Business as usual

The World Is Flat: a brief history of the globalised world in the 21st century

Thomas Friedman <em

Thomas Friedman is a big man in more ways than one. This moustachioed bear of a journalist counts many of America's top CEOs and poli-ticians among his friends. He has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. The New York Times calls him "the most important columnist in America today". Vanity Fair describes him as "the country's best newspaper columnist, period". How does he do it? Reading this book, the answer becomes clear - Friedman is an expert at telling the powerful what they want to hear.

The thesis of The World Is Flat is that neoliberal globalisation is "flattening" the world, breaking down commercial, cultural and even geographical barriers at ever-increasing speed. The result, if we are lucky, will be a super-efficient, hyper-productive world in which we all have wireless-enabled laptops, and everyone from Delhi to Darwin thinks and talks like a Harvard MBA graduate.

The book starts with Friedman going to India to play golf, where he sees many giant billboards for American products. He then visits the CEO of a fast-growing information technology company, who tells him how quickly barriers to trade are coming down. "The playing field is being levelled," he tells Friedman.

What to anyone else would be a throwaway cliche is, to this author, a eureka moment. "What 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!" Never mind that this isn't what Nandan is actually saying; Friedman has found himself a great book title and he's not about to let it go. He repeats it eight times in the next two paragraphs, and then phones his wife. "Honey," he says, "I think the world is flat." He does not record her response.

Friedman whizzes around India, visiting call-centres where workers stay up late talking on the phone to Americans whose computers have broken. They give themselves names such as "Jerry" and "Sonia", and speak in American accents so as not to cause offence. Roughly 245,000 Indians work in call-centres, servicing the needs of rich people elsewhere. American CEOs can now hire a PA in India who will do everything a PA in America could do, for a fraction of the cost. In other words, Friedman's new hyper-globalisation means that all the shitty jobs get done by poor people in the developing world. So much for progress.

Friedman is an optimist, excited by possibilities. This ought to be an appealing trait but it can actually get depressing. He talks about the vast array of choices, technologies and opportunities that globalisation presents, yet each of them, after a while, seems curiously similar. It feels like walking through a huge Tesco marvelling at the range of bread: choice, yes, but within a very limiting framework. In Friedman's bright future, all choices lead to the same ultimate destination - a world of urban consumers, living in a market economy, working in offices, getting excited by software.

There is something else, too. After a few hundred pages, you realise that what Friedman is actually doing is scooping up truisms and disguising them as profundities. The internet and e-mail have changed the world! China and India are growing really fast! Computer software is getting cleverer all the time! How does he get such praise for such basic observations? Simple: by thinking up slogans. Friedman is less a journalist than an advertising copywriter, and his real talent is for giving catchy names to obvious phenomena.

In 1989, "the walls came down and the windows went up" (that's the Berlin Wall and Microsoft Windows). File-sharing and video-conferencing are "steroids" that allow the computer industry to take off at light-speed. What this has led to is a "triple convergence" of computing factors, creating a historical era called "Globalisation 3.0". There are still some annoyingly "unflat" parts of the world - the Middle East, for example - but more consumer opportunities will sort them out. After all, the "Dell theory of conflict prevention" states that "no two countries that are part of a major supply chain, like Dell's, will ever fight a war against each other".

No wonder the establishment likes Friedman. He tells us that there's gold at the end of the rainbow, and that all we need to do to get it is keep walking in the same direction, only faster. The world will be made safe for Harvard MBA graduates and smarty-pants journalists with slogans coming out of their Palm Pilots. Thank God for the future.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of One No, Many Yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement (Free Press)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa