Sunday, September 23, 2007

A long layover in a flat world

Two weeks ago, I was in an airport. A very dingy, very gray airport—the kind that blandly marks a miscellaneous layover city in memory. My computer was dying, and since I'd been in the World of Russian for 9 weeks, (a world which, surprisingly, was located not in Russia, but in Vermont), I didn't have any books in English. I went into a bookstore, and the images of Brad, Angelina, and Britney hit me like a hall of mirrors. But there were books, too, tucked among the magazines, so I bought one called The World is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman.

(For a good summary, I recommend this Wikipedia article.)

I'm a bit late to the game; the book is into its third edition now, so popular that it competes with Britney for the Tiara of Attention. And yet, here I am, two weeks later, confessing to my zeitgeist tardiness, in order to tell you that this book blew my mind.

It's not that I don't question its overwhelmingly pro-globalization message. I know that there are two sides (or 6 billion) to the story, and although I'm pretty willing to trust a good argument, I also know how to use the internet. And the internet says that lots of people have problems with this book, problems with the idea that the U.S. can continue to hold a position of influence in the world just by using its "imagination," or fix all the world's ills just by hiring cheap labor to do data entry.

But Friedman captured my heart not because his argument was airtight, but because he made it with such curiosity and conviction. This man knows the power of good rhetoric; as an investigative journalist, he's clearly mastered the art of nonfiction storytelling. And as I was pulled along through his narrative—often staying up late to read about globalization, folks, and occasionally being moved to tears—I realized that Friedman has made more of an impact on global business practices than a thousand statistical studies, simply by weaving the pieces together into a compelling story. I agree with his message, for the most part, but the reason I'm really in Friedman's corner is because he's a responsible evangelist for the inevitable religion of the future, Web 3.0, where every person on the earth is infinitely connected to every other. While Friedman's not the only one showing the way, he's certainly doing a lot to illuminate a very reasonable path, using facts and true stories to address his readers' humanity. And frankly, I can't help but respect that.

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