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(DV) Ruminations on Thomas Friedman, Part One







The Flat Earth Society: Ruminations on Thomas Friedman --
Part One: The Incredible Shrinking Lexus

by Lila Rajiva
October 4, 2006

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Flat is the metaphor that drives the world’s most talked about book on globalization, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which claims that information technology and the internet have connected the world so much that the Renaissance discovery by Columbus that the world is round has given way now to the postmodern discovery by Friedman that it is really flat.

And right there, you have your first inkling of the flat swill sloshing between the two covers of the book. Columbus never proved the world was round. It was well known by then among the educated classes of Europe. (See Jeffrey Burton Russell's 1992 book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, New York: Praeger, 1991). And it had been well-known for thousands of years earlier to many other cultures -- the Greeks (Pythagorus, Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy), a good part of Medieval Christianity (the Latin fathers and the Alexandrians among the Greek fathers of the church), Arabs (during the 9th century Caliphate of Mamun) and the Indians (the Aitereya Brahmana among the ancient Vedic Classics). But, affirming popular delusions has never yet hurt a writer’s popularity. And it’s taken Friedman straight to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Meanwhile, if you are wondering why a connected world should be flat and an unconnected one round, you won’t get an answer, except that Friedman has declared it so . . . although even by his own account his epiphany originally came to him worded rather differently. What the CEO of the Indian IT company Infosys, Nandan Nilakeni, actually told him in Bangalore one day was that the playing field had been leveled. Leave it to the Times’ sententious scribbler to turn a level field into a flat world, when what Nilakeni really means is a small world.

In fact, Friedman could well have called his entire opus “It’s a Small World (And I Know Everyone Worth Knowing In It),” for the whole book is nothing more than an album of fuzzy anecdotes over-seasoned with quotes from celebrity CEOs. It purports to testify as to how Bangalore, Bethesda and Beijing are now, as he puts it, connected at the hip and shoulder by silicon chips and fiber optic cables. If the book left it at that, you would have no quarrel with it. You might find the observation trite and belated by at least a decade, but you could forgive it and put down the girlish enthusiasm for bits and bytes to Friedman’s virginal life at the Times --  where he is doubtless sheltered from anything remotely resembling reality.

But as anyone who has had the misfortune to puzzle their way through one of his columns knows, Friedman is never one to merely make trite observations. No, what raises the man’s work to legendary status is his uncanny ability -- in fact his pure genius -- at hammering metaphors into shapes so preposterous that whatever cogency they might have individually, dissolves after a time into sheer lunacy.

Take a look at The World is Flat if you doubt it.

On page 4, Friedman is reenacting Columbus in search of the Indies . . . today’s algorithms and transmission protocols, he says, are only yesterdays spices and pepper. On page 7, the spices have been tossed overboard Friedman’s Pinto. Nilekani’s revelation about the playing field now has the poor man staggering around in circles, muttering, “The world is flat, the world is flat, the world is flat . . . ” Then, on p. 8, he runs into a ghost from globalizations past, out of his earlier tome, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999). The mascot of the brave new world of computer connectedness, he declares, is a Lexus . . . but hold on, here comes page 10 -- it is not merely a Lexus but a flattening Lexus. Or is it a shrinking Lexus? We are never quite sure. On p. 11, the global game goes from a size 3 to a size 2, like a super model with a thigh-master, but it turns out the numbers are not sizes at all anymore. They are versions of Windows . . . 1.0, 2.0, and now 3.0.

If your head is spinning by now, just take a few more sips of Friedman’s cocktail of cockamamie comparisons and it will come right off.

Your mere homo sapiens, for instance, might expect windows to come attached to a house or at the very least a wall, but homo surrealensis Friedman manages to have them opening out of collapsing walls. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 11/9 gives Friedman a metaphor he just cannot pass up, and he goes for it like a pit bull terrier for a chicken, mangling it into a sickening pulp.

But let the master speak for himself. He begins unobjectionably, if clumsily:

“The walls had fallen and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been -- but the age of seamless global communication had not dawned . . . . Some thought that Ronald Reagan brought down the wall by bankrupting the Soviet Union through an arms race; others thought IBM, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates brought down the wall by empowering individuals to download the future. But a world away, in Muslim lands, many thought bin Laden and his comrades brought down the Soviet Empire and the wall with religious zeal, and millions of them were inspire to upload the past. In short while we were celebrating 11/9 the seeds of another memorable date -- 9/11 -- were being sown.”

So far so good. Even here, though, the chintzy fabric of Friedmanese unravels when you pick at it, revealing a heaving tangle of collapsing walls, free-floating Dali-esque windows and flattening-out globes. For one thing, Bin Laden’s quarrel with the United States goes back more than a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the plotters and executors of 9-11 might have been nostalgic for an Amerikaner-frei Middle East, but they seem to have been firmly anchored in the Americanized present. Many were engineering students and technical graduates, were regulars at night spots and enjoyed their liquor unislamically. And a final point: In 1989 at least, Bill Gates was thoroughly uninterested in the Net.

But wait, Friedman has only begun.

A mere 48 pages into the book, the flatteners have turned into convergers . . . the convergers have turned into platforms . . . and the platforms are on steroids and ubersteroids. And then the brave new digitized world morphs in front of our eyes . . . into a giant ice cream sundae. Friedman warns us that there is no future any more in “vanilla” software companies and that only the most cutting-edge ventures -- those dripping in chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherries -- will survive. We are alerted to the reality today of “flatburgers” in Missouri and the possibility tomorrow of discounted sushi at Wal-Mart. 

Once he catches it, the gastronomic metaphor breaks out like hives. And by Flattener number 6 -- offshoring -- we have left the Friedman deli altogether and are racing down the Serengeti checking out the dietary habits of lions and gazelles:

“Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up,” begins an African proverb quoted on the walls of an American-owned factory in Beijing that Friedman visits,

“It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed
Every morning a lion wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn’t matter if you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, you better start running.”

And so, for 483 sophomoric pages, that’s just what Friedman does, lumbering clumsily through the thicket of globalization, hot on the spoor of a dozen mammoth companies foraging abroad, while he trails behind him the glistening thread of manifest destiny, like sludge from a giant snail.

The Y2K bug, high school math, the Mexican economy, chest x-rays, Belgian immigrants, Yasser Arafat, it doesn’t matter what,  Friedman has an opinion on it -- mostly hackneyed and mainly wrong, but it never prevents him from rushing in where the heavenly cherubim would be queasy to tread. 

Ham-handed and flat-footed he may be, but he seems to know one thing:

In a flattening world, the flat-wrong pundit is king.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Argentina, and the author of the must-read book, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: lrajiva@hotmail.com. Copyright (c) 2006 by Lila Rajiva

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