Book review: The World Is Flat

Much has been written and said about the latest book from the Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman.

Clayton Jones of The Christian Science Monitor called it "an idiot's guide to surviving in the computer age," while Warren Bass described it as "an enthralling read" in his review for The Washington Post. I'd say the book falls somewhere in between. To Friedman's credit, it's the most comprehensive description I've seen of how the events of the late 20th century and the first few years of the new millennium have helped "flatten" our world.

Friedman's premise is simple: The massive investment made in fiber-optic technologies during the heyday of the dot-com era has made it possible for companies from Shenzen, China, to Sofia, Bulgaria, to compete in what has truly become a global economy, thus leading to a "flatter" world.

He supports this thesis by listing 10 forces that have helped flatten the world, including the collapse of the Berlin Wall, India's shift away from an insular economy, the spread of PCs and Windows software, and the open-source software movement.

Some of what Friedman details is old news: how U.S. hospitals can transmit CT scans via the Internet and have them read by Indian or Australian radiologists overnight, and how sprawling call centers in India operate around the clock to support customers of big companies such as Delta Air Lines and Microsoft.

Friedman argues that the world is now entering what he refers to as "Globalization 3.0." Globalization 1.0 occurred from 1492 to 1800, after Columbus' discovery of the New World helped reveal that the world could be circumnavigated, thus unleashing the potential for global trade. Globalization 2.0 occurred from 1800 to roughly 2000, when multinational companies ventured overseas for new sources of labor and trade. That era was driven by the Industrial Revolution and resulting technological breakthroughs such as steamships, trains, automobiles, airplanes and telephones.

Now we're in a third phase of globalization, says Friedman, when software and fiber-optic technologies have made it possible for people to conduct business around the world. And while the first two eras of globalization were led by Westerners, this latest period is open "to every color of the human rainbow," writes Friedman.

But the flattening of the world isn't just about offshore outsourcing, Friedman notes. For instance, he points to a McDonald's restaurant in Cape Girardeau, whose drive-through order-taker is located 900 miles away in a Colorado Springs call center. The order-taker is connected to the customers and the workers preparing the food via high-speed communications lines. The approach has helped the franchisee lower its costs, speed customers through and make fewer mistakes in handling orders.

At times, Friedman comes off as a cheerleader for the flattened world. Nevertheless, the book is compelling.

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas L. Friedman; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 488 pages; $27.50

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