BitDepth 492 - September 27

Thomas Friedman's new book, The World is Flat explores the levelling of opportunity that's accompanied the Internet age.
Retracing Columbus' steps

Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat.

Thomas Friedman is a provocative author who has become famous for his aggressive championing of globalisation as an explanation of world economies.
In his book "The Lexus and The Olive Tree," he laid out the essentials of that discourse in a text that has become a touchstone in the debates about globalisation.
At the heart of that book was the assertion that the economies of the world were in a fundamental conflict over the differing demands that the preservation of traditions and culture (the olive tree) and the requirements of modern economic principles (the Lexus) have placed on nations.
Thomas Friedman is engaging when he has a theory to expound, and he definitely has a flair for the catchy metaphor. In Lexus, it was the golden straitjacket, which he used to explain the operating procedures demanded of nations trading in global markets.

That book was an eye-opener for the lay economist, but his latest, "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" is downright frightening.
"Flat" focuses on the technology developments of the last five years, and opens with how the author discovered that the world had "flattened" because of communications improvements that make it possible for almost anyone with a modern computer system and the right communications infrastructure to compete effectively in the world markets.
That's a hopeless oversimplification of a story that Thomas Friedman takes over 496 pages to tell, but it's his chronicling of the depth and immediacy of these changes that will really grip you.

Lamenting his lack of attention to the world economy after 9/11, when he turned his efforts to decoding and explaining the problems that were emerging in the Middle East (columns collected in Latitudes and Longtitudes), Friedman observes that almost everyone he has spoken with for the book seems to chorus the same refrain, "just a few years ago".
Friedman's flat world was created by the excesses of the dot com financial bubble, when billions of dollars poured into the technology sector and plans like "wiring the world" seemed like the logical next step.
Unfortunately for companies like Global Crossing, who paid to lay the cables that connected the continents with the massive bandwidth potential of fiberoptics, the economic fantasy simply didn't play out.

Fortunately for countries like India and China that were ready to shed restrictive regimes and embrace open markets, all they had to do was finish the connections and build an infrastructure that could take advantage of them.
Neither country has taken full advantage of the possibilities this new connectivity has brought to their people, but what has happened so far has been monumental.
Services that have become chores for qualified professionals or command low wages in developed countries were the first to make use of these new resources. Young Indians with freshly minted American names and accents began accepting help desk calls for dozens of major American companies and in 2005 alone, more than 400,000 income tax returns were prepared by trained Indian accountants for Americans.

China has taken advantage of a massive workforce to overtake Mexico, a growth nation on America's doorstep as an exporter of goods. China's deals with Walmart alone make up more than 80% of that company's imports.
While all this is happening, both India and China continue to churn out degreed candidates for jobs by the hundreds of thousands every year from local Universities as well as US-based learning institutions.

As I read this book, I kept asking myself where Trinidad and Tobago was in this accelerating equation that favours intellect over resources.
With our population of just over 1.3 million that's produced a small number of people who have truly excelled on the global stage, one of Friedman's statistics simply stuck in my craw.
In China, Friedman writes, there is a saying; "if you're one in a million, remember, there are 1,300 people just like you."

Friedman's foes
Some economists argue that Friedman's analyses are too simplistic and sometimes just plain wrong. In Flat, he spends the last quarter of the book pre-emptively answering his critics, noting that India's explosive growth engages less than 0.5 percent of the workforce and calls for more focused and intelligent opposition to globalisation. That's some philosophical distance from his earlier open derision of anti-globalisation movements.
After reading someone as persuasive as Friedman, who won the 2002 Pulitzer for his post 9/11 columns, it's worth seeking out opposing points of view. Mark Rupert's
Anti-Friedman web page is a good start.

Confronting kinks in the flatness
Simply getting this book turned out to be an exercise in dealing with systems that aren't ready for highly lubricated transactions. Faithful readers will know that about half of my reading these days is done in the medium of audiobooks, from
I can buy most books, but some publishers insist on zoning sales, which prohibited me from buying and downloading Friedman's book when it was released.

This is precisely the type of thinking that leads movie producers to have region specific DVDs of their films and makes it impossible for anyone in this country to shop at the iTunes (or indeed any) online music store.
These artificial barriers to digital products encourage piracy, not protect against it and the fact that everyone in Trinidad uses region one DVD players and discs instead of the region four systems that we're zoned for should be a lasting reminder of just where pointless regulations lead.
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