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Friedman’s Flat World: A Well-Informed Projection of the Future of Globalization
While American policy makers have been focused on terrorism and budget cuts technological innovations created over the past 30 years have merged together in the past 10 years, to create an environment where people from all over the world can share information regardless of time and distance. Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat (2007), gives an extremely well documented account of the tools that led the world into globalization while challenging the priorities of US decision makers. Although Friedman gives a compelling argument, he does not offer feasible solutions and assumes that a global capitalist market with American values is the preferred political economy for all nations.
Friedman gives remarkable illustrations of how the world is flat by showing the degree to which technological convergence affects even the most miniscule processes in America, which in turn provides more productivity. For example, in beginning of the book Friedman speaks with a woman who works for JetBlue as a reservation agent from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah. This gave JetBlue airlines more productivity because their employees were happier. He later demonstrates how individuals gain more productivity by using technological convergence. Friedman discovered that Southwest Airlines allows travelers to download and print their own boarding pass at their own convenience to receive better seating. This allows individuals to gain an hour of productivity rather than arriving an hour too early at the airport. He uses these examples to demonstrate how the individual is the agent in this new era of globalization, labeled globalization 3.0, which makes the world a smaller and more complicated place.
However, a smaller and more complicated world is not necessarily a better world. Friedman defines the time saved by printing out your own boarding pass as productivity because he asserts that it is in everybody’s best interest to spend time producing output. With the time he saved, Friedman prefers to produce and share more information, invest in stocks etc. To others, time saved means reallocating that time with family, sleeping, or other leisure activities. The so called “American Dream” is a dream because it is a lifestyle that balances leisure with a prospering economy. Freidman’s “American Dream,” on the other hand, is a lifestyle where individuals are robotic-information-producing workaholics.
A smaller and more complicated world is not necessarily better for the rest of the world either. Towards the end of the book Friedman addresses globalization and the underdeveloped world. He proposes explanations and solutions for underdeveloped countries to “achieve” the same globalization as the flattened world. For countries like Africa, he says that citizens can never make it to the middle class, using jargon that reinforces his own values, because they are “too sick” to have hope. He claims that the first step to usher them into the flat world is healing everybody. For countries like India there are the “too disempowered;”where only a select few have access to the flat world. Friedman suggests American efforts to fight political corruption and promote education and property rights. For the Arab-Muslim world, which he classifies as a traditionally closed society, he suggests that they are “too frustrated,” and embarrassed, from the contact with more affluent societies whose ideas are challenging their own.
Friedman does acknowledge that this (almost) flat world is not a level world, since not everybody has equal access or an equal opportunity to use the tools in the flat world. But, Friedman still presents an ethnocentric perspective. In this section, it becomes clear that a flat world also means a westernized world. He argues that the American creation of flatness will lead to democratization which will, in turn, lead to more flatness. The word, “flatness” can easily be substituted for westernization. His imperialistic approach makes it clear that his aim is to use the American web created platform as a means to “help” other nations to adopt western values, which he thinks will make them prosperous. He wrote, “Imagine how beneficial it would be for the flat world, and for America, if rural China, India, and Africa were to grow into little Americas or European Unions in economic and opportunity terms…The only way out is through new ways of collaboration between the flat and unflat parts of the world” (542). Friedman asserts that the US has a large role in helping the rest of the world globalize by getting unflat countries to voluntarily adopt American values. This is not an appropriate way to think about international politics.
Since Freidman has an ethnocentric perspective, I would have expected for him to offer more feasible solutions to the problems he addresses domestically. Friedman spends a large portion of the book criticizing the government’s response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He claims that the US government has wasted its time getting involved with wars overseas and transforming homeland security rather than investing in education.
Friedman critiques the US response to 9/11 but it was a logical and rational reaction, which is why Osama bin Laden could count on the US overreacting to further his aims. Yes, investing in education, and especially k-12, is very important but Friedman is unwarranted to critique the government for allocating resources to 9/11 when he too initially supported the war in Iraq. He is warranted, though, to critique the budget cuts for the National Science Foundation.
Friedman argues that students are not learning the skills needed in order to survive in a flat world. He suggests that American students need to learn more technology related skills in the classroom, like how to navigate the internet to find credible resources. He uses an example of a young woman in Indonesia who was certain that Al Gore is Jewish since she read that on a website. He also suggests that students should receive a better k-12 education in which teachers foster a sense of curiosity, where students spend equal time using both sides of the brain, and most importantly where students learn how to learn. He proposes that students become tuba playing engineers so they will have the right amount of passion and intelligence to compete in a flat world.
When he was speaking to the young Indonesian woman, he somehow manages to avoid addressing political propaganda and cultural value reinforcement. The Indonesian woman lived in a place where the televised news media and online Arabic magazines are the main outlets to get the news, both of which reinforce her culture’s values. For his tuba playing engineer solution, it is not feasible to breed a generation of students with personalities adapted to this way of learning. However, he is absolutely right that the US government should invest in k-12 public education.
Friedman’s historical account of globalization is well documented and supported making the book interesting and easy to read. However many of his claims are exaggerated, making his argument too extreme at times. He writes about India and China as if they are just about to kick the US off of the global playing field, when really neither China nor India takes a missionary approach to world affairs. In reality, India is still a third-world country and China is still addressing issues of economic survival. While his argument does have its shortcomings Friedman keeps his audience engaged. Despite a reader’s toughest efforts, Friedman will get the reader to think about globalization in a new and different way.
Friedman, Thomas. 2007. The World Is Flat. New York: Picador