Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Review: The World is Flat - A Brief History of the 21st Century by Thomas Friedman

This book has been so widely read lately (much talked about, at least) that writing this is like reviewing Hum Aapke Hai Kaun...nearly everyone seems to have seen it and liked it which makes reviewing it a purely pedantic exercise. But hey, pedantics is what this blog is all about.

In one sentence, The World is Flat is about how technology is profoundly changing the way people do business and interact, thereby making more people across the globe connect to each other than ever before. Sounds boring? Yes, but this is where the biggest strength of the book is - Friedman manages to keep up a racy narrative filled with references picked up from his personal experience as well as from popular media, spiced with quipy titles for chapters and the book itself. Be forewarned though - where raciness is the strength of a book, dont look for academic or theoretical intensity. I was amused reading buyers' feedback about this book on Amazon - some seemed genuinely dissapointed by the fact that the book had no "depth" and was far from other economic treatises they have read. Economic treatise? Huh, did they confuse Thomas Friedman with Milton Friedman or what? The book is surely an important piece of work (not because it proposes anything new, but because of the way it has propogated the idea), but dont confuse it with a textbook of economics or history.

The first half of the book talks about the mechanics of flattening of the world, the factors that caused it and the individuals and firms who made it happen. This is the most (and only) interesting section of the book. Friedman lists 10 "flatteners" - significant events that abetted the process starting from the blooming of Netscape to outsourcing. I suppose that people in the know of the technology business would be find this a bit boring. But to someone like me who was out in the woods, literally and figuratively, when the spring of the flattening process was happening, this is fascinating stuff. If Mr Friedman would have stopped at this point and called it a book, it would earned a perfect 10 from me. Unfortunately, he didnt. Reminds me of the eternal soul classic:

If you'd have stopped right then, Simon
You would have been mine, Simon.

The rest of the book is crammed with half-truths about the effects that this flattening has on business, people, and politics around the world and what traditional economies need to do to deal with the change. As with this author's other writings, over-simplifications seems to be a virtue as well as vice. To the thousands of blue-collar workers in America losing their jobs to cheaper workers elsewhere, the book has this advice - ADAPT. But adapt to what degree, how, and will it be enough?? My hometown of Ahmedabad had a booming textile industry which collapsed in the 1980s, rendering thousands of workers jobless. One of my most touching memories from childhood is that of seeing tears in the eyes and bitterness in the voice of a poor, weary ex-millworker with a tattered handbag making the rounds in my neighborhood selling toffees to kids. Once a healthy member of the industrial workforce earning many times the minimum wage, he was reduced to making a living off the handful of rupees earned from the sparse sales he made. If only I knew then, I would have asked him to adapt...

It seems that it is easier to jet around the world looking for examples of the "new globalisation", but far more difficult to put it in perspective. Globalisation is a complex and delicate subject because of its far-reaching economic and cultural impacts, and Friedman barely even describes it completely, let alone analyse its impacts. Apparently, he is not impressed by the protesters in Seattle, and nor was I; but I expected in vain that he would acknowledge that at least a few of the concerns projected by the anti-globalisation movement around are for real. Denial is hardly the way towards understanding.

Nowhere else is the book's Maggi-noodles approach to universal understanding more apparent than the part where it discusses international conflicts and what flattening does to them. According to Friedman, the tense situation between India and Pakistan after the Parliament attack was diffused, at least in part, by the intervention of industry leaders who pleaded with and pacified political leaders by arguing that a war would deal a terrible blow to the country's business-worthiness. There might be a grain of truth in that, but what is hard to believe is that Friedman quotes this to support the hypothesis that flattening will usher in peace and understanding across the world (because cross-border businesses will suffer and nobody wants that). For those not aware, our friend Friedman has avidly supported the Iraq war and has advocated a strike against Iran (at least till recently, when he seems to have adjusted his position to a more moderate one). Hmmm, how is it that the flattening of the globe does stop India and Pakistan from going to war, but doesnt do the same to the US?

All that said, the book deserves a read simply because it presents a topic that is of great relevance today, and is significantly reshaping the world (at least some parts of it) as we speak. Regardless of whether you agree with the book or not, it is certainly an eye-opener.

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