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Book Review: The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

January 24, 2006

The World Is FlatI thought Thomas L. Friedman had done a superb job with his book The Lexus and The Olive Tree, and he did. But Friedman has hit yet another home run with The World is Flat as it picks up where The Lexus and The Olive Tree left off. I will be thinking about, rereading, referring to, and quoting this book a great deal in the future. I am impressed with the thought process and research as well as the trademark Friedman talent for taking a huge, complex subject and making it accessible and interesting.

The major sections of the book are laid out in logical fashion: How the World Became Flat; America and the Flat World; Developing Countries and the Flat World; Companies and the Flat World; Geopolitics and the Flat World; and Conclusion – Imagination. Friedman makes a solid case for his view, recognizes the limitation of that world view, and argues strongly for what needs to be done to live in this new world. But what strikes me most is how this phenomenon of the Flat World has crept up on so many people. It seems a bit like the old proverb about the frog and boiling water – Put a frog in boiling water and it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in cool water and slowly bring it to a boil and he will sit there and perish (not true, but we get the point). And so it may well be with the Flat World about which Friedman tries to warn us. We could slowly boil to death in the heat of global competition not well understood.

Because my career has always been in and around the leading edge of technology, much of what Friedman had to say surprised me from the point of view of “this is not news – where have you been?” But what was enlightening to me was his view of what the results and secondary effects were from the steady march of technology and the Flattening World. Like many, I didn’t often look too far past the immediate effect of supplying what customers demanded for products and innovation.

One of the most important issues raised in this excellent book is put forth in chapter seven, “The Quiet Crisis.” Here, Friedman makes the case for why we in America had better understand the ramifications of the Flat World and get our act together with respect to education. Outside of the education profession, most everyone seems to agree that there is a crisis of performance in education. It has now reached our secondary and tertiary levels because the foundations are not being properly taught in earlier years. We do not agree on the solution to the problems, but we do seem to have a consensus that there is in fact a problem. What Friedman has to say should make us all realize that this is truly a crisis and not just a back burner issue. Foreign students educated in the United States have no reason to stay here and contribute to our country’s wellbeing. They can now collaborate from home almost as easily, and give back to their own countries.

The World is Flat should be required reading for all of us regardless of our profession, world view, political persuasion, or religious bent. The world is getting flatter every day and it will affect us all regardless of what we might wish. This process is inevitable, so we might as well understand it and figure out how to work with the changing reality. If we ignore this problem only to complain, we will boil in a horrible stew of our own making.

Click to view at Amazon.