A New Voyage of Discovery

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York

To come right to the main point of this review: Thomas Friedman's brilliant catch phase, book title and powerfully developed new thesis — "The World is Flat" — is yet another reaffirmation of what Bahá'u'lláh said about 150 years ago when He declared that “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

That's not to say there is nothing new in Mr. Friedman's latest book. The World Is Flat is a wide-ranging examination of how trends and technologies like freedom, the Internet, and open-source software are converging to make it possible for educated people everywhere to compete with the best and the brightest in North America and Europe . And that is changing everything, for people everywhere, much more quickly than had been previously imagined.

Mr. Friedman, a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for the New York Times , says the convergence of these trends and technologies is “flattening” the world. They create a “level playing field” where companies and individuals now successfully compete in the global market regardless of location.

Mr. Friedman is by now an acknowledged expert on globalization, having outlined its impact in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree . There he argued that globalization had become “the dominant international system at the end of the twentieth century — replacing the Cold War system…”

This thesis is further developed in The World Is Flat, adding this idea: the acceleration of globalization has now empowered not just countries but individuals to a degree never before thought possible.

He identifies three successive waves of globalization. The first was powered by trade between the Old World and the New World from 1492 until about 1800. The second was powered by the Industrial Revolution and spearheaded by multinational companies, running from 1800 to 2000.

“I argue in this book that around the year 2000 we entered a whole new era: Globalization 3.0,” writes Mr. Friedman. “Globalization 3.0 is shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time.

“And while the dynamic force in Globalization 1.0 was countries globalizing and the dynamic force in Globalization 2.0 was companies globalizing, the dynamic force in globalization 3.0 — the thing that gives it its unique character — is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally.

“And the lever that is enabling individuals and groups to go global so easily and so seamlessly is not horsepower, and not hardware, but software — all sorts of new applications — in conjunction with the creation of a global fiber-optic network that has made us all next-door neighbors.”

Mr. Friedman then identifies “the ten forces that flattened the world.” These include: the fall of the Berlin Wall, which allowed us “to think about the world as a single market, a single ecosystem, and a single community”; the creation of the Netscape browser, which opened the Internet to everyone; the development of workflow software, which allowed individuals anywhere to collaborate on projects; and the scramble to fix the Y2K millennium “bug,” which caused the first big outsourcing of computer programming when companies needed software quickly rewritten.

Mr. Friedman then focuses on how this convergence of trends and technologies has given a huge boost to two countries: India and China . With relatively vast populations of highly educated individuals eager to make their way into the global marketplace, these two countries are positioned to become the business and technological superpowers of the 21st century.

For example, he quotes the mayor of the Chinese city of Dalian, Xia Deren, in describing Chinese ambitions at becoming a software powerhouse: “First we will have our young people employed by the foreigners, and then we will start our own companies. It is like building a building. Today, the U.S., you are the designers, the architects, and the developing countries are the bricklayers for the buildings. But one day I hope we will be the architects.”

The middle part of the book deals primarily with how America must refashion itself if it is to survive in his new flattened world. Among other things, he would like America to invest more in scientific education, and to adopt policies that encourage innovation and leadership, such as a crash program for alternative energy and conservation.

The last section deals with how this flattening process is affecting more than business relationships. He suggests, for example, that “flatism” in part accounts for the rise of Islamic radicalism.

“One of the unintended consequences of the flat world is that it puts different societies and cultures in much greater direct contact with one another,” writes Mr. Friedman, noting that some cultures thrive on the opportunities for collaboration while others are “threatened, frustrated, and even humiliated” by this close contact.

“When Muslim radicals and fundamentalists look at the West, they see only the openness that makes us, in their eyes, decadent and promiscuous,” writes Mr. Friedman. And, “if openness, women's empowerment, and freedom of thought and inquiry are the real sources of the West's economic strength, then the Arab-Muslim world would have to change. And the fundamentalists and extremists do not want to change.”

As indicated at the start of this review, Bahá'ís are likely to find much in this book that will seem familiar.

Bahá'u'lláh was unquestionably the world's first true globalist — a vision that Bahá'ís understand came through Divine inspiration. He clearly foresaw — to borrow Mr. Friedman's terminology — a “flattening” of the world such that humanity would come to recognize that it is a single race, living for all practical purposes in a single country — a country that is the planet itself.

Bahá'u'lláh also identified some of the new requirements for peace and prosperity in a globalized era. These include religious harmony, equality for women, a supreme emphasis on education, and an embrace of diversity.

For example, Mr. Friedman says that the flat world will be driven by a much more diverse group of players. “Individuals from every corner of the flat world are being empowered. Globalization 3.0 makes it possible for so many more people to plug and play, and you're going to see every color of the human rainbow take part.”

Bahá'u'lláh very clearly envisioned a future where all the peoples of the world, of whatever race or color, would be treated equally — sharing in the creation of a new global society. “God is no respecter of persons on account of either color or race,” state the Bahá'í writings. “All colors are acceptable to Him, be they white, black, or yellow.”

Mr. Friedman also writes about the importance of moral virtues, saying that Internet search engines have made it more difficult to lie or otherwise inflate your reputation or record. “In a flat world, you can't run, you can't hide... Live your life honestly, because what ever you do, whatever mistakes you make, will be searchable one day.”

Bahá'u'lláh likewise saw that in a globalized world, moral principle would be all the more important, since the old standards of trust, such as membership in the tribe, would not be enough to hold it together. “Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of mankind,” the Bahá'í writings state. “Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds are impossible for a soul.”

The World is Flat is an important work. While many of us, Bahá'ís included, have an abstract vision of the degree to which humanity is rapidly becoming one, the insightful and detailed reporting provided by Mr. Friedman help make such abstractions real. And that can only help us all deal with the changes that are so rapidly transforming the world today.