Books I Like: The World Is Flat

[I’ve been away from the computer for about a week because of the birth of our third child.  Hurrah!  I put those hours of waiting in the hospital to good use by reading a book that had been on my shelf for a couple of months.]

I’m a bit late to the table with The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman.  It was published in 2005, to many rave reviews (here’s one from the New York Times Book Review by Fareed Zakaria) and brisk sales (it was a #1 bestseller, and is still #160 at Amazon.com 3 years after its publication).  Friedman uses the term “flat world” to describe the new era of globalization, in which I can visit a California-based website, order a computer assembled in Taiwan, call customer support when it breaks in India, and then return it to a store half-a-mile from my house.  Friedman credits a number of “flatteners” for creating this new world, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the growth of the Internet, new software that lets people work from home, and the “just in time” global supply chain.  The book not only looks at the causes of this newly flat world, but also takes time to consider both the positive (cheaper goods, rising standards of living in China and India) and the negative (loss of jobs in the U.S.) – including the most negative development of all, the creation of Al-Qaeda, the “global supply chain” of terrorism. 

This flat world also explains my job.  I work from home via computer and phone lines with a small team of people from around the country, ministering to an international network of students and faculty.  (We recently gained our first international ESN mentor, a philosophy and religion scholar from New Zealand.) My job would probably have been possible in the 19th century, more likely in the form of something like the original National Geographic Society, but in this flat world, my work is much more effective. 

How should American Christians regard this newly flat world? To many of us, “globalization” means losing our jobs to India and China, losing America’s importance in the world, and watching out-of-control capitalism trump issues of justice and community.  Friedman, however, makes a compelling case that globalization can be a powerful force for justice, if it harnessed correctly.  For Christians – especially American Christians – I think that the flat world can heighten our sense of the communion of the saints.  For example, a family from my church recently moved to Kosovo, to assist with the creation of an American-style high school.  We’ve been able to follow their story and pray for them through their blog. Many more examples could be outlined. 

Friedman doesn’t sugarcoat the flat world: he is the first to point out that we now must compete for our jobs with people around the world, and threats to our national security are created in caves halfway around the world.  At the same time, we (as a global community) have an unprecedented opportunity to increase standards of living, international peace, and individual opportunity in places where peace and prosperity have rarely been see before.  Friendman has also led me to consider the current presidential race in a new light.  Which president is best suited to lead America in the flat world? I worry that the all three leading contenders may take the easy, short-sighted path, and fail to challenge Americans to accept the hard work ahead.  

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