The World is Flat by Thomas Freidman

5 minutes read

I came across Thomas Freidman’s heady bestseller while reading up on some of the work that Leila Janah is doing, the inspirational woman behind Samasource, an outsourcing centre that provides tech jobs for low income people in Africa and Asia. Ever since last year, when I finally(hopefully) found my real calling in life of working in the social development sector, I have been interested in knowing more about ideas that are using the forces of capitalism for expanding the economic net to the disenfranchised groups in the developing world. I read a synopsis of Freidman’s book on Goodreads, and luckily a few days later, found a copy in a Liberty Books outlet in Karachi.

The basic premise of Freidman’s book is simple: he argues that a collection of ten different events have resulted in the “flattening” of the world, a play of words on the concept of the world being round and not flat as was thought before the advent of modern civilisation. This flattening of the world helps to give a visual representation of the oft-quoted concept of the world increasingly turning into a global village. While the latter points towards the homogeneity of culture and trends that one can witness in different parts of the world(although that in itself is a debatable concept,something that Freidman has addressed in this book), the idea of the world becoming flat demonstrates on how interconnected the world is becoming, and in the increasing removal of barriers across the world, economic opportunities are now available to people in those parts of the world that could not have imagined this twenty-five years ago. Along with this, the flatness of the world also highlights how reliant global businesses have become on their supply chains that span across several continents, with time zones and geographical distances not slowing down the work flow.

Another reason why I picked up this book was because I wanted to listen to a person who has been a fierce defendant on barrier-free capitalism and globalization. I have read the work of authors who fall in the anti-globalization camp(Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy),and although I would not count myself as an adherent to their ideology, I have seen quite a bit of merit in their arguments about how unfettered capitalism increases the chasm between the haves and the have nots. However, one thing that I have realized over the past few years is that taking an extreme position on any matter is a naive thing to do. Solving the world’s myraid problems demands us to look beyond our common differences and to find a solution that would benefit everyone, instead of religiously sticking to our respective positions.

Freidman has listed the following ten factors which he believes have contributed in varying degrees to the flatness of the world:

  1. The fall of the Berlin Wall, which ushered the world into a new age of optimism regarding the power of well-meaning capitalism.

  2. The day when Netscape went public, which encouraged people to view internet-based businesses as highly profitable ventures and which started the dot-com bubble.

  3. The advent of work flow software that enables seamless collaboration between remote teams working on different parts of the same software solution.

  4. The power of Web 2.0 that unlocked the power of user-generated content and open source, community driven software development on the internet.

  5. Outsourcing, and how Y2K in particular lead to a growing appreciation of outsourcing the lower-skilled work to communities in the world who would benefit greatly from them.

  6. Offshoring, and how global businesses realised the power of establishing their operations in different regions of the world that offered them specific location-based comparative advantages.

  7. How Wall Mart,Dell and other major manufacturers revolutionised their supply-chains and made them highly efficient and global in scope.

  8. Insourcing, or how companies are looking inwards and expanded new business operations/services for other companies(I thoroughly enjoyed reading up on how UPS has brilliantly expanded its delivery service to integrate vertically upwards by performing more of its client’s services).

  9. How search engines have literally upended the traditional distribution channels of acquiring education and started a revolution that to this day is making education increasingly democratised(hello Coursera, Edx).

10.The advent of mobile phone trends that are going to shape how products are designed in years to come.

This is a pretty extensive list of factors,and Freidman goes into a lot of details explaining them. Coming from a Computer Science background, I found myself nodding away to a lot of his explanations and thoroughly enjoyed them.

However, Freidman’s book does not merely contain a list of facts that backs his position. Instead, he uses his vast experiences of travelling in Asia and the Middle East to come up with real life examples. I particularly liked how he linked up the current state of the majority of the Muslim world with their refusal to open up to globalisation, and how he offered an economic solution to solving the problem of growing radicalisation and anti-American sentiments in the developing world.

What was also interesting was reading up on the fact that Freidman did not shy away from the harmful effects of unfettered capitalism. His appeal to the anti- globalisation camp of joining forces with the globalisation group and instead helping them to ensure that capitalism was benefitting everybody and was not skewing the economies of developing countries even more made sense.

The World is Flat is a highly enjoyable read. Although the book sometimes veers a bit too much in its praise of capitalism, Freidman has done a really good job of backing up his ideas with real life examples and facts. In today’s world, capitalism does indeed remain the only viable solution for solving the world’s problems. True, like any other idea, it has its problems, but the only possible way to keep the monster of unchecked capitalism under control is via more collaboration, by making sure that collectively, we keep a check on the benefits spreading to everybody in society. The book made me realise that our generation has the tools for driving real growth and creating a much more far-reaching positive change in people’s lives than was every previously possible. The only thing that we really need is to be persistent and to work hard. Solving complex problems has never been easy, but if we strongly believe in our goal, change is possible.

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