The Plane Truth

In this 'flat world' economy, efficiency is god, everyone is a competitor, and individuals must become learning machines or be crushed by the steamroller of change.

April 10, 2005|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

The World Is Flat

By Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 488 pages. $26.

When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, electric lights did not immediately go on throughout the United States.

That may seem a small insight in 2005, but the electrification of the country is a meaningful pointer to the profound technological and social changes about to engulf us. Edison and his co-workers, after their successful experiments in 1879, tested some 6,000 materials for use as filaments, and electrification on a significant scale remained decades in the future.

All the large, expected efficiencies lay even further ahead, well after development of the basic technology for everything from electric generators to efficient wiring to sockets and switches. Before electricity could make its full impact, factories and production lines had to be redesigned. Electrical engineers needed to be trained and take the place of steam specialists. Workers, and their employers, either learned new skills or lost their jobs and businesses.

And it all came to pass. No one could have stopped it. The workplace, the home and the world radically changed.

We're at that stage again, writes Thomas L. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist, in his stimulating yet exasperating The World Is Flat. His story is a supersonic world tour of forces relentlessly reshaping almost every country's economy. The story is also deeply frightening. For virtually all of corporate America, especially accounting firms, IT companies, manufacturers and their tens of millions of employees, the book has these messages: Whatever your product, whether intellectual property or carefully crafted widgets, your markets and your competitors are now in every country of the world. Most of your products will have the shelf life of lettuce.

We live on "Planet Flat," Friedman writes. That is, barriers to the flow of knowledge, work and innovation are coming down. Political liberalization in Eastern Europe and Asia, plus advances in computer software, plus changes in business practices -- all these elements being the early 21st-century equivalents of more efficient wiring and sockets -- are responsible for the lowering of the barriers.

The fall of the Berlin Wall helped flatten the world by liberating the ambitions of people previously walled off from free markets. So did economic liberalization in China and India. Internet browsers, beginning with Netscape, and search engines such as Google brought more flattening by liberating the flow of knowledge. Open-source programming such as Linux gave rise to collaborative communities of users liberated from the corporate model for creating and updating software.

The more you think about almost any work place, the more sense Friedman's "flatness" makes and the more alarming it becomes. To use another of his many analogies, you will be in trouble if you or your company produce only plain vanilla -- vanilla anything -- because someone else surely will be able to produce the vanilla version for less.

Software programmer? Someone in India is already doing the same work at lower cost. Airline reservation clerk at a call center? Someone else can do the job for less working part-time from home. Newspaper reporter? Check any of a thousand blogs. What you need is a recipe, not for vanilla but a fine chocolate sauce. Vanilla is up for grabs by nearly the whole world.

"If I am right about the flattening of the world," Friedman says, "it will be remembered as one of those fundamental changes -- like the rise of the nation-state or the Industrial Revolution -- each of which, in its day... produced changes in the role of individuals, the role and form of governments, the way we innovated, the way we conducted business, the role of women, the way we fought wars, the way we educated ourselves, the way religion responded, the way art was expressed, the way science and research were conducted, not to mention the political labels we assigned to ourselves and to our opponents."

He boldly synthesizes seemingly unrelated trends. For much of its length, however, his book is provocative without being much fun to read. There are maddening lists. Friedman identifies ten "flatteners." They work their magic in three "convergences." Many of these categories remain distinct only until the page is turned. A fine stylist elsewhere, Friedman here hectors and shouts, and he tells us far too much about his family and friends.

The flattened world he describes may bring greater wealth to society as a whole, but it does not bode well for us as individuals. To thrive in that world requires people to improve their skills while also becoming ever more efficient.

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