On Saturday, November 11, New York Times Foreign Affairs Columnist Thomas L. Friedman spoke at Three On The Bund as part of the Three Talk Lecture Series which was co-hosted by the Penguin Group, publisher of Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat (TWIF). When the globe-trotter, Friedman comes to Shanghai, it is clear how much he travels by the fact that he seems to be unsure of exactly where he is, as in one instance, he spoke of Three On The Bund “here in Beijing.” In all, Friedman spoke on his book for about 52 minutes and then followed with a 36 minute Q&A session at the conclusion of which he was presented with a bizarre statuette of himself standing atop a flat world with the words “GEO GREEN” affixed to a pink base and surrounded by the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.
According to Friedman, the book was the child of happenstance, but it had nothing to do with a rubber band. In January of 2004, he had settled on “Why does everyone hate America?” as his next Discovery Channel documentary, when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, in his overtly phony and obtusely manipulative manner, began talking about “Benedict Arnold CEOs,” comparing CEOs who outsource jobs to places like India and China with the most famous traitor in American history. It was at that point that Friedman elected to make a documentary called “The Other Side of Outsourcing,” and it was in an interview with Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Indian software giant Infosys, that Nilekani explained to Friedman that the “global playing field is being leveled and you Americans are not ready.” Therefrom came TWIF, which Friedman completed between March and December of 2004.
Today, after a mere 83 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, we have no doubt that Friedman could give his stump speech in his sleep — probably posthumously, too — and that is exactly what he did on Saturday. Generally, the talk was a bit drawn-out, highly anecdotal, at times patronizing, and essentially a summary of the first 200 pages of his nearly 500 page book. Friedman tends to speak to the audience as if it were composed entirely of children, the elderly, or primitive village people, who are completely unfamiliar with the basic trappings of modern living. Continually, throughout his speech he employed the intonation of papa-bear to deliver his trademark antithetical: “You see, when the world was round…, but when the world is flat…” Likewise, for affect he intentionally understates his audience’s technical prowess when he explains that “suddenly, we’re able access files on the internet using something called a browser,” and he repeatedly refers to UPS employees as “people in funny brown shorts.” You can’t help but feel that Friedman is speaking to the audience in much the same manner that he might tell his children bedtime stories, which in an innocently obnoxious way, underscores the fact that he is revealing what he believes to be fundamental truths about the world in a way that anyone can understand. And in spite of the glacial pace of his speech and calculated over-simplification, Friedman does offer some highly enlightened points.
The entire speech runs about 1 hour 28 minutes (some noise).
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Friedman argues that there have been three phases of globalization, which he refers to as 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. Why the need for a decimal place? We can only imagine that he demands two orders of magnitude to suggest how closely his subject is tied to information technology. Likewise, he refers to the different editions of TWIF using the same unorthodox system. Friedman’s nomenclature aside, he describes the three phases of globalization as 1.0 1492 – 1800, when nations globalized; 2.0 1800 – 2000, when corporations globalized; 3.0 2000 to present, when individuals globalized. The third phase, Friedman says, was largely missed by the public due to a “perfect storm” in the media as a consequence of 9/11, the Enron scandal, and the Iraq War. Therefore, as the public was “sleeping,” businesses, governments, and other organizations have been implementing the infrastructure that is fundamentally changing the world.
Specifically, Friedman points to ten flatteners, or events, technologies, and systems that have brought about the present global environment which include the following: 11/9/89 (the fall of the Berlin Wall); 8/9/95 (the IPO of Netscape); Work Flow Software; Open-Sourcing; Outsourcing; Offshoring; Supply-Chaining; Insourcing; In-forming; and Steroids (mobile technologies). At least, these are the “flatteners” as he named them in TWIF 1.0; however, in his speech on Saturday, he expanded the list to include “Uploading,” which he claims is the “most revolutionary form of all” the flatteners, which includes blogging (ahem), YouTube, Linux, Firefox, Wikipedia, et al. Friedman also makes some effort to connect the flatteners into a chain of events that goes something like this: The Berlin wall fell and so ended the Cold War which removed barriers that had divided the world, bringing 3 billion new players (India, China, and the Soviet Union) onto the field. At the same time, there was a revolution in information technology that empowered individuals to become authors of their own content. This was then followed by the IPO of Netscape which set-off the internet investment bubble that created a $1 trillion over-investment in fiber-optic cable which connected the world’s institutions, corporations, and individuals together in a way that allowed for the leveraging the personal computer platform into new forms of collaboration and innovation. The innovation and collaboration that he refers to includes most of the remaining items on his list of flatteners.
Ultimately, Friedman predicts that there is, on the near horizon, a hyperbolic increase in the productivity of labor globally, but much like the productivity gains realized from the “invention” of electricity, the gains realized from our new information infrastructure will take some time to come to fruition as our educational systems, buildings, cities, transportation systems, etc., are being upgraded to take advantage of these tools. Furthermore, Friedman, says the world has moved from “vertical to horizontal,” and it is largely inconsequential whether a job is performed in Brooklyn, Berlin, Bangalore, or Beijing. In fact, there are no longer any jobs that will be reserved for people in developed countries, and instead, jobs will simply go the locations where productivity is highest and labor is cheapest. To that end, he adds ominously, that if you have a good idea, do it today. In a flattened world, “whatever can be done will be done. The question is, will it be done by you or to you.”