In Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat, what is it to be flat?

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Thomas L. Friedman's book The World is Flat is a treatise on the way geopolitics, communications, technology and the world's complex economic infrastructure have evolved over the centuries. As a self-described advocate of free trade, Friedman makes the case that more advanced industrial societies are losing their the advantage as globalization makes emerging markets more competitive. In other words, the term "flat" in the book's title is meant to evoke a leveling of the economic playing field across all market participants, be it individuals, small companies, or multinational corporations.

The book charts a history of global macroeconomics divided by three major eras. The first spans the earliest period of Western-style civilization until about the turn of the nineteenth century, when nation-states controlled commerce. For the next 200 years, Friedman notes that multinational corporations were a new driving force that moved the world closer to economic integration and interdependence. As his primary thesis, he argues that the third phase of this progression has transpired in just the last two decades or so when individuals worldwide have autonomously been able to seize control of their own economic destiny.

Friedman then lays out ten "flatteners" in his book—essentially the causes behind this new climate of global equality of opportunity in commerce. They include: (a) our ability to tap new intellectual capital when the Berlin Wall came down; (b) the accessibility of the internet with the Netscape IPO; (c) the proliferation of workflow software that allowed machines to communicate with one another; (d) our ability to upload and collaborate online through open source media; (e) the efficiency enabled by outsourcing; (f) the cost-savings of offshoring; (g) supply-chain technology; (h) the shift to insourcing where specialists were brought in to keep companies from having to outsource; (i) the collectivization of the world's intelligence made accessible through search engines and online knowledge hubs; and (j) what he calls "the steroids," which include file-sharing, VoIP, and wireless technology.

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When Thomas Friedman uses the term “flat” in The World is Flat, what he means is something like “fair” or “providing everyone with an equal chance to succeed.”  When he says that the world is flat, or is getting flatter, he does not mean this in a topographical sense.  Instead, what he means is that the world is, economically speaking, becoming fairer.  Our world has started to provide people from many different countries with an equal chance to get ahead economically.

In the United States, at least, we often use the metaphor of a sports field when we talk about economic competition.  This might, for example, be a soccer field.  Imagine playing soccer if one team had to run uphill while the other got to run downhill.  This would not be at all fair to the team that had to run uphill.  It would be a serious disadvantage.  When competition is fair, we say that there is a level playing field.  This field does not provide an advantage to either team.  When Friedman talks about the world being flat, he is saying that the economic playing field has become level.

In the past, businesses in poor countries were, in essence, playing on a field that was not flat.  They had to run uphill while their competitors in the rich world got to run downhill.  In recent times, however, various changes have made the playing field flatter.  He says that things like outsourcing, offshoring, and, most importantly, the boom in communications technology, have created a more level playing field where firms from more countries can actually compete on level terms. This is what he means when he says that the world is flat.

In this book, then, to be flat is to be fair and/or to provide everyone with an equal chance to compete economically.

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