American Studies, Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Thomas L. Friedman Lectures on the World is Flat 3.0

Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas Friedman, Foreign Affairs columnist for The New York Times, delivered a CIRS Distinguished Lecture on the subject of “The World is Flat 3.0.” The lecture was an extension of the themes in his 2005 book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. An audience of over 1,400 people attended the event held at the Four Season hotel.

Friedman began by clarifying what he meant by saying that “the world is flat.” He recounted that he came across this metaphor when he traveled to Bangalore and realized the extent to which “outsourcing,” as a business strategy, was being conducted in India. Through telecommunication technologies and the internet, India was able to connect to and service hundreds of companies around the world. Friedman recalls that this is where he heard the phrase “the global economic playing field is being leveled,” for the first time. This phrase, he explained, was the inspiration for his book.

Friedman noted that three different types of globalizations have occurred throughout history. The first was “globalization 1.0,” which lasted from 1492 to the 1800s. Transportation technologies, colonial projects, and geographic know-how “shrunk the world” in terms of geographical reach paving the way for sustained international trade. During this period, according to Friedman, “the main agent of globalization was the nation-state globalizing for Empire, or for resources, or for power.” 

The second phase of globalization was what he labeled “globalization 2.0,” which began in the 1900s and ended around the turn of the twenty-first century. “That era of globalization,” Friedman argued, “was spearheaded by companies globalizing for markets, for labor, and for resources.” The activities related to this phase further broke down the barriers of international borders, trade, and cross-cultural connections.

The third and current phase of globalization began around the year 2000. Friedman noted that “what’s really new, really exciting, and really terrifying about this era of globalization is that it is built around individuals. What is really new about this era is that we now have individuals that can compete, connect, and collaborate globally as individuals.” This, he said, provided equal opportunity for everyone to take part.

Friedman described several “flatteners” that made this current globalization platform possible. The first of these was the invention of the personal computer, which “allowed individuals, for the first time in history, to author their own content” in digital form. The second “flattener” occurred on August 9, 1995, when the Netscape browser went public ushering in what has become known as the “dot com boom.” This, Friedman said, ignited the “dot com bubble,” which funded the necessary infrastructure for global internet access. A further “flattener” was a revolution in connectivity. When computers became a popular technology, they were operated by a variety of different software types that were incompatible, which debilitated work-flow. However, when transmission protocols became streamlined, “that made everyone’s computer and software interoperable,” and allowed people to collaborate globally on the same projects without hindrance. 

When all of these “flatteners” are combined, Friedman explained, the digital revolution’s power becomes apparent: an individual can create digital content, upload it to the internet, and have other people from other countries collaborate on it. Production is not hierarchical; individuals now have the ability to create and collaborate in vast decentralized networks. To “horizontalize” is to move away from stocks of knowledge towards more flexible flows by tapping into more brain power and collaborative networks worldwide. What happens in a flat world is “we all have to learn how to horizontalize, and take advantage of this platform” to become the most productive. Friedman proclaimed that this shift, from vertical to horizontal, “is the most fundamental transformation in human interaction since Gutenberg invented the Printing press.”

Citing several survival skills for succeeding in a flat world, Friedman noted that the first of these is to adhere to the motto “whatever can be done, will be done,” and will be done more efficiently. The second is to understand that “when the world is flat, the most important competition, going forward, is between you and your own imagination.” Further, Friedman explained, “one of the great survival skills in the flat world, maybe the most important for a student, is the ability to learn how to learn” this is important, he argued, because “what we know now gets out of date so much faster, so it’s actually not what you learn, but your ability to learn how to learn.” 

In a digitized world, Friedman concluded, information about anything or anyone can be shared with everyone. He argued that “in a world where everyone is a potential paparazzi, columnist, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure,” meaning that “how” a person acts becomes important as there will be digital records of every action. 

During the “question and answer” session at the conclusion of the lecture, an audience member asked how it was possible for everyone to take part in this flat world when only a small percentage of the world’s population is privileged enough to have access to the internet. Friedman addressed this point by saying that a flat world does not mean an equal world, but does go some way in leveling the economic playing field for those who do take part. Earlier in the day, Friedman was invited to visit the Georgetown University Qatar campus where he spoke informally to a group of Georgetown University students, faculty, and staff. 

As a journalist, Friedman has won three Pulitzer Prizes. His latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America (Sept. ‘08), is a #1 New York Times bestseller. His previous books include The World is Flat;Longitudes and Attitudes: The World in the Age of Terrorism; The Lexus and the Olive Tree; and From Beirut to Jerusalem, which won the National Book Award. He appears in his own segment, “Tom’s Journal,” on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and is a frequent guest on programs such as Face the Nation and Charlie Rose. His TV documentaries includeSearching for the Roots of 9/11, The Other Side of Outsourcing, and Addicted to Oil.

Article by Suzi Mirgani. Suzi is CIRS Publications Coordinator.