There are some books whose intense popularity I simply cannot fathom. A prime example of this: Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which I am being made to choke down for my “Development and Future of the Internet” class.
Don’t get me wrong; I see why it might have been assigned. The topics it covers — globalization, networks, the spread of new technologies — are largely quite relevant to our discussions. But the way he covers them — my god. His tone is largely one of studied naivete, which already doesn’t win him any points with me — I prefer my commentators to at least superficially appear to know what they’re talking about — but even worse, he somehow manages, despite his silly-monkey-scratching-head-at-crazy-world tone, to talk down to his reader. For example, on page 118, there’s this:
“In the private, non-state-owned sector of Chinese industry, productivity increased 17 percent annually — I repeat, 17 percent annually — between 1995 and 2002…”
I repeat? I REPEAT? Honestly, if I had tried to create emphasis that way — by breathlessly repeating something as though the reader couldn’t possibly have caught it the first time — in my high school advanced writing class, I would have been publicly raked across the coals for it, and justly so.
And yet, that kind of minutia, while prevalent throughout the book, bothers me less than the inanity of his guiding metaphor. Clearly, he means “the world is flat” in the sense of breaking down barriers between people — flat as opposed to rugged, hilly, or obstacle-ridden. And yet, he muddies the metaphor from the very beginning, by starting the book off with Christopher Columbus — so now we’re talking about flat as opposed to spherical, a very different comparison. And then he starts talking about shrinking the world — so now we’ve got smaller and smaller spheres? Or smaller coins? I thought we were talking about a “level playing field”! Make up my mind, Friedman!
But I’m totally reinventing the wheel here. The idiocy of this metaphor was well discussed when the book came out (for example, here, here, mathematically here, and my favorite [Moustache of Understanding to the rescue!] here). I remember reading them, chuckling, and thinking to myself, “Damn I’m glad I’m never going to have to read that book.”