The Book is Flat: A Review of “The World is Flat”

Perhaps I expected too much. I loved The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and when I heard the title of Tom Friedman’s new book back in the fall, I got my hopes up. Just by the title, I knew what he was getting at, and I was thrilled to see such a high-profile columnist calling attention once again to this phenomenon that is globalization.

But now, having read The World is Flat, I’m a little disappointed. And yet I will recommend the book (three stars on Amazon) because I agree with his message, and I think it’s critically important that we have writers like Tom out there explaining the many ways that globalization makes the world a better place to live.

However, the book could have been much better with some ruthless editing. As a reader, I don’t like being talked down to, and I feel that Tom does that a bit too much, primarily by repeating many of the same concepts and buzzwords over and over again. For example, he explains why the world is flat early on. It’s a good metaphor, but Tom proceeds to attach “flat” to everything he sees. He sees customer service reps in India “flattening” their accents. He writes of the “coefficient of flatness” and “compassionate flatism.” I felt as if Tom tried way too hard to make his flat metaphor stick. And maybe it will stick.

Here are a few nuggets from the book that did stick with me:

  • “In the future globalization is going to be increasingly driven by the individuals who understand the flat world, adapt themselves quickly to the processes and technologies.”
    This is such a key point. The interesting thing about globalization is that it empowers individuals, even more than countries.

  • Tom stresses that globalization helps the small firms as much as the big firms, perhaps even more. As the owner of a small firm, I agree. Tom quotes UPS CEO Mike Eskew: “You know who the majority of our customers and partners are? Small businesses. They are asking us to take them global. We help these companies achieve parity with the bigger guys.”
  • Tom talks about Eriksen Translations, a New York-based translation firm featured in my firm’s Savvy Client’s Guide to Translation Agencies. Tom mentions how Eriksen embraced Skype, the VoIP service that is revolutionizing the telecoms industry. After the first six months of using Skype, the company cut phone costs by 10%. I only wish Tom had talked a bit more about translation agencies – these firms have been outsourcing work for decades and have always been early adopters of new technologies, from email to VoIP.
  • “The Indians and Chinese are not racing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top.” The Lenovo/IBM deal is one example. And just wait until Chinese automakers start making their way into the US…
  • “China has more than 160 cities with a population of one million or more.”
    Wow.

While I didn’t love this book, I liked it. If you’ve been reading The Economist for the past few years then much of this book will come across as old news. But if not, it’s worth a read. Tom is truly passionate about all that is good about globalization, and it comes through in his writing. The world needs more voices like his to prevent the US (and other nations) from knee-jerk protectionism as we collectively slouch toward a more connected world.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

1 thought on “The Book is Flat: A Review of “The World is Flat””

  1. See Friedman’s recent op-ed piece: ‘What, Me Worry?’ http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/29/opinion/29friedman.html

    Here’s a snippet>

    “For the first time in our history, we are going to face competition from low-wage, high-human-capital communities, embedded within India, China and Asia,” President Lawrence Summers of Harvard told me. In order to thrive, “it will not be enough for us to just leave no child behind. We also have to make sure that many more young Americans can get as far ahead as their potential will take them. How we meet this challenge is what will define our nation’s political economy for the next several decades.”

    Indeed, we can’t rely on importing the talent we need anymore – not in a flat world where people can now innovate without having to emigrate. In Silicon Valley today, “B to B” and “B to C” stand for “back to Bangalore” and “back to China,” which is where a lot of our foreign talent is moving.

    Meeting this challenge requires a set of big ideas. If you want to grasp some of what is required, check out a smart new book by the strategists John Hagel III and John Seely Brown entitled “The Only Sustainable Edge.” They argue that comparative advantage today is moving faster than ever from structural factors, like natural resources, to how quickly a country builds its distinctive talents for innovation and entrepreneurship – the only sustainable edge.

    Economics is not like war. It can always be win-win. “But some win more than others,” Mr. Hagel said, and today it will be those countries that are best and fastest at building, attracting and holding talent.

    There is a real sense of urgency in India and China about “catching up” in talent-building. America, by contrast, has become rather complacent. “People go to Shanghai or Bangalore and they look around and say, ‘They’re still way behind us,’ ” Mr. Hagel said. “But it’s not just about current capabilities. It’s about the relative pace and trajectories of capability-building.

    “You have to look at where Shanghai was just three years ago, see where it is today and then extrapolate forward. Compare the pace and trajectory of talent-building within their population and businesses and the pace and trajectory here.”

    India and China know they can’t just depend on low wages, so they are racing us to the top, not the bottom. Producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy – to focus on developing our talent in a flat world is a big idea worthy of a presidency. But it would also require Mr. Bush to do something he has never done: ask Americans to do something hard.

    —snip>

    Hagel and Seely Brown have set up their own site: http://www.edgeperspectives.com
    and a blog:
    http://www.edgeperspectives.typepad.com

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