The Flat World, from my perspective.

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 17 weeks ago.

I would love to have lived in the 19th century. At least, in my own romantic image of what the 19th century was like to live in. I imagine a vast landscape, with prairies waiting to be discovered and borders to be drawn. My own country, Ireland is a place, which in the past exported human labour on foot. Generations of people left to spend their lives building new infrastructure in expanding nations. An infrastructure made of atoms rather than of bits.

In the 1970s, PARC laboratories incubated an entirely new vision. It was the automated office - a computer on everyone’s desk, workgroup printers, connected by network cabling. Everyone was to be a knowledge worker. Armed with the right digging tools we could embark on digital road building projects. PARC laboratories tried to turn the old romantic vision, slightly on its head.

So it follows, in today’s world, wealth is increasingly defined by binary code. We employ cell phones, landlines, cables and antenna to try and harvest the bits more efficiently. More technology is created, and more ‘intellectual property’ is fenced in. I have read about Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law, about unlimited growth in network ‘value’. But we still need to update our vision. We need to see networks as more than an opportunity to build infrastructure, like we built a hundred years ago.

Because we can hire knowledge workers over greater distances, doesn't mean we should. The barriers now aren’t the same as they used to be. There is no clearly identifiable mountain, that needs to be moved. There are no angry, flowing rivers, which need to be crossed. Yet, in the digital age, these metaphors are useless. Yet, they continue to be embedded in our thinking.

John Perry Barlow’s concept of nationhood sounds more like the movie, ‘How the West was won’. The Flat World theory is used by Friedman to explain from a 19th century man’s perspective, the bit transportation technology of today. What Friedman does make abundantly clear, we are not creating something new, but keeping something old alive.

Friedman’s book only modifies the old theory to give it better legs in 2006. He highlights the fact, old traditional companies are kept alive using respirators, surrogate lungs across the globe who ‘breath’ for them. They keep the old arteries flowing, just like the oil wells keep the car engines running. As surely as the old economy relied on fossil fuels and Irishmen, the new ‘knowledge’ economy also depends on cheap and steady supply of barrels of crude and porter.

There are so many old metaphors flying around in Thomas Friedman’s head, I don’t know where to start. But I suggest we start, by wiping the slate clean. We should try to focus on making a new theory, rather than making an older one ‘stand up’. I suggest we start asking ourselves, what is the real value of networks.