Thursday, July 28, 2005

More on the Flat World

As I mentioned a few posts back, I've been reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, which so far I would say is a pretty optimistic appraisal of globalization and the 21st Century economy. He talks about the dark underside, but it's not emphasized the same way that, for example, Greg Palast handles it in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Of course, the topics of these two books aren't the same, but they are closely intertwined. Palast is taking a position on modern American politics, while Friedman is talking about "Globalization 3.0". To paraphrase him, Globalization 3.0 is such a difference of degree from what we call the "Information Age" that it is a difference of kind. We aren't going to recognize the political and economic landscape in the near future.

A few years ago (well, more like a decade ago now), I started working as a programmer and thought it would be a secure living for as long as I needed it. "Computers aren't going anywhere," I naively thought. I looked down at my home town and its long-term economic troubles rooted in the movement of labor overseas (in this case lumber and shipping, but it applies equally to textiles, automobiles, etc.). Not going to happen to me.

Well, from the perspective of mid-2005, I have good reasons to fear for my job. The last four years (post tech bubble) have been rough, although we have gotten by pretty well. I'm busier than I would like (should be working now, in fact). My profession hasn't been a lucrative as it once was, either. I'm lucky though, because I have skills that compliment my technical knowledge - primarily of the communication variety. So I've put together a niche for myself that is working out very well.

But reading this book by Freidman has me seeing things in a new light - or may it has focused things I already suspected.

A couple of interesting quotes:
The cold, hard truth is that management, shareholders, and investors are largely indifferent to where their profits come from or even where the employment is created. But they do want sustainable companies. Politicians, though, are compelled to stimulate the creation of jobs in a certain place. And residents-whether they are Americans, Europeans, or Indians-want to know that the good jobs are going to stay close to home (The World is Flat, page 211).
Well that's the truth. The "capital" isn't going to change it's opinion (mostly - some companies view social/societal obligations as critical to their success. Costco being a great example). But the politicians are pushing protectionism as a solution, when it really only hurts our position economically. Education is the real problem and solution. We have to create (or repair) a climate where it makes sense for companies to do business here. Content based curriculum standards and high-stakes tests (the current favorite) aren't the answer.

Strangely, I think the answer to the these questions about the future rests in concepts from the past. Specically, the "classic liberal education" available at many American colleges. Friedman talks about an interview he had with Colin Powell before Powell stepped down as Secretary of State. Friedman asks Powell if he remembers where he was when he realized the "world had gone flat". Without missing a beat, Powell replied "Google." The importance of the point can't be underestimated. The sum of human knowledge is at your finger tips, every day. It doesn't matter at all if students remember why 1066 is an important date in Western History (type "1066" into Google and see what you get). Not if they know how to find out. The tools of the information age have flattened the world by giving nearly everyone access to information, instant communciation and feedback.

Powell notes that he used to ask his staff for the text of a particular UN resolution, only to wait hours to get the answer. "Now I just type into Google 'UNSC Resolution 242' and up comes the text." His staffers noted that he doesn't ask for information much anymore. Now he asks for analysis and action. Big difference. Critical Thinking skills just got a lot more important.

Powell, according to his staffers, also kept IM sessions running with his British counterpart, Jack Straw, during summit meetings. Presumably encrypted. That is simply amazing to me.

(all those quotes were from Friedman's chapter "The Great Sorting Out").

In The Demon Haunted World, the late Carl Sagan wrote:
If we teach only the findings and products of science - no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be - without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are presented as unsupported assertion.
It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course. Many, perhaps most, science textbooks for budding scientists tread lightly here. It is enormously easier to present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of patient and collective interrogation of Nature than to detail the messy distillation apparatus. The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science (pages 21-22).
Chapter 1, at least, ought to be required reading for all high school students. Until you understand THIS, no diploma for you.

Wandered around a bit there, sorry. Thanks for reading.


Kevin said...

Despite your occaisional crazy Nader-like thoughts, a couple points you made in here put you pretty much in my camp: anti-protectionist and support for a classic liberal education (small "L") that emphasizes critical thinking. You didn't say it, but for you would that include studying what are considered the "great works" of political and philosophical thought? Many of those are persona non-grata in academia these days simply because they were written by dead white males.

chief said...

Interesting point. I tend to be of the opinion that you can't hold the historical productivity nor preferred placement of an ethnic group against its individual members. There are exceptions, of course.

Would I like to see more "great works" from women? Africa? Sure. Hell, even American Philosophy is a relatively small branch. But those works are what we have - and many of them rail against the circumstances that now make them verboten (ha - real irony).

The definition of "great works" ought to be more open though. That list tends to be pretty conservative (small "C").

Of course, I need to ask for specifics on works that are "out of favor." Honestly just curious.

Kevin said...

Check with your wife. Been year's since I've been in those classes. And the one's I teach don't rely on the great works.

chief said...

Well, she's not much of a source on that topic either. She teaches research methods, development, etc. that are all based on research, not humanities. When I think "great works", I think Philosophy, Literature, etc. There are only so many to choose from, especially if you are talking historically.

Contemporary is a different story.

lbc said...

fucking philospohy majors.

chief said...

fucking artists