62 pages • 2 hours readThomas L. Friedman
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The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century is a nonfiction book by Thomas L. Friedman. It was first published in 2005 and was updated with two new editions in 2006 and 2007. The book is a wide-ranging examination of globalization at the turn of the 21st century and its impact on the United States. The book is divided into sections that explain the origin, impact, and meaning of a “flat world.”
First, Friedman explains what he means by the term “flat world”:
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It is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world—using computers, e-mail, fiber-optic networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software (8).
The book’s first section explains how the world became flat, and Friedman provides ten forces, or ten “flatteners,” that played a role in this process. They are the fall of the Berlin Wall, Netscape’s web browser, workflow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming, and the steroids (technologies that intensify the other nine forces). After touching on these ten forces, Friedman explains what he calls the “triple convergence”—three things that occurred around the year 2000 that helped to flatten the world. First, the ten flatteners started to strengthen each other, which created a kind of synergy. Second, people adopted new methods of doing business to take advantage of new technologies. Third, billions of people around the world were able to connect and compete in the global market as the Cold War ended.
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The book’s next section reviews America’s relationship with the flat world, discussing, for example, the pros and cons of free trade. Though the flat world will lead to casualties in the workforce, Friedman thinks that it will benefit the country overall. He describes the kinds of jobs and skills that either will remain unaffected by the flat world or will take advantage of it, and he discusses the education that will be needed for these developing jobs. He ends this section by showing how the United States is not prepared for a flat world, highlighting areas for improvement. Among these areas are increasing the number of workers in science and engineering fields, increasing research funding, and improving education.
Friedman then examines how developing countries and companies are affected by the flat world. Many of these countries have already started to create favorable macroeconomic policies to attract foreign capital. Friedman calls this “reform wholesale.” But more countries need to engage in what he calls “reform retail,” which improves education, infrastructure, and government. Among all these countries, China has adapted the best to the flat world. Regarding companies, Friedman lists nine rules for businesses to follow to successfully take advantage of a flat world, including collaboration, small firms acting like large firms, and large firms acting like small ones. The most important rule is for firms to remember that they are bound only by their own imaginations.
The next section, “You and the Flat World,” focuses on individuals. Friedman explains how globalization can help preserve cultures around the world rather than homogenize them. For instance, when globalization improves a country’s economy, individuals can stay in their native countries to work instead of emigrating. This helps to strengthen a country’s culture. Moreover, immigrants can stay connected to their native cultures via the Internet. Friedman suggests that the sky is the limit for these individuals: “If it’s not happening, it’s because you’re not doing it” (492). However, he ends this section on a cautionary note, pointing out the social dangers of the Web. Two of these dangers include spreading false information about someone and having one’s online presence tracked and recorded.
Finally, Friedman examines geopolitics in light of the flat world. He admits that large portions of the world have not flattened and have not benefited from globalization. Friedman also points out the possibility that flattened areas will reverse their progress and become “unflat” due to widespread sickness, poverty, or frustration. The latter can even lead to terrorism, which became evident during the early years of the 21st century. Conversely, the success of a flat world can also have negative effects. Environmental degradation can occur if changes are not made to global consumption patterns. Despite the negative aspects of Friedman’s examination of geopolitics, he thinks that a flat world benefits geopolitical relationships because countries with intertwined economies are less likely to engage in war.
In the book’s final section, Friedman mediates on two defining events for the present generation: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 attacks. Both events represent a choice between having hope and openness or despair and isolation. He concludes by arguing that America must always stand for the former and, to improve the world, should encourage more nations to do the same.
By Thomas L. Friedman