Tom Friedman’s Extra Flat, Super Creative, Totally Unlivable World

Eric Garland Generational Conflict, Greatest Hits 5 Comments

“The world is really flat, and if you’re not special, you should worry, because CEOs can give your job to someone in Bangalore. Morality doesn’t enter into to it, since what can be done, will be done, and you can be doing it, or someone will do it to you. But it’s OK, because individuals are now the main actors of globalization. When the world becomes completely connected by individuals, we can all go back to small town values. So to survive in this new world without nation-states or a middle class, just give a little extra – like the diner waitress who put more fruit on my friend’s plate. And when you’re done, read my new book on how America lost its way – and how to fix it! Goodnight.” -Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman keynoteI recently witnessed an in-person keynote from the Pulitzer-prize winning, monster-selling author, Thomas Friedman. He was invited to tell an audience of information professionals about the future of globalization based on his early 1980s work about cultural trends in the Middle East and his more recent best-seller The World is Flat, which mostly informed the reader that China and India are producing scientists and entrepreneurs despite the fact that they are not American.

Given his stature as a public intellectual, one assumes that many leaders consider Friedman’s opinion as useful. If he provides top executives and government officials with the same wisdom he doles out in keynotes, it is in the public’s interest to deconstruct his view of the future to see if it is a place in which any of us might really want to live.

Tom, clad in a slacks and a button-down with no tie, opens by informing the audience that his only mistake since his Bush-era publishing megasuccess is that the world is even flatter than he realized. So whatever he was saying in 2003 when he was writing the book, we should just think about how much more it is true today. Because after all, back when he wrote his gem, “Twitter was a sound and Skype was a typo!” Much has changed in this crazy, new, even-flatter world – but he will elucidate the path so that we may make wiser choices. These following themes comprise his view of the future of globalization.

The world is really, really flat now. – Tom recaps the story of how he discovered that the world was flat because his cab driver in Hungary had a website for his business. In Magyar, German, and English! And he’s not even American, or educated, but he has a website! Wow! And also, it’s like that time he talked to a CEO in Bangalore – they have clients all over the world! Indians! With clients! We are informed once again to consider how “flat” this world is, and how Twitter – a service he admits he has no experience with – has made it flatter. Somehow.

CEOs can hire anybody in a flat world – Friedman gets to the heart of the matter when he specifies that flatness means CEOs can hire and fire anyone, anywhere. Only two paths to economic stability remain – do something utterly world-class that enables you to work without needing to connect to your neighbors, or do something completely local that is unreplaceable. For the other 94% of the people involved in the routine operations of the corporate industrial world we just took a century to create – you folks should be worried and get ready to really, really compete.

Be creative, do something extra, and get a liberal arts education! – How should you compete with the faceless hordes willing to work for a fifth of your current salary? Tom tells us the story of his wife’s best friend’s husband who has a law firm called Nixon Peabody in Washington DC. He fired a lot of people after the crash of 2008, but not just the lazybones. They fired people who didn’t suggest how to do their work in new ways. Ergo, we should all get liberal arts degrees so that we can be creative and tell our bosses new ways to run their companies – or risk the same termination as the rest of the drones. If you can’t innovate processes in a law firm, you can be like this one diner waitress Tom met in Minneapolis who gave him extra fruit when his buddy asked for it.

Individuals are the new actors on the global stage – Cell phones allow us all to connect with Twitter and Facebook, which apparently means that individuals are now the primary actor in globalization. e nation-state, the first actor of globalization, is no match for individuals. Corporations , the newest actors in the global flatness story, are nothing when matched against people power. Why, even the people in Syria have cell phones, and they are rising up this week.

Now that we’re all flat actors on the global stage, we can go back to small-town, temple/church/ synagogue family values – While it may sound like the rapid decomposition of the institutions that guide a monstrously complex global economy might lead to chaos, fear not – it’s time for us to have a bake sale! Everything will be great when we finally get back to the values that made America great, even though now half the town will be unemployed and the other half will be telecommuting for their hyperdemanding companies run by Hungarian cabbies.

What can be done, will be done. So you can be doing it or have it done to you! – Friedman concludes with a sentiment first expressed, I believe, by Tony Montana in Scarface. In a world of flatness, there is no morality, no guiding principles, no way to stop the inexorable slide toward a life without the institutions that keep America from looking like scenes from The Road Warrior. So get innovating and do something exciting to someone else before they do it to you!

And by the way – Tom’s next book is about how America lost its way – and how to fix it! On sale soon!

If this is the strategic insight of America’s top intellectual on globalization, it should surprise none of us that the country has lost its way.

Friedman’s thesis about the world being flat may have been interesting in 2003 when Americans were first questioning why the real economic flourishing of the 1990s had stalled – but it is far from accurate now. The world is not “flat” so much that it’s just finally competitive at a moment of relative peace and – for the moment- abundant petroleum. For the greater part of the 20th Century, the United States benefited from some unnatural advantages. Post World War II, European and Asian countries had to spend time and treasure rebuilding critical infrastructure while we turned our military-grade aluminum manufacturing straight into consumer goods. Half the world was in the grips of Soviet communism. The United States and its almighty greenback became unusually good places to put capital compared with other nations. Plus, the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation gave a high-octane demographic boost to nearly every sector of the market, from housing to entertainment to university education. The return of competition from all corners of the globe is more normal than it is exceptional. The real factor in this perception of hypercompetition of recent is that global structures of financial capital are finally more or less unified, geopolitical stability is high, and many countries are attempting to go up the value-chain of manufacturing toward services, which are easier to outsource than agriculture or steel production

That which is indeed exceptional is resulting power shift away from sovereign nations to corporations – decentralized, non-democratic institutions that are gaining leverage over the individuals they employ. Friedman is right, the multinational corporation now has greater flexibility and power than the nation-state in setting the global economic agenda. These organizations now have free rein to race to the bottom in terms of salaries given the mobility Friedman correctly describes. To manage the return to Gilded Age labor markets that spawned a half-century of violent Bolshevik revolutionary upheaval, Tom tells us to get a liberal arts education, to be creative, and that in the future we’ll “create” jobs rather than find them.

This is pure fantasy designed to flatter audiences who love to read books. The greatest job security in the world is reserved for technicians: engineering, information technology, and medicine. The former jobs are required in every field, and the latter is in high demand and low supply wherever there are human bodies. If you want lucrative work, your best bet is still to be a technocrat helping expand the current system. Yet Friedman predicts that there will be sweeping demand for french lit majors willing to “question how things are done and innovate,” like at his friend’s high-powered lobbyist shop.

Bullshit. First, this nation pumps out legions of anthropology/comparative poetry double majors at an alarming rate (and at many times the cost of degrees that the Boomers received) and they are immediately faced with the reality that they have no marketable skills. The vast majority of them are at the mall working retail as you read this; feel free to ask them all about it. America’s youth and their parents have been furiously doubling down on the broken liberal education machine, sending America’s total college-related debt from $200 million in 2000 to $1 trillion by just 2010.

Second, Friedman is like many elite males of his generation in his total lack of self-awareness about how his cohort handles being told they are doing things the wrong way. A 24 year-old “job creator” will be committing career suicide by stomping up to his 59 year-old superiors to tell them how to fix their company. His friend, the managing partner of one of the most powerful law firms in America, really wants some newly-minted, Twitter-obsessed sociology major restructuring their firms tax advisory practice? I doubt it.

Also wrong is the assertion that the individual is the principle actor in globalization. He expands his 2003 to include Twitter and Facebook by positing that the nation-state pales in comparison to the power of a kid with a cell-phone.

Just a few years back Friedman thought quite a bit of the nation-state when he recommended and defended our disastrous war of adventure in Iraq. Back in 2002 and 2003, when he was picking up his third Pulitzer, Tom was very bullish on the power of nation-states to force regime change through military invasion and to bring democracy to an entire region from the top down. Now, one supposes, he would just recommend that American kids could just “friend” most of Iraq on Facebook to get the same desired effect. I couldn’t tell you his opinion on this since Friedman makes no mention of the debacle in Iraq when he posits his sweeping views of the changing geopolitical landscape. After all, he did tell us that the only thing he got wrong about the world since 2004 was missing additional flatness – not that his taste for interventionist wars based on pure idealism have been shown to be a gruesome catastrophe.

Is information technology a critical, even unprecedented tool in the coordination of social movements? Absolutely. But this doesn’t mean that the individual is somehow in a more powerful position. Nation-states set laws and regulation. They collect taxes under pain of prison. They maintain their borders through force. They go to war, and in the recent case of the United States, now do so with the equivalent of a Post-It’s worth of notice to the electorate. (“Gone to war with Libya – probably won’t use ground troops – will get eggs and bread on way back!”)

Individuals have recently demonstrated their power to the degree they are willing to organization into groups and hold mass protests, but the advent of this technique was 1910, not 2010. But when nation-states don’t want to play any more, they use their toolset – legally-sanctioned violence in the name of security. Egypt refrained from these techniques in the early part of the Arab Spring because the United States – a nation-state – has ties with its military officers. Where the state has no leverage – Iran, Syria, Yemen, and Libya – the gloves come off and the individual tends to lose. Maybe we just need to engage the 103rd Twitter Corps, but in the power struggle between countries, companies, and individuals, I’m betting on the first two.

Friedman, though, believes that this nascent people power is going to lead to a very special place – a global renaissance in small town values. We’ll go back to our houses of worship and have town hall suppers and all get along. This is a classic piece of Baby Boomer nostalgia when the world they helped create looks dystopic. Small town values, the kinds ascribed by Boomers in these situations, usually date from circa 1955. Of course, in these scenarios, we’re not supposed to go back to the actual 1950s – Jim Crow lynchings, Jews and Catholics excluded from country clubs, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Instead we are going to somehow arrive at a future that looks like the set of Happy Days, replete with walkable neighborhoods, clean children, and church bean suppers.

This is when I begin to wonder if Friedman actually knows anything about small business or small towns. Social life in a small town is entirely a function of its economics. You are dependent on your neighbors for their special services they provide you, and this incentivizes you all to get along. I can’t punch Frank in the nose at the town tavern, because if I do, that’s the last time he’ll be fixing my roof. And Frank had better not make a pass at my wife, or he’ll be persona non grata at my general store forever more, and he can walk ten miles each way to get milk.

This world, I might add, is not heaven – it can even be a bit cold and Sartresque in its begrudging codependence. But it works, as it has for the past five to ten thousand years.

Friedman is describing the inevitability of a world in which the exact opposite social structure will be in place. In his kingdom of flatness, individuals will live in a fractured world in which a few can plug into the global corporate talent pool, a few provide local services of plumbing, day care and haircuts, the rest work for local branches of international franchises – but none of us truly need each other to make our daily bread. This will in no way lead to the mythical land of sweet smiling interdependence, but of people whose allegiances are to everyone but their neighbors. The people in your town become – as they have for so many in America – just another car in traffic, just another cart in front of you in the grocery line, obstacles and not resources.

Also, it should be said that it is pretty cheeky for a man married to the heiress of a fortune made creating strip malls to tell us that we’re going to get back to cute little downtowns and warm local interactions. No doubt he benefits mightily from the economic value derived from destroying that very thing over the last fifty years.

Throughout his speech, Friedman intones that “what can be done, will be done.” For a man who makes such lip service to the power of individual will, he uses his authority to tell audiences that if they don’t like what this world sounds like, too bad. The very institutions that gave structure to his life – community, rule of law, accountability of the powerful to a local population, economic opportunity irrespective of family background – will be evaporating, and you had just better get used to it. Sorry, Gen X and Y. You’ll be simultaneously responsible for financing Boomer healthcare entitlements through your nation-state, while seeking employment from global companies that would just as soon hire cheaper labor in dozens of other nations – but I guess that’s just the way it goes. Don’t waste time discussing the implications of these unprecedented social evolutions. Don’t consider different national economic policies. Don’t rally your neighbors against what sounds like a dystopia. Just get creative and stuff. This is the height of nihilism since the world he is forecasting is horrible for almost everybody but he and his wife, safely ensconced in their 11,000 square foot mansion in Bethesda.

Friedman stepped forward into the public consciousness in the early eighties to describe the evolution of the Islamic world in the midst of U.S. and Soviet gamesmanship and brought to light a culture and mindset that would ultimately cause an outsized effect on the world around it. His analysis was insightful and compelling. His work succeeded based on its merits. He should be content with his past.

His view of the future, however, is a rehash of poorly examined assumptions delivered by a man completely disconnected from reality.