred to Lexus as “globalization porn,” and World is written in the same mold. It's Friedman as evangelist to the masses, bringing an almost breathless sense of urgency and mission to his calling.

The core of the book is a long chapter about “ten flatteners,” 10 trends that he thinks are changing the world. It's an odd grouping, though, and it's hard to tell if some of his flatteners are there because he really believes in them or merely because he thought his list needed 10 entries.

His first two flatteners, for example, are the end of communism and the rise of the Internet, exemplified respectively by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the initial public offering of Netscape stock in 1995.

Fair enough. Those really are big trends with big consequences, and a serious popular analysis of them would be a welcome one. But then in the next breath, he lists the open source movement as another major global flattener—something that he presumably believes is roughly on the same level as his first two.

The problem is that this doesn't make sense. “Open source” is a way of developing software. Instead of being developed by large corporations that keep their underlying source code proprietary and secret, open source software is developed by loose teams of engineers who donate their time gratis. The resulting product is distributed freely over the Internet and the source code is openly available to anyone who wants to use it. Linux is the best known example. The Firefox browser is another.

But open source is something of a cult movement, born from the same roots as the “information wants to be free” Internet utopians—and while open source has had several successes in the past and will likely have more in the future, even its most ardent fans would be hard-pressed to keep a straight face while putting it on the same list that includes the century-long ideological battle between capitalism and communism.

This is what makes it hard to take Friedman seriously. Sure, his list includes plenty of genuinely important trends. The fall of communism and the rise of the Web are important, and so are the growing roles of China, India, and wireless communication.

But open source isn't even in the same league. Neither is Wal-Mart's supply-chain management or the fact that UPS has branched out into businesses beyond shipping packages.

What's worse, Friedman as much as admits that he was unaware of many of these things until a few months before he began writing the book. About the core convergence of trends that's the cornerstone of his book, he says, “Until I visited India in early 2004, I too was largely ignorant of it, although I was picking up a few hints that something was brewing.”

This lends his venture a sense of shallowness and ahistoricity that it never overcomes. Because he doesn't have a deep understanding of the trends he's talking about (most are illustrated by a single big example, like Google or Wal-Mart), he seemingly doesn't realize that a similar list could have been written in pretty much any decade of the 20th century. His point about globalization could have been made 40 years ago by substituting Japan for China, Telstar for wireless communication, and mainframe computers for PCs.

The book also suffers from one of the worst features of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: its naïve dotcom cheerleading. Depending on how you count, seven of his 10 flatteners are tech trends, and 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.

But Friedman remains resolutely credulous in the face of these gales of corporate spin, and in the end, his corporate triumphalism becomes an idée fixe. Everything that matters is forcibly shoehorned into his tech-driven globalized future. Terrorism? Mostly important because it might slow down globalization. Nationalism? Slowly disappearing thanks to globalization. Energy? Mentioned in passing only as a problem keeping countries like Saudi Arabia from embracing globalization. None of these issues, or half a dozen others of equal importance, is seriously addressed in his book. If it can't be illustrated by an anecdote or a potted sketch of a company he admires, it doesn't seem to exist.

Instead we get stuff like this:

In the coming phase of Web services-work flow, here is how you will make an appointment. Your computer will automatically check your calendar against the available dates on your dentist's calendar and offer you three choices. You will click on the preferred date and hour. The week before your appointment, your dentist's calendar will automatically send you an e-mail reminding you of the appointment. The night before, you will get a computer-generated voice message by phone, also reminding you of your appointment.

This wouldn't have passed muster in a 1953 issue of Popular Science. If anything, it trivializes an important tech trend—smart agents—by putting it in the service of something that we can already do today in less than a minute or two. If this is what computers are going to do for us in the future, who needs them?

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.

What makes all this so frustrating is that it doesn't have to be this way. Friedman is a smart guy, a good reporter, and he knows better. In fact, his best writing—both in World and in Lexus—comes when he acknowledges the problems of globalization. In World, for example, he has a fine chapter about what he calls the “quiet crisis,” a phrase he takes from Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Americans, he argues persuasively, are training too few high- quality scientists and engineers, are complacent about their place in the world, and are unwilling to seriously address educational issues today that will determine America's place in the world 20 or 30 years from now. And not only are we not motivating our own kids to earn the Ph.Ds we need to stay ahead, we're increasingly allowing fear of terrorism to close the door to foreigners who want to study here as well. Eventually, when the smartest people in the world are no longer Americans, America will no longer have a competitive advantage. For us, this is the soft underbelly of globalization.

There are broader downsides to globalization too, but although Friedman managed to write tellingly about them in Lexus, they are addressed only briefly and with little passion in World. In fact, he reprises one of his pet theories from Lexus, the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which states that no two countries that both have a McDonald's will ever go to war with each other. In World, it becomes the “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention”: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain like Dell's will ever fight a war against each other.

What's startling about this isn't the theory itself, but Friedman's admission that he didn't even start thinking about it until the late 1990s. After all, this is an idea with a long pedigree. Scholars have noted for decades that liberal democracies almost never go to war with each other, and as far back as 1910 Norman Angell famously—and with famously poor timing—wrote that the spread of mercantile interconnections had made conflict so irrational that large-scale war was henceforth futile. He had logic on his side, but that didn't stop large-scale war.

But whether Angell was wrong or just premature, Friedman doesn't address the issue even in passing. He simply writes as if this were a brand new insight of his own. Is this because he really thinks it is? Or because he figures his readers aren't interested in long dead history? There's no telling. But for readers who are familiar with this history, Friedman's lack of curiosity about it—in a field he's so obviously enthusiastic about—makes it hard to take him seriously.

It's unclear why Friedman seemingly ignores the rich literature available about globalization, satisfying himself instead solely with his own brief interviews with politicians and corporate chieftans. In the end, it's not so much that Friedman is wrong about the importance of globalization and connectedness—he's not—it's that without that broader perspective, his writing is shallow and forgettable. He's playing Chopsticks on a Steinway.

Kevin Drum is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and author of the Monthly's blog “Political Animal” at:

Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2005
The Washington Monthly 733 15th St. NW Suite 520 Washington DC. 20005.
Comments or questions ... please email Christina Larson by clicking here