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Thomas Friedman’s Flat Earth

The Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Talks Wednesday Morning at Westmont’s President’s Breakfast


The Internet revolution has “flattened” the world from India, China, and Russia to the U.S. and we’d all better pay attention or be left behind, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (pictured) told Santa Barbarans today. friedman.JPG And there’s “one iron rule” about this, the Pulitzer Prize-winner warned more than 900 locals who attended Westmont College’s annual President’s Breakfast at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort: “When the world is flat, what can be done will be done and the only question is whether it will be done by you or to you.”

The author of the best-seller The World Is Flat quoted an Indian entrepreneur who told him, “The global economic playing field is being leveled and you Americans are not ready.” If we think we are king of the hill, Friedman was saying that there is no longer a hill. If the 19th Century belonged to England and the 20th to the U.S., will the 21st be dominated by China, as some predict? “Maybe, maybe not,” said Friedman. He quoted his grandmother in Minnesota, who plays bridge by computer with someone in Siberia: “Never cede a century to a country that censors Google.” (As China does.)

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So what’s being done in the U.S. to thrive in this flat earth world? “Washington is brain dead,” Friedman charged, to strong applause from the breakfast crowd. The nation’s political leaders are not preparing the country for the new world, but “the country is alive with individual innovation,” and where once countries led the way, then businesses, now individuals have the freedom to innovate, thanks to a “wired world” and a wireless one as well. They’re connecting individually and “that is the new thing today.” Individuals, he said, are now “authors of their own content.”

“I’m not ready to give the 21st Century to anyone,” said Friedman, explaining that the Internet has brought in “three billion new players” in China, Russia, and India to help shape the century. He likened the Internet revolution to Gutenberg’s printing press, which allowed knowledge and information to be spread widely. Where we once had the Encyclopedia Britannica in heavy books, then Encarta online encyclopedia with 38,000 entries, we now have Wikipedia, where people “are writing their own encyclopedia” to the tune of 1.2 million entries.

A huge part of the flattening is the supply chain, he said. “Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world but it doesn’t make a thing,” and instead orders items from around the world. He marveled that his taxi driver in Budapest, Hungary, has a personal website in several languages, plus music. Where his parents warned him to clean his plate because there are starving people in China, he now advises children to “do your homework” because people in China and India “are starving for your jobs.”

Unfortunately, Friedman added, the flat world “platform” also is used by terrorists.

Taking the stage after the Westmont College Choir, Friedman asked, “Where else in the world” can an evangelical college invite a Jewish New York Times columnist to speak at an event with an invocation delivered by a Presbyterian minister (the Rev. Harold Bussell of El Montecito Presbyterian Church) and a choir singing a song in Swahili? “Is this a great country or what?”

The Westmont Foundation needed all the help it could get from heaven and earth, plus a hefty fee, to snag in-demand Friedman. The second annual President’s Breakfast (historian David McCullough was last year) sold out in 3 ½ hours when first announced.

(Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or call 805-965-5205.)

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