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The Flat World

December 27, 2005

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.