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READ: Is the World Flat or Spiky?

Some people see globalization as leveling the economic playing field. Others view the increasingly interconnected world as one of growing inequality. So which one is it: flat or spiky? You decide.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What does Thomas L. Friedman mean when he says that globalization is “flattening” the world?
  2. What are Friedman’s three eras of globalization, and what drove each one?
  3. What does Richard Florida mean when he argues that the world is actually spiky?
  4. What is Vandana Shiva’s critique of Friedman’s argument, and what evidence does she use?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied. Since this is the first reading assignment of the course, you may not connect it to much other than the knowledge you already have.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Is a “flatter” world fundamentally a good thing? Is a “spikier” world fundamentally a bad thing? Defend your answer.
  2. The idea of a “flat” and “spiky” world can be hard to understand. So, let’s make it more local. What are some ways that the distribution of power (or authority) in your school is flat or spiky?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Is the World Flat or Spiky?

By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Some people see globalization as leveling the economic playing field. Others view the increasingly interconnected world as one of growing inequality. So which one is it: flat or spiky? You decide.
Globalization can be a controversial topic. Many see it as the way of the future, and why not? People are now more interconnected than ever before. This interconnection then propels new forms of cooperation and innovation. More opportunities for more people. Then again, some argue that globalization is creating even more inequality than we've ever seen at any point in history. The rich, industrialized countries are getting richer as a result of interconnection while the poorer developing nations are suffering.

The world is flat

In 2005, Thomas L. Friedman's book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century sparked a debate about just how much the world was benefiting from increased globalization. Friedman, a journalist for The New York Times, argues in his book that technological innovation has connected the world. And he sees this as a "flattening" of the world, as the global playing field is being leveled to include more input and contributions from nations outside the "industrialized West".
"Clearly, it is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world—using computers, e-mail, networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software…what the flattening of the world means is that we are now connecting all the knowledge centers on the planet together into a single global network, which—if politics and terrorism do not get in the way—could usher in an amazing era of prosperity and innovation" (Friedman, 8).
Friedman also describes globalization as going through three distinct stages, each driven by a "dynamic force".
(1) "The first [great era of globalization] lasted from 1492—when Columbus set sail, opening trade between the Old World and the New World—until around 1800…in Globalization 1.0 the key agent of change, the dynamic force driving the process of global integration was how much brawn—how much muscle, how much horsepower, wind power, or later steam power—your country had and how creatively you could deploy it. In this era, countries and governments (often inspired by religion or imperialism or a combination of both) led the way in breaking down walls and knitting the world together, driving global integration…
(2) The second great era, Globalization 2.0, lasted roughly from 1800 to 2000, interrupted by the Great Depression and World Wars I and II…In Globalization 2.0, the key agent of change, the dynamic force driving global integration was multinational companies. These multinationals went global for markets and labor, spearheaded first by the expansion of the Dutch and English joint-stock companies and the Industrial Revolution. In the first half of this era, global integration was powered by falling transportation costs, thanks to the steam engine and the railroad, and in the second half by falling telecommunication costs—thanks to the diffusion of the telegraph, telephones, the PC, satellites, fiber-optic cable, and the early version of the World Wide Web. It was during this era that we really saw the birth and maturation of a global economy in the sense that there was enough movement of goods and information from continent to continent for there to be a global market…
(3) Globalization 3.0 is shrinking the world…and flattening the playing field at the same time…The dynamic force in Globalization 3.0—the thing that gives it its unique character—is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally. And the lever that is enabling individuals and groups to go global so easily and so seamlessly is not horsepower and not hardware, but software—all sorts of new applications—in conjunction with the creation of a global fiber-optic network that has made us all next door neighbors" (Friedman, 9-10).

The world is spiky1

While Friedman's theory sounds interesting and compelling, the book received a lot of criticism both from economists in the industrialized world and from advocates in the developing world. Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, wrote a review of Friedman's work in The Atlantic Monthly and counterpunched the flattening world idea by saying the world is actually pretty "spiky" with economic disparities.
“The world, according to the title of the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book, is flat. Thanks to advances in technology, the global playing field has been leveled, the prizes are there for the taking, and everyone’s a player—no matter where on the surface of the earth he or she may reside. ‘In a flat world,’ Friedman writes, ‘you can innovate without having to emigrate...'
By almost any measure the international economic landscape is not at all flat. On the contrary, our world is amazingly ‘spiky.’ In terms of both sheer economic horsepower and cutting-edge innovation, surprisingly few regions truly matter in today’s global economy. What’s more, the tallest peaks—the cities and regions that drive the world economy—are growing ever higher, while the valleys mostly languish [get lower and weaker].
The most obvious challenge to the flat-world hypothesis is the explosive growth of cities worldwide. More and more people are clustering in urban areas—the world’s demographic mountain ranges, so to speak. The share of the world’s population living in urban areas, just three percent in 1800, was nearly 30 percent by 1950. Today it stands at about 50 percent; in advanced countries three out of four people live in urban areas…
Still, differences in population density vastly understate the spikiness of the global economy; the continuing dominance of the world’s most productive urban areas is astounding. When it comes to actual economic output, the ten largest U.S. metropolitan areas combined are behind only the United States as a whole and Japan. New York’s economy alone is about the size of Russia’s or Brazil’s, and Chicago’s is on a par with Sweden’s…
But the flat-world theory blinds us to far more insidious [dangerous] tensions among the world’s growing peaks, sinking valleys, and shifting hills. The innovative, talent-attracting ‘have’ regions seem increasingly remote from the talent-exporting ‘have-not’ regions…And inequality is growing across the world and within countries.
This is far more harrowing [disturbing] than the flat world Friedman describes, and a good deal more treacherous than the old rich-poor divide. We see its effects in the political backlash against globalization in the advanced world.”
Global networking. Public domain.
In another critique, the activist and environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva writes about how Friedman seems to only focus upon the beneficial effects of technology while leaving out globalization's effects on inequality.
"The project of corporate Globalization is a project for polarising and dividing people—along axis of class and eco- nomic inequality, axis of religion and culture, axis of gender, axis of geographies and regions. Never before in hu- man history has the gap between those who labor and those who accumulate wealth without labor been greater. Never before has hate between cultures been so global…
Yet Thomas Friedman, describes this deeply divided world created by Globalization and its multiple offspring's of insecurity and polarization as a 'flat' world. In his book 'The World is Flat' Friedman tries desperately to argue that Globalization is a leveller of inequalities in societies. But when you only look at the worldwide Web of information technology, and refuse to look at the web of life, the food web, the web of community, the web of local economies and local cultures which Globalization is destroying, it is easy to make false and fallacious [misleading] arguments that the world is flat…
Telling a one sided story for a one sided interest seems to be Friedman's fate. That is why he talks of 550 million Indian youth overtaking Americans in a flat world. When the entire information Technology/outsourcing sector in India employs only a million out of a 1.2 billion people. Food and farming, textiles and clothing, health and education are nowhere in Friedman's monoculture of mind locked into IT. Friedman presents a 0.1% picture and hides 99.9%. And in the 99.9% are Monsanto's seed monopolies and the suicides of thousands of wars. In the eclipsed 99.9% are the 25 million women who disappeared in high growth areas of India because a commodified world has rendered women a dispensable sex. In the hidden 99.9% economy are thousands of tribal children in Orissa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan who died of hunger because the public distribution system for food has been dismantled to create markets for agribusiness. The world of the 99.9% has grown poorer because of the economic globalization."
So which one is it? Is the world flattening or is it spiky? It's not an easy question to answer. In addition, your perspective, which could include your region, gender, age, and socio-economic standing, also shapes how you view the world and this issue. But maybe if we take all of these factors into account then we can decide on a more nuanced [refined] approach to answering this problem.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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