Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Booik Review: The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

A near-perfect primer on modern techno-culture

The World is Flat was first published in 2005 and since then has gone on to become an international bestseller and something of a non-fiction publishing phenomenon. It became such a powerhouse that author Thomas L. Friedman took the unusual step of publishing a revised version called "Release 2.0" with some 100 pages revised and updated. That's the one to buy.

This nearly 600 page tome is selling so well that in the 69 weeks since the release of the original it has held steadfast on the Globe and Mail bestseller list. It can also be found at Wal-Mart, which is truly indicative of mass market penetration. When an erudite and clever book like this makes the leap to that sort of mass market success here in Canada, there is clearly something special about it.

Thomas L. Friedman is no stranger to non-fiction success, but until this book he was primarily known for his foreign affairs column in the New York Times. His two previous books, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 (2002) proved Friedman has a gift for synthesizing the complex events of today's world into a straightforward and coherent narrative. His prose is light, his asides are entertaining, and his arguments compelling. He has a unique ability to draw the reader in, both with the warmth of his intelligence and his everyday observations written so succinctly.

The World is Flat is worth reading not only for the power of the author's craft but also because it has become so popular that it is on the verge of becoming, at least among those who read non-fiction, a common touchstone for our culture. Friedman's narrative about the 21st century has already had sufficient impact on how we regard modern history so that when you read it, his arguments, though original, will already have the air of the familiar.

I think the primary reason so many people have read this book is because Friedman succeeded at the Herculean task of compiling an understandable narrative about how the Internet and other recent technological advances have affected our world. His underlying thesis is that technological advance has in effect flattened the world. It has rendered distance irrelevant for those who are plugged into to the Internet and the technological advantages it provides. Unfortunately this book gives scant attention to people who are outside this admittedly small circle, which would have hindered the overall positive tone that Friedman strives for throughout this work.

We all know intuitively that after the arrival of the Internet, email and such powerful tools as Google, wireless phones, and digitization that we need a new paradigm for viewing the everyday world. What Friedman does in this book is give us a new world view by which to understand the changes that technology brought in the 21st century, and a useful analytical framework for dealing with these changes and working them into our everyday lives.

For those of you who read the original version of this book, Release 2.0 has a fair bit of new content on the concept and practice of uploading and the innovations that have burst upon the scene most recently, through blogging, podcasting and open source software. He also gives advice about how to survive and prosper in this new world.

The latter part of the book undertakes the challenging task of outlining policies and means for society to remain at the forefront of technological advance. This part of the book, in particular, will resonate with anybody who has listened to recent Ontario or Canadian government policy pronouncements in favour of developing a knowledge economy and a culture of innovation. It seems as if Friedman has inspired Canadian public policy speech writers.

The World Is Flat is a rewarding and valuable read, and well worth investing the time it takes to read it.

Strongly Recommended.