Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Holiday reading...

Even without the massive amount of press coverage that's already surrounded The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, a book that comes with not one but two spectacularly arrogant titles had better either be pretty bloody special or start with some serious qualifications about what the author actually meant. Thomas Friedman does a little bit of both but not enough of either - OK, he knows that the world isn't actually flat and that he can't cover everything that's happened in the twenty-first century, but he still reckons he's managed to wrap up every single important event and explain it as the result of some huge over-arching historical force.

To be fair, I don't hate this book nearly as much as I expected to do. Yeah, it's nationalistic in that way that would be terrifying coming from a leading broadsheet journalist in any other developed nation, but that we just sort of seem to accept from Americans ("I think the world misses having an America they can believe in!"). And it's annoyingly pompous - I think the introduction to the 2007 edition may be the 21st century's first non-ironical use of the phrase "dear reader". And he's certainly not afraid to fill the gaps in his (actually quite wide-ranging) research, with pure speculation - after the fifteenth "my gut tells me" or "my bet is", you actually start to wonder if this man actually is some sort of chronic gambler (with an unusually communicative digestive tract).

In terms of the substantive issues facing the US, though, a lot of his policy suggestions seemed to me to be pretty sensible. In particular, I like his take on the environment, which is essentially that massive federal funding of this would be a much healthier way to stimulate the US economy than massive federal funding of the military-industrial complex. I don't know a lot about things like the US pension system, but his suggestions did sound reasonably sensible and it generally struck me that if a lot of Americans are approvingly reading this man's column over breakfast then that may not be nearly such a bad thing as I'd supposed. He seems to have some fairly humane ideas about the role of the state in education, health-care, the environment and all those other commie institutions the Republicans hate so much.

Now the bad stuff.

In the first place, it just all seems a bit obvious, even for 2005 when it was first written. As a friend put it, "It's like he's suddenly discovered the internet for the first time and had to write a whole book to get over it." Haven't we all known since about 2002 (earlier for the IT geeks) that we were living in a world of ridiculously finely managed supply chains, news on the web and outsourcing to India? Friedman's got some great and informative examples of the specifics, but his constant insistence that he's telling YOU something radically NEW that YOU had better wake up to gets a little patronising after a while.

Even if you're mild-tempered enough to handle that, you may find yourself wanting to shove his metaphorical board-rubber up his arse after the 2ooth page of his gimmicky, GCSE lesson-plan style of explaining his ideas: the 10 flatteners, the triple convergence (count 'em, kids). He's also very keen on framing everything in terms of personal anecdotes, which turned me off. I just didn't want to know all about his personal journey of discovery. I s'pose readers who weren't already feeling a fair degree of animosity towards him might object less, or even find it a welcome counterbalance to his other irritating tendency, which is to depict a big, impersonal theory of everything.

And that's the big problem. The basic idea that he's trying to capture with the whole flat earth metaphor is that technology has got to such a stage of advancement that for many purposes, it just doesn't matter where you are. Huge amounts of manufacturing and knowledge-based work can now move to wherever they can be done most efficiently, so everyone's in competition with everyone else. No more cosy nation-state to protect you. Friedman doesn't actually claim that this is the case, right now, all over the world. He just reckons that this is the big tendency. The world is getting flatter and, short of ecological catastrophe, major war between developed nations, or terrorism-induced-paranoia there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Which is a good thing, because it's going to lead to an era of unparalleled wealth, opportunity and happiness for all with the wit and tenacity to ride this glorious ride as far as it goes (the job of the nation-state being to properly equip them for that ride - sort of like a geopolitical flight attendant).

This is, of course, simply wrong. Specifically, his whole idea that the advent of all this new technology means that the world must go in a certain direction is just really silly. People appear to have challenged him on this before, because he actually steps up and acknowledges the problem at one point. His defence is, essentially, "Yeah, I'm a technological determinist. But I'm not an historical determinist. Politics or something else could screw it up, but the economics and the technology point towards the world getting flatter." And that's really just so much bullshit.

Because this is meant to be an open world where anyone with sufficient passion and curiosity can chip in, Friedman understands that this is going to need open standards - metres and kilograms, TCP/IP - etc. - I can't compete with you making electrical appliances in the UK if you own the rights to making three-pin plugs. He even understands that there may be some danger of people trying to privatise standards, like when E-Bay tried to stop people from using Pay-Pal and tried to get people to use their private system. But his feeling is that we're all past that now, and because everyone benefits from open standards, everyone's now seen the error of their ways and they'll stop all that beggar-thy-neighbour foolishness. Take his discussion of internet standards:

"The great thing about HTML, HTTP, TCP/IP, XML, and SOAP is that once they were adopted as standards... software companies stopped competing over who got to control the fire hydrant nozzles and focused on who could make better hoses and fire trucks to pump more water."

Fair enough, but there's nothing that suggests that it's gonna stay that way forever. Technology policy wonks seem to spend most of their life worrying about precisely these sorts of issues. Standards get restricted and privatised, and become popular, all the damn time. Look at iTunes - you still need an iPod to buy music from the most popular online music store. No open standards there.

Similarly, what about the people who control the means of communication and modes of transport? There are lots of debates about whether net neutrality (the idea that ISPs should extend non-discriminatory treatment to all the content they caryy) would be a good or enforceable rule in the US right now, but the fact that there's even a debate shows the basic flaw of Freidman's theory - if we think it's at least theoretically possible that someone could gain an unreasonable degree of control over the network that's meant to be doing all this flattening, and block whoever it likes out of the competition, that at least starts to make us think that there's nothing about the internet that inherently has to make it a flattener. The openness, or flatness, of the thing is a product of standards that were largely developed in the public sector, and, as Friedman notes, a massive over-investment in carrying capacity during the dot-com boom. Open standards and abundant capacity are undoubtedly a good thing, but they aren't God-given.

I could go on but I'm on holiday, and meant to be writing a dissertation, so will leave it at that. Anyone who wants to read more about this sort of thing could do much worse than have a read of either this or this.

I've also eventually got around to reading William Gibson's Neuromancer, which I'm going totally potty about. Excellent stuff.


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