What Tom Friedman Means by "Flat"

‘What, Me Worry?’,” by Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 29 April 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/29/opinion/29friedman.html (from Eschaton through tdaxp).

What to make of this Friedman quote on education?

India and China know they can’t just depend on low wages, so they are racing us to the top, not the bottom. Producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy – to focus on developing our talent in a flat world is a big idea worthy of a presidency. But it would also require Mr. Bush to do something he has never done: ask Americans to do something hard.

He’s talking about some sort of interpersonal connection — one that can be “flat” or “not flat” (let’s call that one steep). I earlier defiend the types of controls as

  • implicit-explicit
  • strong-weak
  • horizontal-vertical

At first glance Friedman’s “flat” just means “horizontal” — a relationship defined by a lack of nonconsentual violence. But that’s clearly wrong. A horizontal education system would mean one where students are there willingly, or maybe just that parents chose to send their kids to school. But I doubt Friedman truly supports that — what if parents do not want to send their children to school?

Let’s look at the other occurances of “flat” in Tom’s article

But on the home front, this team has no big idea – certainly none that relates to the biggest challenge and opportunity facing us today: the flattening of the global economic playing field in a way that is allowing more people from more places to compete and collaborate with your kids and mine than ever before.


Indeed, we can’t rely on importing the talent we need anymore – not in a flat world where people can now innovate without having to emigrate. In Silicon Valley today, “B to B” and “B to C” stand for “back to Bangalore” and “back to China,” which is where a lot of our foreign talent is moving.

To show what Friedman means by “flat,” let’s look at two very different groups: religious courts in Iran and hippie drum circles.

Sharia in the Islamic Republic looks like this:


The red bars show the flow of power from greater to lesser. “Higher-ups” have power over “lower-downs.” Being high means that you know the “right” way, while being low means that you need to be told the correct way.

Now, the hippies


The blue bars show friendship. The hippies are attatched to each other by common experiences, hopes, and desires. Additionally, there are no “higher-ups” or “lower-downs” — everyone is recognized as having the same amount of authority (if you don’t believe that’s possible, then assume these are drugged hippies).

So then, what would this be:


The red lines symbolize vertical power, so somone has police authority. Yet everyone is on the same level, so there are not leaders or followers. This is Friedman’s idealized school system — it is a flat vertical network

Friedman is not an anarchist or a libertarian. He believes in the importance of goverment. He also believes that the “top-down there are experts who know better” approach is now out of date. In Friedman’s philosophy, people should no longer “act steep” (externalize leadership to others) but should “act flat” (internalize leadership to themselves).

The opposite of a flat vertical relationship would be a steep horizontal one


The best example of this is the Catholic Church. There is a definite right way and a definite chain of command. But anyone can leave whenever they wish.

There is much more to say on flat-steep controls, but those are posts for another time…

Update: Twenty Onwards has posted a detailed review of The World is Flat. Good Reputation Sleeping also has thoughts.

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