In The World Is Flat, what does Thomas Friedman mean when he says the world is becoming flat?

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Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century is a novel which analyzes the idea of globalization, most notably in the 21st century. The title refers to the idea that the playing field on which individuals engage in commerce has become fairer and more equal. A driving force behind this idea is that historical and geographic divisions are increasing meaningless and companies are incentivized to cater to the global consumer equally, which has benefitted everyone.

Friedman outlines ten key factors driving the leveling of the playing field, which he refers to as “flatteners” including, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Netscape, workflow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, informing, and “The Steroids.”

These “flatteners” have helped customers by allowing individuals the ability to quickly and easily learn new skills which are attractive and beneficial to companies and organizations. Essentially, more people are able to join successful workforces, which in turn makes companies more efficient and eventually drives down the cost of products to the end user.

Freidman warns that while this has benefitted everyone, it also makes everyone more expendable and replaceable. It’s imperative for individuals to continue to learn new skills and make themselves more adaptable to the workplace.

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Friedman uses a humorous title to explain the growing economic trend in the world right now. Currently, the Flat Earth society promotes the misguided theory that the Earth itself is physically flat. Friedman steals this concept to explain that the world is becoming economically flat—meaning that equal economic opportunities are spreading through all regions and commerce is becoming uniform in spite of the varied differences in the world's economic systems.

With the recession of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and increasing market presence by companies in third-world countries, economic systems are converging more and more. This convergence is creating a uniformity around the globe for economic opportunities. The world being "flat" in this sense means that everyone is slowly moving toward a level playing field.

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In his bestselling book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman uses the metaphor of the world becoming flat to help readers envision an international level playing field in terms of commerce. Friedman explained this concept in an interview with Wired magazine shortly after the book came out. He said:

Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance—or soon, even language.

In other words, the world has been shrinking and flattening in terms of global economics so that companies, individuals, and countries can freely collaborate with each other much easier as geographical and technical divisions break down. He lists ten factors that significantly leveled the playing field from his perspective in 2005 when the book was published.

  • The collapse of the Berlin Wall opened up much more of the world to democracy and free markets.
  • The emergence of Netscape in 1995 opened up the internet to everyone.
  • Workflow software such as HTML offered a global platform for collaboration.
  • Open sourcing allowed collaboration on online projects.
  • Outsourcing allowed companies to subcontract work to any labor force in the world.
  • Offshoring allowed companies to take advantage of cheaper operating costs overseas.
  • Supply-chaining increased business efficiency through networks of shipping, distribution, and sales.
  • Insourcing lets companies use its employees to perform services for other companies.
  • Informing refers to the information people can obtain when they search through sites such as Google and Wikipedia.
  • Wireless technologies make collaboration personal and mobile.
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In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman refers to the world as becoming flat as a metaphor to describe how globalization has created a more level playing field for economic competition. Globalized technology, such as the internet, has resulted in the ability for transnational corporate competition and cooperation. Interestingly enough, a huge criticism of globalization lies in how globalization is homogenizing cultures. One could argue that globalization is also contributing to how the "world is becoming flat" through saturation of homogeneous companies and free trade agreements that have destroyed indigenous economies and means of survival. Cultures are eradicated as the world becomes more and more standardized. Friedman may not see this as a problem, but his metaphor of a flattening world certainly applies to this dynamic as well. The world may be becoming a more level playing field for companies and, in doing so, is creating larger and larger economic disparities between those with access to wealth and resources, and those without who are exploited.

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To see what Friedman means, we can simply look at the beginning of the book.  On page 8 in the hard cover edition of the book, Friedman tells us that he came to realize that

The global competitive playing field was being leveled.  The world was being flattened.

From this, we can see that a "flat" world is one in which the "playing field" on which companies compete has become level.  It is one in which companies from various countries can compete with one another on an equal basis.

Friedman says that what has really driven this is what he calls "Globalization 3.0."  This is globalization that is caused by computer software.  The internet, he says, is the big leveller that has made it possible for companies in India, for example, to compete with those in the US.

So, when Friedman says the world is flat, he is saying that technology has allowed companies from more and more countries of the world to compete on an equal basis in the global economy.

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