Friedman’s Earth is Flat. Should I bother?

One chapter in, and I am afraid I do not yet find this book enlightening, enriching or enthralling. The sleeve notes should have given my some idea. Martin Wold at the Financial Times says “It will make hundreds of thousands of readers understand a little better at least some of the forces in our world”. A little better? At least some? Sheesh. Noel Malcolm at the Sunday Telegraph describes it as “Colorful anecdotes and wisdom served in bite-sized pieces… He ranges widely, offering vivid accounts of all the new ways things are being done.”. Anecdotes do indeed seem to be the default way for businss books to serve up whatever message they are trying to deliver. ‘Well’ I thought, turning from the back cover to the first page, ‘I’ll try it’.

I reached the end of chapter one and was completely cold. I fear there is little connecting each fresh example of flatness, other than Friedman’s relentless surprise (“But my jaw *really* dropped when…”). Considering that it was only written in 2005, I was surprised to consistently find myself unsurprised. Maybe it’s written for the sort of people who have not noticed globalisation and outsourcing before?

Some choice quotes:

  • “‘What is Apache?’ I ask. And he says it’s a shareware program for web server technology. He said it was produced for free by a bunch of geeks just working online in some kind of open-source chat room. … And I said ‘Well, who supports it if something goes wrong?’ And he says ‘I don’t know – it just works!'” That was Ian Cohen, a senior manager at IBM during the 90s, learning about Apache from his development director. Sigh.
  • “BitTorrent is a Web site that allows users to upload their own online music libraries and download other people’s at the same time”. Wrong in at least two very important ways. Sigh.
  • “It is impossible to imagine what it’s going to be like in ten years when virtually everyone you know has a blog”. Hang on, virtually everyone I know *now* has a blog, including lots of only-just-geeky people.
  • “‘I am positive without Google’s services, I never would have found my brother, my husband, or the surprisingly lucrative nature of the male stripping industry in Mexico! Thank you, Google!’ – Testimonial from Google user.” Best. Testimonial. Ever.

I’ve quickly flicked through the rest of the book to see whether a structure emerges later in the book (and was relieved to find that one indeed does). I will probably see it through, and partly because I promised someone I’d read a rebuttal of it too.

10 Comments

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  1. I haven’t read it, but it sounds like one of those books that would have made a nice magazine article. A couple of pages could have covered Blink and I’d guess the same here.

    Not that these people don’t have good ideas or a nice point, it’s just that the ideas are simple enough to describe in a paragraph.

    Comment by Darren — January 14, 2007 #

  2. Which edition of the book are you reading? I see wikipedia says it was “updated and expanded” in 2006. Is it naive to think he has simply misjudged the pace at which these technologies are evolving? Probably not, but you’ve got to wonder given the level of knowledge displayed in those quotes.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about it once your done.

    btw, last two links are broken

    Comment by Nicholas O'Leary — January 14, 2007 #

  3. Darren, I think you’re right.

    It’s the updated edition. You can definitely borrow it Nick. Links fixed by the way. Thanks.

    Comment by Roo — January 15, 2007 #

  4. I haven’t read it, but probably should as it seems so popular (and I already know I agree with the thesis even if not his arguments for it). If you’re looking for something good in this department, though, you could do worse than turn to the other Friedman:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalism_and_Freedom

    It was written before the term globalisation became popular, but still has a lot to say on the subject (particularly the chapter on trade).

    I wouldn’t pick at his anti-geek arguments too much, though:

    ” “BitTorrent is a Web site that allows users to upload their own online music libraries and download other people’s at the same time”. Wrong in at least two very important ways. Sigh. ”

    Wrong in two ways, no doubt. Whether those ways are important is more questionable. The failure of BitTorrent, like much of open-source, is a failure of marketing and communication, not of technology or intent.

    Comment by Andrew Ferrier — January 15, 2007 #

  5. I should point out that the BitTorrent quote was a one sentence aside, purely to explain what it is. I get tetchy when people make the sort of basic technical mistake that would have been put right by a quick scan of Wikipedia.

    To your point Andrew, I don’t actually agree that BitTorrent has failed to communicate or market itself. BitTorrent is popular and successful; it’s now supported in Opera, Netgear recently announced a partnership, Warner Brothers did a deal, as did a bunch of other media companies. (By the way, over at over at rothbrothers.net there’s a great discussion about how those companies, while making deals with BitTorrent missed the real power of the protocol and P2P generally.)

    BitTorrent, like Firefox, is actually a great example of an Open Source project backed by a brand and company working hard to market and promote it.

    Comment by Roo — January 17, 2007 #

  6. dont waste your time. its not great. lexus and olive tree was better. one criticism – its effectively predicated on infinite oil and no global warming, in a world where all supply chains are optimised and its good to eat apples from Chile in England. if you buy that you will agree a lot. if you dont you’ll keep saying. boring. life is too short. challenge yourself and read The Welfare State We’re In instead.

    Comment by James Governor — January 17, 2007 #

  7. Thanks James. I’ll try that.

    Comment by Roo — January 17, 2007 #

  8. OK, fair enough, maybe I do Bittorrent a disservice. Given that, what I should have said is that it had failed to market itself up to now (witness geeks protesting how misunderstood it was, never stopping to ask why). If it is making inroads into breaking down that perception, all for the good, and I wish it the best (hey, it’s only a protocol, but then Google is only a search engine).

    I’d agree that it is certainly frustrating to see things misexplained – although it does lead to the interesting question as to why those misexplanations occur. I’m not sure all of it is due to Friedman’s laziness.

    One things is for sure: I should read (part of?) the book!

    Comment by Andrew Ferrier — January 17, 2007 #

  9. As with Tipping Point, or Blink, it’s one of those books that everyone seems to read, regardless of how good it actually is. I might stick it out, or might give up and hand it over to Nick. I’ve nearly finished Lila (the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), so it’s time to move on one way or the other.

    Comment by Roo — January 22, 2007 #

  10. […] Note: Milton Friedman is unrelated to Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, a book which Roo Reynolds wrote a partial review of recently. […]

    Pingback by Andrew Ferrier’s Blog » Blog Archive » Milton Friedman Day — February 1, 2007 #

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