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The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman reviewed by Rick Price ExperiencePlus


When I began graduate school in geography at the University of Oregon in the early 1970s some of the students who had been there for a while had founded the “Lane County Chapter of the International Flat Earth Society” (Eugene is in Lane County). Tongue in cheek, no doubt, but none-the-less, an appropriate commentary on the struggle we all face in accepting change over long-standing tradition.

Thomas Friedman’s book has nothing to do, of course, with the International Flat Earth Society, but it has everything to do with rapidly changing traditions, technology, and commerce as we know it. I found it fascinating and I think you will, too.

I lack the breadth of knowledge to judge if our era is any more extraordinary than other periods in history when technological innovations turned tradition on its head. But I would hazard to guess that we’re pretty close to setting records. Certainly commercial airline service came of age during my generation; the television, too, remote controls, garage door openers, cell phones, microwaves, and, of course, computers and everything that goes along with them.

I can remember buying my first desktop computer in 1983. I think I sent my first fax in 1988 and my first international e-mail message via a service MCI offered in about 1989 or ’90. It involved sending a message to an MCI mailbox at their Washington, D.C. headquarters from where it was forwarded on to Italy and delivered to the recipient via the post office as if it were a telegram. Wow! Things are happening fast.

Friedman is a pretty smart guy and working for the NY Times has allowed him access to more movers and shakers at the turn of this last century than probably anyone else. The result is input from some of the sharpest minds on the planet, minds in a position to analyze and synthesize what the computer age has actually wrought. It is a fascinating perspective and Friedman has done a masterful job of pulling all this together.

His “history of the 21st century” begins with “prehistory” which he feels dates from 11/9/89 until 9/11/01. Call it twelve years that shook the world. November 9, 1989 was when the Berlin wall fell and, of course, 9/11 was when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell. In between the scene was set for the 21st century and included developments that gave us the world wide web, Netscape, commercial “workflow” software, “open source” (i.e., free) software, outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining, “insourcing” (UPS taking over Toshiba laptop repairs rather than moving the laptop back and forth), “informing” (Google and all that), and the hardware that makes all this possible.

Upon this foundation Friedman weaves story after story of how internet commerce is changing the way we do business. I expect in your community you are hearing more and more about businesses being outsourced and “offshored.” Are your taxes still done in River City? Or are they sent to India for processing. What about medical transcriptions? And what about that 800 number for customer service? Where does that really take you? Does it matter? Do you really care as long as you get the correct answer quickly?

According to Friedman, you should care, especially if you are trying to compete in the global economy. And, I would add, if you buy gasoline, clothing, own a house, have a mortgage, or take bicycle tours overseas.

So how does the flat world affect you and me? I don’t know about you, but here’s how it affects ExperiencePlus! Ten years ago (or even 5 years ago) we competed with a dozen or so other tour operators in the bicycle and walking tour business. As interest in our offerings grew, so did competition. In fact, it grew to the point that now we compete with anybody on the planet who has a cousin or child capable of putting up a web site. If you Google “bike tour France” today you’ll find 10,800 web site references for that search term. Drop the quotation marks and you get a thousand times the references to some combination of those three search terms. Now the problem isn’t finding a bike tour operator in France, it’s with figuring out which one is the right one.

Ten years ago it took me something on the order of 12 months to develop, finalize, sell and deliver a carefully planned tour in a new destination. First I studied the maps, the destination, the routes, the hotels, and the attractions along the way. Then I had to actually go there, or send someone I trusted, to inspect all of the same things on the ground. Then we would send someone back to finalize details and do one last inspection. Then we had to sell it. Now I can find someone to do all this for me. In a former world I needed to personally acquire “local knowledge” to develop a tour. Now I can find that knowledge on the web in no time. The flattening of the world allows me to find experts to help me develop that tour in two months or even a month if I work at it.

There is no end in sight to this flattening. Friedman himself has come up with a hundred-page update of this bestselling book (a woman at the bookstore at the Denver airport told me that this book is the “Da Vinci Code” of non-fiction books based on how many she is selling!) Apparently the update addresses what he calls “uploading:” the creation of culture through the innovative distribution of knowledge via blogs, podcasts, and the like. He also has some advice on how to stay on top of a flattened world for those of us trying to compete. That’s what I need, a few landmarks and maybe a map as a guide to the future geography that we’re faced with. I’ll be buying the updated version and passing both versions along to our daughters so they can help us figure out where we’re all headed.