“The World is Flat”? by Thomas L. Friedman

EarthzineFeature, In This Issue, Original, Reviews

Book Review by Albin J. Gasiewski

When it was suggested to me by Cleon Anderson, the 2005 President of the IEEE, to read “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, my initial reaction was to think that I had already heard all that I needed to know about globalization. Fortunately, my curiosity and Cleon’s insistence got the better of me, and I bought the book at the outset of a trip from Denver to New Delhi. I couldn’t put it down for nearly the entire flight. I now readily concede relearning from Friedman’s book a great deal of what I thought I knew about the impending global techno-economic changes that lie ahead. “The World is Flat” is an important contribution to global social trend analysis in the early 21st century, and should be required reading for any technologically minded person living in the relative comfort of a first-world economy.

Building upon over a year of research into the economically exploding once-backwaters of India and China, Friedman relates in plain terms the degree to which telecommunications, political stability, and the relentless pursuit of a better lifestyle are creating previously unheard of opportunity in some of the most densely populated and heretofore underdeveloped cities in the world. Global investments in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Shanghai, and Beijing, along with outsourcing of “back room” information processing tasks and virtually all forms of manufacturing from the developed countries – specifically the U.S. and countries within Western Europe – have given rise to a historically unprecedented boom in building construction, employment, and migration from the surrounding rural areas. These information and manufacturing juggernauts continue to grab millions of moderate-wage jobs from the developed nations yet at the same time keep global inflation in check by providing low-cost services and goods. Flatness has also had its negative consequences, including the rise of loose-knit global organizations bent on destruction, for example, Al Qaida. It has also hastened environmental exploitation as the newly empowered populations vie for natural resources, especially building materials and fuel.

When will these techno-economic trends diminish? According to Friedman, they’ve only just begun. We live in an age when literally billions of impoverished people are becoming empowered as a result of the availability of cellular phones, the internet, cheap bandwidth, and the educational opportunities provided by many high-quality universities. Contrary to prevailing first-world attitudes, engineering seems to be the degree of choice for the many young upwardly mobile Indians and Chinese who are striving to live well and prosper. Do they know something that we in the first world might have forgotten?

Overall, I have to agree with Friedman that a flatter world is preferable to one with artificial socioeconomic barriers, and hope that we will continue to make decisions that engender flatness. On my way to Delhi a well-dressed info-tech savvy young Indian man with more than a few frequent flyer miles said to me “What a funny title for a book. The world isn’t flat!? I replied, “Oh yes it is – and you should thank your lucky stars.?