Eleven years later, the world is still flat

Thomas Friedman published The World is Flat more than a decade ago.

The disadvantage of reading an 11-year-old book about globalization moving at a reeling pace is that you have to ask yourself a lot of questions. If the author claimed then that the world was changing quickly, how many of his observations remain true?


The advantage, though, is that you can see just how right he was. Although Friedman wrote this before Barack Obama ran for president, before ISIS, before candidate Trump and #nevertrump, before the housing crisis and the Great Recession, The World is Flat rings largely true and holds up fairly well. Several of Friedman’s predictions have proven incredibly accurate. Therefore, I think we can trust some of his prescriptions for life in a global society.

And, unfortunately, I think we can trust some of his warnings.

What does a flat world mean?

Friedman was doing a story about outsourcing in India when he became overwhelmed with the ease of collaboration across political boundaries and vast oceans. Someone told him, “the playing field has been leveled.” That’s what he means when he says that the world is flat; we have a level playing field. Due to free trade, technology, and competition, you and I cannot rely on geography or nationality for advantage in the global marketplace.

Individual competition, individual destiny

The world flattened in three stages, Friedman argues. The first caused countries to compete and collaborate. The second gave rise to multinational corporations that competed and collaborated. The third concerns individuals. According to Friedman, we must ask, “Where do I fit into the global competition and opportunities of the day, and how can I, on my own, collaborate with others globally?”

He quotes a memo that the head of Reuters America shared with staff to explain the company’s decision to outsource some financial journalism functions. Economic change had been a fact of life for generations, he said. “Every person, just as every corporation, must tend to his or her own economic destiny.”

Trust is more important

In some ways, the flat world has increased trust. Friedman cites the example of eBay and PayPal, which have allowed people to do business together and trust each other. They also have leveled the playing field for many people. You don’t know the race, economic standing, religion, or accent of the person you are dealing with. But you do know their eBay feedback rating, and you know they have a product you want.

A recent Freakonomics podcast confirmed much of what Friedman has to say about the importance of trust and how technology can increase that trust. It notes that hitchhiking has declined due to a decrease in trust. “And yet now, Uber is a 60-some billion-dollar company that’s basically all about using technology to lure a complete stranger into your car.” (Note: Uber uses a rating system similar to eBay. Perhaps part of technology’s power to increase trust is its ability to showcase the experience that other complete strangers have had with a complete stranger.)

The importance of trust make trust a target, too. According to Friedman, trust is the actual Target of terrorism. Acts of violence can cause us to lose trust. This could prompt us to withdraw from the economic transactions and cross-cultural collaboration that flattens the world and raises the standard of living here and abroad.

The importance of hope

Another theme that struck me was the power of hope. According to Friedman, hope is what defines the middle class, regardless of a person’s income level. “Middle class is another way of describing people who believe that they have a pathway out of poverty.”

Hope inspires people to pursue constructive opportunity. A lack of hope, unfortunately, may inspire the opposite.

Friedman points out that the world sees little to no terrorism from Muslims from India, despite India having the world’s second-largest Islamic population. The reason has a lot to do with the opportunities afforded by living within a somewhat-level democratic playing field. He quotes an Indian Muslim father: “When a Muslim grows up in India and he sees a man living in a big mansion high on a hill, he says, ‘Father, one day, I will be that man.’ When a Muslim grows up in Pakistan and sees a man living in a big mansion high on a hill, he says, ‘Father, one day I will kill that man.'”

Muslims in India can plan futures of success. Muslims in countries where they are mired in poverty by authoritarian, oil-rich regimes can plan futures of poverty alone. This lack of hope may lead some of them to attack trust and hope around the world.

Continuing the flattening of the world and raising the worldwide standard of living involves giving people hope for a better future.

Global supply chains beat swords into plowshares

One of the most revealing chapters describes how globalization increases our interest in peace. Because Dell and other companies foster a a global, just-in-time supply chain, people obtain a higher standard of living and lose interest in war. Also, people who know an unnecessary war would cause them to lose their jobs are less likely to support a government that pursues unnecessary war.

Although Friedman didn’t use the phrase, this chapter made me recall the Old Testament prophecy, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Plowshares and pruning hooks are tools of economic production. They provide food. They raise our standard of living. Perhaps this prophecy means that nations will cease war and use their resources instead to work together, raising the standard of living around the world.

One can hope for that.

Making America Great Again…Maybe?

One of the most salient paragraphs comes in a chapter about “The Great Sorting Out.” Friedman argues that globalization is shaking up political alliances and other facets of life. He cites the example of pro-labor Democrats in Indiana awarding a contract to a firm in India in order to save $8 million, only to have the deal squashed by pro-free-trade Republicans. “Sort that out.”

But then he offers this prediction:

“Social conservatives from the right wing of the Republican party, who do not like globalization or closer integration with the world because it brings too many foreigners and foreign cultural mores inot America, might align themselves with unions from the left wing of the Democratic Party, who don’t like globalization for the way it facilitates the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs.”

This is not what happened in the 2016 election, but it eerily foreshadows what did happen. Although Trump offended many social conservatives and did not attract unions, he did center much of his rhetoric on the idea that America is weaker and in danger because of foreign ideas and free trade. Thus traditional Republicans and Democrats alike were bewildered as he drew support from a vast spectrum of the public.

Friedman gave this movement a name in 2005: “They might be called the Wall Party.”

Now, about making America great again.

Friedman asks, “Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?” Then he quotes Michael Hammer: “One thing that tells me a company is in trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past.”

“In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward. They see dignity, affirmation, and self-worth not by mining the present but by chewing on the past. … Such societies focus all their imagination on making that imagined past even more beautiful than it ever was.”

The whole point of “The World is Flat” is that the world has changed, and we must change to keep up. He is more #nevertrump than I was or am, but Friedman has a point. We cannot bring back the past, not without eroding many gains in the standard of living around the world. We can continue pining for the past, or we can pursue the future with investments in education, innovation, and preparing ourselves for the demands of the modern world.