Have a Slice of Uber-Steroid-Flattener-Cake

My colleague Iain Murray recently mentioned his upcoming review in the American Spectator of Tom Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. While I’m sure readers will be informed and enlightened by Iain’s take on the current book, no mention of any Friedman project could be complete without a link back to one of the best book reviews of the last decade: Matt Taibbi’s review of Friedman’s The World Is Flat from April 2005:

Predictably, Friedman spends the [majority] of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end—and I’m not joking here—we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.

God strike me dead if I’m joking about this. Judge for yourself.

After the initial passages of the book, after [Infosys CEO Nandan] Nilekani has forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy description of the “ten great flatteners,” which is basically a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Netscape IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything that would give an IBM human resources director a boner, that’s a flattener. The catch here is that Flattener #10 is new communications technology: “Digital, Mobile, Personal, and Virtual.” These technologies Friedman calls “steroids,” because they are “amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners.”

According to the mathematics of the book, if you add an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with them. Although these 10 flatteners existed already by the time Friedman wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree—a period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbus—they did not come together to bring about Globalization 3.0, the flat world, until the 10 flatteners had, with the help of the steroids, gone through their “Triple Convergence.” The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub (the product featured in Friedman’s favorite television commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage industrial countries—India, Russia, China, among others—walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally, they occasionally are “not just walking” but “jogging and even sprinting” onto the playing field.

Now let’s say that the steroids speed things up by a factor of two. It could be any number, but let’s be conservative and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman’s first bestselling book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current bestselling book). To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take 10 flatteners, and you have them converge—let’s say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea—three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we’re dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We’re talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four-digit number. If you’re like me, you’re already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive imagery. For instance:

“And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!

Taibbi, of course, is no particular fan of free markets and free trade as we at CEI are, but his dismemberment of Friedman’s cliche-ridden prose is a joy to read. Let’s hope he gets a chance to join Iain in reviewing the current volume as well.