Friedman's Flat World

Thomas L. Friedman,
The World is Flat talk at MIT, May 16, 2005

This is an interesting talk, given by an evangelist of globalism (and foreign affairs writer for the New York Times), to an audience of MIT true believers. The talk is mostly about the “incredible new forms of collaboration” available across vast distances, as a result of the proliferation of the fiber-optic backbone during the dot-com boom.

That’s true, of course. The video itself, offered as part of
MIT’s OpenCourseWare portal, which is a free portal of over 600 MIT video lectures. It’s like TED, and other free portals that offer a more selective menu of videos than YouTube. And it’s cool (of course, so’s YouTube). But (like George Gilder, Ray Kurzweil, and lots of other tech prophets) Friedman seems to see only the coolness, and none of the weirdness technology brings.

Friedman describes (beginning about 14:55) a pilot program begun by MacDonalds around Washington DC, “where if you go up to the drive-in window…you’re not actually speaking to that MacDonalds. You’re speaking now to a MacDonalds call center in Colorado Springs, that’s taking down your order, and taking your picture, and then zapping your picture and your order electronically back to that MacDonalds, where your picture and order are matched up when you drive up to the drive-in window. So the world is being flattened,” Friedman goes on to explain, without reflecting anymore on the meaning of what he just described. But it deserves reflection, before we rush to embrace Friedman’s thesis that “flattening” is the next great event in the inevitable evolution of technological culture.

Why is it better to have people in suburban Colorado Springs taking your MacDonalds order? What’s the ratio of white to black customers at these “pilot” locations? What’s the ratio of white to black call center operators in Colorado Springs? What’s the average educational level of MacDonalds employees in Washington? What’s MacDonalds’ contribution to the educational infrastructure in Washington?

Seems like there are a lot of unacknowledged assumptions lurking beneath Friedman’s flat earth. Corporations are free (and should be free, it seems) to evade any responsibility for the communities in which they do business. Used to be, corporations were viewed as a “fictional persons” – Friedman seems to have upgraded them to sovereign nations.

Walmart, Friedman announces, would be China’s 8
th largest trading partner, if it was a nation (29:30). That puts Walmart “ahead of Canada and Australia” in terms of trade volume with China. But what does that mean? “Walmart’s the biggest company in America --- and they don’t make anything.” Dang! So, are we being invited to think about interacting with Walmart, as if it was a sovereign state? Robert Reich said (or implied) something similar in Supercapitalism. In both Reich’s and Friedman’s discussions, we seem to be invited to step away from any idea of having a one-on-one relationship with anything so immense and complex. After all, little people like us don’t manage our own relationships with smaller entities – like Canada or Australia. So how could we expect to do so, with Walmart?

There are other interesting stories, like the one where HP tries to “do business” with people in rural India who have no money (about 55:00). Again, I’m not sure the message he sees in these examples is the only possible one. Or the most important. Connect the dots for me, Tom. How are micro-payments going to make HP’s business model work in places where people make a dollar a day, and have no discretionary income? Another example at about 1:12: EBay is “the closest thing to a virtual country there is: $100 billion economy, 38 million people…” But that’s where the analogy falls flat. What else about EBay is like a country? They provide no services to “their people” beyond facilitating purchases and sales. Is that all countries do in Friedman’s mind?

I think it’d be interesting to look at Friedman’s audience and fan-base, and try to understand whose agenda he’s pushing. He brings up a lot of interesting technological change, but the direction he takes this discussion seems like an attempt to evade an awful lot of hard questions about the implications of a flat world. Maybe there’s more of that serious stuff in the book (which I downloaded from
Audible on 4-26-2005, and haven’t finished listening to yet)…


Went to 24 Carrots, looking for a replacement for mainstream meat. After watching Food, Inc. Got some venison and some ground Bison, from a farm called Yankee Farmers in Warner, NH. They have two other locations, with about 300 acres and a thousand acres of pasture, where they raise their bison for processing. The small herd (16 animals and a water-buffalo that actually makes them look small!) at Warner is for show. The Farmers (that’s their name, as well as their occupation) are looking to attract visitors, tourists, school groups, etc.

They’ll need to add a little to the “things to see” at the farm, to be a destination. But the store is well-stocked and the prices seem reasonable. You can go up there and buy bison, elk, deer, ostrich and organic chicken in bulk to fill your freezer. The other animals are not grown there; the Farmers have made meat from other local growers available in their store. Or, you can get bison, and several of the other meats from the freezer at 24 Carrots.

We made meat-balls from a pound of ground bison. They were complete a replacement for ground beef. I used to use 93-95% lean beef, so I was used to the leanness of the buffalo meat. According to the Farmers’ info, it’s actually lower in fat than CHICKEN! A few days later, we had bison sausage, fried up with onions. Really good sausage! Tasty, and you can eat it without wondering what nasty stuff is in it. It’s been a long time since I’ve let myself enjoy a good Italian sausage – this will ADD sausage and pepper sandwiches, and all kinds of dishes back into our menu. Nice work, Yankee Farmers and 24 Carrots!

Keene Mushrooms

On farmer’s market day in Keene, we ran into a surprising sign that announced one of the alleys between the downtown blocks as “Mushroom Alley.” I couldn’t resist, so we strolled down it to find Dave Wichland under a white tent at the corner of the parking lot behind the main farmer’s market area. His homemade sign announced him as “Wichland Woods Mushrooms,” and he had a variety of fresh and dried mushrooms, mushroom art, and even two flavors of sun-brewed mushroom tea, which he was offering samples of to passersby.

Paul Stamets’ book Mycelium Running was prominently displayed on the table, so we had a starting point for conversation. Dave has been to Stamets’ seminar, sells his sporulated chain-saw oil, and is probably the local expert in the same way Stamets is the expert on northwestern mushrooms. One of the things that became apparent in our conversation, is that Dave has taken a lot of the general knowledge in books like Stamets’, and adapted it to the particular conditions of the New Hampshire climate and landscape.

We bought a package of fresh Chanterelles and Black Trumpets, which went into a nice white sauce for pasta that evening (it’s always a challenge for me, finding out how to use new and different foods, because I’m not a big fan of recipe-reading. I like to start by using the new thing in something I’d normally eat anyway). Dave also has a landscaping business, and can consult on or implement mycological projects for bioremediation (cleaning up toxins in agricultural runoff, for example) or permaculture-style biological diversity.

Dave has developed a hardy local strain of “garden giant” mushrooms that have been very successful outdoors in Keene. He grows them in his yard, which is walking distance from my yard, so I’m looking forward to dropping by to see his plantings. And then putting some around the yard, so maybe we can pull mushrooms from the garden next year! Dave has tackled all the issues I thought were the “Hot buttons” when I was reading Stamets. It’s great when someone does cool stuff, so you don’t have to do it all yourself!

If you miss Dave on market days, ask
Michael and Barb at 24 Carrots – that was the first place I saw his mushrooms.