Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thomas Friedman Never Lets the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story and Other Nasty Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, AB sent me this article by Matt Taibbi. In the course of the brief exchange, I learned that AB and I had both bought The World Is Flat and were unable to finish it. The following is an edited, expanded version of one of my emails.

I see Friedman as essentially a trendspotter. He becomes infatuated with something that is already widely assumed among the people closest to the action and tips it over to the arena of conventional wisdom. He makes up with energy (by way of repetition, within in his book and through his columns) what he lacks in writing skills... and integrity. I really didn't like The World Is Flat, but not because I foresaw the economic crisis. Beyond his bombastic, crude writing style, I can't trust him because he won't let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote. In TWIF, he gives two versions of how he broached the idea for the title to his wife. (The editor missed it. Or did he/she?) Worse from a literary point of view, he gives his characters bad, long-winded dialog for mouthbreathers straight out of 1940-50s SF, where the writer sacrifices all sense of narrative and drama with explanations on the pseudoscience behind the story.

Besides, the world wasn’t becoming flatter—not until the financial crisis broke, that is. I mean, imagine the competitive disadvantage of living at the edge of a “flat world”. The transportation costs to bring your wares to the market would be daunting. In fact, a flat world is a variable, maximum-transaction cost world, which is what gave Columbus the one great idea of his life (which was to carry what had long been understood among navigators to its ultimate conclusion). The correct starting point is a sphere, which equalizes transaction costs at every point in the world. Which sphere, as you may have guessed, is shrinking. Or was, until the financial crisis broke. The title of the book then, should have been The Incredible Shrinking Sphere. Which would not have sold the book, since that’s a story that was beaten to death in the 20th Century. So how did he come up with the title? That’s an easy one. It’s an ill-thought out play on the phrase “level playing field”. Suggestion for Friedman: A post mortem of a worst case scenario could be entitled The World Finally Became Flat.

So how to account for Freidman’s success? Always respect the talk show/lunch host. That’s an ideology-free piece of advice—works for Friedman, works for Bill Kristol. (Can you imagine Glen Greenwald appearing on The Daily Show?) I’m tempted to call it whoring, but I don’t want to offend a certain prudish blogger.

I have had the last installment of my Norimitsu Onishi novela in the can for several days, but I’m tired of beating up a squirrel. So why not pee on a big, fat rhino with a little help from cheap whiskey?

18 comments:

Janne Morén said...

My main beef with Friedman (apart from the points you bring up already) is the simple geometric fact that a flat world is the one with the greatest distance between points; he is not just willing to sacrifice facts for his imagery, not even his own badly thought out similies are safe.

On a scale where serious, solid, high-quality social science research occupies one end, he is carelessly sprawled out somewhere towards the other one.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne:

You state with scientific elegance and precision what I awkwardly tried to explain by imagining myself at the edge of a "flat world".

BTW I think it's a metaphor, not a simile HAHAHA...

Roy Berman said...

Although I find Friedman annoying much of the time, for similar reasons, I don't actually have anything wrong with his book title. It works perfectly well as a metaphor, and people understand what he means. Of course you can't take it literally even as a metaphor, and a sphere isn't all that much better. After all, the distance between points on a sphere can still vary rather greatly, although not as much as on the Discworld. For a structure in which all points are equally near and yet still has a sense of place (i.e. not a singularity), I think you need to move into higher dimensions for something like a tesseract or a hypercube. But of course "The World is a Hypercube" would not be a good title for Tom Friedman, although it certainly could be a Rudy Rucker story about a gnarly mad scientist who revolutionizes global transport through hyperdimensional travel.

Jun Okumura said...

Information technology is the fourth dimension, although transportation continues to impose a physical limit. And yes, people understood what Friedman meant, but didn’t catch what he actually said. In fact, it was only after it was explained that anyone could connect the phrase to the idea. It was the incessant force with which he drummed it into you that made it stick, which goes back to my assessment. It still doesn’t mean that a “flat” world is an appropriate metaphor for “globalization” in any case.

I think there’s an early Greg Bear homage to Tesla where the author uses the fourth dimension to good effect. In fact, I suspect that it must have been a popular item in the SF writer’s tool kit until it was superseded by the wormhole.

Janne Morén said...

"BTW I think it's a metaphor, not a simile HAHAHA..."

Ah, this is one of those "liberal education" things I've vaguely heard about, yes?

Just goes to illustrate how someone can be fairly expert in their own field and still a complete doofus in any other.

Jun Okumura said...

I was just having fun, though, Janne. It belongs to the category of things that we know and would always identify correctly if asked explicitly but regularly misspeak of in our daily speech. I believe it come up as a couple of quick lines in an episode in Brothers & Sisters, fourth season. It worked because the point being made was an instantly understandable, immediately recognizable phenomenon.

HABIRU Edo said...

Thank you for that very well written critique of Friedman. I was an employee at Red Hat when Friedman was invited to speak to us at headquarters.

It was absolutely amazing how sure he was of himself regarding theory and understanding of FLOSS, even amongst most of the pioneers and leaders of the movement.

Nevertheless, his opinions about that topic were also grossly simplified. It was as if he formed his opinions top down, thinking of a catchy slogan "The World is Flat," and then bending events so they fit into his simplified catchphrase.

Not the type of simplicity (the "for simplicity's sake" type) I expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Roy Berman said...

If I may indulge myself...
A wormhole is actually a visualization of travel through the fourth dimension. To illustrate, take a sheet of paper, one side of which will represent a two-dimensional universe because any point on the surface of the paper, regardless of how you bend it, can be represented with two dimensional coordinates. Mark two points anywhere on one side of the paper. Now bend the paper so that the two points meet. Next, make a hole through both of those points. Voila, you have created a wormhole between two faraway points in a two dimensional universe by bending space in a mysterious third dimension unknowable to the inhabitants of Flatland. Now just imagine a four dimensional entity (perhaps you would like to call him God) bending our three-dimensional universe inside his 4d world as easily as we bend the sheet of paper.

Roy Berman said...

Habiru: I'm not sure that winning two Pulitzers for Middle East war reporting necessarily qualifies one to theorize about the future of business. The knowledge and skill sets are fairly different, even if one hopes that he could do a better job. I do fail to see why he won a third prize for his columns though.

Janne Morén said...

Jun, sorry - I meant my comment in jest as well. On rereading it I realize I should have added a smiley to my first sentence.

On the other hand, I can honestly state that I really do not know the precise difference between a simile and a metaphor. Or, for that matter, readily describe the difference between verbs, adverbs, adjectives and adjectival nouns (not to mention the two different types of adjective in Japanese).

The field of linguistics and grammar is one where I am surprisingly deficient, considering how many years I've spent trying to learn one language or another.

Jun Okumura said...

My bad, Janne, for doubting you. From now on, I’ll make sure to take note of your deadpan approach. If I need a smiley face, then I don’t deserve the honor of our jokes.

The difference between a simile and a metaphor is often hard to notice because it’s not a difference in the subject and the description or the sense that connecting the two conveys but in the underlying logic of each type of connection that gives rise to the distinction. In conversation, it’s not something that your mind makes it a priority to track, so it would not be out of the ordinary to misidentify.

Jun Okumura said...

The theory of wormholes appears to be a little more complex than a fourth dimension, Roy, but I’ll leave it at that, since I never got beyond three-dimensional geometry.

And Roy, Habiru, I too found Friedman’s first book on the Middle East moving. And sober. Perhaps he overcompensates for the frustration he must feel at seeing the Palestine-Israel question no closer to resolution after all these years.

Roy Berman said...

Oh sure, you can fit in loads more dimensions, but explaining it in these terms is about as good as I can do since I have no idea what the actual math is. For better explanations, check out some writing by the aforementioned Rudy Rucker-both fiction and non-fiction.

Jun Okumura said...

Roy, I stupidly bought one of his non-fiction books. I think that some of my brain cells fell loose when I tried to make my way through it and are stranded to this day in an alternative universe. (That would explain a lot of things.)

Roy Berman said...

I believe I have all of his non-fiction books except the textbookey ones about programming, and all the fiction except two early once I've never been able to find. "Infinity and the Mind" is certainly not the easiest of reads, although "The Fourth Dimension" is far more approachable. Maybe give some of the fiction a lot. It'll still blow your mind a bit, but at least you'll probably be giggling the whole time. The recent "Mathematicians in Love" was one of the most fun books I've read in a while.

Jun Okumura said...

Infinity and Mind? Me salve Deus! (See, I’m speaking in tongues.)

Roy Berman said...

Have you read this piece?
http://www.nypress.com/article-19271-flat-n-all-that.html

Jun Okumura said...

Um, that’s the piece I linked to at the beginning of the post? (Insert smiley icon.) G’night. Really.