The World Is Flat The World Is Flat
As a professor, I love it when I can illustrate a point in class by pointing to examples in the lives of my students. For several years, I have used The New York Times' columnist, Thomas Friedman, to supplement my lectures. I have quoted from parts of The Lexus and the Olive Tree and Longitudes and Attitudes. We even use Friedman's recent book, The World is Flat, as one of the textbooks for that class. A couple of semesters ago, one of my students interrupted me while I was writing on the board and waxing poetic at the same time about one of Friedman's insights. Faining frustration, my student blurted out, "Hey, professor, you talk about Friedman all the time, and I hear the same thing from my boss. He's always quoting him to his employees. What's with this Friedman guy?"

Thomas Friedman Thomas Friedman

I experience a rush when academia meets the real world. I spun on my heals to face the student and said with a resonance reminiscent of Churchill that even surprised me, "Friedman is writing the secular Bible for the 21st century. He is working on Genesis now, and we are fortunate to be here to read it as it is being written. You will be ill-advised not to take advantage of his knowledge. In your lifetime, others will come along and add other books to the canon, but you are present for the beginning. Take note and digest all that he writes."

A hush fell over the class. The student who had facetiously raised the question wasn't sure I was going to take off his head next. (It should be noted that he was a six foot plus and 250-pound guy who looked like a professional wrestler.) Never content to leave any educational nail not fully hammered home and to relieve his anxiety, I asked him if he thought that his boss would come to talk to our class, which he did several weeks later. While visiting the class, he too reiterated many of Friedman's points from The World is Flat.

Friedman's recent book warns us that the world is flat (or at least is in the process of rapidly flattening) because of technology. Anyone of the six billion plus people on the earth can be on a level technological playing field and compete with anyone else in the world because of the computer and access to the Internet. This flattening effect neutralizes all the advantages that even the most gifted American has enjoyed in the past.

However, the world still remains round and unfair for many if they live outside the West and don't have access to a computer and the Internet. This phenomenon is called the digital divide. In my class, I show two pictures that I took while in China. They illustrate our digital dividedness.

Tibetan girl Advertisement in Beijing, China

The first photo of the Tibetan girl shows a child who surely isn't surfing the Net in her schoolroom or at home. I didn't even see any electrical power lines going into her little village. The other picture is of an advertisement in Beijing, China. They aren't wired either; they are wireless. Much of China never got LAN lines (regular telephone lines) to everyone's home before wireless came upon the scene. They simply skipped to wireless almost overnight.

The digital divide exists even in our relatively affluent America. Not every family can afford a computer and/or broadband access. The more affluent not only have broadband at home for their desktops but have Wi-Fi access over coffee at upscale coffee shops and cyber cafés for their laptops-thus producing an American digital divide in a not totally flat US. Even if a poorer person could afford a laptop, a year's worth of broadband will cost more than a used laptop. In addition, these financially strapped people can't drop $5-10 for a double vanilla/cinnamon latte; therefore, they won't have Internet access. This keeps their world round.

While driving to class last week, I nearly drove off the road. There it was again; an affirmation that Friedman was correct. The world is flat (or at least it is still flattening). Under McDonald's golden arches was this sign: Wi-Fi Access. Finally, a person can logon to the Internet for the price of a cup of coffee costing less than a buck.

Tom, you are correct; the world is flat.