In his 2005 book, “The World is Flat – A Brief History of 21st Century”, Thomas L. Friedman has come with the theory, which was known to all of us for some time now, though without realizing it. Friedman is of the view that since the fall of Berlin wall and as a result of latest technologies available in the market, people all over the world have the exactly same opportunities available to them. This, he argues, means that anyone, anywhere in the world, who has access to these technologies and an entrepreneur spirit can carry out their business on the same level playing field as the biggest corporate in the world. He calls this leveling of the playing field as the “flattening” of the world.
Friedman has presented a very thorough and clear picture of the processes, which led to this change, or “flattening.” I agree with what he has to say about the ten flatteners and their implications. In recent years, we have heard over and over again of how are jobs are being “outsourced”. Just about every product you pick up at a departmental store was manufactured in China or Taiwan or some other Asian county. Outsourcing and offshoring is a reality of today’s time which cannot be wished away.
Big debates are taking place everywhere, among the economists, politicians and in the media. Those who are losing their jobs to the cheap labor in Asia, want the government to legislate against it. But as Friedman has rightly pointed out, in order to compete in the increasingly flat world, the Americans will have to pull themselves up rather than try to pull others down. The “Quiet Crisis” that Friedman talks about is real. While the Indians and the Chinese are educating themselves in science, mathematics and engineering, the Americans are dropping out of high school. The complacency and the lack of ambition among the Americans is a cause of worry.
For almost two centuries, Americans were leading the world because they were at the cutting edge of new technology. However, the manpower needed to sustain this lead is hugely lacking in today’s United States. If the Americans do not pull up their socks, they will soon be left behind while the rest of the world passes them by.
The One Flattener
If I had to choose one flattener, which I feel, has made the biggest impact, it would be what Friedman refers to as “Netscape”. “Netscape helped bring the world to every man on the planet and made it possible for any person sitting anywhere in the world to compete with any other person. Without this flattener, it would not have been possible for a person sitting in India to do the same work done by someone in Indiana.
“Netscape”, in this context does not just refer to the browser, but also to the internet, internet protocols and the underlying infrastructure which has made it possible for anyone, anywhere in the world to go online. According to Friedman, it all decided when Netscape went public on 8/9/95. Internet had existed for sometime before that, but browser made it easier for even the common man to view any file and made the internet truly interoperable.
However, internet had existed for some years before Netscape was developed. During these years, before internet went commercial, scientists developed a series of “open protocols” which made it possible different networks to connect seamlessly with one another. These protocols are well known today and are referred to as FTP, HTTP, SSL, SMTP, POP and TCP/IP. Together they allow transfer of data within networks in a relatively secure manner.
But Internet and browser alone were not enough to make the world flat. It also required a very strong underlying infrastructure. This came in the form of millions of miles of fiber-optic cables laid all around the globe. Fiber optics can carry digitized data much farther and faster than the copper cables. Since 1977, fiber-optics have been slowly replacing the copper wires.
However, in the late 1990s, at the height of the dot-com boom, companies felt that the demand for internet was going to grow infinitely and the organization with the largest capacity would prove to be the most successful. This led to a competition among the companies to lay fiber-optic cable around the world, resulting in an over-capacity. When the dot-com bubble burst, many of these companies went bankrupt and other companies were able to buy this infrastructure for a fraction of the cost.
The fiber optics brought the internet to every corner of the world. It was an investment by some companies which proved to be a gift for the rest of the world. Even today, the full capacity of these fiber-optic cables has not been realized. Since these cables provide us with a high bandwidth, and allow us to transmit huge amounts of data, anyone, anywhere in the world can make complex software and instantly transmit it to a client sitting in some other part of the world.
This has allowed organizations to scout the world for people and geographies which can provide the best talent at the lowest cost and use these people get any work done at a fraction of the cost. All of the other flatteners, besides the falling of the Berlin wall, are directly or indirectly, dependent on the networks provided by this infrastructure. This makes the internet the most important flattener of the ten flatteners listed by Friedman.
As stated in the earlier chapter, perhaps the most important invention of the recent times was the internet. However, internet had existed for almost two decades but real flattening of the world started only after 2000. This according to Friedman is because even though the technology existed for some time, it had to come together before it could become useful. Friedman calls this the triple convergence. According to him technology alone is not enough to bring about a change. In order to really make a difference, people must also accept and understand this technology. The various technologies should come together and complement each other. He then goes on to explain the triple convergence in details.
The first convergence, according to Friedman, is the coming together of the ten flatteners. Almost all the flatteners had been around for some time. However, in order to make a difference, they had to come together complement and reinforce each other. This coming together took time and finally started to happen around 2000. This first convergence resulted in the creation a Web-enabled world allowing collaboration of different kinds. People were able to share knowledge and work in real time irrespective of their physical location. This was the first convergence point which helped to make the world flatter.
The second convergence point was using this new technology to come up with new ways of doing business. It is not just enough for a technology to exist. For it to make a difference, it should be used in a way so that it can help improve the profits. Just installing a computer in the office will not improve productivity. For that to often, people will have to use the technology in such a way so that it increases productivity. And that requires building the infrastructure around the technology.
And for that to happens, the managers, CEOs, workers etc. of a company have to feel comfortable around the new technology. Adopting and getting used to a new technology takes time. So even though the ten flatteners had been around for years, it was only when people started to get comfortable with the new technology that they started building their businesses around it. And when that happened, it drastically improved the productivity. This is what Friedman calls the second convergence, that is, the collaboration of people with the technology.
Once the new technology started being accepted by the west, it soon became available to the billions of people in countries like India, China, Russia and Latin America. The ten flatteners ensured that they did not have to step out of their countries, or indeed their homes, in order to benefit from the latest technology. A person sitting in his home or office in India could do the same work that another person employed by a big corporate in the US could do. However, due the differences of wages, corporate saw more value in outsourcing the work than getting it done in house. This was the third convergence.
Thus, although the ten flatteners had been around for some time, it was only when they came together as a result of triple convergence that they started to have an impact on the global economy. This triple convergence was coming together of the ten flatteners, wide adoption of the related technology by people and its wide availability to anyone and everyone who was willing to exploit the opportunities made available by the flatteners.
The Quiet Crisis
After explaining in details the flattening of the world, Friedman goes on to discuss its implications for the American society. According to him, just because the US has been the leader of innovation for almost two centuries, it does not mean it will continue to lead in the future. He is of the opinion that Americans today are complacent and lack the ambition to achieve something new. Most Americans have got used to the luxuries of life and take them for granted. While the US is still the leading innovator, it is likely to lose this position within the next 15-20 years if something is not done about it soon.
The reason why the US is set to lose its advantage is because the number of people adopting for science or engineering careers is steadily falling today. Friedman lists what he calls the three “Dirty Little Secrets” which he feels will eventually lead to the US losing its position as the leader of innovations. The first of these secrets is the “Number Gap”. What Friedman means by this is that there is a huge gap between the number of scientists and engineers required over the next 15-20 years and the number of students in middle school that opt for science and mathematics.
As he points out, it takes about 15 years for a high school student to get qualified enough to start making cutting edge contributions. What it means is that if something is not done immediately to bridge this gap, in fifteen years there will not be enough scientists and engineers in the country to maintain the US at as the lead innovator of the world.
The second secret is “The Ambition Gap”. Today’s children do not have the ambition to achieve something great in life. They are content to get a simple job and then go from year to year doing mediocre work. One of the reasons why more an more companies are outsourcing is not just because of the lower wages in the Asian countries but also because of better productivity. People in these countries are filled with ambitions and do not mind working eighteen hours a day and take very few leaves. On the other hand, this same drive is missing among the Americans.
The third secret mentioned by Friedman is the “Education Gap”. The people in India and China are about as educated as the people in the US and sometime even more so. This means that the same work can be done by the person sitting in China. Unfortunately, for the Americans, the Asians are educating themselves a lot more than the Americans are and this leading to the so called education gap.
In my opinion, this “Quiet Crisis” mentioned by Friedman is a real crisis and if something is not done about it soon, the crisis can become really. There several things that can be done in order to avert this crisis. The first and the most important is to make people aware that crisis is brewing so that can prepare themselves for it. We have to understand that the reason why the US is the only superpower today is because for centuries we have been at the cutting edge of technology. However, we cannot continue to be lead innovators we stop innovating. In order to compete in the flat world, we cannot afford to be complacent.
Next we must instill in our children the burning desire to achieve something in life. For this the parents and the schools need to come together and make children ambitious and want to aim for a Nobel prize. Finally, instead of lamenting that our jobs are being stolen by the Asians, we should upgrade ourselves so that we can compete with them in an increasingly flat world. Instead of fighting a costly battle with the foreigners, the time has come for the US to start fighting its own internal battle. The biggest threat to the US is not from the terrorists but from out own complacency.
The Right Profession
As pointed out by Friedman, in the flat world any job which can be outsourced will be outsourced. Many jobs such as call center jobs, low-end programming jobs and manufacturing jobs are already being outsourced. In fact in another five to ten years these jobs will have completely disappeared from the US. Other jobs which are being outsourced include jobs such as routine Research and Development, back office work, such as number crunching and even tax preparation.
In fact, any job which requires mediocrity will be lost to Asia in a few years from now. In order to survive in such a situation, a person will either have to start their own business, super specialize in a field or constantly keep upgrading themselves in view of the increasing global competition. In these times, the only job a mediocre person can hope to get is serving tables at a local restaurant. But anyone who is willing to rise above mediocrity will have to make some heavy intellectual investment immediately and continuously.
In view of the fast changing world scenario, if I had a chose profession which would see me through the increasingly flat world, it would have to be one which cannot be outsourced. Some of the options which immediately come to mind is a tax consultant (and not a tax preparer), a scientist or an engineer, or a CEO of a company. In view of my present education, of these options, perhaps the best for me would be to try and reach the top management of a multinational company.
As a top manager in a global company, I would be at the cutting edge of technology. The constant competition from other companies would keep me on my toes and force me to constantly upgrade myself and my company. Also, at this position, I will be better able to make a difference to the society.
As a top manager, in a global company, I will have to keep abreast with what is happening around me. Which means that another incident, like the flattening of the world, will not catch me unaware. In fact, such a position, I will probably be instrumental in bringing about such huge changes. One thing to be remembered is that the change is the only constant.
In view of this fact, the best job for me would be one where I do not follow a change but actually lead any change or innovation, As such, the best job for me, given the circumstances is to become the top manager in a Fortune 500 company. And in order to achieve this, I will need to constantly upgrade myself, specialize and super specialize and not let the world and its innovations take me by surprise.
The book “The World Is Flat” is an eye-opener. Although, we are all aware of the changes that have been taking place around us, the book puts these changes in a perspective and allows us to see what mistakes we are making. The book helped me realize that outsourcing is just one of the problems facing this nation. And it is in fact a symptom of a bigger and a far worse problem facing us. And that problem is complacency.
We have got used to resting on the achievements of the generation gone by and our own contribution to the society is minimal. We take a good life for granted but do not realize how are parents worked hard to achieve it. As a result of our complacency, we may soon find many more works are being snatched from us. We have to realize that in today’s world, we compete globally and hence should prepare ourselves for this challenge.
Although the entire book had many interesting things to say, the one section which especially intrigued me was the one on “Quiet Crisis”. Friedman has rightly pointed out that crisis is slowly and quietly brewing up into storm while we are blissfully unaware of it. I would like to re-read the section to get a better understanding of the problems facing our nation so that I am better prepared to face it in future endeavors.
Friedman, T. (2005). Thw World is Flat: A Brief history of the Globalized World in the 21st Century. Penguin Books.