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Book Review – The World is Flat

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Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century is a book I feel quite unequipped to review. And, indeed, it has been very widely reviewed by people far more qualified than I. The reviews, which I turned to only after I had finished reading the book, are mixed. Some people feel this book is groundbreaking while others feel it rehashes old arguments simply set in a new context. It seems that the more knowledgeable the reviewer, the less enthusiasm he has for the book. I was interested to see that many of the concerns of the experts are ones I shared as well.

The author’s main point is obvious and well-proven. The world is, indeed, flat. The gap between nations is quickly closing. Countless jobs from North America and other developed nations are being outsourced to China, India and beyond. Instant communication and speedy travel have made the world seem smaller and smaller. Friedman identifies ten forces that he feels are the most important contributors to this new, flat world:

  1. The fall of the Berlin wall
  2. The internet (represented by Netscape’s IPO in 1995
  3. Workflow software
  4. Open source
  5. Outsourcing
  6. Offshoring
  7. Supply Chain Management
  8. Insourcing
  9. In-forming
  10. “The Steroids” digital, mobile, personal and virtual

Friedman sees three eras of globalization. The first of these began with Christopher Columbus’ first journey in 1492 and lasted until sometime around 1800. At this time new lands were discovered and the world shrank from large to medium. From 1800 to 2000 industrialization made the world still smaller. And now, through the creation of a global fiber optic network, the world has shrunk to the point that we are all neighbors.

A recurring theme of the book is the number of jobs that have been outsourced from North America to India and China. Multitudes of customer service jobs have moved to India, and countless manufacturing jobs to China. In one fascinating section Friedman outlines the source of each of the components of his Dell laptop, showing how many different nations are involved in the manufacture of just one small computer, from a customer service representative based in India, to a manufacturing plant in Malaysia.

Having identified the direction the world is taking, Friedman begins to propose what American individuals and corporations must do to ensure that they are prepared and equipped for the future. And I would say that his analysis of what has happened and what forces have combined to bring about globalization are, on the whole, better than his projections of what we need to do to adapt to this world.

Because I do not feel that I can add a whole lot to the vast number of reviews already available (every major periodical has reviewed it and there are almost 900 reviews posted at Amazon) I will simply post a few of the notes I jotted down while reading or after reading the book.

In general I would say that the book is probably too long. The version I read, version 2.0, is more than 100 pages longer than the first edition and it does seem, at times, to be repetitive and at other times to spend several pages stating what could be said in only a few paragraphs. I think the book could easily have been 100 or 200 pages shorter. It probably should have.

The author refuses to allow Islam to be its own reason to drive people to commit acts of terrorism. Rather, he assumes that Islam is little different from any other reason and it is other people who pervert the religion in order to make it such a negative force. This view ignores the fact that the Koran is clearly a book that calls for violence. While not every Muslim a terrorist, it has to be admitted that there is something inherent in the religion that leads to extremism.

Some of the author’s analysis is a tad strange. For example, he believes that if every country in the world had a McDonald’s franchise, there would be world peace. The same would happen if every country was a part of the Dell supply chain. While these kinds of corporations do tend to set up shop in nations that have some level of political stability, to assume that such nations are beyond being able to wage war is, quite simply, to ignore human nature.

Friedman takes quite a few potshots at George W. Bush and expresses an optimism in government that strikes me as being distinctly American. Canadians and citizens of many other countries do not seem to share the American optimism in government, that the fall of one party and the rise of another will really make such a great difference. We are a pessimistic people, I suppose. But Friedman really seems to believe that America and the world would be a much different and much better place had George Bush not had two terms to delay progress and focus on the wrong issues.

A particularly good portion of the book dealt with the American educational system and the problems inherent in a system that does not push students as far or as hard as the systems of other nations. Students in many other nations are clearly learning more and faster than their American counterparts. Sooner or later this educational discrepancy will have consequences.

The first few chapters are, in my opinion, worth the price of the book. It bogs down in the middle and there are a few forgettable chapters there. By the end it regains its interest.

I was disappointed to see that, while the book often quotes other people and publications, there is not a footnote to be found.

Because the book is written about contemporary issues, and the issue of technology in particular, it already seems a little bit outdated, though it was written just two years ago (and updated early in 2006). This is the peril of writing about technology.

The book is very America-centric. It tends to focus primarily on the United States, China and India. There is not as much value in reading it for those of us in other developed nations.

At any rate, I did find it quite a fascinating though sometimes uneven read. It is certainly valuable to think about globalization and the new, flat world we live in and doubly so when do from within a Christian context. I just wish I had more to contribute to the analysis of his arguments and conclusions. I would love to hear from other Christians who have read this book and have pondered its relevance to the faith.

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