Some of the chapters in this book are mind-blowing. Thomas Friedman really dazzles with the breadth of his knowledge about the innovations changing the world today.
He was not my favourite New York Times columnist when I could read him online for free. Some of his analysis struck me as too simplistic. Despite being one of the 191 million migrants in the world, an Indian working in Singapore, I wondered how anyone could so wholeheartedly root for globalisation like Friedman. But here, he notes its darker side too, about how it drives down wages for low-skilled workers.
He even quotes from Karl Marx. Marx and Engels were the first to identify the globalisation process in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, he writes. He does not take credit for that insight. Harvard University’s political theorist Michael J Sandel told him so, he says, and he found it to be true when he read the Manifesto.
That’s what I like about Friedman. He is curious, honest and covers a lot of ground.
We all know globalisation is changing the world. But how many people know how India became a key player in information technology?
It started with the Millennium Bug, says Friedman. The computer industry needed a big pool of cheap, skilled manpower to fix the bug, and India had the talent. When the dot com bubble burst, the American companies wanted to cut costs and outsourced the work to Indians. They could exchange data cheaply on the fibre optic cable networks whose prices crashed as supply exceeded demand.
While India gained from outsourcing — where companies get work done by other companies — China thrived on offshoring — where companies relocate factories and operations. There’s a difference between the two, says Friedman. That may not be news to a lot of people, but Friedman explains things simply, vividly, with a lot of interesting details.
I didn’t know that UPS or United Parcel Service, the delivery people, also repaired Toshiba computers. They provide after-sales service for Toshiba computers in North America, says Friedman, besides doing similar work for several other companies.
Businesses are changing — they must, and so must workers, says Friedman. They must specialise and upgrade their skills to remain employable or “non-fungible”. That’s an ugly word but he is right. One either moves up or falls behind. As the Red Queen says in Through The Looking Glass: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Globalisation is hard on laggards. Even Friedman acknowledges that low-skilled workers are losing out though he says more people gain from globalisation. It is creating new needs, new industries. I know: I have got a blog now! Friedman has quotes from Marc Andreessen, who created Netscape, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and a host of other people involved in the technology revolution.
The World Is Flat is a book everyone should read to get a clear, concise account of globalisation. It supports the trend but doesn’t ignore the critics. It’s comprehensive.
As an Indian, of course, I am proud that so many of the innovators Friedman quotes are Indians. India, in fact, was the country where he got the inspiration for this book.
He is right when he says that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party lost the 2004 Indian elections not because it embraced globalisation but because the peasants in the countryside felt left out of the economic progress being made in technology centres like Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Everyone wants to be better off. Most people will, with globalisation, says Friedman. That may be open to debate, but this is one hell of a book. I certainly wished I were at the cutting edge of the revolution!