Is the World Flat?

Is it a flat world? Depends who you ask. Thomas L. Friedman, author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century would respond with a resounding “yes” and go on to talk about how much flatter it becomes with each passing day. On the other side of the spectrum there would stand Pankaj Ghemawat, author of Why The World Isn’t Flat, who would likely respond by saying the world is “only 10% flat.” To tell the truth, both are right. Friedman is accurate in saying that people are now able to share knowledge in ways that were never before possible. However, Ghemawat is also correct in saying that most globalization is actually local, not international. So exactly how flat is the world?

Personally, I stand on the side of Ghemawat. The world, though flattening every day, is still not “flat.” In Friedman’s writing, he asks if one would rather be a “B student in Boston or a genius in Bangalore or Beijing.” And yes, 30 years ago I would have chosen to be a B student in Boston– just like how today I would still choose to be a B student in Boston. Why? Being born in Boston eliminates mountains of hardships required for me to succeed in the world, as long as I have a little work ethic. After studying, I wouldn’t have to worry about having dinner tonight or if my home would hold up in a storm. If I were a genius in Bangalore, those would both be very pressing concerns. Being born in Boston, a remarkably prosperous city, puts me at an incredible advantage over someone from Bangalore, where much of the population lives in slums. Even though someone might have the smarts to overcome their obstacles, they still have those obstacles, which is a fact that gets ignored when someone from such a disadvantage gets ahead. People tend to focus on the success, and forget about the barriers that were so close to stopping the triumphs. What’s worse, is that they’ll believe that if one person can do it, so can anyone else, and therefore the barriers aren’t that threatening. The reality? Obstacles truly do have the power to stop someone from reaching their full potential. 

To think that the world is completely flat is not only ignorant, but it is also dangerous. That’d be like traveling to a third-world country, seeing a school bus, and proclaiming that their education system is as strong as that of America. Yes– it clearly exists and busing is a step forward, but that doesn’t mean the students are being educated just as well as the students here. We need awareness of how round the world is so we know how to strive to make it flatter. 

To wholly believe in a flat world is to be satisfied with where we are now and not feel the need to push ourselves, globally, further. As Ghemawat suggests, we are much closer to living in a “sem-globalized world” than a globalized one. Border barriers are still prominent, and though people have the technology to connect worldwide, they most often use it as a more convenient way of talking to a friend across town. By nine different measures (all ranging from phone call revenues to trade) we are much closer to being 10% globalized than all the way there. The reality differs from what Friedman tells us. 

All this said, I really do believe that one day we will be able to reach this fully globalized world that we so often hear about. As technology becomes more accessible, the world becomes flatter. It’s just a matter of remembering that “flatness” doesn’t solely depend on this technology being available. Effort still needs to be put in to counteract all the other factors (ex: hunger, homelessness) keeping so many people at a disadvantage. Truth be told, it will take the whole globe to achieve globalization.