Book Review – "The World Is Flat" (2005)

Note: I am cheating a bit with this one, but I wrote this 900ish word piece as an assignment for school and thought I would put it up here. If you really want a good idea on why the US is kind of lagging in the world these days, pick up and read this book and decide for yourself. Without further adieu…

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World is Flat is ultimately a study on how the United States is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to innovating and being a leader in certain things like technology and education. He compares the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 9, 1989 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and their impact on the “flattening” of the world.
By “flattening,” Friedman is comparing the world to the 15th century, when many people of the in the world believed that the world was flat. Columbus was seeking a direct route to India, and based on his belief that the world was round, believed that he could get to India by sailing west as opposed to going down around Africa or overland to the east. By running into what is today the West Indies in the Caribbean, Columbus misjudged the size of the world but proved that the world was indeed round. However, Friedman found himself in India and realized that the world was flat when it felt like he was in a place that could have been in America only a few decades ago. He finds ten forces that helped to flatten the world, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the opening of Eastern Europe to the world, in 1989.

While the fall of the Berlin Wall had a large impact on the world as we know it, especially when it comes to technology. A lot of very smart people that were hidden in the Communism of the Soviet bloc were able to get out to the world and aid further in innovation. It also opened up some new countries to development and allowed for “Western” companies to move in and develop these countries while looking for a cheaper place to do whatever it is that they do, whether it is manufacturing or a service. But only six months after the fall of the wall, one of the more important flatteners occurred when Windows 3.0 was released in May 1990, opening up computing to many more people to computers. This was further expanded with Friedman’s second flattener, the launch of Netscape and the World Wide Web.
With the World Wide Web became many other things, like work flow software (flattener #3) and uploading (flattener #4). However, the real flattener that really started the world to being flat as it is today was the Outsourcing of Y2K, or the 5th flattener according to Friedman. With the year 2000 approaching, many Western companies were worried that their computers, which were programmed from the beginning with only two-digit years, would cease to work with the year turning to “00” and set about to rewrite all the code to fix this supposed problem. However, there were not nearly enough computer specialists in the United States and other countries to undertake this massive assignment on their own. Therefore, these countries had to outsource this work elsewhere, and luckily for them, India had spent much of the 1990s modernizing their information technology (IT) infrastructure, giving them the capability to assist in fixing this problem. Even though this problem was not nearly as big as they thought it would be, it truly was the first step in flattening the world to the point that we are out today.
This book truly made me think about the way that things happen in this country. One of the points that Friedman brought up was about the education system in this country and how we continually fall further behind than most of the developed world. In my opinion, one of the problems we have in this country is with secondary education. The biggest problem is the teaching profession as a whole at that level. The barrier to entry (requiring licensure) and the low wages in the field really prevent people from wanting to become educators, so a lot of people that would do really great as teachers often choose to go into other fields because it is hard to become a tenured teacher in this country at the secondary level. Furthermore, our education system is a district-based system for the most part, meaning that from state to state, there aren’t really a lot of standards across the board, making it difficult to truly prepare students for success in college and beyond. Also, many schools, especially with the horrible No Child Left Behind Act, base funding on performance on standardized testing, which in turn requires teachers to “teach to the test” and prevent students from truly learning the material. This, in turn, does not prepare our children for college, and as an extension, prepare them to be innovators in the world.
Ultimately, this is Friedman’s point; many of today’s innovators are not from the United States. They may come to America to go to a better college, but also many colleges overseas, especially in India where their technology colleges are at least comparable to many American colleges, are improving in order to keep the knowledge in their country. In my opinion, there would need to be a drastic change in the American education system to really make this a country of innovators yet again. Friedman makes this point as well, but until that happens, the world will continue to get flatter, so America needs to adjust their way of thinking going further lest they be left behind by the rest of the world.

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