The World is Flat
A Brief History of The Globalized
World In The 21st Century
By Thomas Friedman
Publishers: Penguin
Price: œ13.50

Rasheeda Bhagat

It is indeed flattering for any Indian to gleefully absorb all the nice things Thomas Friedman, the Penguin award-winning journalist and one of the best known columnists of The New York Times, has to say on India as a major flattener of the world. Greatly impressed by the IT boom of India, he has been a frequent visitor to Bangalore and is simply bowled over by the software city's signposts such as the plush office of an IBM or Microsoft. Never mind that our own IT majors are extremely upset with the Karnataka Government for not giving them decent roads to drive to their upmarket offices.

Small wonder then that the first chapter in his much-acclaimed book, The World is Flat, where he gives "a brief history of the globalized world in the 21st century" is on India, mainly Bangalore. At the Infosys campus, the wide-eyed author finds a "massive resort-size swimming pool nestling amid boulders and manicured lawns, adjacent to a huge putting green... multiple restaurants and a fabulous health club." A remark by the Infosys CEO, Nandan Nilekani, on how globally "the playing field is being levelled" gave Friedman the title of the book.

The eulogy on India only gets better with Jerry Rao, Chairman and CEO of Mphasis BFL, telling Friedman that his tax returns and other accounts could be managed from Bangalore. As he says "No, thanks", the Indian smiles, perhaps "too polite to say it that he may already be my accountant, or my accountant's accountant, thanks to the explosion in the outsourcing of tax preparations." And then the ultimate compliment from one of the bosses of Reuters, the news agency that has been shifting some of its operations to India... that India has people "with not only technical but also financial skills"!

But once you can take into consideration the reality of the `other India' or the not-so-shining India, where people still look towards the skies for the rain god's bounty, where even an electricity pole leave alone a computer is yet to make an appearance and where the villagers might put their children through a college education and yet fail miserably to get them jobs at call centres for they can never hope to get anywhere close to an American accent, Friedman's book makes a fantastic read.

Information made simple

His painstaking research, his ability to demystify complex economics and pack the narrative with stories interestingly related, and his penchant for unravelling the secrets behind the phenomenal success of a Google or a Wal-Mart, makes it evident why and how he won the Pulitzer prize thrice! Take the wonder search tool, Google. Did you know it is "now processing roughly one billion searches per day, up from 150 million just three years ago"?

One of the 10 global flatteners, its CEO Eric Schmidt told the author it discriminates "only to the degree that if you can't use a computer or don't have access to one (as millions in India don't have, despite the IT sheen of Bangalore), you can't use Google, but other than that, if you can type, you can use Google."

An interesting nugget Friedman gives is that Google is now searchable in 100 languages, "and every time we find another we increase it," adds the CEO.

Marvelling at the manner in which Google has flattened the world, Friedman says: "In a flat world, you can't run, you can't hide, and smaller and smaller rocks are turned over. Live your life honestly, because whatever you do, whatever mistakes you make, will be searchable one day." A sobering thought indeed!

An interesting aside in this chapter is on how his 16-year-old daughter could post a fistful of postcards from Beijing to her friends by using the search engine. She tells her mother: "I just Googled their phone numbers and their home addresses came up."

An insightful chapter in the book is on how Wal-Mart's supply chain was fine-tuned to give magic results; how it used technology to increase efficiency, reduce inventory and uses meteorological information to keep its sales going. For instance, during hurricanes people like to eat more Pop-Tarts that are "easy-to-store, non-perishable," and buy kids' games that don't require electricity... and of course, beer! So the moment a hurricane is forecast in Florida, "its supply chain automatically adjusts to a hurricane mix in the Florida stores more beer early, more Pop-Tarts later."

But then, as Friedman does not fail to record, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to size and muscle power. Some of Wal-Mart's competitors have said they've had to cut down on healthcare benefits and cut wages in order to compete; also Wal-Mart has got a lot of negative press on the "practice of locking overnight workers into its stores ... or allowing contractors to use illegal immigrants as janitors." By giving such information, the author does not cringe from giving the flip side of glittering success stories.

Predictably, Friedman dwells at some length on China, the "powerhouse of low-cost manufacturing" that has not only cut into the exports to the US of developing nations such as Mexico which seemed "perfectly positioned to thrive in a flat world" by virtue of its proximity to the world's largest economy but has also started flooding Mexican markets with its low-cost goods. With an Egyptian colleague telling him how Chinese-made Ramadan lanterns, conveniently fitted with battery-powered lights instead of candles, were coming into Egypt, it became apparent how China is capable of taking on competition from the developing countries too. While the skylines in Delhi and Cairo haven't changed much in years in Delhi power shortage doesn't make building of skyscrapers a prudent venture "in China, if you miss visiting a city for a year, it's like you haven't been in there forever."

In a welcome departure, Friedman doesn't add to the chagrin in the US at Indians taking away their jobs through outsourcing, but instead gives fellow Americans sound advice on how they can level the playing field "not by pulling others down, not by feeling sorry for ourselves, but by lifting ourselves up."

A right step in this direction, he says, is to pull up American children when it comes to education and do more "to push our young people to go beyond their comfort zones, to do things right, and to be ready to suffer some short-run pain for longer gain." More and more Americans were not "empowered and educated to participate in a world where all the knowledge centres are being connected", he adds.

It must be said to his credit that before his book begins to sound like a fairytale, at least for countries such as India and China, the hard-nosed journalist admits that the entire world is not flat, and cites examples from rural India to prove his point. He quotes a school principal, who is scathing in her criticism of the previous government's `India Shining' campaign. Her school has kids whose parents are rag-pickers, coolies and quarry labourers, and she says: "Yes, the middle and upper classes are taking off, but the 700 million who are left behind, all they see is gloom, darkness and despair. The only thing that shines for them is the sun, and it is hot and unbearable and too many of them die of heat stroke."

The greatest merit of this hugely informative book, packed with racy prose, gripping anecdotes and invaluable nuggets is that it demystifies and simplifies as complex a concept as globalisation. Even a 15-year-old can pick up and read the book at any page, any chapter... and it would hold his/her interest.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 12, 2005)
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