April 15, 2007

Flat Earth Society

By: Peter J. Hansen

Over the past decade, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has raised himself to a position of preeminence among his peers. The Washington Post labeled him “a great explicator of and cheerleader for globalization” and praised his “gift for lucid dissections of abstruse economic phenomena, his teacher’s head, his preacher’s heart,” and “his genius for trend-spotting.” Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria has declared his writing “ingenious.” Wired magazine even called him “the most influential newspaper columnist since Walter Lippmann” — a stretch, perhaps, but not simply an absurdity.

Friedman has garnered most of his accolades for his continuing work on one subject: globalization. No other popular thinker speaks about the phenomenon with equal power, and his much-praised, much-hyped book, The World is Flat, is an ode to its wonders. In it, Friedman plays globalization’s historian, analyst, booster — and, a wag might add, prophet. But is his vision of the future, capitalist and technology — driven, really an attractive one?

There are, of course, many famous critics of globalization. Labor unions, teenage protestors, leftist academics, and Patrick Buchanan have all inveighed against the trend, arguing that it produces all sorts of deleterious effects.

However, their various objections seem to boil down to wishing that horses could fly. They do not really have an alternative to offer other than trying to wall ourselves off from the world and watch as it leaves us behind.

Friedman grapples more convincingly with the situation we confront, though he seems to lack a certain human fullness or depth. In some respects, he is a rather silly man. He wears his reader down with slogans, namedropping, and undisciplined repetitiveness. He has apparently outgrown the confines of an effective editor.

Long before the end of his book, it becomes tiring to hear, yet again, about when this or that friend “first discovered that the world was flat.” Friedman has so many friends — and they are all so successful, so prominent, so brilliant! Yet they all seem to say the same things. To be fair, Friedman also quotes several of his boyhood chums from Minnesota. Their remarks don’t seem all that different from what the people at Davos or the Aspen Ideas Festival say, but at least when quoting them Friedman doesn’t sound like a character in Vanity Fair.

At one point Friedman quotes Harvard professor Michael Sandel offering a critique of globalization. Friedman makes Sandel, known for presenting communitarian theory in easy-to-grasp soundbites, seem like a deep thinker. As Friedman discusses the “flat world” around us, one can’t help thinking that there is a kind of “flat world” inside Friedman’s own soul. And perhaps there is even a connection between the “flat world” outside and the one inside. Maybe it’s not so strange that Friedman, despite his limitations, has written a very informative book about a subject that most authors would find drab and depressing.

Friedman’s primary argument is that barriers to international communication and commerce have collapsed in recent years due to various technological and political developments. He offers a list of ten “forces that flattened the world.”

The first was the fall of the Berlin Wall. More broadly, he means the decline of the Soviet Union as a political power and Marxist communism as an ideology dominating and isolating much of the world.

Second was Netscape’s introduction of the Internet browser. Friedman also discusses in this context the technology stock bubble of the late 1990s, which began with Netscape’s initial public offering. Lots of capital was famously squandered during that period, but some of it went to the laying of fiber-optic cable networks around the world. Many of the companies that laid cables underground or under the ocean eventually went bankrupt, but in recent years those cables have shrunk many distances.

Third is “work flow software,” by which Friedman refers to computer programs that enable people and companies to work together easily and seamlessly. He notes:
We often forget that the software industry started out like a bad fire department. Imagine a city where every neighborhood had a different interface for connecting the fire hose to the hydrant.

Software was bound to begin this way, since it was initially developed in response to local needs. As people increasingly connected through email and the Internet, there arose a demand for standardization. By the year 2000, after a lot of hard work and cooperation among companies that usually compete with each other, such platforms were established, and “anyone could fit his hose — his software applications — onto anyone else’s hydrant.”

Once this was achieved, it became relatively easy both to collaborate across long distances and to chop tasks into discrete parts, assigning each one to whoever could perform it most competently and inexpensively, no matter where they were located.
Once this became easy, it was also necessary, for one’s competitors were sure to be doing it too.

Fourth is “open-source” software. Open-source software means software that is free, fully visible to anybody using it, and able to be modified by its users. In fact, this is how it grows, though there are sometimes limitations on who is permitted to make modifications. Linux and Apache are well-known examples. Even better known is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. The entries on Wikipedia are not software, but they are developed in an open-source manner: Anyone may contribute, and Wikipedia pays no writers, editors, or fact-checkers.

This is in contrast to most privately developed code, which is concealed from those who buy it and is developed exclusively by the companies that own the software.
Friedman tells a delightful story about IBM’s decision to start working with open-source software. As an IBM team prepared to bring an e-commerce product to
market, an executive noted that the software was going on top of somebody else’s. Who wrote the underlying code? An engineer replied that it had been developed by some programmers working in a kind of online chat room. Astonished, the executive asked, how did we buy it? We didn’t; it’s free. Who provides support? Nobody does; it just works.

We have all heard of “public-private partnerships,” but substantial private-private partnerships between profit-seeking companies and hobbyists are perhaps a new phenomenon. As Friedman argues, the open-source mode of software development is in some ways superior to the profit-driven one. Instead of relying solely on employees who must be paid, open-source software draws from anybody who uses it and has something to contribute. It is therefore flexible and quick to evolve with users’ changing needs. Of course it also has drawbacks, notably that there are few incentives for anyone to engage in tedious or large-scale projects. Nonetheless, the open-source model may prove
effective in areas beyond software development and encyclopedia production.
One proponent of open-source software declares, “Software is not gold, it is lettuce-it is a perishable good . . . . If the software is not in a place where it is getting improved over time, it will rot.” This statement may offer the best image in Friedman’s book of the speed and nature of change in a flat world.

Friedman’s fifth force is outsourcing, meaning the transfer of white-collar operations and jobs to other countries, notably India. (This is where all that fiber-optic cable laid in the 1990s proved particularly useful.) It’s much more than call centers for corporate service departments. There is a good chance that this is where your accountant outsources your taxes, where your doctor outsources the preparation of your test results, and where your laptop was designed. Your own job may eventually move there as well.

India is a predominantly English-speaking country with a highly competitive university system. For years, it has turned out large numbers of engineers, scientists, and doctors whom India’s socialist economy had difficulty employing. The best hope for such people used to be emigration to America. But recently, it has become practical for American corporations to send work in the other direction, to India.

Unfortunately, India remains a semi-socialist and partly corrupt country. Friedman tells of one Indian firm that routes phone calls from its Bangalore headquarters to its factory near Bangalore over fiber-optic cables going to Kentucky and back. An executive explains, “I could not get a local telephone line between our office and the factory. Unless you paid a bribe, you could not get a line, and we wouldn’t pay.”

Sixth is offshoring, meaning the transfer of manufacturing facilities and jobs to other countries, notably China. This raises numerous objections from unions and some politicians. However, offshoring is an inevitable result of China’s readiness to do business with the world. As one Japanese executive tells Friedman, “You have to internalize China to succeed. You cannot ignore it.” Instead, he suggests, “you break down your business and think about which part . . . you would like to do in China, which part you would like to sell to China, and which part you want to buy from China.” This is really the only solution to the problem. If a business or a country ignores or tries to exclude China or India, its competitors won’t, and it will suffer. Such is the logic of capitalism.

Of course that doesn’t mean we must sell sensitive military technology to any willing buyer. Sometimes other concerns trump economic ones. However, restricting offshoring or outsourcing in order to defend domestic industries will generally weaken and impoverish us in the long run. Many American industries would now be little more than expensive welfare recipients if they had been shielded from foreign competition. Moreover, Friedman notes that China has advantages other than its low cost of labor. Chinese factories and firms are increasingly engaged in high-quality, high-technology production within international supply chains.

What Friedman calls “supply-chaining” is his seventh force. He examines how Wal-Mart manages to spend less money than any other distributor on moving merchandise around the world. Later in the book, he discusses the supply chains of manufacturers such as Dell and General Electric. There he presents what he calls the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention: “No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”

Some skepticism may be appropriate. Isn’t this theory an updated version of that 1913 classic The Great Illusion, which claimed to show that commerce had rendered war virtually impossible among European nations? It is, but that isn’t a reason to dismiss it. Though Friedman’s exuberance causes him to overstate his case, his argument has an element of truth. Even by 1913, commerce had rendered war less likely — though obviously not impossible.

In our time commerce extends much further. Friedman’s description of the Dell supply chain, in particular, provides evidence that an all-out war between China and Taiwan is less likely than newspaper headlines often suggest. However, there is a significant gap between “less likely” and impossible. Moreover, while commerce has made war less likely, technology has increased war’s deadly potential when it does appear.

Friedman’s eighth force is “insourcing.” With outsourcing, a company sets up an office or hires another company in a distant location to perform certain functions. With insourcing, a company hires another company to come “in” and take over specific operations. While outsourcing mostly involves sending work to India or China, insourcing mostly involves working with a large domestic company such as UPS or FedEx. UPS, for example, has taken over all sorts of internal functions for many less nimble companies, from small specialized manufacturers to Nike and Ford.

Ninth is “in-forming.” Here Friedman is referring both to online information-gathering and to using the Net to connect with like-minded individuals. For Friedman, this means the end of anonymity. Or, as he writes, “in the age of the superpower search, everyone is a celebrity.” Anything you do may find its way online. “Live your life honestly, because whatever you do, whatever mistakes you make, will be searchable one day.”

Tenth and last is wireless connectivity and communication.

This list of ten forces constitutes the first third of Friedman’s book, and it makes for informative and enjoyable reading. After that, Friedman makes a few new points, but not many, and he pads his prose with unnecessary slogans: “The Great Sorting Out,” “This
Is Not a Test,” “reform retail” versus “reform wholesale,” and so on for 300 additional pages.

It’s easy to overlook how much the world has changed in the past several years, but Friedman reminds us of the remarkable levels of development and innovation that have occurred.

And yet, perhaps it hasn’t changed as much as Friedman thinks. Like many people concerned with the societal impacts of technology, Friedman exaggerates
its transformative power. Writing about work flow software, he says that “the diversity of applications that will automatically be able to interact with each other will be limited only by our imaginations.”

Any claim that things will be limited “only by our imaginations” belongs in the realm of science fiction.

Although he might not say so, Friedman seems to feel that the “flat world” is a world without limits, a world of almost infinite possibilities and power for those who successfully adapt to it. He presents himself as a believer in God, but he evidently takes his bearings less from the Bible than from his vision of an emerging flat world. He even goes so far as to acknowledge a kinship between the flat world and the tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, but his explanation of how they differ is less than convincing.

To be sure, the world is changing. But whatever happens, we will still be mortal beings; we will still come from our parents and give birth to our children; and we will still need privacy and leisure in order to live thoughtful lives.

This last point in particular is one that Friedman seems to forget. He quotes one of his sources cheerfully observing, “Your desk goes with you everywhere you are now.” That seems increasingly true, but is it good? Surely it compromises our freedom and our ability to concentrate. Many of the changes Friedman celebrates tend in this direction. These changes also heighten the demand for concentrated, careful thought, but only in certain areas-those that enable us to offer a product or service to others, not those that contribute to our individuality or humanity.

Friedman suggests that the “flat world” will not only make us wealthier and more comfortable than our forefathers, which seems likely, but also more knowledgeable. But that seems doubtful. There will be advances in knowledge, technical knowledge, and clever people will become more specialized, but people in a flat world are increasingly similar in their way of life and their fundamental beliefs. As a result, these beliefs are less often called into question, meaning individuals have less reason to question or confront their own beliefs. Friedman does not seem to view this as a loss.

He celebrates “interdependence.” Unlike many who use that term, he does not simply aim to humble the United States. It points, however, to something arguably more sinister: a celebration of the reduction of the individual, whose independence and rough edges must be worn down so that he can become a more effective cog in the capitalist machine.

Those not fortunate enough to be born wealthy or powerful have always had to submit to some denaturing in order to make a living. But the changes Friedman describes make that process more far-reaching than it has been in the recent past. Capitalism was once at least partly about saving labor; now it seems to be about working ever harder so as not to fall behind.
Of course Marx predicted that long ago, which Friedman acknowledges. Friedman emphasizes, however, Marx’s discussion of capitalism’s tendency to break down international and other barriers, not his discussion of its enslaving effect upon the individual.

A Marxist would likely characterize Friedman’s book as an apology for capitalism, and much of the book seems to tempt a Marxist response. This is exacerbated by Friedman’s shallow, almost comical, affluent blue-state liberalism. For example, he offers various predictable criticisms of Wal-Mart, and then adds a jaw-dropping original: It does not stock Playboy on its shelves! Meanwhile, Friedman celebrates the following feature of Wal-Mart distribution centers: “A computer tracks how many pallets each employee is plucking every hour to put onto trucks for different stores, and a computerized voice tells each of them whether he is ahead of schedule or behind schedule. ‘You can choose whether you want your computer voice to be a man or a woman, and you can choose English or Spanish,’” explained the executive who was showing Friedman around.

On the one hand, it’s hard not be impressed. On the other, one is tempted to chant, “Workers of the world, unite!” Of course the workers won’t be uniting anytime soon, at least not in the way Marx predicted, and for that we can all be grateful. So is there an alternative to submitting to the “flat world” Friedman describes?

This problem, of course, is not a new one: How does one live a life determined not by one’s economic or political surroundings, but by one’s nature and inner needs?
There is no simple or complete answer. For those who wish to remain aloof from the hustle and bustle, however, the “flat world” can offer assistance as well as obstacles.

Echoing Marx, Friedman suggests that capitalism is scouring the world for markets, raw materials, and, increasingly in recent years, the most inexpensive and efficient locations for all sorts of work and production. This may not be good for workers in wealthy countries, but it is good for consumers-and also for those who own corporations. Which is to say, increasingly, all of us. What we lose in wages, we can gain as investors.
It hasn’t yet reached the point where one can live as a “coupon-clipper,” in Lenin’s memorable phrase, without holding a job. Nonetheless, for those who give it some thought and planning, it is possible to devote the main energies of one’s adult life to something more worthwhile than the surrounding economic system.

So, dear reader, I close with this suggestion, for what it’s worth. Leave to the rats the increasingly enslaving “24/7/365” rat race. Keep an eye on the world, but try not to let it dominate your existence. Live frugally, and consider how to conquer or tame your vanity, your need to be in the thick of things. Cultivate private, reflective pursuits. Pursue friendship and love with those who wish to converse rather than with those who show off fashionable gadgets and baubles. Throw away your television; switch from broadband to dial-up; check your email but once a day. Read an old book; listen to a piano concerto; take a leisurely walk. It has never been harder to live this way. Yet oddly enough, it has also never been easier.

Peter Hansen is a businessman who lives with his family in Lexington, Virginia. He is working on a doctoral dissertation with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.