Friday, July 15, 2005
Essential and provocative summer reading: Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat
Recently the Gleason Public Library has been kicking around the idea of sponsoring something called the "town book project." This would involve everybody of appropriate age in Carlisle reading the same book (on a voluntary basis, of course), and then coming together in various groups, venues and programs to discuss it, debate its merits and flaws, and generally dissect it as an exercise in mutual discourse, education and esprit de corps.
If ever there was a book to get this idea off the ground, it is surely Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. The latest of this three-time-Pulitzer-Prize-winner's books observing the structures and clashes of cultures in our world (remember The Lexus and the Olive Tree, From Beirut to Jerusalem, or Longitudes and Attitudes?), The World is Flat spells out plainly how the world became "global" and what Americans must do to survive and prosper in a high-speed and incessantly changing environment that, just 20 years ago, was almost unimaginable.
Who should read this book? Every Carlisle citizen from about age 17 on. This is a book for retirees, working people, parents, and teenagers contemplating careers and higher education. This is a book for everyone seeking to make or maintain a good standard of living and to contribute to the world in the 21st century.
"Globalization" is a term carelessly bandied about today, and it risks dilution from the frequency of its use. Most of us understand it as the rise of multinationalism in business, represented mostly by the so-called "outsourcing" of jobs that can be done more cheaply in developing countries than in America or Western Europe. Many of us have encountered it: call a help line to cure a computer problem and the voice on the other end of the phone might belong to a tech support person in India instead of in New Jersey. Many of us fear it: does the specter of all those billions of people in China working for paltry wages threaten to put American businesses out of business? As manufacturing jobs go offshore, will this mean the end of American manufacturing?
Friedman defines globalization as a convergence, around the turn of the century, of three things: the development of new technologies that unleashed "Web-enabledmultiple forms of collaboration, in real time, without regard to geography, distance, or, in the near future, even language," the development of horizontally structured businesses in which employees cooperate across regional and international borders, and the emergence of "three billion people[primarily in Asia, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, whose] economies and political systems all opened up during the course of the 1990s, so that [they] were increasingly free to join the free-market game." This convergence (globalization) is the beginning of a world-wide level playing field: a "flat" world where "the scale of the global community that is soon going to be able to participate in all sorts of discovery and innovation is something the world has simply never seen before."
The World is Flat makes sense of the complexities and the driving forces of this new world we face and proposes ways we can navigate through it. However, the book is not without flaws. Friedman can be a bit glib: he passes, for example, rather too quickly over those American workers who have lost
or stand to lose manufacturing jobs, trumpeting the necessity for retraining, adaptation, relocation, or reshuffling into other types of work: easier said than done, no matter how necessary. His answers to where America fits into the flat world are often extremely broad: at times as if we are to be a sort of command post, overseeing the "dream factory" while others produce the dreams. Sometimes this feels vague and so theoretical as to be elusive in terms of real work, real profit, and dependable living standards. He relies perhaps too frequently upon the old carthorse of "American ingenuity" to pull us through this dazzling and demanding new world order. His sweeping generalizations, however, are not made without support, and his specific illustrations are vital, clear, and often inspiring. In all cases, he maintains that America's only course is to reform its economic and diplomatic structures and its educational priorities to adapt to the changing world, and that every individual must carve out a place in our newly minted flat world design.
Published this year, this is an exciting, provocative and challenging book, sure to spark thinking and discussion of the most animated kind. It is a great read, accessible to an intergenerational audience, and that makes it even more appealing: imagine the exchange of ideas we Carlisleans could enjoy if we chose The World is Flat as our first town book project.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito