The philosophy of technology is an area about which even very few technologists ever think. It is rather an unexplored subject despite the growth of technology in particularly the last hundred years. Whenever there is a minor development in this subject, it is declared as a path-breaking one. Though Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” has been awarded as the best business book of the year 2005 by The Financial Times, I shall put it primarily as a book that postulates a strong position in the philosophy of technology. It says that whatever walls, political or economic, ideological or cultural, this present world is carrying, are going to be dismantled in the 21st century. His stand is that globalization has entered a phase where human transactions, both social and monetary, shall be governed at a supersonic speed. This shall not only change the existing business models but shall also reconfigure the whole globe in an entirely flat manner where communication of design, ideas and production techniques shall be direct and instant. All existing models of power and wealth shall have to readjust according to this reality otherwise their existence shall be doubtful.
Thomas Friedman is an eminent Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has straddled all the corners of the world several times. His shifting from the empirical foreign affairs to the theoretical issues of emerging world order is remarkable. This book has turned out to be the most popular and the most critiscized one than his three earlier books, Longitudes and Attitudes (2002), The Lexus and the Olive tree (1999) and From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989). The World is Flat is the most wide-spread in terms of depth and linkages. To him, flattening is a process which empowers the individuals and companies through enlarging their reach as well as their resources. For Indians, this book is also special. It begins in Bangalore, one of the many genesis points of emerging flat world. One full chapter has been provided to this city, Infosys and India which has mastered one of the ten flattening forces of the world, i.e. the outsourcing through which the developing countries have been able to establish the state of art standards in the many areas of accounting, designing, teaching, animation etc. The power of web-enabled technology has integrated the world in such a manner that today a company might be American in only its name and address while its major workforce and production activity will be in a country like India or China.
Friedman presents a list of other ‘never-thought of’ flattening forces which may seem to a non-technology person a bit vague. Perhaps, such people have also called him a “technology-obsessed” person but his point of view is worth it. From the first force that symbolized itself in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall (11/9/89), he begins a journey that pursues a common link till end. The second one i.e. the public activation of world wide web through Netscape (8/9/95) strengthened the effect of the first one in an irreversible manner. The third one i.e. the operationalization of work flow software brought together all those who could share and recreate whatever could be digitized. The fourth one i.e. the open-sourcing made international efforts of knowledge creation and dissemination quite effective and creatively common to one and all. The fifth and sixth flatteners were outsourcing and offshoring where south-east Asian nations made a very strong dent in the industrial leadership of the European and North American nations. The seventh and eighth ones were hard-core business practices of modern management i.e. the supply-chaining and in-sourcing which because of the use of information technology right from the inception of design, became so powerful tools of cost-cutting and capacity-diversification that business management turned out to be a fundamental category of human innovation. In-forming was the ninth force which brought all information to the user in need at his click-command. The Google and the other search engines made accessibility of any thing ever created on web space direct. The wave created by these nine forces was enhanced exponentially by the tenth force, i.e. the amplifying technologies or steroids. The widespread use of mobile-phones, file-sharing and PDAs made the wireless environment truly empowering and liberating.
With these ten forces in active operation, Friedman says, a triple convergence happened. First, the emergence of a web-enabled playing field; second, development of new ways to collaborate horizontally and thirdly, the opening up of developing societies like China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Central Asia, all converged together into a common reality called the flat world. He says that at present, there might be some hitches in the path but it does not mean that flat world is not there right in our midst. Naturally, he continues that this shall result in the great sorting out because this is something that shall affect not only the developed world and the companies but it shall also affect developing countries and individuals. America shall have to develop a new value-strain in its business, companies will have to integrate as well as innovate and individuals shall have to reascertain their position in this world. He proposes though weakly that this convergence and interdependence of the world shall make it a safer entity through his Dell theory of Conflict Prevention but he nevertheless upholds the fact the flat world has both the possibilities 11/9 (the fall of Berlin Wall) and 9/11 (the WTC attack).
Thomas Friedman has touched an area which looks deep into the interlinking between the technology and the world order. Many people have critiscized his book on the premise that his work tries to cover up the hidden agenda of neo-imperialism but I feel that such a kind of approach shall be throwing baby out with the bathwater. Within the realm of philosophy of technology, his work does have a very sound footing but that does not make it a complete work. His is an open-ended work. Within it, there are many issues that have been left untouched. The most important question is that the technology has a serious role in social assimilation and power relations of the nations, groups and individuals. Can it be called a non-value oriented development? Are the poor and the rich equally placed in this world? The flow and distribution of technology is a political issue and for that, a context of philosophy needs to be there for the world to see whether their relationship with the technology is in the long-term good of the planet as a whole. It is not a left vs. right debate. It needs to be understood in broader perspective.
As far as the historical records of globalization movements are concerned, we can accept that flat world shall be an efficient world but the earlier waves of global movements of people have not resulted in a peaceful world. That makes everybody a bit clinical in the treatment of this book. The planet needs some more things other than efficiency. Sustainability of human civilization and harmony between people is the foremost demand but technology needs a framework of thought and practice where we can move towards the conceived utopia for this planet but a technology without any direction for humanity as a whole might leave us stranded in the emerging potholed dystopias of the flat world.