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Journalist Thomas L. Friedman, in his book The World Is Flat, identifies 10 reasons behind the current process of globalization. Three of these changes provide the platform that has made the increasing pace of globalization—what Friedman calls the creation of a flat world—possible.
 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas L. Friedman describes ten things that he believes are behind the current phase of globalization. Friedman uses the image of a “flat” world to describe the process of globalization. A “flat” or globalized world is a world that is increasingly integrated; a world where states, companies, and individuals are increasingly interdependent; where the actions of not only multinational corporations, but—more significantly—individuals can have increasingly important global effects.

And, says Friedman, the significance of this development is no less dramatic than Columbus’ discovery that the world is round.

Although Friedman identifies 10 things that have led to this increasingly globalized world, he describes three of these things as the “platform” on which the globalized world is built:

  1. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the development of the Apple and Windows-enabled personal computer (PC),
  2. The development of the Internet, the World Wide Web and web browsers,
  3. The development of work-flow software.

Even though the advances in communication technologies were integral to the creation of a globalized world, Friedman does not reduce the factors behind the creation of a “flat world platform” to mere developments in technology. What is at least as important (if not more important) was the rise in demand for these technologies and the general know-how to take advantage of them. Globalization has created a more level playing field on which corporations, individuals, ideas, and processes can compete.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Development of the Apple and Windows-Enabled PC

Seeing the World Differently

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 was not only a politically dramatic event, it was a hugely symbolic event, argues Friedman. He describes the fall of the Berlin Wall as an event that allowed people to think about the world differently—to see the world as a “seamless whole.” In the Cold War era, people thought of the world in either-or terms: Either capitalist West or communist East. The political and economic split did not simply limit people’s ability to communicate or do business, it limited people’s ability to think globally.

The ability to think and act globally allowed businesses and individuals to draw on one another’s knowledge pools. It also spurred the development of global standards of how things should be done, for instance, the best way to do accounting, the best way to run an economy, or how to make a better PC. The ability to communicate with others across the globe not only meant that a greater depth and breadth of knowledge were available. It also created a more level playing field in which the individuals’ ideas, insights and actions could compete.

The Rise of the PC

The development of computers allowed information to become digitalized. Friedman argues that this was an enormously important advance in communication technology. Digitalizing information made it easier to both create and manipulate information. Individuals were able to be more productive. And, with advances in communication technologies, for instance using a modem to deliver this digitalized information to other people around the globe, people were able to share their information with others outside their immediate setting.

Putting this development in perspective, Friedman says, “Think of what one person can do with pen and paper. Think of what one person can do with a typewriter. And then think of what one person can now do with a PC.”

However, notes Friedman, the early computers were largely the tools of scientists and depended on programming know-how. In other words, unless you were at a university or government agency, it would be unlikely that you would have access to a computer. And, unless you knew how to write computer programs, you really could not do much with one of these computers.

Friedman says that all this changed with the creation of the Apple and Windows-enabled PC. When IBM built the personal computer, it provided access for individuals to the power of computers outside the university or government computer lab. People could now harness the digitalizing power of computers in their office or home.

But, says Friedman, until Apple and Microsoft Windows came along, access to the power of computers was still limited to computer geeks. Apple and Windows provided a user-friendly interface that did not require knowledge of how to program. Individuals could now drag and drop or point and click without any knowledge of the code underlying their ability to do these things. If the development of the PC afforded individuals access to the power of computers, Apple and Windows provided the way for individuals to take advantage of this power.

Friedman sums it up this way:

“The political constraint on individual reach collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall…and the practical constraints on the individual reach collapsed with the rise of the Apple and Windows-enabled modem-connected IBM PC.”

The Internet, the World Wide Web and the Creation of Web Browsers

But, argues Friedman, the ability to digitalize personal knowledge or information was still largely limited to wherever the computer happened to be located. Something more was needed—the ability to share that information with others in distant places.

Friedman says that the creation of the Internet—“a network of networks”—connected computers to computers. The World Wide Web, created in the early 1990s, provided a standardized way of delivering information between those computers. Says Friedman, the Internet was about “computers and cables.” The World Wide Web, built on top of the Internet, provided the hypertext language enabling people to share files, mail, or any “packet” of information across the Internet.

Still, as with the development of computers, the development of the initial communication technology was not sufficient to bring about the dramatic changes in globalization. The Internet and World Wide Web initially required a fair amount of programming expertise to navigate and use. That changed with the development and release of the web browser. What Apple and Windows did for PCs, Netscape, the first widely popular commercial browser, did for the Internet.

The Internet and the World Wide Web provided the capacity to share digitalized information across the globe to anyone who had a modem-connected PC. But, says Friedman, “Unless you knew how to manually drive around the Internet to find things, it was not all that exciting.” However, with the release and development of user-friendly web browsers like Netscape (released in 1995) the Internet became more user-friendly and more exciting. Again, the world was “flattened.” You did not have to be a computer geek to share your digitally created information with others around the globe.

The Development of Work-flow Software

Friedman says that another critical, though less obvious factor behind the current phase of globalization is the development of work-flow software. What contribution did work-flow software make to the “flat world platform?” Friedman identifies two key features of work-flow software that dramatically increased productivity.

Standardization

Friedman says that even after the development of user-friendly PCs and browsers for the World Wide Web, individuals and companies were still limited in their ability to share this information. In the early phases, even though individuals and departments within a company were more productive because they could create and manipulate information using software programs on their PCs, the software on one PC or in one department was unlikely to be compatible with software used in other departments or by other individuals.

The emergence of standard ways of encoding and sharing the digitalized information allowed people in one part of a company or one part of the world, to share their information with others in different places. This meant, for instance, that information could be created using one word-processing program and read using another word-processing program. Standardization allowed for a broader sharing of information less limited by the peculiarities of specific software programs.

Integration

Once information sharing became more standardized, individuals and companies gained the ability to integrate tasks and processes more seamlessly. Friedman describes the paper-based process of filling a client order: It required a number of steps including the transfer of paper documents and orders between departments, entering the information from paper into whatever software program that department used, then the generation of another paper document to another department until the client order was filled. Even though computers may be used to create documents, sharing documents initially relied on human feet rather than computer power.

Friedman says that with the development of standardized means for computers to share information, multistep processes (like customer orders) could be integrated more tightly, more quickly, and more productively.

The Flat World Platform: Bottom Line

Thomas Friedman argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed people to see the world differently—as “flat” or more global. The development of the Apple and Windows-based modem-connected PC allowed individuals to harness the power of computers to digitalize information. The development of the Internet, the World Wide Web and user-friendly web browsers provided a way for individuals to share this digitalized information globally. And finally, the development of work-flow software enabled companies and individuals to integrate knowledge, ideas, and actions seamlessly and more productively.

 
Data and Methods:

Data Source:

Based in large measure on interviews conducted as part of the author's work as a journalist.

 
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Reference

Friedman, Thomas L. 2006. The World is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Ch. 2, pp. 50-200.

 
 
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