Monday, May 08, 2006

A Critical Approach to Friedman: When Man and Metaphor Fall Flat

Thomas Friedman’s best seller, “The World is Flat,” is currently sending major shock waves through the economic world. With 1.5 million copies sold as of February[1], an astounding number of people have read this book and raved about it. On Friedman’s website, a Publisher’s Weekly review praises the book for its “reporting and intimate yet accessible analysis that have been hard to come by. Add in Friedman's winning first-person interjections and masterful use of strategic wonksterisms, and this book should end up on the front seats of quite a few Lexuses and SUVs of all stripes.”[2] But a quick search through databases, like Academic Search Premier, reveals a dearth of critical commentary beyond book reviews in the humanities regarding Friedman’s work.

In some ways, it would be very easy for the English professor or the Historian to dismiss the book as an economic text. The book does argue for a form of globalization, glocalization if one will, that creates equality for those willing to play by the western rules of business. This argument is based on the nurturing of specific western cultural and business norms throughout the developing world. Why is it essential that academics in the humanities focus on such a book at a time when so many scholars are working to define the relatively new interdisciplinary field of American studies?

Two reasons immediately become immediately obvious upon a cursory examination of the book. First, in making his argument, Friedman’s counterintuitive model of a flattened Earth is used metaphorically to describe the effects of technology worldwide. Although it makes a catchy title, the metaphor is both colonial in it’s subtext and flawed through its exclusion of millions of the world’s impoverished and voiceless. And second, the book the book’s mass culture appeal is redefining words that are used to delineate and entire philosophical and economical system.

Flat Metaphor

Since it makes up his title, it seems fitting to begin with Thomas Friedman’s metaphor of a flat world. Since early antiquity, progressive elements of humanity have operated under the belief that the world was round and any who may have doubted soon found themselves at the margins of society as voyages of Columbus and later on Magellan proved beyond question that the world was indeed a globe.[3] But in 2005 that idea was challenged as Friedman set out to prove the opposite, at least in metaphorical terms. According to Friedman, three eras of global activity shrunk the world and flattened it creating the potential for developed nations and developing nations to compete on an even playing field. Economically speaking, time and discussion will tell if the metaphor is apt. But, as piece of popular writing that has captured the public eye, this metaphor is flawed if not misleading in two aspects.

The first flaw in this metaphor comes from its colonial based tenor. Starting with his title, Friedman attempts to create a radical revision in the way the general population views the global landscape. Friedman fails to account for the inherent relationship between perceptions of landscape and modes of representation, as pointed out by Don Mitchell in Progress in Human Geography. Mitchell, while discussing the landscape of feudal monarchs, argues that found within the landscape itself are “the transformation of the landscape polity and the modes of representation embodied in the landscape.”[4] By “flattening the world” as an American and then investigating this phenomena from the American perspective, Friedman’s vehicle, the Earth, becomes uniformly flat with the exception of America – the empire whose representative is now defining the new economics-based polity, which represents countries only by economic measures. In a truly flat world, no individual sovereignty would have the elevated perspective needed to make this assertion.

This creates a situational contradiction when Friedman talks about the leveling, or flattening, of the military playing field.[5] Friedman is, as Siddharth Varadarajan observed in his review of The World is Flat, standing “in a country that has just been flattened by the U.S.” while making that observation.[6]

This first flaw raises a question that scholars need to address: intent. On his website, the description of The World is Flat, claims that Friedman is working to “demystifies the brave new world for readers, allowing them to make sense of the often bewildering global scene unfolding before their eyes.”[7] There is nothing inherently wrong in this, as the intended goal of most popular nonfiction writing is that of elucidation. But working within the tenor of an altered landscape, The World is Flat faces the charge of being an Americentric text working to promote the advancement of the American empire. In this hegemonic vein, Mitchell argues that for a ruling power to takeover a landscape, it must “be diverted to a different purpose, and through that a new mage of the polity constructed.”[8] This change of landscape, according to Mitchell must “remake the physical environment so it reflected a different kind of polity. The trick was to destroy the landscape in order to ‘improve’ it – and in the process to instill a new relationship between land, law and justice.” Friedman’s newly reshaped landscape clears the way for the construction of an argument based on Friedman working under a thesis that is intentionally not advocating for a diversity of economic practices working in unison, but for countries to homogenize – assuming America sets the standard that other countries are expected to conform to.

Then there is the argument opened up by this flawed metaphor that the Economist proposed when reviewing his book in March of 2005. According to the Economist’s unnamed reviewer, Friedman’s text is “such a dreary failure,” rife with “imprecision” that goes beyond the title of the text. The reviewer feels that beyond lacking any new arguments about modern economics, readers will be troubled by the “sloppiness” that permeates the text. The review argues that by “flat” Friedman means “smaller,” and that Friedman has been caught up by the wit of his title and “shows his readers no mercy, proceeding to flog this inaccurate and empty image to death over hundreds of pages.” [9] When a respected economics-focused periodical berates a work not just for its contribution to the discourse but also for its flawed trope, one must ask if perhaps Friedman, rather than pushing an Americentric agenda, discovered that he could wax eloquently for 469 pages on a subject that he knows little about. After all, in chapter one he argues that all of this globalization took place while he was sleeping.

The second flaw in his metaphor rests in his definition of the world and is closely related to the homogenization problems of the first flaw. According to Friedman, Globalization 3.0 creates an environment where the “plug and play” abilities of modern communication devices allow for “every color of the human rainbow to take part.”[10] This sort of metaphoric generalization, the world is everybody and everybody can plug in, marginalizes people around the world who find that connection to these communication devices challenge their traditional concepts of the world.

One example of this can be found in Catholicism. As a religious tradition, the Catholic Church took several years to accept the Internet as no-sinful means by which it could use in its ministry. Until World Communications Day, 2002, Catholics could not reach a consensus on this issue. On that day, Pope John Paul II released a statement saying that the Internet was “a new forum for proclaiming the Gospel.” He then wrote that “on this World Communications Day, I dare to summon the whole Church bravely to cross this new threshold.”[11]

Without making value judgments about wisdom of an organization to move at such a speed to accept technology, it must be recognized that every human has the basic right to representation. And, in this case, Friedman’s flattened world excludes those who are unable to plug in for cultural/religious reasons. Additionally, a second class of people also seem be missing in Friedman’s world. Those who can’t connect for economic reasons.

A review by Roberto J. Gonzalez, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, published in the San Francisco Chronicle noted the absence of this large and diverse group via the prism of his local region throughout the bulk of Friedman’s work:

Not until the final chapters does he acknowledge that most Indians and Chinese still live in poverty. He never mentions that the gap between rich and poor in both India and China is widening. Nor does he dwell on the fact that many of the companies that have laid off thousands of Bay Area employees (Santa Clara County alone lost 231,000 jobs between 2000 and 2004) have replaced them with workers in Asia.[12]

It is an essential responsibility of scholars working within the humanities to recognize that while this book has popular appeal, there is a counter study that needs to be examined. Economist need to ask what the Santa Clara County numbers look like when extrapolated globally. Anthropologist and sociologist need to ask what effect, on society as a whole, does this form of economic displacement have. And, literary critics need to examine how somebody can use such a flawed metaphor and gain such mass market success.

The Semiotic Argument

Popularized in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith defined a capitalist economic system as one that encourages a market to function on its own without government interference, hence the nearly synonymous term free trade (trade free from government involvement).[13] In its platonic form, this hands-off economic policy establishes a system where market forces set the fairest prices for items. But this pure form suffers the same fate as do so many theoretical systems: It does not exist in its platonic form within the real world.[14] Internationally, governments are wrestling with conflicts arising from experiments in capitalism. This interference goes against the free market ideals of capitalism and has lead to the creation of the term “mixed capitalism,” which is used to define a capitalistic system with a limited amount of government involvement.[15] While mixed capitalism implies levels of government involvement that fall far short of a socialist government, it does have some traces of government control over business by the inclusion of oversights that include antitrust legislation and the ability for the government to act as a stabilizer during economic downturns or upheavals.

Mixed capitalism and free trade are the key drivers of Friedman’s economic theory. When outlining how companies can make align themselves with his flattened world perspective, he quotes directly from Doing Business in 2004, an International Finance Corporation report, saying “Good regulation does not mean zero regulation […] The optimal level of regulation is not none but may be less that what is currently found in most countries, and especially poor ones.”[16] Friedman does not challenge this report in any way. Rather, he uses it quite liberally to support his arguments. He then argues, in the next section of the same chapter, that an essential ingredient in achieving this balance must come from a societal ability to be open to other cultures; societies must be able to glocalize.[17]

This is extremely logical: For a global market system to work equally for everybody in a mixed capitalist society, than cultural differences and national sovereignty must take a back seat to economic and corporate governance organizations established to maintain a flattened world. It requires the individual to think about what’s best for his her self, not in the context of his or her nation but within a global context. In The World is Flat, Friedman writes as a proponent of limited government involvement within a capitalist market system (mixed capitalism) creating flat global playing fields. He argues that countries must be willing to glocalize, to be open to outside influences, if they wish to experience economic growth. To do this, according to Friedman, a country must be willing to think beyond the tribal concept of “me, my brother, and my cousin against the outsider” to “me and my brother and my cousin, three friends from childhood, four people in Australia, two in Beijing, six in Bangalore, three from Germany and four people we’ve met only over the Internet all make up a single global supply chain.”[18] For the end of this equation to actualize, “me” must view people from Australia, Bangalore, Beijing, Germany, and the Internet as being equals who each specialize in a particular process of that chain. It requires a shift in thought that minimizes nationalistic concerns for the neighbor next door for a more globalistic approach where one is concerned for the neighbor 3,000 miles away; political divisions stop being points of community identification and become mere tags denoting physical location.

This is where Friedman crashes into a semiotic wall: he finds himself repeatedly unable to discuss free trade through one definition. As he works to establish one particular sign (free trade)/signifier (glocalization) relationship to discuss economic reform in other countries, he is unable to maintain this relationship when discussing his views on America’s relationship to free trade. Rather, he begins that discussion of free trade with “will it benefit America as a whole,”[19] a step back from the global supply chain and a step closer to tribalism. Friedman builds an argument that a country must be ready to glocalize but can only question the effects of such glocalization in terms of what effect it will have on those people of his nationality, not of those people within his global supply chain.

For academics and scholars within the humanities, this creates an important trouble spot that needs to be either reconciled or discredited. Friedman has created two different definitions of a relationship: One for members of his nation, which bases the definition on how the relationship will benefit him and those with his national identity; and a second definition for the world that asks how they will help those connected regardless of their national identity. This raises several questions, which, because of the books huge popularity and potential for an equally large impact on public policy, the various branches of academia need to address: While recognizing that English is a living language, how does one discuss a text like The World is Flat when one of its key drivers is operating under two contradictory definitions? Does this dual definition represent, at the minimum, a singular Americentric slip on Friedman’s part or does he believe that in today’s flattened world America should be a pinnacle, which demands the examination of this text as a work from an empire operating within a colonial world

These two reasons focus on Friedman’s usage of flawed literary devices and his questionable understanding of basic semiotics from the perspective of contemporary literary criticism but they open the door for renewed inspection from the historic, anthropologic and economic perspectives. It is important to note that while the occasional reference to these just mentioned perspectives is unavoidable, it is the responsibility of each of the fields and not that of this paper to take up the arguments within the areas of their expertise

[1] Nayan Chandra, “An Interview with Thomas L. Friedman,” Yale Global Online, 23 February 2006, (29 April 2006).

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, “The World is Flat,” Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times “foreign affairs” columnist and author of “The World is Flat”, April 2005, (1 May 2006).

[3] According to the Wikipedia entry, “Flat Earth,” the misconception that people before the age of exploration believed that Earth was flat entered the popular imagination after Washington Irving's publication of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828.

[4] Don Mitchell, “Cultural landscapes: just landscapes or landscapes of justice?” Progress in Human Geography 27, no. 6 (2003): 788.

[5] Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 39.

[6] Siddharth Varadarajan, “But the World’s still round,” The Hindu, 2 August 2005, (28 April 2006).

[7] Thomas L. Friedman, “The World is Flat,” Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times “foreign affairs” columnist and author of “The World is Flat”, April 2005, (1 May 2006).

[8] Mitchell, 788.

[9] Anthony Gottlieb, ed., “Confusing Columbus,”, 31 March 2005, (4 May 2006).

[10] Friedman, 11.

[11] “What Pope John Paul II said about the Internet,” Michael, (4 May 2006).

[12] Roberto J. Gonzalez, “Falling Flat,” San Francisco Chronicle, (15 May 2005) (22 April 2006).

[13] Marc Becker, “Terms and Definitions,” Illinois State University, (17 November 1998) (20 April 2006).

[14] John Petroff, “Chapter 4: Mixed Capitalism,” Professional Education Organization International, (2002) (20 April 2006).

[15] Credit Research Foundation, (20 April 2006).

[16] Friedman, 321.

[17] Friedman, 324 – 329.

[18] Friedman, 326.

[19] Friedman, 225. Emphasis his.

For a complete bibliography and/or permission to use the above text beyond the terms of fair use, please contact the author, Joseph R. Thompson, by email


Anonymous said...

Good try, but your attempt to discredit The World Is Flat falls short on a number of levels.

First, Friedman does in fact mention people who cannot access computers briefly, but does not dwell on them because in view of his economic theory, they are expendable. Those people are not and cannot be players on the global level so why mention them.

Secondly, Friedman changes his definition of free trade as you call it because he calls Americans to examine the consequences of a flat world on a number of levels; That is not only what is best for me and my people, but also what is best for me and people as a whole regardless of their nationality.

I contend that Americans with the economic power will start adopting a more global point of view merely for economic reasons. In a movie I once saw, a character said, "What is the answer to 99 out of 100 questions. Money." Why should David Glass (ex-CEO of wal-mart) care more about the people of South Carolina than China, when China is more critical to Wal-Mart than South Carolina. Why should I care about people in Indiana losing jobs when people in India are better equipped and willing to work for less to do the same work. Perhaps that will motivate those Indianans who lost their jobs to become more specialized and therefor more valuable in the global sense.

I agree that The title is slightly flawed in that America must not be flat is we are seeing the world as flat.

Nice work but sometimes your sentence structure becomes a little too convoluted. It is not nearly as the syntax in some articles I have read though.

email me at if you have a response.

JRFT said...

Thank you for your comment - I like knowing that I do have some readers.

I take issue with only one point though: My attempt is not to discredit the work. I need to make that totally clear.

As I say in the essay, I am trying to draw the attention of scholars in the humanities to a book mostly examined by economist.

This is a fine and important distinction. To discredit a work implies the work is no longer worthy of discussion after illuminating its flaws. An attempt to generate discussion around a particular work implies there are important aspects to the work that need to be thoroughly examined and critiqued. And hopefully, during the discussions we can better understand the work and how to fit it into the global canon.

That being said, several of my sources do attempt to discredit the book. These sources include the review by the Economist Magazine, just to name one example.

Joseph R. Thompson

Concerned citizen said...

Talk bout the story under the story

I went looking for reviews on the World is Flat as I pick up the updated edition. My intent was to see what's new in the new version.

I am interested in how various people have interpreted the book and the lenses that they look thru reading it.

Here are my observations.
1. The title of the book is catchy enough and simple enough to get some people to read it that may not normally have read it.
2. He could have gone into a lot more detail on the poverty-wealth, abused-advantaged however, I think this is another book - and there are many that cover this.
3. This books focuses on getting people - our kids, our decision makers, our citizens, ... - to wake-up and discuss what is happening to us and to the world.
4. Technology IS one of a key number of factors that has and is flattening the world - I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit since the 80s - and the changes are close to exponential - I could write a book.
5. Our leaders in politics and business in our North American countries can set us up for failure or success - if we outsource too much the wrong way, we are likely to head towards our people losing out in the years to come - some will win, many more will lose
6. we need to wake-up and talk about it - much more and more often - this will also lead to discussion around the poverty and abuse which can get worse or better depending on approach - I know this may be trite - but this again could be a chapter
7. we need to make the list of options on the World is Flat wikipedia site on how we can succeed thru the coming outsourcing changes - we can't stop them - but we can do them in a smarter way - if we want to - and legislation could help guide us
8. other countries have sent their people to our countries to learn from us - we need to lean from them as well - our kids and their kids need us to talk about this more now
9. forget the metaphors - forget the writing style - forget what is wrong with te book - focus on picking out the underlying message - which we do need to talk about - we need to either regroup on our approach or .... others will and are regrouping on us ...
10. the changes that are happening are actually allowing the poor to make a difference – even though it is small groups today – changes are happening – to borrow from another book, the Tipping Point is quickly coming upon us – I personally hope that it will be towards more positive than negative for us –

Today I am not sure which is winning – this is one heck of a way to play a strategy game. We need to get our kids to be non-complacent and have a sense of invention and contribution to maintain and hopefully grow our place in the world economy. Talk bout the story under the story

Anonymous said...

In my search for other viewpoint, I came across this blog. I appreciate your post and comments. I am a fifth grade teacher in Texas, in a school district that is very advanced when it comes to technology. I choose this school district because of its commitment to technology. However, I learned quickly that what students need the most are a "world view" and a tolerant nature.
I have just read Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat. He basically believes that technology has flattened or leveled the world and made it possible for any individual to use their imagination and energy to succeed in this global world.

It was an interesting read. He believes that his world view is global, but he still is writing history from a "western" viewpoint. What I did like about the book - is that it is waking Americans up to the realization that we all - every person who breaths - we are all humans and that we each have the capability to use our talents to end up on an equal economic and technological plain- without the influence or help of western nations. Friedman and many in the west, think that if the other people in the world come into "our" influence and sphere - they will be influenced enough to make these transformations. This is flawed thinking that continues to anger and frustrate those around the world. Civilization started in the East. We are still the "New World" and we have a great deal to learn about humility and humanity.

Where did Columbus come up with the skills to travel west? From the Middle Eastern and African explorers that had the ideas and skills - centuries before the "barbaric" Europeans. Every part of our western "history" is flawed by our pride. Take agricultural history. Do we ever consider the starving people in early Colonies and how the Native Americans taught them how to plant and yield a good harvest? Do we hear about the farmers in the Western Coastal States who were jealous of the Japanese-Americans whose crops yielded more fruit, because of ancient practices coming from the East? I do not want to get into an "Us versus Them" argument - "Western versus Eastern" - "Old World" versus "New World". The birthplace of all civilization comes from areas of our world that we look down on. We are all humans, bleed the same blood and have the same human brains and if we do not have that view of other humans, our viewpoint is flawed and will only cause more chaos and division.

Friedman in interviews keeps saying that when he was young, he was told to eat everything on his plate because people in China were starving. Now he tells his children, "Do your homework... people in China are starving for your job". Yes, this is waking Americans up! Friendman is using "shock" tactics and anecdotes that stick in your mind - to wake up America. He is speaking in a language that everyone can understand and he is a great "motivational" speaker. After you read the book, listen to him speak... you want to learn more, you want to go out and become prepared for the "uncertain" future. Like so many leaders in the west - we think the only way to motivate or reach Americans is from the angle of "fear".

I hold a very simplistic belief -that if we all loved each other or at least were tolerant with each other, the world could and would live in peace. For the sake of future generations, I will continue to hope and pray for tolerance. Every year my fifth grade students write to other children around the world and we send and receive "cultural" packages from many countries. Yes technology is making this exchange easier but before technology we had snail mail and pen pals. The lessons the students learned are the same then as now. We are all human and each person's culture, viewpoint, and history is to be honored and respected. We don't have to agree on everything but we do have to share the same planet.

Until tolerance and love bring peace to the nations of the world, until the wars stop, the poor are fed, the leaders become servants, - well until then - the world is not flat enough. Technology has flattened our world but it will be love and caring that really finish the job.

(Writer: Seven years as teacher; Graduate of Global Business Institute, University of Tennessee; Twenty years working with refugees from Eastern Block countries and Russia; traveled to every continent except Antarctica.)

Anonymous said...

In a movie I once saw, a character said, "What is the answer to 99 out of 100 questions. Money."

That was Tom Cruise (as David Aimes) in the movie "Vanilla Sky". A good fantasy drama with some hilarious scenes (and Penelope Cruz!).

Did anyone see Friedman on TIm Russert a few months back? The facial expression on Russert, always leads me to believe that he eats up anything his guests say (whether or not that's true)!