Magazine article The Spectator

Walls Falling, Windows Opening

Magazine article The Spectator

Walls Falling, Windows Opening

Article excerpt

Walls falling, windows opening THE WORLD IS FLAT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE GLOBALIZED WORLD IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Thomas Friedman Allen Lane, £20, pp. 488, ISBN 0713998784 £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The masters of business writing are not generally touched by the poet's sensibility. It is hardly surprising that delicate souls adopt a pained expression when confronted with the serried ranks of macho titles like Revival of the Fittest or Getting to Yes. Frankly, the heart scarcely leaps at a book that puts 'The Globalized World' in the subtitle to The World is Flat.

This is all very unfortunate because The World is Flat's author, Thomas Friedman, although not the most subtle of literary stylists, is one of a small number of communicators who writes intelligibly about trends in international economics and the effect they have on all of us. A well-travelled American who has thrice won a Pulitzer Prize, he also happens to make a lot more sense than those modish admirers of coffee-picking collectives who affect to disdain the realm of corporate priorities and shareholder values.

As with his earlier work The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman's focus is upon the contradictions that globalisation brings to a world that technology shrinks but politics and self-identity continue to divide. Such is the pace of change that when he was writing his previous book in 1998, the internet and e-commerce were talked about for their potential impact, rather than for the difference they had already made. There have also been the intervening events of 9/11 and all that has sprung from them.

Friedman, it has to be said, is not above the odd cheap gimmick that will sooner or later be used as evidence to undermine his more general points. Having previously proffered the 'Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention' (no two countries with McDonalds restaurants have ever gone to war with one another), he now offers 'the Dell Theory,' in which 'no two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell's, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain'. This is reminiscent of the Edwardian delusion that held a European war impossible because too many heads of state were related to one another.

To be fair, Friedman claims to be a technological rather than a historical determinist and concedes that just because Wal-Mart is a bigger trading partner for China than Russia or Australia does not, of itself, make it unthinkable for Beijing's leaders to order the invasion of Taiwan. But it does make it more of a self-inflicted wound if such actions lead to the withdrawal of investment.

Friedman provides a lucid explanation of the forces that in the space of a mere 20 years have so dramatically shrunk the world. Six months after the Berlin Wall's collapse symbolised the destruction of command economies, Microsoft launched Windows 3.0. Friedman is not the sort of writer who can resist linking walls falling with windows opening, but his essential point is fair. The rapid spread of standardised word processing and spreadsheet software on commonly used IBM PCs was part of the movement towards inter-operable applications that removed barriers to communication. Taken together with the digitisation of information that could be sent down telephone lines at a time of telecom deregulation and the availability of cheap fibre optic cabling that slashed the cost of international calls, the technology was in place to spread this revolution far and wide when Microsoft fitted its Internet Explorer web browser as part of its standard Windows 95 package. …

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