This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.
Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century was written in the context of his taking over The New York Times’ foreign affairs column in 1995. Most of his exertions in the hallowed columns of that paper dealt with the themes revolving around the Lexus (his symbol for globalization) and the olive tree (his symbol for civil conflict). He was oscillating between these two themes right up until September 11, 2001. On September 12, he dropped the Lexus theme and went off to cover the (olive tree) wars. But the olive tree, according to Friedman, led him right back to the Lexus.
His thesis is that the world is now (almost) flat. Since the turn of the century, a series of political, economic and technological factors have converged to produce a tidal wave of change in global culture, which will only fully begin to be seen in the next few years. In the first chapter, Friedman points out that there have been other times of massive change such as the invention of the printing press or the dawn of the Industrial revolution. But this change is different: “There is something qualitatively different from other such profound changes: the speed and breadth with which it is taking hold….This flattening process is happening at warp speed and directly or indirectly touching a lot more people on the planet at once.”
In the second chapter, Friedman lists ten “flatteners”: The Berlin Wall, IPO of Netscape, work flow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming, and certain new technologies (“steroids”) that amplify and turbocharge all of the other flatteners. According to Friedman, these flatteners will converge to give us a flat world in which America may not fare as well as it has in the past century. As he tells it, there will emerge a system of global cooperation where no country is as dominant as the Americans have been. Further, Americans need to get accustomed to being 3rd or 4th in the world economy, after China and India.
In Chapter Three, “The Triple Convergence,” Friedman gets to the heart of his book. What he calls the Triple Convergence is the pivot point for the flattening of the world. The first convergence was when (at some time around 2000) all ten of these flatteners began to converge and work together in a complementary fashion. This was a tipping point of sorts. The second convergence is that we have now learned to “horizontalize” ourselves, to value connection and collaboration rather than to operate in top-down “command and control” frameworks. The third convergence is that as the world has flattened, an additional three billion people are now able to walk out onto the playing field-people from China, India, and the former Soviet Union. These three billion people, formerly locked out of “the game,” are now able (thanks to the ten flatteners) to plug in, sign on, and dial out as they connect, collaborate, and compete and, ultimately, define the course of the 21st century.
In Chapter Twelve, Friedman deals with “The Unflat World.” He opens by recounting two fascinating stories. The first is of his experience with Chinese government censors. One of his visits coincided with the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When Friedman arrived, the government was blocking text messages that had any reference to Tiananmen Square. Because the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened on 6-4-89, the government blocked any and all text messages that contained the numbers 6 or 4. His next story is about a friend’s journey to the Sudan. At the time, in Khartoum, a rumor swept through the Muslim areas that if one shook the hand of an infidel (non-Muslim), that man’s penis would melt. The hysteria was spread by cell phone. Friedman writes, “Think about that: You can own a cell phone yet still believe a foreigner’s handshake can melt away your penis. What happens when that kind of technologically advanced primitivism advances beyond text messaging?”
Throughout the rest of the chapter, Friedman deals with those who are unable to participate in a Flat World. Some of them are “too sick,” according to Friedman, meaning that either they are too sick or their governments are broken. This would include those who have HIV, malaria, TB, or polio, and those who lack potable water and electricity. Others are “too disempowered,” meaning that they do not have the tools, the skills, or the infrastructure to participate. This would include some Indians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans.
Still others are “too frustrated,” because they have been put into close contact with more affluent societies and culture and feel envious, threatened, frustrated, and even humiliated by this. This is especially true in the Muslim world, as illustrated by the 9/11 plotters: “Virtually all of them seem to have lived in Europe on their own, grown alienated from the European society around them, gravitated to a local prayer group or mosque to find warmth and solidarity, undergone a ‘born-again’ conversion, gotten radicalized by Islamist elements, gone off for training in Afghanistan, and presto, a terrorist was born.”
Finally, there are those who have “too many Toyotas.” In this section, Friedman deals with the billions of people in China, India, and the Muslim world who are beginning to demand the same conveniences that the West has, and as a result our environment is in seriously bad shape. He gives the example of the Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, China, which sold 1,100 air conditioners in one weekend in the summer of 2005. Can we afford for 1.3 billion Chinese to drive Toyotas and buy air conditioners? Can we afford for China to buy up nearly all the oil in the world, and from some of the world’s worst despots? His answer is no: “From a purely American point of view, we need a president and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but also to impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home and abroad.”
In one of his concluding chapters, Friedman speaks of two types of imagination that we are seeing at the turn of the century. He contrasts the dismantling of the Berlin wall (on 11/9) and the destruction of the twin towers (9/11). The first type of imagination is fueled by hope and the desire for freedom, while the second type is fostered by hatred and fear. The bottom line, Friedman argues, is that we must work to influence the two forces that most shape the human imagination: (1) the narratives on which we are nurtured, and (2) the context in which we grow up. It is for this reason that America must collaborate with the Arab-Muslim world (for example) in order to produce the right contexts for people to succeed and to have “more dreams than memories.”
In reflecting upon Friedman’s book, I will limit myself to offering three points of interest for believers. The first is that Friedman makes it abundantly clear that the world is now hyper-connected in ways that it has never been before and that, furthermore, we are hyper-aware of this hyper-connectedness. Should we not take it as a gift from God, for the furtherance of the gospel, that we are now able to travel to, and communicate with, the global population in ways never before imagined? It will be a shame if evangelicals in the West do not take advantage of their wealth and this unprecedented opportunity to love the world with the love of Christ, both in word and in deed.
Second, we have good news for those who are too sick, too disempowered, too frustrated, and have too many Toyotas. For those who are too sick, we have the Great Physician. For those who are too disempowered, we offer the Savior who understands oppression and persecution. For those who are too frustrated, we offer the Savior who makes all things level for us at the foot of the cross. For those who have “too many Toyotas,” we offer a Savior who allows us to break the bondage of our idolatry and of our enslavement to money and possessions.
Finally, Friedman affirms and fleshes out what we are told in the Scriptures–that the human imagination is indeed affected by the narratives on which we are nurtured and the context in which we grow up. While we are thankful that three billion men and women from India, China, and the Soviet Union have the chance of emerging from poverty and oppression, we also know that affluence can have a numbing effect on the human soul. The narrative of “the ascent of capitalism” holds forth no food for the soul.
Let us give the world the true and better narrative, that of a crucified and risen Lord who will return again and bring with him a new heaven and earth on which there will be no pain and no tears. And let us give them the truer and better context for life by planting churches where they live, so that they may see the God of life and love as they watch a community of worshipers who are full of life and love.
Book: The World is Flat 3.0 (2007)
Author: Thomas Friedman
Length: 672 pp.