Our “Flat” World: Revelations for an American in China

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, journalist Thomas Friedman theorizes that through a series of significant events and developments, the world has become—hence the title—flat. This means the playing field in everything from the availability of information to the producing of software, furniture, and foods had been leveled in ways no one could have dreamed even just thirty years ago.

Friedman explains his theory in terms of ten “flatteners,” or pivotal occurrences which have given the world the appearance and opportunities it has today. I have been exploring this book throughout my time in China, and have been blown away by the things I have learned. Even as a young person in such a fast-paced, quickly changing world, there are forces at work behind closed doors that I never dreamed of. I buy products from Wal-Mart, am a slave to my iPod and laptop computer. I use the internet for everything from research to networking with friends to shopping, and expect instant results and all the information that relates to whatever I’m looking for. I grocery shop expecting to see the same assortment of vegetables and fruits year-round and call 24-hour-a-day service centers and have technology repaired within days of the initial malfunction.

Within all this, I understand that there have been great advances in the service, quality, price, and availability of all this; however, I had no idea the fundamental innovations and trends that the last two decades have held in making my life the way it is. Starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall (therefore creating a relatively unified sort of direction of the world—no longer split by two major polarities and their opposing economic systems) and the implementation of Windows as means to run PCs, Friedman tracks the progression of our world into one of open-sourcing, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, and in-forming—all greatly allowed by the laying of fiber-optic cable across the world and the extreme growth and development of the Internet and technology powerful enough to handle all this.

“Flattener #6” is offshoring, specifically the immense impact China’s manufacturing and production had had on the world and how businesses run, make money, and maintain themselves. China’s role is raising the stakes across the board, in business and trade, in education, and in technology, making the world a more competitive place.

Right now, I see a China that is definitely developing, an odd paradox that contrasts glossy, western-influenced shopping centers, high rises, and new cars against piles of rubble, slums, and squeaky rickshaws and bicycles. Comparing this to my native land, it would be easy for me to dismiss this massive nation as simply developing, to think that hopefully one day it will set its feet firm on the international playing field.

Even after learning in classes and through the media about all the places China is headed, seeing firsthand how much of its current situation is provincial, impoverished and undeveloped could make the uneducated eye skeptical. That is why augmenting my trip with The World is Flat has been so enriching. On several occasions I have been so amazed by what I’ve learned—things that exist and take place in my world every single of which I had no idea—that I have exclaimed out loud, in excitement and revelation. Those who have been around me know how often I mention something I’ve read in Friedman’s book, how often his name comes up. It is all particularly pertinent to those of us on this trip, as we are the ones who will be bridging the relations between our own nation and the huge global power we are visiting and observing.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in global current events or business. This might sound boring, but don’t be afraid of the book’s size (469 pages) or its classification as current events—I assure you the way Friedman presents his theories is interesting and exciting. He explains things in terms that the average person can understand, appreciate, and delight in.

The World is Flat has extremely enhanced my experience in China, and will make me more observant and aware upon my return to the United States.