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The world is flat. Not.

2012 November 18

worldisflatA recent Ted presentation by Professor Ghemawat kindly reminded me of the world being flat, or not very much at all, according to Ghemawat. This was not a complete surprise to me as I came across some other discourse on the topic by Philip McCann in late 2009. I thought it would at least be good timing to reread Friedman’s master work “The World Is Flat” from a few years ago.

Friedman uses this flattening as a metaphor to show that globalization is doing away with borders and locality and that geography, or rather place, matters less and less. The world and its inhabitants is becoming more alike, due to many technology advances and other “flatteners”. The cartographer in me revolts at the idea of a flat earth. Trying to map a somewhat spherical earth has been the livelihood of so many of us and the skill set to understand projection systems is still highly cherished, even in the age of Web Mercator.


A curved world
McCann’s article is titled Globalization and economic geography: the world is curved, not flat (2008). He presents that in terms of economics, Friedman is fundamentally incorrect. McCann’s writes that the “evidence regarding not only the importance of urban growth but also the development of networks of global cities point to the conclusion that geographical proximity is becoming increasingly important over time, even as transportation and communications technologies improve.”


Global visionIn other words, the world is becoming steeper. He adds “Global firms are becoming the dominant decision-making units, not individuals, and networks of global cities are becoming the dominant reference point both for firms, trade and also for high human capital individuals.” So much for the power of the individual and the outlook of a flat earth.


Ghemawat also takes a strong stand against the current state of our interconnected world and he brings the data to support it (science 101). We seem to constantly overestimate how connected we really are, maybe caused by “apocalyptic-minded authors”. This “Globaloney” can be harmful to your health, says Ghemawat. If we would know the correct numbers, we are likely to act differently towards topics like e.g. immigrants, foreign aid. We don’t need to strive for a fully connected world, just meeting that open world half way would be really fine. “Incremental openness could make things dramatically better.”


Reading hyped books way beyond the hype is still my recommendation. Friedmen wrote a masterwork – I still recommend reading it- based on his observations, which caused a strong echo in the real world. But journalism is not science and it should not be treated that way. Nonetheless, a bit more sources next to the anecdotes Friedmen brings would have been very nice and appropriate.


On a related topic: would living in a complete flat world be very interesting and rewarding?


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