In This Review

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
By Thomas L. Friedman
496 pp, Straus & Giroux, 2005

Lively and provocative as always, Friedman returns with an updated thesis on globalization. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman argued that technological innovation, foreign investment, capital flows, and trade were transforming the world -- breaking down national borders, constraining governments, and triggering grand struggles between nationalism and the forces of economic integration. Here he argues -- in a swirl of anecdotes about software designers, intrepid entrepreneurs, globetrotting investors, and the famous telephone call centers in Bangalore, India -- that globalization has reached a new stage. Now individuals, rather than governments or corporations, are the agents of change, empowered by e-mail, computers, teleconferencing, and production networks, all of which are drawing more and more people around the world into competition and cooperation on an equal footing. In this sense, Friedman argues, the world is becoming flat, and his book is organized as a sort of travel guide to globalization, a kinetic portrait of the wired global village. The rest of the book examines how countries, companies, and workers will need to adapt to flatness. For the United States, this entails, above all, investing in education, technology, and training.

But Friedman's image of a flat earth is profoundly misleading -- a view of the world from a seat in business class. Flatness is another way of describing the transnational search by companies for cheap labor, an image that misses the pervasiveness of global inequality and the fact that much of the developing world remains mired in poverty and misery. It also misses the importance of the global geopolitical hierarchy, which guarantees the provision of stability, property rights, and other international public goods. The rise of China and India is less about flatness than it is about dramatic upheavals in the mountains and valleys of the global geopolitical map.