July 11, 2005
Volume 83, Number 28
p. 40


THE WORLD IS FLAT: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas L. Friedman; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 2005; 469 pages; $27.50 (ISBN 0-374-29288-4)



Not many people today are startled by the fact that everyone from Taco Bell to Texas Instruments is doing business in Bangalore, India. This realization, however, threw Thomas L. Friedman for a loop when he visited the city a couple of years ago. It also gave Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, a metaphor for a world that he believes is fundamentally changed by the social, political, economic, and technological upheavals and megatrends of the past 15 years.

His new book, "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," uses the concept of a worldwide level playing field to explain how individuals, companies, and nations--not to mention globally dispersed terror networks--will marshal collaborative technologies, primarily the Internet, to advance in a landscape no longer impeded by regional, national, and political boundaries.

Friedman mixes utopian optimism with grave misgivings, most of which hinge on regional and personal preparedness to take advantage of a flourish of big opportunities. As such, the flat world he describes will do much to advance countries like India and China that we already see making great strides forward, while presenting the rest of the world with daunting challenges.

The book is particularly critical of the Bush Administration for focusing too much energy on war in Iraq and the war on terror, and too little energy on preparing Americans to thrive in a highly competitive world. Much of the emphasis is, in fact, on the U.S., where for every hope of advancement Friedman sees several deeply disturbing countertrends. Many of these have been fairly well-covered elsewhere.

Friedman devotes considerable space, for example, to contrasting the diligent work ethic and emphasis on science education in Asia with the sense of entitlement and dearth of ambition among American students that is matched only by the U.S. government's neglect. He cites a 2004 study by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, an industrial-academic coalition, calling for a 10 to 12% annual increase for the next four to seven years in the budgets of the National Science Foundation and other agencies that fund academic research. The 2005 budget passed by Congress last November, however, cut NSF's $5.7 billion budget by more than 3%.

Another missed opportunity, according to Friedman, is the government's failure, despite Bush's advocacy of hydrogen as a fuel, to devote adequate funding to developing clean alternative energy. Here he sees a massive black eye for the legacy of our current President. "Summoning all our energies and skills to produce a 21st-century fuel is George W. Bush's opportunity to be both Nixon to China and JFK to the moon in one move," Friedman writes.

He laments that there is more of a chance that he himself will go to the moon--the President and NASA are musing over manned missions by 2020--than that President Bush will take on the fossil-fuel dependency that shackles the U.S. to another region of the so-called flat world, the Middle East. The problem, according to Friedman, is the same one at the root of all lost opportunities in the flat world--a lack of imagination.

Friedman, recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes in journalism for coverage of the Middle East, brings a kind of naive enthusiasm to his encounters with things like modern technology, supply-chain management, Internet entrepreneurs, and outsourcing. He can be infuriating at times in his lavish indulgence in every extravagance known to punditry. Yet he overcomes all of this with his boundless journalistic inquisitiveness and his writer's ability to "connect the dots." His technique of employing coincidental contrasts keeps things lively.

He compares, for example, 11/9 to 9/11 (the Berlin Wall was opened to unrestricted transit on Nov. 9, 1989, and al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001) and David Neeleman to Osama bin Laden (the founder of Jet Blue and the mastermind of 9/11 both, in Friedman's words, started airlines using the same collaborative technologies in 1999). These contrasts also serve to clearly illustrate the potential for good and evil in Friedman's compelling vision of the flat-worlded 21st century.

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