The Flat World

I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat”. It’s a pretty good book discussing the effects of the interplay between technology and globalization. His primary point is that steadily improving communications technology allows everyone in the world to compete on an ever increasingly level playing field, the ‘flattening’ of the world. I’m not crazy about his writing style, but his points are all very interesting. As if confirming Friedman’s central tenet, the stat logs for my blog list India as the second most frequent country of origin for visitors (after the US).

There is one thing about the book that bothers me. While I understand using simple imagery to make the point Friedman is trying to make, using the “flat world” description bugs me. In part of the introductory material he talks about Christopher Columbus being the man who ‘discovered’ the world is round. As I’m sure Friedman is aware, no educated navigator of Columbus’ time thought the world was flat. Every time this myth is perpetuated, it drives me crazy. I know this is ‘nitpicking’ a detail, but if you’re going to use this ‘flat world’ imagery consistently throughout your book, at least get that simple detail right.

In fact Columbus was able to make his historic ‘discovery’ because his principle idea, that the circumference of the earth was significantly smaller than was accepted by other navigators, was dead wrong. Are we uncomfortable or maybe ashamed of propping up a ‘discoverer’ who’s vision was wrong? It’s interesting that we have invented a new mythology to avoid having the ‘discoverer’ of the Americas having made his discovery by accident.

I think it is more interesting as a story of an individual passionately pursuing an errant vision and still accomplishing something of significant value. Sometimes pursuing the wrong thing can lead people to explore ideas that conventional wisdom would never attempt. Even when the conventional wisdom is correct, you could never have reached the indies from Spain with 15th century sailing technology, that conventional wisdom overlooked the possibility of an entire land-mass waiting to be explored. Even Columbus never understood the significance of his ‘discovery’ believing until the day he died he had reached the indies.

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  • Anonymous

    This book stirred more passion in me than most previous books I’ve read in the past decade. Friedman’s insights from the 10 trends to practicle actions to compete were outstanding. I’ve contacted all my political representatives to take action. I would recommend this to anyone, especially younger kids. I plan on reading it with my 11 year old.

    Reference the title, it get’s your attention. Moreover, there are linkages in the content. If something is flat it refers to all being equal. That is the whole point of the book. Happy Reading.

  • mikepk

    I’m not really critiquing the central points of the book. I fully understand the reason for using the image of a flat world. I also find the points Friedman makes to be very interesting about globalization. I’m just nitpicking the continuation of the myth that Columbus was a great visionary who went against the flawed logic of his age. In fact it was he who was wrong, and the thinking of his contemporaries that was correct. His error, however, allowed him to explore an area that the conventional wisdom (Columbus’s included) had overlooked, imagining it to be nothing but empty ocean. I think there’s value in the story of an erroneous idea leading to non-traditional exploration.

  • traffic_light

    Are we uncomfortable or maybe ashamed of propping up a ‘discoverer’ who’s vision was wrong? It’s interesting that we have invented a new mythology to avoid having the ‘discoverer’ of the Americas having made his discovery by accident.

    The thing that gets me is that he “discovered” land that someone else had been living on for thousands of years.

    That doesn’t count as a discovery in my book. And it certainly shouldn’t count as an official United States holiday.

  • mikepk

    I put the word discover in quotes intentionally. I know there is some contention on whether the voyage of 1492 should be counted as a discovery or not. I would argue, however, that the initiation of full contact between Europe and the Americas was definitely historic. Whether for good or ill, what Columbus did changed the course of history and fundamentally altered the destinies of the populations on the different continents.

    The other point to consider is that a large proportion of the peoples in the Americas now trace their history through the timeline of ‘western civilization’. If you take that narrow view of history, the term discovery makes sense since it connects the part of the timeline originating in Greece and Rome and connects it to more recent events. It’s sad to consider the timelines originating in the americas are now footnotes or small offshoots to the traditional way history is taught.

    The main problem is that history is messy, complex, and always up for interpretation. The histories of asia, africa, the native peoples of the americas, and even pre-rome europeans are all glossed over. Some of this is cultural self absorption, but I think another reason is that each of these histories could occupy a full course in and of themselves.

    The standard curricula in schools is essentially trying to take a broad ‘quick sweep’ of history to understand ‘how did we get here’. Again in some sense it’s very sad, but to the majority of people living in the americas now the simplest way to do that, with the most relevance, is to learn about western civilization. I don’t get upset by the term ‘discovery’, as long as you understand the context of the term. What it really means is discovery of a new continent by Europeans.