By William Urban

Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005) has much discussed in recent months. He pulls together much that each of us has more or less noticed, but did not realize its full significance to our present and future.

In the last five years the internet has changed the ways we communicate, do business and conduct politics. Those who remain unaware of this, like poor Dan Rather, are being run over by hordes of bloggers who are giving a formerly voiceless public a word on what is being done and heard. And that is our future as a nation: we have to adapt to this leveling of the playing field or be driven off of it.

I personally remember the day when the world became flat at Monmouth College. It was the first faculty meeting in the fall of 1997, Dick Giese’s first. Until then we had an in-house email system and a few of us had internet access. President Huseman had been cool to the idea that everyone, students included, should be able to get on the web. But when President Giese was asked if general access could be permitted now, he asked our computer center director if it was practical; and when he was told that it was, we were on our way. There were some protests, such as "How can we keep our students from reading the wrong things?" But that was the point: we now have to prepare our students to tell what is good from what is not, so that when they graduate, they can operate effectively in a rapidly changing world with ever-increasing sources of information. At that moment my academic world became flat in the competition of ideas: a professor can still select a biased text and give biased lectures, even control what books are purchased for the library, but the students can google up a wider range of interpretations.

It was the bubble that leveled the playing field for the world. "Smart money" invested billions in fiber optic cable systems that soon had to be sold for dimes on the dollar. India, China and other forward-looking nations bought up systems, opened them to their citizens, and away they went. Today we buy Chinese goods, Indian services, and they can afford to buy products from us.

But they don’t want labor-intensive products from us. They have all the cheap labor they need, and they can undercut our prices on hand-work goods every time. What we have to provide are high-tech, high-quality products. This is where Friedman issues a bold face warning: WE ARE NOT PRODUCING SCIENTISTS in the numbers and quality we will need. Unless we turn this around, we will become the low-cost labor force for well-educated Indians and Chinese.

In a flat world no country can wall itself off without becoming poor. We have to compete, not withdraw. Friedman’s negative example is the Arab world, obsessed with fears that globalization will change the status of women and introduce religious and cultural toleration – hence relatively little involvement in the world wide web except by the terrorists, who use it to communicate. Though there are many educated and talented Arabs, Spain alone produces more goods and services than the entire Arab world put together. In contrast, the world’s second largest Islamic country, India (Indonesia is the largest) has a thriving Moslem community. That is what fifty years of democracy and two decades of economic freedom does.

It will not all be pleasant. Jobs will be lost and jobs will be gained, but they won’t be the same jobs. Education and training will be necessary, and perhaps universal health care and pension systems – to encourage individuals to seek better jobs or even start their own companies. The future will belong to the swift, the adaptable and the courageous.

Daily Review Atlas (October 2005), 4.