said nothing. Al had bad information; the book that ultimately
came out would be called The World is Flat. It didn't
matter. Either version suggested the same horrifying possibility.
Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations
on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a
very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a
chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case
scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into
I tried not to think about it. But when I heard the book
was actually coming out, I started to worry. Among other
things, I knew I would be asked to write the review. The
usual ratio of Friedman criticism is 2:1, i.e. two human
words to make sense of each single word of Friedmanese.
Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that
even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays.
I'll give you an example, drawn at random from The World
is Flat. I'm not shitting you, I did this at random;
just flipped open to a page somewhere in the middle, which
happened to be page 174, and looked at the top left-hand
corner. Here, Friedman is describing a flight he took on
Southwest airlines (Friedman never, ever forgets
to name the company or the brand name; he is like a fetishist
this way; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor
Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic)
from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut:
stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and
glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded
on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead
the Cinnabon; name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me
would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern.
Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by
accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up, and fails
to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always
screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely
infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable
of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The
difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is
that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman
a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of
dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's
guaranteed, every single time. He literally never misses.
an ideological level Friedman's new book is the worst, most
boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities
could somehow be removed from the equation, The World
is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long
pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader
leg-humping that passes for thought in mainstream America.
It is a tale of a man who walks ten feet in front of his
house armed with a late-model Blackberry, and comes back
home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals
now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT-scans.
Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism;
says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're
not in Kansas anymore). That's the whole plot right there.
If the underlying message is all that interests you, read
no further, because that's all there is.
it's impossible to divorce The World is Flat from
its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas
Friedman is called "the most important columnist in America
today." That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New
York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on
the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman
is an important American. He is the perfect symbol
of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush,
he's in the reality-making business. In the new flat world,
argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the
president, and the country's most important columnist. You
no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone;
the process ends when you make the case.
are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters
is how sure you sound when you say it. In politics this
allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense.
In the intellectual world Friedman is now probing the outer
limits of this trick's potential, and it's absolutely perfect,
a stroke of genius, that he's choosing to argue that the
world is flat. The only thing that would have been better
would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made
that's basically what he's doing here. The internet is speeding
up business communications, and global labor markets are
more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese.
That is the rhetorical gist of The World is Flat.
It's brilliant. And only an America-hater could fail to
with the title. The book's genesis is conversation Friedman
has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani causally
mutters to Friedman: "Tom, the playing field is being leveled."
To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase the level
playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated
stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to
Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is
pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from
the Infosys campus in Bangalore:
I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back
to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: "The playing
field is being leveled."
Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is
being flattened... Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling
me the world is flat!
is like three pages into the book, and the premise is already
totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The
two concepts are completely different. Level is a
qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance;
flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman,
remember, is openly contrasting ironically as it were
with Columbus's discovery that the world is round.
for one thing. The significance of Columbus's discovery
was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected
than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant
points are closer together than they are on a flat earth.
But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning
the "flat world" into a metaphor for global interconnectedness.
Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round
to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected
world. "Let me... share with you some of the encounters
that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,"
he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against
the current of human knowledge.
recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward
India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman
"had Lufthansa business class." When he reaches India
Bangalore to be specific he immediately plays golf. His
caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo.
Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments
and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: "Gigabites
of Taste." Apparently because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on
the way to a golf course, something that could never happen
in America, Friedman concludes: "No, this definitely wasn't
golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the
playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has
traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels
to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens
to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing
the course of two thousand years of human thought. That
he mis-attributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman
is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also
hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This
is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts,
when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion
by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" in a space capsule.
And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.
boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the
rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of
the other, so that by the end and I'm not joking here
we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant
ice cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which
everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and which
most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special
sauce. Moreover, Friedman's book is the first I have encountered,
anywhere, in which the reader literally needs a calculator
to figure the value of the author's metaphors.
strike me dead if I am joking about this. Judge for yourself.
After the initial passages of the book, after Nilekani has
forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the
sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical
model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy
description of the "ten great flatteners," which is basically
a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the
past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin wall, the Netscape
IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything
that would give an IBM human resources director a boner,
that's a flattener. Now, the catch here is that Flattener
#10 is new communications technology: "Digital, Mobile,
Personal, and Virtual." These technologies Friedman calls
"steroids" because they are "amplifying and turbocharging
all the other flatteners."
to the mathematics of the book, in other words, if you add
an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting
with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with
them. Anyway, moving on: although these ten flatteners existed
already by the time Friedman wrote The Lexus and the
Olive Tree a period of time referred to in the book
as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with
Columbus they did not come together to bring about Globalization
3.0, the flat world, until the ten flatteners had, with
the help of the steroids, gone through their "Triple Convergence."
The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware
to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub
(the product featured in Friedman's favorite television
commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new
technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The
third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage
industrial countries India, Russia, China, among others
walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally,
they occasionally are "not just walking" but "jogging and
even sprinting" onto the playing field.
let's say that the steroids speed things up by a factor
of two. It could be any number, but let's be conservative
and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe
the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman's first best-selling
book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current best-selling book).
To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take ten flatteners, and you
have them converge let's say this means squaring them,
because that seems to be the idea three times. By now,
the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids
in there, and we're dealing with a flattening factor somewhere
in the several thousands at any given page of the book.
We're talking about a metaphor that mathematically
adds up to a four digit number. If you're like me,
you're already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to
this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive
imagery. For instance:
now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it
all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take
everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal,
and do it from anywhere.
and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a
set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the
icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!
speak Friedmanese for a moment and examine just a few of
the notches on these antlers (Friedman, incidentally, measures
the flattening of the world in notches, i.e. "The flattening
process had to go another notch"; I'm not sure where the
notches go in the flat plane, but there they are). Flattener
#1 is actually two flatteners, the collapse of the Berlin
Wall and the spread of the Windows operating system. In
a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread
the instant a suggestive word like "Windows" is introduced;
you wince, knowing what's coming, the same way you do when
Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn't
disappoint. His description of the early nineties:
walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making
the world much flatter than it had ever been but the age
of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.
the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to
the point, why would you open a window in a fallen
wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they
left the windows floating in place to be opened? Is there
pages of this, folks. 473 pages!