Mumbai Litfest: I was wrong; the world is flatter than I thought, says Friedman

Admit it Mr Friedman, you got it wrong. The world is 'not' flat.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of the World is Flat and (2005) must get this a lot. Even six years later. Especially six years later, when Occupy Wall Street is hitting back at too much 'flattening'.

And so he did on the opening day of the second Tata Literature Live, The Mumbai Litfest at the NCPA on Thursday.

"Now we know the world is not flat. The name of the book was possibly a great marketing ploy to say something that has not been said before. Do you still stand by that, Tom?" moderator and Firstpost Editor-in-chief R Jagannathan teased right at the beginning of a panel discussion on his book 'Is the World really flat'.

"I got it all wrong," Friedman was quick to admit; "The world is so much flatter than I thought."

 Mumbai Litfest: I was wrong; the world is flatter than I thought, says Friedman

(from Left) Neelam Deo, Thomas Friedman and N Chandrasekaran.

Why is a six-year-old book under discussion? A packed Tata Theatre didn't seem to care. They were probably interested in the spectacle of Friedman being grilled.

And if it helped, Friedman clarified, he'd wanted to call the book 'The World is Flattening'.

Friedman was up against two other worthies -- market strategist Rama Bijapurkar and CEO and Managing Director TCS N Chandrasekaran.

"Since I wrote the book, the world has gone from connected to hyperconnected. It has not just empowered but super empowered individuals. That's the big change. Politics is only beginning to catch up with that," Friedman said.

But how true is that for India? 'Internet's 'potential' to connect and compete is very very hard to disagree with," said Bijapurkar, but outcomes suggest another thing. She illustrated using the example local retailers outdoing Wall Mart with its global supply chains by spoiling consumers with three to four home deliveries a day, which makes ‘everyone’s margins go to hell'.

Chandrasekaran was next to counter; "Tech has tried very, very hard to make the world flat but has fallen flat. It is not happening. Primarily because of barriers to a flat world – language for example. In our industry, it's very difficult to grow business in non English-speaking countries; then there is protectionism and tariffs. I agree that there is increased connectivity, but there was coupling before the financial crisis; after that we see a decoupling of the world. We are not going in the direction of the flat world."

Does he think flattening is unstoppable or it can be reversed?

"What I am accused of is really true; I am a tech determinist in this sense. I think if people have technologies, they will use them. If you give them a phone with a camera, they will take pictures. If you give them cell phone that connects with cloud and gives them the power to download apps to run it like an iPad, they will do it. Now will politics at a given time and a place put sand in the gears, absolutely!" he said.

His book, he said was about trend-spotting, about the ability of individuals to connect, compete and collaborate individually. "And that is a trend that is clearly going ahead. It will have upsides and downsides. Our job is to cushion the worst and enable the best. I see the tech side of it as unstoppable," he said.

Bijapurkar agrees that the Internet has been a great leveler in India, too. There is access, direct or indirect as evidenced by the Indian railways site, perhaps the largest e-commerce portal in the world. "Poor people love it more than the rich because it addresses asymmetry of information."

But she comes back to outcomes. Is it making is broad-minded? No. "There is a website called community; here you can find a partner by community, even a profession."

"Tell me all about it,” said a very tickled Friedman.

"So a friend of mine says, the Internet hasn't opened up our minds to the dating market, but the mating market has got slightly deregulated," continues Bijapurkar. "Our faith in astrology hasn't gone down. We have now moved to computerised horoscope-casting. While the process of flattening suggests connectivity leads to a broadening of minds, a global outlook, less parochialism."

By this time, Friedman was beginning to come around to this side of the argument, calling the Internet an open sewer of untreated information. "Internet comes with the tag of technology and modernism. But the more hyperconnected we get, the more old-fashioned stuff matters more than ever."

"Our kids will be on the Internet without filters and without assistance of parents and teachers. Therefore what internal software we build into them is important. And that you cannot download; you have to upload it the old fashioned way —values, ethics matter more, not less."

Moving on to Occupy Wall Street Protests that are sweeping across the US and selectively in other major cities of the world, Friedman admitted hyperconnectivity is working on many levels. "On the one hand it started movements like Arab spring and Occupy Wall Street. But hyperconnectivity is crushing jobs, which the great recession is making worse because bosses are finding a way to use more tech than labour," he said.

The same platform, he said benefitted the top one percent —"a Michael Jordan, a JK Rowling, the best scientist, the best whatever" — disproportionately. "So the gap that was already there between the one percent and the rest is exploding. The same platform having all of these impacts."

He adds, the Internet has homogenised everything, "except the US two-party political system."

He referred to a book written by his friend titled How that says that in a hyperconnected world "the how becomes that much more important. How you live your life, how you say you are sorry, how you don't say you are sorry. We are getting into the age of behaviour; we know so much more about so much more and we can tell it without a libel lawyer or an editor," said.

Bijapurkar couldn't resist that one: "I am sure Mahatma Gandhi didn't do a half bad job without all this."

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Updated Date: Nov 04, 2011 13:49:39 IST