Book Report: Flat in His Book

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¶ … Flat

In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman introduces the idea that a global convergence of communication, technology, transportation and economic liberalization are creating a flatter world. An explosion of middle class people in the developing world is resulting in a convergence of tastes and consumptions, and is bringing the people of the world closer together. He explains his theory over the course of the text. This paper will review the key ideas of The World is Flat, and then offer my own assessment of the book.

Friedman begins with an explanation of what he means by flat, which is that there is a flattening trend in the world. As incomes rise in much of the world, more people are joining the middle class and this is having a profound effect on human society. As Friedman puts it "the simple notion of flatness describes how people can plug, play, compete, connect and collaborate with more equal power than ever before." He reflects a world with greater equality in many respects. With rising incomes, there are more consumers, more travelers and more people to communicate around the world. These rising incomes bring people together, businesses together and generally converge to create a more globalized world.

The world became flat, Friedman argues, largely through the buildup of the modern communications infrastructure. He recounts having gone to India and noticed that Indians in Bangalore were doing a lot of work for American companies. This was facilitated, one of his contacts noted, by "hundreds of millions of dollars…invested in putting broadband connectivity around the world, undersea cables, all those things." This ability to send massive amounts of data around the world instantly has done a few things. The first is that it has created more economic opportunity, certainly for a place like Bangalore with its direct investment, but also for other parts of the world where enhanced communication with the main economic centers facilitates economic growth. He notes that advances in information technology also allow for data to be parsed, so that different parts of the world can work to solve different problems. The Internet, his source argued, was a "platform where intellectual work, intellectual capital, could be delivered from anywhere." This creates opportunities for people in societies wherein they had a high quality of education, but were prevented by their weak economies from maximizing their potential. In short, mass communications is lowering the degree of inefficiency in the global economy, and there are tens of millions of direct beneficiaries in the developing world, and many more indirect ones.

Friedman further describes several other flatteners -- software, outsourcing and offshoring, supply chain management, insourcing and more. Friedman reflects on what this changing world means for different stakeholders. For companies, a flatter earth means that companies have more opportunities and more competition. They can be much more efficient animals because they are able to utilize the four corners of the world to have greater specialization. There are cost savings, new markets, but also new threats. A company cannot simply rest easy in its industry because it can never be sure where the next challenge will come from. If companies can globalize effectively, they will find larger markets, and more willing consumers. Most of the flattening agents relate directly to business activity, which implies that businesses need to be highly adaptable. Companies are driving a lot of this change, but they are also at increased risk in a world that moves more rapidly than it ever has.

For countries, the situation is more complex. There is competition for scarce resources, and while there are opportunities in a flat world there are significant threats as well. Some countries may get left behind even while others thrive. Wealth is not likely to be distributed evenly. Nations are also driving a lot of the change, in particular through international agreements that facilitate greater flows of goods and capital. The fact that flows of people are not keeping pace has significant implications for companies in a flat world. But any country that is connected to the world can succeed if it has education and training, as this is a key element of the flattening that Friedman describes.

There are also implications for individuals, who must find a way to compete in this new world. A flatter world means more opportunity for more people, but again it requires people to be smarter and more flexible in order to take advantage of the opportunities that a flat world offers. For any person, the flat world is going to be fascinating, and there will be more influences in our lives that ever before.

Friedman also mentions geopolitics. A flat world with scarce resources can result in increased competition, something that is a challenge for many nations. There will be challenges as more people joining the middle class will strain our resources. Competition for key resources like oil and water are going to stress many of the world's nations in the coming century.

Overall, I found the book to be insightful, and it puts together a lot of ideas that I have had. People talk about things like cultural appropriation -- like Disneyland in Paris and that sort of thing -- but these are not the true elements of the 21st century world. The world is much closer than that in a lot of ways. Friedman explains the ways in which the world became like this and what it means. I think is clear that a growing middle class, and one that is better-dispersed around the world -- is something powerful that does have the potential to reshape our world. Our dynamic in the 21st century will be very different and like our century it is just beginning. A lot can change in 100 years, so if the changes we have seen to this point are any indication there is more to come.

Friedman's book, in particular, its premise has been criticizes, I think for the idea that the world is flattening. Most people in the world are not experiencing this transition so the idea of a flat world is something overstated. There are global cities, it is argued, and these might have the flatness, but they are the exception and not the rule. I have seen these critiques, but one of the things I like about Friedman's book is that you can accept that perhaps there are places not sharing in this flattening but that you can still think about how those places might be affected. You can look to peasant villages in India -- people from those villages have money and send it home, or more likely people abandon those villages as that way of life gets left behind -- an entire national landscape is changed. Kids in Tahiti will still surf but shifts in the geopolitical order might allow for it to become independent from France.

Much of what Friedman talks about relates to business, and it is true that business is responsible for a lot of this flattening. There is a challenge in here for countries. Businesses are working hard to become more efficient. Basic economic orthodoxy tell us that as companies move towards higher efficiency, this improves economies. But improving efficiencies will only generate more wealth; the countries need to ensure that the wealth is distributed. In a world of scarce resources and intense competition, people and countries that have the most trouble adapting are going to be in trouble. Wealth distribution is something I take away from this book, because Friedman is making the point that the wealth creation and distribution we have already seen is a powerful force. Where there is less of it, there are going to be social problems, especially under conditions of resource scarcity. Where there are is a flatter… [END OF PREVIEW]

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