|"What's really cool and exciting and frightening about this era is that it's built around individuals.... Individuals competing globally against individuals."
- Thomas L. Friedman, author of The World Is Flat and foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times
Like Christopher Columbus in 1492, Thomas L. Friedman set out for India in early 2004 under the assumption that the world is round. But Friedman, a world-renowned foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times, was startled to discover that the opposite is true.
Earlier this year, he published a best-selling book about this epiphany called The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, which formed the basis of his discussion November 7 in the College of Management's IMPACT Speaker Series.
Friedman had been working on a documentary for the Discovery Channel on outsourcing in Bangalore, India, when he made his discovery. "During those 10 days, I got progressively sicker and sicker - and not from the Indian food....," said the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who joined The New York Times in 1981. "I began to realize that while I'd been sleeping, covering the 9/11 wars, something really big had happened in this globalization story, and I'd completely missed it."
His comprehension of the threat to all types of American workers grew as Indian entrepreneurs approached him to do his taxes, write his software, read his X-rays, and even track his lost luggage on Delta Air Lines - all remotely from Bangalore. An interview with Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited in India, drove the point home for Friedman. "He told me that the global economic playing field is being leveled and you Americans aren't ready."
Friedman explained that "9/11 completely distracted us. From the president on down to the columnists, we were all looking the other way when the world went flat....The dot-com bust really made people stupid. It made them think globalization was over. A lot of people who never understood it thought globalization was the same as the dot-com boom."
Though he has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles reporting the Middle East conflict, foreign policy, international economics, and the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat, Friedman realized that his own mental "software was out of date" for understanding globalization. He promptly went on leave from his columnist duties to conduct research for The World Is Flat, which recently hit number one on The New York Times bestseller list for hardback nonfiction.
Friedman, whose column appears twice a week in The New York Times and is syndicated to 700 newspapers worldwide, said he wrote this book so that at least two kids, his daughters, would understand how the world they're growing up in differs from that of his childhood in the 1950s, when his parents would tell him, "Tom, finish your dinner; people in India and China are starving."
Now Friedman tells his daughters: "Finish your homework, because people in India and China are starving for your jobs, and in a flat world, oh, they can have them, because in a flat world, there is no such thing as an American job. It's just a job, and it's going to go to the most efficient, smartest, most effective person who can do that job."
Long the domain of colonizing countries and expanding industries, globalization is now all about individuals globalizing themselves, he said. "What's really cool and exciting and frightening about this era is that it's built around individuals..Individuals competing globally against individuals," said Friedman, who noted that the downside of this trend is the ability of dangerous, small groups like al-Qaeda to develop outsized influence.
He outlined 10 key forces that have flattened the world's economic playing field, including:
. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 and the rise of Windows several months later. "No one was using the word globalization before the fall of the wall....," he said. "Perceptually it allowed us to think of the world as a single flat plane for the first time." When the first Microsoft Windows operating system shipped shortly thereafter, it "allowed each of us to become the authors of our own content in digital form. That was the beginning of individual globalization."
. Netscape going public on August 8, 1995, which Friedman calls "one of the most important days in your lifetime." In addition to the company's browser making the Internet a tool of connectivity easily accessible by anyone, Netscape also triggered the dot-com boom, which led to the "insane, ridiculous, outrageous, utterly ludicrous overinvestment of $1 trillion into fiber-optic cable in five years," Friedman said. This over-wiring of the world over land and under sea "accidentally made Buckhead, Bethesda, Beijing, and Bangalore all next-door neighbors" while driving the price of transmitting digital content around the world down to basically nothing, he said.
. The development of interoperable workflow software in the late 1990s, which has greatly enhanced collaboration and convenience. Friedman elaborated: "Do not take for granted that you can sit home and do e-banking and not think for a second, 'What hardware am I working on? What software am I running? What hardware and software does my bank have?' The fact that you don't have to think about it at all was a revolution."
. The platform for global collaboration generated by the Internet and interoperable software leading to other key flatteners, such as outsourcing, off-shoring, uploading (enabling individuals to globalize their own content), supply-chaining, in-sourcing (organizations like UPS taking over entire areas of internal logistics for companies), and informing (what Google does). Friedman calls the final flattener "steroids" - wireless-technology tools like file sharing and voice via Internet that are "turbo charging all these forms of collaboration."
In 2000, all of these flatteners converged into a "global, Web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge, work, and entertainment irrespective of time, distance, geography, and increasingly even language," Friedman said. "That's what I mean when I say the world is flat. I'm arguing that this platform is going to be at the center of everything. We're going from a world where value was created in vertical silos of command and control to a world where value is created horizontally on this platform by who you connect and collaborate with....This is going to be as big as Guttenberg and the printing press."
Friedman, whose other books include From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989), The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (1999), Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World after September 11 (2001), believes The World Is Flat has become his best-selling book yet because there's "a real undertow of anxiety" in America. "Our generation is really worried we're not going to live as well as our parents and that our kids aren't going to live as well as we are....
"Our society is living on an air mattress that the air is slowing going out of," he said. "One day if we don't do something we're going to wake up and find our head on a really hard, cold cement floor, and that's why I wrote this book."
American education and government policy need to adapt to this flattening landscape, said Friedman, who fielded questions from the audience who packed LeCraw Auditorium to capacity. "You're at a school that gets a lot of what's going on, and that really excites me," he said of Georgia Tech. "I visit schools that are least two years behind."