How the Internet accelerates globalization


by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
For the Sunday Gazette


The cease-fire [that ended the India-Pakistan nuclear crisis of 2002] was brought to us not by General Powell but by General Electric. We bring good things to life.


                 —Thomas Friedman, in “The World is Flat”


It’s fun to read Molly Ivins. I enjoy George Will too because of his exquisite English and because he is the de facto president of the American Society for the Abolition of the Designated Hitter. But each leans so predictably left or right that they don’t make me think as hard as I should. In that pursuit, my favorite is three-time Pulitzer-prize winner Thomas Friedman.

Since I read him regularly, and thoroughly enjoyed his first book on globalization The Lexus and the Olive Tree, I was surprised that I didn’t learn that he had written a sequel called The World is Flat until I saw it at a local book store. If only Fox News hadn’t turned “fair and balanced” into Newspeak, I would certainly apply it to his work.

            Friedman knows that geophysically, the Earth is spheroidal, not flat—or as Will would say more precisely, “pyriformal.” Where Friedman uses “flat,” he means “level,” as in an economically level playing field. I didn’t buy the book when I first saw it, but it magically appeared the next day, a birthday present from my son Peter who knew I liked Friedman’s columns. And that night, while surfing from channel 13 down to 10 to catch Nightline at 10:35, who do I see talking to Charlie Rose on 11 but Tom Friedman!

            The subject, of course, was his new book. I have seen Friedman on the tube before, but never so hyper. He said that while concentrating on the Middle East since 9/11, he had been asleep to certain developments since 11/9. That is, since November 9, 1995, the day the Berlin Wall came down and tipped the balance to a global free-market economy.

            The significance of the wordplay that Friedman used in the opening quote is that GE’s second largest research center (to our own GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna) is in Bangalore, India, and Dell, IBM, and many other large global corporations have significant backroom accounting and computer maintenance operations there. Since there were similar concerns about Pakistan, the two countries settled their differences, at least for the time being. Similarly, China and Taiwan share parts of the same easily disrupted Dell supply chain, so there now seems to be a significant lessening of tensions between them.

            My own globalization epiphany stems from 20 of  the 60 Minutes of April 24 during which Bill Simon of CBS took his viewers on a tour of two luxurious hospitals, one in Thailand and one in India. Through marbled halls more characteristic of a five-star hotel than a hospital come tens of thousands of patients per year, all treated with TLC by hundreds of RNs—no orderlies—and skilled Asian doctors trained in the United States.

            Now, suppose an American without health insurance needs a quintuple bypass or some other comparably complex operation that would cost, say, $50,000 here. Suppose he cannot raise that sum, but does have assets of $25,000. So he buys a $2,000 round-trip plane ticket to Asia, checks into a spacious private room in the hospital, and undergoes the operation for $13,000, room and board included. A few days later, the operand is back home, good as new, and still has ten grand left in the bank.

            Friedman makes 11/9 just the first of ten significant developments which led him to conclude that the world is now flat, that is, that smart people in undeveloped countries can now compete with Europe and the United States in the use of Information Technology (IT). Anything that can be digitized can be sent quickly to the most distant point in the world. The information can be software specifications for implementation by teams of Indians, Chinese, or Thais who will work 12 hours a day, 24/7 if necessary, and at a fraction of the wages commanded by Americans. Or the information might be a digitized x-ray to be interpreted, or data needed for completing a complex tax return. So long as each is done accurately, patients or clients need never know whether the processing was done by their own doctor or by H&R Block or whomever.

            Three of Friedman’s other ten points also concern IT: 8/9/95: the day Netscape went public and the World Wide Web (WWW) burst on the scene; “work-flow software,” which integrates the sequence of steps that cooperating international companies need to produce a final product.; and the rise of “open-source software,” meaning that no longer must users be beholden to commercial companies for provision of expensive software. There is now a “freeware” version of just about every major Microsoft product, software written by cooperating teams of altruistic programmers from all over the world. Bill Gates has got to be worried.

            In my own book “Milestones of Computer Science and Information Technology” published by Greenwood Press in 2003, I agree that the four IT points highlighted by Friedman are very significant, along with 650 other IT milestones. The four that I consider most historically significant are the concept of the library, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, television, and the Internet. And it is the last of these that is flattening and democratizing the world.

<>            Adding another local touch in addition to several references to GE, Friedman quotes extensively from interviews with Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of RPI. Judged by Google hits, she is one of the three most famous African-American women in the world, second only to Oprah Winfrey but with twice the citations of Condoleeza Rice. And since she lives and works right here in our own Tech Valley, I got to meet her last year, along with 100 other members of RPI’s Class of 1954.
Dr. Jackson is concerned that whereas, 30 years ago, the United States was the third largest producer of engineering graduates, it is now 17th. So it is not just information that is flowing out of our country, we are hemorrhaging the very engineering jobs that we need to maintain our technological competitiveness. I have some ideas as to what we can do to help alleviate this situation, but they’ll have to wait for another column-length word budget.

Not all critics liked The World is Flat. In his review in the Washington Post, Warren Bass wrote that Friedman “has a maddening inability to take himself out of the frame.” I noticed a touch of this while watching the interview with Rose. Friedman said that George W. Bush has three and a half years to go in his term and could still be a great President—“if only he would read my book.”

            Someone is reading the book, however. The last time I checked, its sales rank among all books was 2. Mine was a tad behind at 971,506. Perhaps I can get Amazon to offer both as a package deal.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.