No, it’s round

You know, if I were trying to satirize someone as clueless as Thomas Friedman, I might portray him hawking a book/metaphor called “The World is Flat.” But only if I were feeling lazy and/or uninspired, and needed to go for the obvious joke. So it’s really quite astonishing that the real Thomas Friedman is actually hawking said book/metaphor, and seems quite proud of same.

At any rate, Siddharth Varadarajan is unimpressed:

Ever since I experienced, at first hand, Nato’s bombing runs over Belgrade in the summer of 1999, I’ve had little time for Thomas Friedman or his ruminations.

In those days, Mr Friedman — a widely syndicated New York Times columnist and an advocate of corporate globalisation and American military intervention around the world — used to peddle the silly idea that countries with McDonalds would never go to war against each other. Well, before he could say ‘take-away’, the United States bombed Yugoslavia, while Pakistan and India fought a war over Kargil. All these countries had McDonalds (OK, the Indian ones don’t serve beef) but they still went to war. I don’t know whether the Panamanians ate Big Macs in 1989 but even if they did, I suspect George Bush (the elder) wouldn’t have thought twice about invading them.

In The World is Flat, Mr Friedman ditches McDonalds in favour of another lemon, the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention: “No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other so long as they are both part of the same global supply chain”.

This prediction is typical of the ahistorical approach Mr Friedman adopts in order to argue that corporate globalisation is the panacea for the world’s problems. Open up your economy, be less corrupt, create institutions of good governance, let companies hire and fire workers more easily — this is essentially what those who are not benefiting from globalisation must do.

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Stripped of the gush, what flatness boils down to is the ability of businesses to use new communications technologies in order to push the frontiers of cost-cutting by speeding up the work process and sourcing labour and inputs from every corner of the globe. Among the ‘flatteners’ are Windows, the Internet, workflow and open-source software, outsourcing, off-shoring (i.e. foreign direct investment), supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming (i.e. Google and other search engines) and digital, wireless communication. Flatness, Mr Friedman contends, is making the world less hierarchical, more prosperous and equal (eg. by allowing Indians to work in call centres or process American tax forms), more transparent and democratic (thanks to blogging), and less prone to war.

Flatman gets so carried away with his discovery that he loses the big picture early in the book. On page 39, he visits a U.S. military base in Babil, Iraq and marvels at the live feed being relayed on a flat-screen TV from a Predator drone flying overhead. The drone is being manipulated by an expert sitting in Las Vegas and its feed monitored by a low-level officer who is accessing information earlier available only to his commanders. The Great Discoverer is overawed that Bubba’s been given a laptop. “The military playing field is being levelled’, Friedman writes, without a hint of irony. Remember, he’s in Iraq, a country that’s just been flattened by the U.S. military.

At the Arkansas nerve centre of Wal-Mart — a company he admits has labour practices that are a little unethical — Flatman finds more flatness. . Workers who are not able to move pallets piled high with boxed products fast enough are told to speed up by a “soothing” computerized voice delivered instantly through wireless headphones they must wear at all times. “You can choose whether you want your computer voice to be a man or woman, and you can choose English or Spanish”, a Wal-Mart executive says proudly. Flatman is duly impressed. This is what makes the Wal-Mart supply-chain efficient. This is what makes the world a flatter place to live.

Speaking of Flatman, don’t miss his column today, in which he argues that what America really needs is…better cell service. I kid you not.