TITLE: Technology and People in a Flat World AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 15, 2005 8:10 PM DESC: A talk by Thomas Friedman on his recent book "The World is Flat" helped me to think about how the technologies I use and develop are redefining the world right under my feet. ----- BODY: Technology based on the digital computer and networking has radically changed the world. In fact, it has changed what is possible in such a way that how we do business and entertain ourselves in the future may bear little resemblance to what we do today. This will surely come as no surprise to those of you reading this blog. Blogging itself is one manifestation of this radical change, and many bloggers devote much of their blogging to discussing how blogging has changed the world (ad nauseam, it sometimes seems). But even without blogs, we all know that computing has redefined the parameters within each information is created and shared, and defined a new medium of expression that we and the computer-using world have only begun to understand. Thomas Friedman Last night, I had the opportunity to hear Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning international affairs columnist for the New York Times, speak on the material in his bestseller, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Friedman's book tells a popular tale of how computers and networks have made physical distance increasingly irrelevant in today's world. Two caveats up front. The first is simple enough: I have not read the book The The World Is Flat yet, so my comments here will refer only to the talk Friedman delivered here last night. I am excited by the ideas and would like to think and write about them while they are fresh in my mind. The second caveat is a bit touchier. I know that Friedman is a political writer and, as such carries with him the baggage that comes from at least occasionally advocating a political position in his writing. I have friends who are big fans of his work, and I have friends who are not fans at all. To be honest, I don't know much about his political stance beyond my friends' gross characterizations of him. I do know that he has engendered strong feelings on both sides of the political spectrum. (At least one of his detractors has taken the time to create the Anti-Thomas Friedman Page -- more on that later.) I have steadfastly avoided discussing political issues in this blog, preferring to focus on technical issues, with occasional drift into the cultural effects of technology. This entry will not be an exception. Here, I will limit my comments to the story behind the writing of the book and to the technological arguments made by Friedman. On a personal note, I learned that, like me, Friedman is from the American Midwest. He was born in Minneapolis, married a girl from Marshalltown, Iowa, and wrote his first op-ed piece for the Des Moines Register. The idea to write The The World Is Flat resulted as a side effect of research Friedman was doing on another project, a documentary on off-shoring. He was interviewing Narayana Murthy, chairman of the board at Infosys, "the Microsoft of India", when Murthy said, "The global economic playing field is being leveled -- and you Americans are not ready for it." Friedman felt as if he had been sideswiped, because he considers himself well-studied in modern economics and politics, and he didn't know what Murthy meant by "the global economic playing field is being leveled" or how we Americans were so glaringly unprepared. As writers often do, Friedman set out to write a book on the topic in order to learn it. He studied Bangalore, the renown center of the off-shored American computing industry. Then he studies Dalien, China, the Bangalore of Japan. Until last night, I didn't even know such a place existed. Dalyen plays the familiar role. It is a city of over a million people, many of whom speak Japanese and whose children are now required to learn Japanese in school. They operate call centers, manage supply chains, and write software for japanese companies -- all jobs that used to be done in Japan by Japanese. Clearly the phenomenon of off-shoring is not US-centric. Other economies are vulnerable. What is the dynamic at play? Friedman argues that we are in a third era of globalization. The first, which he kitschily calls Globalization 1.0, ran from roughly 1492, roughly when Europe began its imperial expansion across the globe, to the early 1800s. In this era, the agent of globalization was the country. Countries expanded their land holdings and grew their economies by reaching overseas. The second era ran from the early 1800s until roughly 2000. (Friedman chose this number as a literary device, I think... 1989 or 1995 would have made better symbolic endpoints.) In this era, the corporation was the primary agent of globalization. Companies such as the British East India Company reached around the globe to do commerce, carrying with them culture and politics and customs. We are now in Friedman's third era, Globalization 3.0. Now, the agent of change is the individual. Technology has empowered individual persons to reach across national and continental boundaries, to interact with people of other nationalities, cultures, and faiths, and to perform commercial, cultural, and creative transactions independent of their employers or nations. Blogging is, again, a great example of this phenomenon. My blog offers me a way to create a "brand identity" independent of any organization. (Hosting it at www.eugenewallingford.com would sharpen the distinction!) I am able to engage in intellectual and even commercial discourse with folks around the world in much the same way I do with my colleagues here at the university. In the last hour, my blog has been accessed by readers in Europe, Australia, South America, Canada, and in all corners of the United States. Writers have always had this opportunity, but at glacial rates of exchange. Now, anyone with a public library card can blog to the world. Technology -- specifically networking and the digital computer -- has made Globalization 3.0 possible. Friedman breaks our current era into a sequence of phases characterized by particular advances or realizations. The specifics of his history of technology are sometimes arbitrary, but at the coarsest level he is mostly on the mark:
  1. 11/09/89 - The Berlin Wall falls, symbolically opening the the door for the East and West to communicate. Within a few months, Windows 3.0 ships, and the new accessibility of the personal computer made it possible for all of us to be "digital authors".

  2. 08/09/95 - Netscape went public. The investment craze of its IPO presaged the dot-com boom, and the resultant investment in network technology companies supplied the capital that wired the world, connecting everyone to everyone else.

  3. mid 1990s - The technology world began to move toward standards for data interchange and software connectivity. This standards movement resulted in what Friedman calls a "collaboration platform", on which new ways of working together can be built.
These three phases have been followed in rapid succession by a number of faster-moving realizations on top of the collaboration platform:
  1. outsourcing tasks from one company to another

  2. offshoring tasks from one country to another

  3. uploading of digital content by individuals

  4. supply chaining to maximize the value of offshoring and outsourcing by carefully managing the flow of goods and services at the unit level

  5. insourcing of other companies into public interface of a company's commercial transactions

  6. informing oneself via search of global networks

  7. mobility (my term) of data and means of communication
Uploading is the phase where blogs entered the picture. But there is so much more. Before blogs came open source software, in which individual programmers can change their software platform -- and share their advances with others but uploading code into a common repository. And before open source became popular we had the web itself. If Mark Rupert objects to what he considers Thomas Friedman's "repeated ridicule" of those opposed to globalization, then he can create a web page to make his case. Early on, academics had an edge in creating web content, but the advance of computing hardware and now software has made it possible for anyone to publish content. The blogging culture has even increased the opportunity to participate in wider debate more easily (though, as discussions of the "long tail" have shown, that effect may be dying off as the space of blogs grows beyond what is manageable by a single person). Friedman's description of insourcing sounded a lot like outsourcing to me, so I may need to read his book to fully get it. He used UPS and FedEx as examples of companies that do outsourced work for other corporations, but whose reach extends deeper into the core functions of the outsourcing company, intermingling in a way that sometimes makes the two companies' identities indistinguishable to the outside viewer. The quintessential example of informing is, of course, Google, which has made more information more immediately accessible to more people than any entity in history. It seems inevitable that, with time, more and more content will become available on-line. The interesting technical question is how to search effectively in databases that are so large and heterogeneous. Friedman explains well to his mostly non-technical audience that we are at just the beginning of our understanding of search. Google isn't the only player in this field, obviously, as Yahoo!, Microsoft, and a host of other research groups are exploring this problem space. I hold out belief that techniques from artificial intelligence will play an increasing role in this domain. If you are interested in Internet search, I suggest that you read Jeremy Zawodny's blog. Friedman did not have a good name for the most recent realization atop his collaboration platform, referring to it as all of the above "on steroids". To me, we are in the stage of realizing the mobility and pervasiveness of digital data and devices. Cell phones are everywhere, and usually in use by the holder. Do university students ever hang up? (What a quaint anachronism that is...) Add to this numerous other technologies such as wireless networks, voice over internet, bluetooth devices, ... and you have a time in which people are never without access to their data or their collaborators. Cyberspace isn't "out there" any more. It is wherever you are. These seven stages of collaboration have, in Friedman's view, engendered a global communication convergence, at the nexus of which commerce, economics, education, and governance have been revolutionized. This convergence is really an ongoing conversion of an old paradigm into a new one. Equally important are two other convergences in process. One he calls "horizontaling ourselves", in which individuals stop thinking in terms of what they create and start thinking in terms of who they collaborate with, of what ideas they connect to. The other is the one that ought to scare us Westerners who have grown comfortable in our economic hegemony: the opening of India, China, and the former Soviet Union, and 3 billion new players walking onto a level economic playing field. Even if we adapt to all of the changes wrought by our own technologies and become well-suited to compete in the new marketplace, the shear numbers of our competitors will increase so significantly that the market will be a much starker place. Friedman told a little story later in the evening that illustrates this point quite nicely. I think he attributed the anecdote to Bill Gates. Thirty years ago, would you prefer to have been born a B student in Poughkeepsie, or a genius in Beijing or Bangalore? Easy: a B student in Poughkeepsie. Your opportunities were immensely wider and more promising. Today? Forget it. The soft B student from Poughkeepsie will be eaten alive by a bright and industrious Indian or Chinese entrepreneur. Or, in other words from Friedman, remember: In China, if you are "1 in a million", then there are 1300 people just like you. All of these changes will take time, as we build the physical and human infrastructure we need to capitalize fully on new opportunities. The same thing happened when we discovered electricity. The same thing happened when Gutenberg invented the printing press. But change will happen faster now, in large part due to the power of the very technology we are harnessing, computing. Gutenberg and the printing press. Compared to the computing revolution. Where have we heard this before? Alan Kay has been saying much the same thing, though mostly to a technical audience, for over 30 years! I was saddened to think that nearly everyone in the audience last night thinks that Friedman is the first person to tell this story, but gladdened that maybe now more people will understand the momentous weight of the change that the world is undergoing as we live. Intellectual middlemen such as Friedman still have a valuable role to play in this world. As Carly Fiorina (who was recently Alan's boss at Hewlett-Packard before both were let go in a mind-numbing purge) said, "The 'IT revolution' was only a warm-up act." Who was it that said, "The computer revolution hasn't happened yet."? The question-and-answer session that followed Friedman's talk produced a couple of good stories, most of which strayed into policy and politics. One dealt with a topic close to this blog's purpose, teaching and learning. As you might imagine, Friedman strongly suggests education as an essential part of preparing to compete in a flat world, in particular the ability to "learn how to learn" He told us of a recent speaking engagement at which an ambitious 9th grader asked him, "Okay, great. What class do I take to learn how to learn?" His answer may be incomplete, but it was very good advice indeed: Ask all your friends who the best teachers are, and then take their courses -- whatever they teach. It really doesn't matter the content of the course; what matters is to work with teachers who love their material, who love to teach, who themselves love to learn. As a teacher, I think one of the highest forms of praise I can get from a student is to be told that they want to take whatever course I am teaching the next semester. It may not be in their area of concentration, or in the hot topic du jour, but they want to learn with me. When a student tells me this -- however rare that may be -- I know that I have communicated something of my love for knowledge and learning and mastery to at least one student. And I know that the student will gain just as much in my course as they would have in Buzzword 401. We in science, engineering, and technology may benefit from Friedman's book reaching such a wide audience. He encourages a focus not merely on education but specifically on education in engineering and the sciences. Any American who has done a Ph.D. in computer science knows that CS graduate students in this country are largely from India and the Far East. These folks are bright, industrious, interesting people, many of whom are now choosing to return to their home countries upon completion of their degrees. They become part of the technical cadre that helps to develop competitors in the flat world. As I listened last night, Chad Fowler's new book My Job Went to India came to mind. This is another book I haven't read yet, but I've read a lot about it on the web. My impression is that Chad looks at off-shoring not as a reason to whine about bad fortune but as an opportunity to recognize our need to improve our skills for participating in today's marketplace. We need to sharpen our technical skills but also develop our communication skills, the soft skills that enable and facilitate collaboration at a level higher than uploading a patch to our favorite open source project. Friedman, too, looks at the other side of off-shoring, to the folks in Bangalore who are working hard to become valuable contributors in a world redefined by technology. It may be easy to blame American CEOs for greed, but that ignores the fact that the world is changing right before us. It also does nothing to solve the problem. All in all, I found Friedman to be an engaging speaker who gave a well-crafted talk full of entertaining stories but with substance throughout. I can't recommend his book yet, but I can recommend that you go to hear him speak if you have the opportunity. -----