bookspluslife

February 17, 2018

Book: The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:59 pm

imageStarted nicely, comparing Chris Columbus aims to find India by sea and what the modern equivalent of business travel to India is like.

 

The book is good in many respects but there are a ton of annoying parts, over generalizations and blithe preachy tone that puts off a reader. This is unfortunate because there is a lot in the book that is both good to know and is fascinating to read.

 

Then he goes into a eulogistic rhapsody about “these dynamic young Indians” and quoting Indian tech executives verbatim. When the plot meanders into mundane territory about how the call centre employees are unfailingly patient, and have the western names and accents to ‘give comfort to the clients’ it gets fairly boring. Especially now that the call centres are moving to Philippines from India with greater success. No, I am not knocking India, but only the eulogistic portrayal of what India has achieved, with what seems to be little balanced analysis.

 

There is a long list of how Indian young things handle calls and even more condescending blather about how the call centre jobs, which are the lowest paid in the West are sought after and fought after in India.

 

It gets even more annoying with generalizations. The city of Dajian has plans to outdo India as a software outsourcing centre. Even though the Chinese “are not as good in English as the Indians”, they plan to “select the best Chinese” to outcompete “because there are more Chinese than Indians by population”. Can you believe the string of generalizatons in this?

 

The story sometimes wanders into areas where you struggle to see how this is world going flat. They talk about a person conducting interviews with a MP3 player that doubles as a recorder and his phone camera and publishing it in a blog. Well, so what is the lesson there? The concept of freelancing is not new, despite the gadgets on display, is it?

 

Except for the annoying trivia, the message is interesting. The connection between the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the Iron Curtain) and the globalization of the world is very persuasively argued.

 

There is a whole lot of explanation about what is a web server, and how a browser works that are simply redundant for those techies (like me) who read the book. It may not even interest a lay reader.

 

He talks about colloboration through Wikis, the Open Source movement, and, though it is old hat for people in IT who watched it all happen, maybe new for lay persons interested, but at times he seems to get a bit more technical than what they can take. But apart from a few slips, this is an admirable attempt to de-jargonize the concepts for everyone.

 

A mixture of trivia and complicated descriptions is the one fault I can find. But generally the narration is just right and everyone, whether versed in technology or not,  gets the sense of the major upheavals that produced a ‘flat world’ as the author calls it.

 

He talks of the rise of India and the fortuitous coincidences that helped it along the way.

Some of it is a stretch like “in-forming” etc, but in general, he makes good points. The piece about how UPS manages even their customer’s businesses for them is interesting (repairing laptops for HP and managing logistics for Ford etc.)

 

But there are lots of repetitions and the same idea is presented multiple ways and sometimes the same idea the same way. It is as if you skipped back and reading an earlier chapter again, which was very frustrating. The argument about cheap and profitable aka WalMart but expensive (and more humane) and less profitable like Costco is repeated at least in the same detail in two different places that you feel like saying to the author ‘Oh, so sad. Do you have a short term memory loss? You just told me this a few pages ago!’.

 

The argument he makes for why free trade and globalization are good forces for all countries, even the ones who are outsourcing, is an old one, but he makes it with compelling arguments. (And to be fair, the book is old too. It talks of Palm Pilots and smartphones in the same breath).

 

That the argument is old and familiar does not take away the interest in reading it, because it is a very persuasive argument about the globalization and how US is not living up to it. I do not agree that progress in India and China counts as innovation yet, and his lament that these emerging nations are stealing tomorrow’s leadership from US In innovation, but his argument about how US is not focusing on the right things to protect its leadership and prosperity seems spot on.

 

The slight snobbery bothers me as a reader. He talks of US having to go to “broken down piece of the Soviet Union, Russia, where the only thing that works is science and engineering education” – wait for this – “though we won the Cold War”.  Wait, what did he just say?

 

Many of the arguments are valid and well made but it is interesting that a liberal leaning, conservative-ideology-hating author comes out with solutions for the current flat world (aka globalized world where the competition is across national boundaries) and comes out with prescriptions that are sure to infuriate the unions – portable skills, easy layoff and hiring etc.

 

And sweeping generalization is another problem. Leave aside blanket statements like “North Korea is 200 km away” (yeah? the entire country?)  he also says blithe things like “A handful of leaders in countries like China, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and India…. relied on the leverage of authoritarian political systems to push through reforms”. Really? India? Authoritarian?  A high school geography text book could have told him otherwise. A pity, since the fundamental points he makes are sound, even if already well known.

 

Don’t get me wrong, not everything he says, even about India is wrong. He is on the dot about the awful infrastructure and abominable power situation that is holding the country back.

 

Again, coming to India, he lauds Indian Congress party for choosing Manmohan Singh, the reformer, as Prime Minister “because they realized that Indians were craving the benefits of prosperity to be distributed evenly to rural areas as well”. This is as widely off the mark as can be. The internal politics of how Sonia Gandhi could not herself become Prime Minister due to her origin of birth (and crazy objections from others resulting from that very fact) and his subsequent powerlessness to impose any reform and his ignominious exit due to scandals that he could not control and even came close to tainting him are all events that follow the publication of this book but nevertheless prove how wrong this argument is.

 

And I for one do not fully buy the argument that rural, illiterate Indians voted out the ruling party in 2004 despite its liberalization success “because they wanted to be involved in the prosperity engendered by globalization”. Yes, there was some of that. But the argument ignores the entire complex machinations by people misled by politicians and also voting on the basis of anger against fat cat capitalists, and all pervasive corruption or voting on narrow caste interests.

 

What is also hard to accept is his argument that the Arabs are resorting to suicide bombing violence primarily due to frustrations against their authoritarian governments.

 

But his arguments on the anti globalization movement, its motivation and origins and its effect of undermining the prosperity of the very poor that they seem to champion are all exactly right and also narrated brilliantly.

 

The book ends thought provokingly and in my view the last few chapters are the most interesting.

 

5/10

— Krishna

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