Adventures in Flatland

Balancing acts: Super-flat 'Times' op-edster gets his geography wrong

After the post-Columbus and the modernizing periods, we are in a new era: "Globalization 3.0." It's not only a small world, distance having been vanquished, but perfectly flat; barriers to participation in the global economy have vanished, largely because of technological advances and the fall of closed regimes. Markets are open and free. Jobs, projects, and factories can be off-shored or outsourced at the drop of a hat, information and skills shared while the hat's still floating, competition and collaboration maximized before it hits the ground. This is universal: Everyone's chances, from Bangalore to Beijing, are equaler than ever.

Thomas L. Friedman offers all this in the commonsense style popular with op-ed columnists. He has bullet points for "how it got that way": 10 "forces that flattened the world," from the Berlin ex-Wall through Google-style informatics, ending with "steroids"—force multipliers for these flatteners. Throughout this schema, he renders the fiscal and technological niceties with per- sonable anecdotes about "a friend of mine, Jack Perkowski" or "My friend Vivek Kul- karni." Local stories, they make local sense.

At global scale, however, Friedman's world is, if not round, certainly not flat. Stories mainly detail some form of work—car factory, customer care, a "remote executive assistant"—that's migrated to maximize what economists call "unit labor cost": a ratio of pay and productivity. In Friedman's user-friendly terms, the new flatness allows labor to roll freely downhill. The book blithely neglects such a claim's perfect incoherence. If the playing field were flat in an economically meaningful way, 500 American dollars wouldn't be worth more in the Zhu Jiang Delta than in Detroit, and things wouldn't be rolling.

Flatness is god: Friedman
photo: Greg Martin
Flatness is god: Friedman

Nonetheless, these are the stories of the "flat world," in which companies profit from cheaper labor, to which they have newfound access. Might it be more accurate to say that it's now easier to take advantage of the terrain's tilt? Perhaps it just looks flat from up here.

If Friedman's no global economist, one might expect him to check in with one who works his beat: Fernand Braudel, say, or Giovanni Arrighi, highly regarded "world systems" scholars who study interlocking histories of capital accumulation. They agree, commonsensically, that with each cycle—Renaissance Italy to the Dutch East India Trading Company, Britannia to the United States' "Long Twentieth Century"—the relative power of a given era's leading military-industrial regime, compared to the rest of the world, has increased steadily. That is, they believe the exact opposite of The World Is Flat. Alas, Arrighi and Braudel appear in the book's index a combined total of zero times, 49 fewer than Microsoft.

But if Friedman's in search of common sense he needn't look far afield; this spring, The New York Times featured a series called "Class Matters." In the May 15 flagship essay, his colleagues Janny Scott and David Leonhardt noted that class mobility in the United States is now less likely than it has yet been in our lifetimes. This simple, empirical fact—the playing field is tilted, and rolling uphill is harder than ever—cannot coexist with the book's thesis.

The World Is Flat is no more a study of global economics than Batman Begins is a social-policy treatise. It juggles a similar conundrum: how to present the wealthiest overlord of Gotham as a beneficent force in a world where generalized immiseration is caused not by staggering concentrations of wealth but by, y'know, gangsters. Indeed, to understand The World Is Flat's appeal, one must turn to pulp fantasies and popular myth. These are the last best retreats for the moribund official narrative of the Enlightenment: that ineluctable ascent guaranteed by rational and scientific advances, whose fruit is the increasing perfection of the human condition. Friedman's flatness—wherein capitalism, having overcome any countervailing forces, fulfills the promises of progress—is Francis Fukuyama's "End of History," translated into the language of irrational exuberance. "And now the icing on the cake," the book moons, "the übersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what will allow you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere." Leapin' übersteroids, Tom Swift, you mean I can work while vacationing?

Perhaps new technology will level the imbalances between the mighty and the dispossessed, just as soon as robots make us all ladies and gentlemen of leisure; if you don't recall that chestnut, your grandparents do. But there is something contemporary in Friedman's New World, something flat: not the playing field but the way it appears to us, the flatness of data whirring seductively through spaces of flow, the 10,000 images that every second speak to each other of each other, the seductive faraway-near of information in its perpetual now, unable to think temporally, unable to reveal even the most basic shapes of history.

 
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