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Online Study Guide: The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

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ONLINE BOOK SUMMARY: THE WORLD IS FLAT BY THOMAS FRIEDMAN


SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

In Part I, “How the World Became Flat,” Friedman visits India, where he realizes that the playing field has been leveled, meaning that a much larger group of people can compete for global knowledge. He pursues examples of this metaphor in other places, such as Iraq, China, Japan, and the United States. Friedman argues that there are primarily ten forces that flattened the world and describes each of the following “flatteners”: 11/9/89, the fall of the Berlin Wall; 8/9/95, or the date that Netscape went public; work flow software; uploading; outsourcing; offshoring; insourcing; in-forming; and the steroids. Next Friedman explores what he calls “the triple convergence,” or the way the ten flatteners converged to create an even flatter global playing field. The first convergence encompasses how the ten flatteners came together in such a way that they created a global, Web-enabled platform that allows for multiple forms of collaboration. The second convergence is the appearance of a set of business practices and skills that make the most of the ten flatteners, thus enhancing the flatteners’ potential. The third convergence is the entrance of some three billion people onto the playing field. The triple convergence is likely to cause some chaos and confusion. Friedman argues that “the great sorting out” will recalibrate the ceilings, walls, and floors that define us. Some questions that arise during the great sorting out are: what should be the relationship between companies and the communities in which they operate?; how do we navigate our multiple identities as consumers, employees, citizens, taxpayers, and shareholders?; who owns what, particularly in the case of intellectual property?

In Part II, “America and the Flat World,” Friedman begins by claiming that free trade is still in the United States’ best interest because as long as the “global pie” keeps growing--that is, as long as more people demand these goods and services, more people will be needed to produce them. Friedman points out that the Chinese and Indians are racing Americans to the top, not to the bottom. This race will foster higher standards for everyone. Friedman shows how, as services and goods become increasingly tradable, more jobs are likely to become outsourced, digitized, or automated. He predicts that untouchable jobs in the new flat world will fall into three, broad categories: people who are “special or specialized” (e.g. Madonna, Michael Jordan, or your brain surgeon); people who are “localized and anchored” (e.g. waitresses, lawyers, plumbers, nurses, etc.); and “the old middle jobs” (e.g. people in the middle class who are under pressure because their jobs are becoming tradable). Friedman explores what he thinks the new middle-class jobs will be in the flat world, calling the people who will occupy those jobs--which he divides into eight categories-- “the new middlers.”

The eight categories are: “Great Collaborators and Orchestrators,” “The Great Synthesizers,” “The Great Explainers,” “The Great Leveragers,” “The Great Adapters,” “The Green People,” “The Passionate Personalizers,” and “The Great Localizers.” Friedman outlines four skill sets and attitudes that educators and employers point to as “the right stuff” to make it in the flat world. The first skill set individuals must possess is the ability to “learn how to learn.” The second skill set is what Friedman dubs “CQ + PQ > IQ,” or that curiosity and passion, combined, are more important than intelligence. The third skill set/ attitude Friedman uncovers is “Plays Well with Others.” The final skill set Friedman believes will be necessary in the flat world is “The Right Brain Stuff.” Friedman believes that the United States is uniquely suited to enter the age of the flat world because it has a “mix of institutions, laws, and cultural norms that produce a level of trust, innovation, and collaboration that has enabled us to constantly renew our economy and raise our standard of living.” The problem, it seems, is that Americans are not taking advantage of their nation’s potential.


Friedman unveils six dirty little secrets, which help explain why Americans are not taking advantage of these resources and what will happen if they do not change course. The dirty little secrets are: “The Numbers Gap,” “The Education Gap at the Top,” “The Ambition Gap,” “The Education Gap at the Bottom,” “The Funding Gap,” “The Infrastructure Gap.” Next Friedman outlines the five action areas of compassionate flatism, which is what he believes it means to be progressive in a flat world. The goal of compassionate flatism is to reconfigure the old welfare state to give Americans the outlook, education, skills, and safety nets they will need to compete against other individuals in the flat world. The five action areas are: leadership, muscles, good fat, social activism, and parenting.

In Part III, “Developing Countries and the Flat World,” Friedman considers what policies developing countries must carry out to thrive in the flattening world. These steps include: introspection, commitment to more open and competitive markets, and the cultivation of infrastructure, education, and governance, as well as the creation of business-friendly environments. Friedman then offers Ireland as an example of a nation that went from “the sick man of Europe to the rich man” by addressing these issues. Friedman believes that to truly understand a country’s economic performance, one must also consider its culture. Friedman argues that open cultures, which are best able to adopt global best practices and willing to change--versus closed cultures, which promote tradition and national solidarity--have the best chance for success in the flat world. Finally, Friedman observes that even when nations get it right--reform wholesale, reform retail, maintain good governance, infrastructure, and education, as well as glocalize--some proceed in a sustained manner while others do not. Friedman calls the missing element “the intangible things.” Friedman boils the intangibles down to two basic elements: a willing society and leaders with vision. Friedman provides a comparison between Mexico and China to show how Mexico failed and China succeeded.

In Part IV, “Companies and the Flat World,” Friedman imparts an observation he has made while researching this book, which is that “the companies that have managed to grow today are those that are most prepared to change.” Friedman shares seven rules he has learned from these companies. Rule #1 is “When the world goes flat --and you are feeling flattened-- reach for a shovel and dig inside yourself. Don’t try to build walls.” Rule #2 is “And the small shall act big...” Rule #3 is “And the big shall act small...” Rule #4 is “The best companies are the best collaborators.” Rule #5 is that “In a flat world, the best companies stay healthy by getting regular chest X-rays and then selling the results to their clients.” Rule #6 is that “the best companies outsource to win, not to shrink.” Rule #7 is that “Outsourcing isn’t just for Benedict Arnolds. It’s also for idealists.”

In Part V, “Geopolitics and the Flat World,” Friedman explores some of the reasons why flattening could go wrong. He sets out to answer the following questions: “What are the biggest constituencies, forces, or problems impeding this flattening process, and how might we collaborate better to overcome them?” The groups of people for whom the world might not flatten are comprised of those who are “too sick,” “too disempowered,” and the “too frustrated.” Friedman notes that if the many people that live in the unflat world enter the flat world (as they are beginning to do) there will be an environmental crisis. He urges Americans to take seriously the damage they are wreaking on the environment through their waste. He believes it is in the U.S.’s best interest to collaborate with China and India to reduce energy consumption. In becoming the “Axis of Energy” these nations could effectively disempower the “Axis of Evil.”

Friedman also considers the “surprising, important, and paradoxical” effects flattening is having on culture around the world. Initially, Friedman says, there was concern that globalization was really “Americanization” in the form of American cultural imperialism. This is because American cultural products (films, music, chain restaurants, etc.) were in the best position to take advantage of the flattening of the world. However, Friedman believes that while the flat world platform has the potential to homogenize cultures, it has a greater potential to foster diversity to a greater degree than has ever happened before. The primary reason for Friedman’s outlook is uploading’s capacity to “globalize the local.” That is, because anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can put content on the Web, local culture can be spread globally. Friedman is aware that there are also negative aspects of flattening’s effects on culture. He notes that the potential is just as great for criminal groups to come together in this smaller world as it is for progressive groups and mentions the pedophiles that paid Justin Berry to perform sexual acts in from of a web-cam for several years. Friedman establishes The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention based on Dell’s Asian supply chain, arguing that nations deeply invested in just-in-time global supply chains are much less likely to engage in war than they were previously (old-time), because they will withstand significant financial losses. This is relevant to Friedman’s larger arguments about the flat world because Friedman contends that war substantially slows (or stops) flattening. According to Friedman’s theory, countries such as Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippians, Thailand, and Indonesia can work together and resist war, despite political or cultural differences, because they are all economically invested in a supply chain. Conversely, nations such as Iraq, Syria, south Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran are not part of any major global supply chains and, therefore, remain hot spots because they will not suffer similar economic set backs due to war. Friedman notes that supply chains are not always good. The technology that enables countries to become more competitive and economically secure also enables terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda or suicide bombers in Iraq. Friedman reminds the reader that Osama bin Laden did not use nuclear weapons on 9/11 because he did not have the capability, not because he did not have the desire. Friedman argues that the best way we can combat “suicide supply chains” is by limiting the supply of nuclear weapons.


Thomas L. Friedman - The World is Flat Free Study Guide/Notes/Summary
Thomas L. Friedman

In Part VI, “Conclusion: Imagination,” Friedman emphasizes the competing forms of imagination at work in the world today, which are seen in the differences of 11/9 (the day the Berlin Wall came down) and 9/11. For Friedman, 11/9 represented a more open world. 9/11, conversely, demonstrated how evil imaginations could close the world up. Friedman unfurls how the plans for 9/11, as elaborated in the 9/11 Commission Report, were similar to many business ventures, with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the eager engineer-entrepreneur and Osama bin Laden the wealthy venture capitalist. Friedman argues that technology such as iris scans and x-ray machines will help thwart those who are trying to destroy the flat world, but technology alone will not keep us safe. Additionally, we must affect the imaginations of those who would use the tools of the flat world to terrorize others. Friedman closes with an anecdote about dropping off his oldest daughter, Orly, at college in the fall of 2004. This was one of the saddest days in Friedman’s life, not only because his daughter was growing up, but because he felt this world was so much more dangerous than the one she was born into.


Thomas L. Friedman - BIOGRAPHY

Thomas Friedman was born in St. Louis Park, Minnesota on July 20, 1953. He graduated in 1975 from Brandeis University with a Bachelor’s degree in Mediterranean Studies. In 1978, Friedman received a Master’s degree from Oxford University in Modern Middle East studies. Friedman began working as a correspondent for the New York Times in 1981 and spent many years reporting from Israel. Friedman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and 1988 for international reporting. In 2002, Friedman received a third Pulitzer for commentary. Thomas Friedman is married and has two daughters.

Selected Works:
From Beirut to Jerusalem, 1989
The Lexus and the Olive Tree,
1999
Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11,
2002
The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The Twenty-first Century,
2005
The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The Twenty-first Century,
The Updated and Expanded Version, 2006


GENRE

Non-Fiction

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