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THE BARREN GLOBAL VISION OF THOMAS FRIEDMAN

by Steve Talbott

In the April 3 New York Times Magazine Thomas Friedman sketches an arresting picture of the seemingly unstoppable forces driving globalization. His wake-up call came while he was in India, interviewing entrepreneurs "who wanted to prepare my taxes from Bangalore, read my X- rays from Bangalore, trace my lost luggage from Bangalore and write my new software from Bangalore". During his visit to the subcontinent, Friedman became upset with himself for having been so preoccupied with the "9/11 wars" that he had missed the crucial new phase of globalization.

I guess the eureka moment came on a visit to the campus of Infosys Technologies, one of the crown jewels of the Indian outsourcing and software industry. Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys CEO, was showing me his global video-conference room, pointing with pride to a wall-size flat-screen TV, which he said was the biggest in Asia. Infosys, he explained, could hold a virtual meeting of the key players from its entire global supply chain for any project at any time on that supersize screen. So its American designers could be on the screen speaking with their Indian software writers and their Asian manufacturers all at once. That's what globalization is all about today, Nilekani said. Above the screen there were eight clocks that pretty well summed up the Infosys workday: 24/7/365. The clocks were labeled U.S. West, U.S. East, G.M.T., India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia.

A remarkable conjunction of events made the new shape of things possible. One, says Friedman, was the fall of the Berlin Wall. This gave us a one-world imagination -- and did do so at precisely the time when Microsoft Windows 3.0 was offering the world a unified, global computer interface. Then, during the 1990s dot-com boom and bubble we saw massive over-investment in digital communication infrastructure, providing unprecedented, cheap connectivity the world over.

Before this, according to Wall Street hedge-fund manager, Dinakar Singh, "India had no resources and no infrastructure. It produced people with quality and [in] quantity. But many of them rotted on the docks of India like vegetables. Only a relatively few could get on ships and get out. Not anymore, because we built this ocean crosser, called fiber-optic cable. For decades you had to leave India to be a professional. Now you can plug into the world from India".

And so, Friedman summarizes, these political and technological changes presented us with three billion people, previously out of the game, who now "walked, and often ran, onto the playing field". They did so at the very time when the playing field was being leveled -- "right when millions of them could compete and collaborate more equally, more horizontally and with cheaper and more readily available tools".

The Indian CEO had used that phrase -- "the playing field is being leveled" -- and Friedman was captivated by it:

What Nandan was saying," I thought, "is that the playing field is being flattened. Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!"

Here I was in Bangalore -- more than 500 years after Columbus sailed over the horizon, looking for a shorter route to India ... and one of India's smartest engineers, trained at his country's top technical institute and backed by the most modern technologies of his day, was telling me that the world was flat, as flat as that screen on which he can host a meeting of his whole global supply chain. Even more interesting, he was citing this development as a new milestone in human progress and a great opportunity for India and the world -- the fact that we had made our world flat!

Actually, Friedman was more than captivated by this idea. He was taken captive by it. This is why he invests such rhetorical energy in the empty, purely verbal comparison between the peculiar flattening power of globalization and the old, cosmological notion of a flat world. The only relevant fact in all this is that he seems unable to rise above the barren flatness of his own vision.

I am sure that nearly all readers of NetFuture have experienced some of the opportunities presented by the emerging global order. I, personally, have founded a significant part of my life upon these opportunities. I would be the last person to suggest that Indians -- or Afghans or Zambians -- should be denied access to the tools of the digital age. A certain leveling of the global scene is an inescapable consequence of human development in our age.

But something else should not be all that hard to see. If we cannot withstand the great flattening, if we cannot, with part of ourselves, move counter to the prevailing trends Friedman celebrates -- trends that would level and destroy all distinctions between groups -- then we will find ourselves trampled down by the greatest tyranny of all: a distributed, digitally confining tyranny that conceals from the human spirit its own, ever-unique powers of expression.

After all, a leveling or flattening, by itself, suggests that no group will be able to sustain its own distinctive character. To gain such character is unavoidably to stand apart, thereby possessing certain advantages and perhaps also disadvantages relative to others. It is to create a conceptual and expressive distance between yourself and others -- a distance that makes possible new creative harmonies and dissonances, but in doing so also makes communication and connectivity more of a challenge, not less.

Communication in such a healthily diverse community always requires an inner effort, an overcoming of ourselves -- precisely because our selves and those other selves have gained independent substance. To aim for nothing but perfect flattening and perfect, frictionless communication -- and so far as I can see, Friedman acknowledges no other ideals in his article -- is to aim for the disappearance of both individual and community in favor of a smoothly functioning logic machine.

Don't we already see how his ideals are contributing to the dissolution of the American family, without offering any new and positive vision? Many families, with their cell and picture phones, beepers, computers and laptops, instant messaging devices, multiple automobiles, and parental or commercial shuttling services, are better connected than the executives in that Asian videoconferencing center. And yet, a psychologist writing about the shootings at Red Lake High School in Minnesota finds it natural to refer to "the fundamental communication breakdown in families".

Mark Lerner, who is president of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, sees the breakdown as resulting from an increasingly digital and mechanized world. "We are spending less time communicating, teaching and modeling appropriate behavior with our children", he writes, "and we are losing the battle to the proliferation of electronic media". After citing the often violent and pervasive presence of television, video games, and chat room banter in children's lives, he adds this:

We used to know where our children went when they left our homes. Today, we don't know where they are when they are in their bedrooms.

The result is that "children lack interpersonal communication, coping and problem-solving skills to meet the challenge of our new world". Angry behavior, drug use, and suicide follow all too naturally.

So here we have someone telling us about a tragic, society-wide breakdown of effective communication within the family, while Friedman is cheering the unprecedented collapse of all barriers to communication throughout our own and other parts of the world. On the one hand: "we are the most connected civilization in the history of the world". On the other hand: "we are suffering a breakdown in communication precisely where the barriers are lowest and where we might have expected intimate, mutual understanding to be greatest -- in the family".

Indisputably -- and regardless of your take on Lerner's reading of the family -- it's one thing to be caught up by the tools and forms of communication, and quite another to enter meaningfully, with communicative effectiveness, into the life of another person. But this distinction never troubles Friedman's two-dimensional dreams.

The problem with Friedman's stance is not that he has failed to finger very real and powerful forces in the contemporary world, but only that he seems unable to imagine any way of engaging these forces except by yielding to them. He makes no effort to view the world along dimensions that would threaten the rhetorical neatness of his flat metaphor.

Part of the appeal of the globalized and leveled playing field for Friedman is that (in the words of the Indian CEO) it "created a platform where intellectual work, intellectual capital, could be delivered from anywhere. It could be disaggregated, delivered, distributed, produced and put back together again -- and this gave a whole new degree of freedom to the way we do work".

Here you find the spirit of analysis and fragmentation that has for so long ruled in science, but now penetrating and re-shaping the workaday world. Yes, increasingly our work can be disaggregated and put back together again in this way -- because more and more we are redefining the products of our work in terms that readily suffer this kind of violence. But no symphony, no sculpture -- and no commercial product invested with the kind of artistic, spiritually elevating value humanity so desperately needs -- could quite so easily be produced in this fragmented manner.

More broadly: there's a social art (or artlessness) represented in every product. One requirement for a globalization conceived one-sidedly as a flattening is that we consumers must lose sight of this entire realm of value. When I have learned to assess goods in terms of price alone, I can conveniently forget, for example, that the higher-priced, organic food at my local farm store embodies a way of dealing with land, animals, and people that thankfully is not at all on a level playing field with most of the items in the local supermarket. It has risen far above the field. I have spent many years watching my local community struggle to scale and inhabit these particular heights, achieving values that few other communities could offer me. This is why I am not eager to see the landscape flattened with a quantitative bulldozer.

I do not need to praise everything about the local farm store or condemn everything about California's Imperial Valley in order to become conscious of whatever the differences happen to be. This is a necessarily qualitative consciousness, which can be represented only as a third dimension above (and below) Friedman's flat world.

This third dimension has fallen clean out of sight when Netscape founder, Marc Andreessen, is quoted as saying, "Today, the most profound thing to me is the fact that a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software easily available to apply knowledge however they want .... at some point you will be able to design vaccines on your laptop".

Someone should ask what it means to flatten the world down to the point where all the challenges of knowledge application can be conceived to rise little higher than the capabilities of a 14-year-old. What has become of our understanding of work when we can imagine it so routine, so automatic, so independent of life experience and long-accumulating wisdom?

This question can hardly be separated from another one: why must we now dedicate massive and costly high-tech work forces in private corporations and public law enforcement agencies to preventing the disruption of the global workplace by the malicious play of 14-year-olds? This battle, too, takes place on a wonderfully leveled playing field, so that we now face an endless arms race between 14-year-old equivalents on opposite sides of the turf. It will not be otherwise until we as a society somehow find our way toward values and institutions, toward community and social structures, that can originate only in the uplands of human insight and imaginative achievement.

These uplands can never be scaled by mere computational processing power. Not that Microsoft had any such high-minded aims when it sent teams to Chinese universities "to administer I.Q. tests in order to recruit the best brains from China's 1.3 billion people". Of the top 2000 engineering and science students, Friedman reports, Microsoft hired 20 -- explaining why Microsoft's Asian research center "is already the most productive research team at Microsoft".

The high-tech giant doubtless thought of itself as buying, through those 20 hires, the maximum amount of processing power. And, in Flatland, that is indeed what counts, because the competition there is a competition between corporate machines. Certainly we can have it that way if we wish.

But the strange thing is that Friedman takes all this to mean that "hierarchies are being flattened and value is being created less and less within vertical silos and more and more through horizontal collaboration". He believes that we have gone from a world where we faced competitors practicing "extreme communism" to one where they practice "extreme capitalism", and this means they are no longer trying to build a "strong state" but rather to build "strong individuals".

One fears that rhetorical convenience has again run away with Friedman. We can certainly hope for the emergence of strong individuals -- and for their necessary correlative, strong, vibrant communities. But if these do arise, they will arise; they will never be found in Flatland. In the long run, no one will be found there. People whose value to company and society is measured in terms of I.Q. and processing power will become either slaves or tyrants, and the relations between them, like all relations of power, will operate vertically. In the end, playing the role of bits in a global digital computation will not prove much different from being a cog in an old-style, industrial machine.

Couldn't Friedman at least have asked himself: given the scale of values at work in his flat world, how will those elite hires of Microsoft "collaborate horizontally" with the 97 percent of the world's population suffering from "inferior" I.Q.s? And if such collaboration is not part of the picture, how will the world remain flat?

When it comes to prescribing a successful future for America, Friedman's vision does not improve. He worries about the forces "eating away at America's scientific and engineering base". He laments the "ambition gap" that suggests "Americans have gotten too lazy". And he quotes Bill Gates, who is "terrified for our work force of tomorrow":

In math and science, our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they're in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.

Maybe Friedman and Gates should ask themselves whether a flattened landscape might be the perfect explanation for both loss of ambition and an academic performance that declines with a student's age. Where are the high, visionary goals capable of inspiring young people and capturing their imaginations? Where do we invite competition among Flatlanders for anything other than commercial power and the political power that goes with it? Why shouldn't students simply bow out of this game as soon as they become old enough to recognize its vacuity?

Friedman concludes by saying, "It takes 15 years to train a good engineer, because, ladies and gentlemen, this really is rocket science. So parents, throw away the Game Boy, turn off the television and get your kids to work. There is no sugar-coating this: in a flat world, every individual is going to have to run a little faster if he or she wants to advance his or her standard of living".

Well, Mr. Friedman, don't you realize that the Game Boy and TV are prime manifestations of the very processing power you want to cultivate in these kids? Do you really expect young people to put their energies into the mind-numbing (and sometimes degrading) job of programming such devices without themselves becoming desperately dependent upon the empty-caloried stimulation of the products they are producing? Instead of running faster to raise our standard of living, maybe we need to slow down and consider what sort of standards we want to live by.

Friedman seems to recognize only one sort of standard, just as he recognizes only one sort of genius: "Only 30 years ago, if you had a choice of being born a B student in Boston or a genius in Bangalore or Beijing, you probably would have chosen Boston, because a genius in Beijing or Bangalore could not really take advantage of his or her talent. They could not plug and play globally".

It's true that a programmer would have been at a disadvantage in Bangalore a few decades ago, and we can be glad for the programmer's sake that this has changed. It's also true that nations such as India have witnessed untold amounts of human misery over the past couple of centuries. But by almost all accounts this is due at least in part to the consequences of previous phases of the industrial and technical revolution. Alleviation of the misery will depend upon a great deal more than technical fleet-footedness. Other sorts of genius are required as well. Gandhi was a genius, and if we are now convinced that technical cleverness is all that matters -- if we lose our ability to unplug morally and spiritually from the tyrannizing necessities of the Flatland to which Friedman would chain us -- it may then happen that no number of Gandhis can free us.

(Friedman's article was adapted from a new book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. We can hope that the article is less than fairly representative of the book. But to judge from the PR and the book excerpts I've seen so far, this is probably a vain hope.)


© 2005 Steve Talbott

Steve Talbott, author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst currently edits NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and human responsibility. NetFuture is published by The Nature Institute, 169 Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116; web: http://www.natureinstitute.org).

This article was originally distributed as part of NetFuture: http://www.netfuture.org/. You may redistribute this article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.