Thursday, October 13, 2005

Thomas Friedman: The World is Flat

If you are in your twenties, or younger, then I suggest that Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat is a book that you should read very carefully indeed: because it's nothing less than your entire future life that the man is writing about.

Thomas Friedman is a New York Times journalist who has won the Pulitzer Prize no less than three times; which means that he is about as distinguished as you can get. He is not, in my view, the world's most polished writer, and The World is Flat struck me as being a bit flabby in places; but at least you can understand what he means, which is more than can be said for some.

And what is he talking about? Well, the subtitle of the book is 'A brief history [not that brief: 475 pages] of the globalized world of the 21st century'. By saying that the world is flat, what Friedman means is that the playing field has been levelled, so to speak, by the growth of new technology. In particular, the new world is literally wired in a way which permits Indian accountants, for example, to complete tax forms for US citizens; and to do so at much less cost than an American accountant. Business, in short, is being taken away from the old world and being placed with the new.

Do you know anyone who has lost their job because the company's IT function, for example, has been transferred to Bombay? I certainly do. And you will surely have had the experience of ringing your local bank, only to be answered by a person with an Indian accent who introduces herself as 'Jennifer'. And of course it's not only India that's taking business: there's China, Malaysia, and a dozen others.

Friedman's claim that 'the world is flat' is a kind of extension, it seems to me, of Marshall McLuhan's idea of 'the global village' (though McLuhan is not in Friedman's index). Friedman's realisation that the world is flat came, he says, when he was playing golf in Bangalore, southern India, and someone advised him to aim a shot at either the Microsoft or IBM buildings. This minor incident made Friedman realise that the internet, mobile phones, broadband, and all the rest of it is undermining the power and superiority of the developed western world and is putting power into the hands of a whole new generation who are based in what are, to us, far-off and underdeveloped nations.

Well, I haven't quite had a 'world is flat moment' myself. But I've certainly had a 'global village' moment. About ten years ago I found myself in the city of Haarlem, in Holland. The central square is surrounded by mediaeval buildings -- old Europe, in fact. I was there one Saturday night in summer, and in the middle of this square an American rock band, with black musicians, was playing to a large and very cosmopolitan crowd.

After we had listened to the music for a while, my family and I went in search of a restaurant. And since the Dutch once colonised Indonesia, it isn't surprising that we found an Indonesian restaurant. There we were served, equally unsurprisingly, by an Indonesian waitress. She didn't speak English, but she spoke French; and so we ordered our meal in French.

As for the 'world is flat' stuff: well, as you may have noticed (see links to your right), I run a microscopically small publishing company called Kingsfield Publications. It isn't really a company at all; it's just me; I do everything. But the 'company' is listed in various online directories, and three times within the last few weeks I have had phone calls from bright, keen, eager young people with Asian accents asking me if I am interested in having them do my pre-press work, or whether I am interested in software which will keep track of my royalties.

Friedman gives plenty of examples of this kind of thing. If you have a CAT scan in an American hospital, at four o'clock in the afternoon, it is likely that the scan will be read overnight (US time) by someone in India or Australia. The results are then ready to be dealt with the next morning. And, as already mentioned, Friedman met a man in Bangalore, India, whose company had pioneered a work-flow software program which enabled his employees to handle the tax returns of US citizens. The firm is handling several thousand such returns already.

The World is Flat is written, as you would expect, mainly from the perspective of an American; a thoughtful American, who recognises that things are not going to stay the same, and that they may work out very much to his nation's disadvantage unless someone gets his arse (sorry, ass) into gear pretty damn soon. Nevertheless, the book is equally relevant to Europeans, if not more so.

But what relevance does this have, you may be wondering, to the book trade? Well, Friedman's index contains no entries for publishing or books. However, you don't have to get very far into Friedman -- in my case it was page 72 -- before you begin to realise that the book publishing business is somewhere back in the stone age. At least as far as my experience goes. It may be that someone, somewhere in book publishing, has wised up to all this, is on top of it, and is exploiting it to the full. If so, they are not known to me.

From where I sit the book business looks very sleepy indeed. Not complacent -- the uproar about the Waterstone's/Ottakar's merger shows that -- but sleepy. Because it seems to me that, faced with the impact of new technology and globalisation, the merger of a couple of UK high-street book chains is well-nigh irrelevant. There are, of course, experienced judges who disagree -- see the comment on my piece of 29 September -- but that's the way it looks to me.

As far as writers are concerned, there is some good news. With snags.

Friedman holds the view that the new globalised world of the twenty-first century will offer plenty of good jobs and opportunities for people who have the knowledge and ideas to seize them. So the message is: constantly update your skills.

Friedman also points out that there are two kinds of work: fungible and non-fungible. Fungible work can easily be digitised and transferred to lower-wage locations. Work that is non-fungible cannot be treated in that way. Television assembly-line workers' jobs are fungible; a brain surgeon's skills are not; and ditto, one assumes, about the writing of fiction.

Having said that, one really cannot be too damn sure. We already have the example of several big names in commercial fiction off-loading the actual writing of their novels on to bright young people with talent. And there are some very bright people indeed in Asia; quite bright enough, I feel, to be able to fake an American (or British) accent. And they work cheap, too.

However, there is another good piece of news for writers and publishers. There are already many examples of European and American companies having business taken away from them by small-time operators working from a back room either in the developed world or in far-off places. It follows, therefore, as I remarked only the other day, that people with enough smarts can take advantage of this situation.

The internet makes it possible for an online operation to have global suppliers, global customers, and global competitors. The opportunity is therefore there, in principle, for a small publisher based anywhere in the world, to have a worldwide success. Which is yet another reason why yesterday's impassioned defence of small bookshops, by Alan Bennett, seems to me to be worthy, and kind, but entirely beside the point. Much as we all love such places, economics suggest that they are pretty much doomed, and all the smart thinking has already moved somewhere else.

Well, there's a whole lot more in Friedman. Stuff about global warming, the danger of nuclear proliferation, terrorism (which also benefits from a flat world), and much else. But I think you've got the idea by now.


Anonymous said...

As a longtime reader of Friedman's columns, I think your adjective of his writing -- flabby -- is on the mark. I haven't read his new offering, but I dare say that of the 475 pages, a good 275 were probably written for the New York literati and 200 were written for the rest of us. But the wheat is usually digestible if you can make it through the chaff.

Mahesh Khatri said...

The World Is Not Flat.

It is full of Mountains and Valleys.

Anonymous said...

hi michael,

i guess i'm a bit late here, having just finished friedman's book (the newly revised and expanded) two days ago.

i found your blog when i googled reviews on this book, and i thoroughly enjoyed your review. one of the most useful and balanced i've read so far.

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