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.
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.
Last night, I had the opportunity to hear
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
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
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
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
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
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:
These three phases have been followed in rapid
succession by a number of faster-moving realizations
on top of the collaboration platform:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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
objects to what he considers Thomas Friedman's "repeated
ridicule" of those opposed to globalization, then he can
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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.
- outsourcing tasks from one company to another
- offshoring tasks from one country to another
- uploading of digital content by individuals
- supply chaining to maximize the value of offshoring
and outsourcing by carefully managing the flow of goods
and services at the unit level
- insourcing of other companies into public
interface of a company's commercial transactions
- informing oneself via search of global networks
- mobility (my term) of data and means of communication