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Tommy’s Tune

Apr
7
2005

There’s a Tom Friedman-palooza going on out there and as much as Friedman annoys me with his Panglossian take on the effects of globalization, the campaign he’s launched to sell his new book “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century” is important.
It’s important because Friedman – who has a decided gift for wrapping up difficult ideas and putting them into pop-speak – is a columnist for the New York Times and he has come to a few basic realizations about the networked society and the global economy. He’s spouting them everywhere, from his home paper’s Sunday magazine to Tuesday’s Jon Stewart show. For these reasons – the publicity roll-out and his Times column – Friedman’s got a best-seller on his hands. It’ll be an important book, too.
This is going to have a couple of immediate consequences. First, there is no bigger fan of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture that Friedman. Appearing on Charlie Rose’s show Tuesday (he was studio-hopping; same suit, same too-short haircut as on Stewart) Friedman carried forth the valley’s party line with a fervor I haven’t seen from an East Coaster since, oh, since 1999. The valley’s way of looking at the world – connected, fast, competitive – has become Friedman’s. He’s even gone as far as to endorse the tech community’s stance on stock options – he’s for it. Why? Because in China they don’t expense stock options. And, he says, solemnly, this networked stuff is just getting started; the dot.com bust was the end of the beginning.
Sigh.


Silicon Valley is back. With a vengence. Friedman has noticed that you don’t have to leave India to be a success in high tech (but hasn’t caught on to the more politically and socially important idea that immigrants no longer forsake their native lands when they move). He’s amazed that he did a book about the state of the world as we know it and only talked to three members of the U.S. government (ask me again about Progressive libertarians and their contempt for government). He’s discovered Google (you can do you own research!); VOIP (free phone calls!) and God only knows what else. We’ll have to read the book to find out.
I’m not trying to be dismissive. It’s easy to take shots at a big target like Friedman. But watching Friedman on Rose and Stewart, reading his Times magazine piece I found myself wondering, as I did while reading “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” if Friedman is ever critical. I’m getting that same feeling again, particularly when Friedman breaks into Silicon Valley buzz speak.
The most serious problem with Friendman’s book is that it has taken a columnist at the country’s best newspaper a good long time – perhaps too long — to realize what anyone living or working out here in California has known for a while. The world isn’t flat; it’s interconnected. The consequences, and migration to a globalized network economy isn’t all good news: Cheap stuff! Now! And it’s not all bad: Lower wages! Lost jobs! But this country’s government and its political entities, as a whole are poorly prepared to cope with the future.
Understanding – really truly working in a networked world and thinking in new ways about how information travels — requires at a minimum a basic knowledge of how the Internet works; that’s why I was so enthusiastic about Carly Fiorina running the World Bank. The disconnection – between the wired and the folks who think computers are still fancy gizmos that bring them information they don’t need – worries me. It’s the reason I’m not sure that Friedman’s message is going to be received where it counts the most: in New York and Washington where – for now – this nation’s economic and political affairs are managed. Will they get it? Hard to say.
Neither political party has put forth any sort of plans to carry this country past the crisis we are happily coasting toward; one Friedman outlines very well. Republicans are too preoccupied with rewarding large corporations, focusing on social issues and an unnecessary war to assure themselves that their way of looking at the world – top down, controlled, hierarchical – hasn’t changed. They are looking back at the 1950′s, glory days when American virtue and can-do value triumphed in a post-World War II world. Democrats are looking back to the 1960s and ’70s, to a time when America’s social values – its antipoverty programs, the civil rights, nacent gay rights and women’s movements – inculcated a generation around the world with what are now widely accepted liberal social values. The talk that’s out there isn’t looking forward; it’s looking back to an America that will never exist again. Friedman’s book may change a few minds; let’s hope they’re the right ones.
FOOTNOTE: If some of this strikes a chord, you’re probably a regular reader and might want to check out Richard Florida’s new book, “The Flight of the Creative Class,” which hits some of the same themes Friedman highlights and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the Timesman’s book.

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