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On the level

Technology has created a faster, smaller, 'flat' world

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 488 pp., 27.50

Thomas L. Friedman, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, offers a tantalizing look at the future in ''The World Is Flat." He writes: ''Here's the truth that no one wanted to tell you. The world has been flattened. As a result [commerce has] been made cheaper, easier, more friction-free, and more productive for more people from more corners of the earth than at any time in the history of the world."

Friedman says that at the very moment the world was being flattened, requiring multinational adjustments, ''American politicians not only were not educating the American public, they were actively working to make it stupid." He cites the White House equivalent of putting duct tape over the mouth of N. Gregory Mankiw, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, because he spoke approvingly of outsourcing.

Forget Columbus. That was half a millennium ago. Now the world is flat again, metaphorically, but in a real sense, too, because of the advances of technology. Countries, companies, and individuals will have to learn to collaborate or lose out.

Friedman's research for the book began when he flew out of Frankfurt to Bangalore, to find out ''why the Indians I met were taking our work, why they had become such an important pool for the outsourcing of service and information technology from America and other industrialized countries."

What did he learn? He quotes David Schlesinger of Reuters America, who told a straitened staff: ''Work gets done where it can be done most effectively and efficiently." Meaning someplace other than the United States.

More flat-earth facts: In half a decade, supply chains have been compressed. We can communicate worldwide in nanoseconds. Why haven't we noticed technologies' leap-frogging? With 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we were otherwise occupied.

Friedman codifies what he calls the 10 forces that flattened the world. It began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which, among other things, opened up free-market opportunities. The next event was in 1995 when Netscape went public. The ability to ''browse" the Internet introduced what the author calls a ''killer app" (application) for millions of people.

The third force was the development of ''work flow software," enabling people to ''shape things, design things, create things, sell things, buy things, keep track of inventories, do somebody else's taxes and read somebody else's X-rays from half a world away." Next came ''open-sourcing," involving ''thousands of people around the world coming together online to collaborate in writing everything from their own software to their own operating systems to their own dictionary." ''Outsourcing" was next. As the United States prepared for Y2K, checking computer systems to make sure their internal system clocks were adjusted before the year 2000, it realized the great cost involved. Once American companies realized that India had the resources and capacity to do a major reengineering job on the cheap, it entrusted more work overseas.

Then came ''off-shoring," moving production out of country and integrating the process into the global market. ''Supply-chaining," ''a method of collaborating horizontally -- among suppliers, retailers, and customers -- to create value," came next. ''Insourcing," number eight, is defined as ''synchronizing global supply chains for companies large and small."

The ninth force is what Friedman calls ''in-forming," ''the ability to build and deploy your own personal supply chain . . . information, knowledge, and entertainment" via use of search engines. The 10th flattener is a combination of digital, mobile, personal, and virtual technologies that the author calls ''steroids" because ''they are amplifying and tubocharging all the other flatteners." Example? In Japan, the DoCoMo Co. is working on a phone that will authenticate your medical records, enable you to pay bills, or buy tickets for a concert by scanning a bar code on a poster for a concert.

This benefice is not all boon; there are dangers inherent in a ''warp-speed" system. Terrorists will destroy or disrupt what they can. One of the underlying questions of Friedman's hypothesis is whether or not the world has gotten too small and fast for people and political systems to adjust quickly to a calamity. A major element of any crisis plan must be the elimination of ''single points of failure" in essential systems.

Where will things go from here? Friedman hasn't got all the answers, but he's not bashful about offering analysis. He warns that ''obstacles to a frictionless global market" could include ''institutions, habits, cultures, and traditions that people cherish precisely because they reflect nonmarket values like social cohesion, religious faith, and national pride."

The author's euphemism for dealing with this and other unresolved issues is: ''Sort that out." He's acknowledging that issues such as intellectual property rights, global governance, wages, retraining, human rights, changing political alliances, and more need to be thought through and resolved.

Add one more force to the 10: Friedman's synergistic thinking. He offers a plan for managing a flat world that calls for leadership, muscle building, cushioning, social activism, and parenting.

There will be winners and losers. The winners, according to Friedman, will be those societies who can pull together and sacrifice for the sake of economic development.

Michael D. Langan is a retired Treasury official.

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