Flat World Rings Hollow

Flat World Rings Hollow

A recent discussion on a Linked-In network on the appropriateness of Thomas Friedman’s “Flat World” idea and book prompts me to post an excerpt — a chapter of my 2007 book “Abbé Boulah!”, (available from the publisher XLibris or from the author at just like other titles — ‘Time Management for Architects and Designers’, ‘The Fog Island Argument’ and ‘The Fog Island Tavern’ — the latter two offering irreverent treatment of profound topics, disguised as Tavern discussions between Abbé Boulah and his weirdo buddies in the Fog Island Tavern). It explores a contrarian view triggered by the gushing reviews of Friedman’s book. An email with an attachment of of this item sent to Friedman himself rendered him speechless (meaning that he was, at the time, and to this very date, unable to respond.)
—-

Was it anger, admiration, despair or derision that made Abbé Boulah’s voice ring so hollow across the expanse of his sandbox in which he created one little sculpted landscape after another, only to sweep them back time after time to a pure — even flat?– plain in which to inscribe again the symbols of new dreams? But it was not the sandbox and its creations that had aroused him to these emotions which still awaited their clear definition. He was excitedly waving a piece of paper, and exclaiming:

“Flat world! By the acrophobic flatness of my left foot! What new depth of simplification is flattening out the human discourse about these great and complex questions!”

“Explain yourself, Abbé Boulah: what flatness of discourse, what ponderous questions are you raving about?”

“Bog-Hubert, my friend: here goes a fine journalist, a columnist whom I hold in high regard — in spite of certain exacerbating disagreements concerning recent historical developments — and writes a book. One whose very title seems to preemptively exhaust the subject it could possibly be treating, and whose slogan-like simplicity seems destined to become a fixed and preconceived cornerstone of popular attitudes about very serious issues.”

“You are speaking in mysteries. What journalist and book are you referring to? And what are those questions that you seem to feel are deserving of more lucid treatment?”

“I am talking about Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist on foreign affairs, and of his new book “The World Is Flat”.

“That’s one that has just come out, isn’t it? Have you read it already?”

“No.”

“So what are you getting so preemptively excited about? It’s not your style to indulge in hasty judgment without really knowing what you are judging?”

“By all the qualifying semicolons in my collected treatises, you are right in chastising me for such a sin. And I should make it clear that I really don’t wish to pass judgment on the substance of the book, which I take to be the elaboration and providing supporting evidence for its central thesis, namely that the world — or rather, its economic dimension — is getting smaller, and that the playing field of the games played in this economic realm is being leveled. Leveled to the extent that many people living in areas that previously had little or no chance of even being admitted to play, can now engage in it on equal footing with residents of the so-called developed nations, and even win.”

“So what’s wrong with that? Does this not conform to long-held sentiments of fairness and equal rights in human affairs? Sentiments that you yourself have endorsed many times, if memory does not deceive?”

“I grant you that I at times fall victim to the temptation of contrarianism — which seems to approach me whenever a closely held conviction suddenly is embraced by the multitudes. And here, the danger of being embraced in this way is infinitely more pronounced because of the seductive simplicity of the slogan — flat world, level playing field — that so seamlessly meshes with those idealistic sentiments that for most, closer study of its merit and justification seem unnecessary.”

“Including for you yourself, seeing as how you allow yourself to express distinct if not entirely comprehensible judgments about the book without having read it?”

“Touché. But it is precisely this very property I am objecting to: the seductiveness of the flat-world notion that invites me to embrace it without critical scrutiny.”

“So what alternative viewpoints are you cooking up in your contrarian alchemist’s cauldron? You are already doing that, if I know you?”

“Got me again. Yes, the idea immediately led me to consider various alternatives. Both as to what the real underlying issue might be, as well as to the proper geometric analogy for it.”

“You don’t seem to have too many choices there, if my scant knowledge of geometry does not fail me? Are you simply defending the accepted view that the world is round?”

“Ah, you underestimate me. Yes, in one sense I do adopt the spherical hypothesis. But remember, our columnist is not challenging the accepted knowledge about the physical shape of the world: he is using the flat world idea as an analogy.”

“An analogy to what?”

“An analogy to the plane — the playing field, that our sense of justice tells us should be level — of economic interaction among humans. And for such analogies, therefore, we may consider alternatives which do not even relate to the actual reality of the shape of the physical world.”

“What do you have in your convoluted mind?”

“Convoluted is almost right, even if I should take umbrage to the intended insult there, my friend: you better watch it all the time. Involuted is the word: Hollow.”

“Now you have me seriously worried. Why on earth, be it flat or round or hollow, would you allow your thinking to even stray into the vicinity of those crackpot hollow-world theories that surface from time to time only to be subjected to renewed ridicule?”

“Ah, why indeed? Living dangerously? But if you care to explore this idea further, I think I can demonstrate to you that a hollow world analogy might present a number of advantages. But first, let me explain what I consider the real underlying problems that make the precipitous adoption of simplistic views and corresponding remedies so dangerous.”

“Your Boulahistic Ominosity, you’ve got my attention.”

“Insult or Flattery, such remarks will get you nowhere, especially not onto a flatter world premise. Here is my concern: In the issue of economic human interaction, two variables are essential: the speed (and cost) of travel — movement of people and goods — and communication — movement of information and ideas.

Now in a simpler age, both of these would be achieved by the rightly so labeled pedestrian mode of walking. For the time being, let’s leave out the slight problem of water bodies.”

“Lest we get too far out to sea?”

“Your sophomoric word play cleverness only serves to impede the speed of our inquiry here, my friend.”

“So sorry. Go on.”

“Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that this activity takes place on a surface that is entirely uniform so that walking on it everywhere could be done at the same speed. Then, in the absence of technological complications, communication would be achieved at the same speed as pedestrian travel, so any geometric model for physical travel can be used as a valid and convenient analogy for the conditions of communication. And if that surface is uniform everywhere, according to our simplifying assumption, this would indeed present a ‘level’ playing field for any economic activity involving both physical travel and communication.”

“You are asking me to accept the same kind of simple premise as your friend Friedman here — but OK, go on: what next?”

“Well, I think that there is still a stronger argument in favor of the spherical assumption than for the flat world idea — simply because we know that we can reach the same faraway spot on the surface by moving in two (or more) different directions, something that is easily explained in the spherical model but presents considerable difficulty in the flat world model.”

“I agree. So our columnist friend leaves himself open to potentially uncomfortable criticism. And?”

“Consider this: as long as we are moving only on a pedestrian plane in a pedestrian mode, does it make any difference whether we are moving on the outside of a spherical world (as we have come to accept after some centuries of difficult internal struggle?) or on the inside of a hollow sphere?”

“By the hollow rumblings of my empty stomach: you are right, it doesn’t!”

“Good. Now you will see that for any further refinement of the embryonic theory we are about to develop, the hollow world analogy will present some distinct advantages.”

“For this I will delay my lunch, which I would otherwise have insisted upon before Vodçek’s hollow soup cauldron becomes too empty.”

“May I remind you of the old Latin insight regarding hollow stomachs: ‘plenus venter non studet libenter’.”

“Ok, Ok, enough already. Go on with your story.”

“Well. It’s now time to introduce technology. First in the form of, say, roads, with some super-leveled surface that makes even pedestrian locomotion easier. And faster. Not to speak of travel by horseback or carriage. Do you see — with your precious inner eye — that in the hollow world we are presenting to its gaze, a network of roads would form a system of ridges on the previously even surface. And because they are elevated, that is, closer to the center of the hollow sphere, the distances which are, as postulated, analogous to travel time, become shorter?”

“Indeed they do. And I agree that this is an analogy that the ordinary model of a sphere where we move on the outside would be considerably more difficult to sustain.”

“Quite. Unless you want to consider the ruts in the old mud highways to take on that job. But that would become even more difficult once you introduce air travel: Do you see that such technologies can be represented in the hollow-world analogy model simply as new ‘spheres’ inside the outer one: spheres in which the time distances now are proportionately shorter than on the outer sphere — and on the intermediate spheres representing other technologies such as the automobile, high-speed trains, and the like.”

“Beautiful.”

“And if we now add the ‘spheres’ of communication, we see that technologies like the internet, even the telephone system, constitute spheres that are very small, close to the center of our world sphere, with correspondingly small time-distances that are actually approaching zero. Instant communication.”

“So what happens to the sky in this mess of intervening spheres?”

“Good point. Actually, I was afraid you’d mention subways. Every analogy has its limitations. Though you must admit that given all this maze of technological innovation, there are very few people who even take the time to look at the sky. It becomes negligible. Or the sky may be a black hole, imploding towards the center of the universe…”

“I’ll have to chew on that for a while.”

“Do that. Meanwhile, let me point out some corollaries and implications of this amazing model. For one, let’s make some corrections to the outermost sphere.

“As we know it is not at all uniform and smooth, presenting considerable and very variable obstacles to cross-country travel, whether on foot or ATV. There are wildernesses, deserts, mountains. And we can represent these — or rather, their required travel time — as actual mountains, poking their summits outward — and thus increasing the geometric distances to be traversed accordingly. But even swamps and deserts with quicksand pits would be outward bulges in this model. In fact, a quicksand pit resulting in a final termination of your voyage should be represented by a bulge reaching outward into infinity.”

“There is a certain poetic but terrifying beauty in that model, I admit.”

“Yes. Grist to the mill of contemplation of an almost transcendental nature. But there are more mundane aspects and problems to the model of our interlocking spheres.”

“Oh, I had hoped the preceding observation would have a satisfying terminal quality to it. Satisfying, as in lunch, for example. But I can see you are relentlessly insisting on pursuing all transcendental and mundane aspects of your idea. What are the problems you are worrying about?”

“ Well, if you pay some closer attention to the details of this hollow world, you will notice that some modes of travel, for example airplane travel, is represented by a ‘sphere’ which is not at all a complete surface, but rather a web of flight corridors. Even if, in theory, you can fly anywhere along its surface. The point is, you can’t start and land anywhere, but only in certain well-defined places”

“You mean airports?”

“Indeed. But even railroads, and ocean liner routes have such distinct, aptly named terminals. This is where the transfer from one to another mode of transportation is achieved. Because you can’t decide to hop onto a jet plane in mid flight from somewhere in the middle of the Apalachicola National Forest, or from the top of your favorite mountain in the Carinthian Alps. You have to go to an airport. And because those are few and far between, you need to take trains, or cars to get there.”

“So? I know that.”

“Don’t you see? The real question is not the speed or efficiency, or even cost, of each individual technology by itself. It’s the entire system of technologies and transfer points between them that is the problem. And if you consider that, it is truly a miracle that technologies such as air travel are competitive, their time advantage notwithstanding. Just look at the sequence of things you go through. You leave your house. If it’s in a major city, it may be a building with elevators. Then you may take a cab to the airport, or to some subway or local train system to take you there. The train station, more likely than not, involves escalators or elevators to take you to the proper level; and the station at the airport likewise. Inside the airport, you take a convoluted route involving more escalators, moving sidewalks, perhaps shuttle trains to get you to the proper terminal, and then more escalators. Meanwhile, your baggage takes a very different path through the terminal, one involving an equal number of conveyances, conveyor belts, small trains of carts taking them to (hopefully) the right plane, moving it by means of another conveyor belt. You board the plane, through a moving tunnel to which the plane is docked, and after arriving at your destination airport, the entire process is repeated in the reverse order. Not only is this process so convoluted and cumbersome — the increased security provisions don’t help either — it is also so expensive that the whole system borders on insanity.”

“I have often thought so myself. In fact even the time savings are fast evaporating. To travel to Atlanta from Tallahassee, the flight itself takes less than an hour. But if you add the travel time to the airport, parking, checking in and getting your baggage checked, going through security, waiting for the boarding call, getting seated, waiting for takeoff, and the reverse in Atlanta, getting your baggage, then finding a car rental place, completing the paperwork, going out to the parking area to find your rented car, making your way out of the congested freeway feeder roads from the airport and spending another hour to get to where you want to go in Atlanta — if you just got into your car and drove the 250 miles, you’d be there in almost the same time.”

“Unless you got stuck in the freeway traffic jam around the Atlanta airport… Yes, it’s a good example of an originally good idea going hopelessly haywire. So we are down to considering the cost of the entire enterprise. And I think we can say that there are some people — in business — who do benefit enormously from these technologies. I don’t know if any studies have been made, however, how the costs and benefits are distributed. Freeways, airports are paid for with tax money, that is, the costs are fairly evenly distributed. But the benefits clearly are not.”

“But isn’t it a benefit that average people can go on vacation to nice places they’d otherwise never get to?”

“True. If the average working Joe can use a charter plane to go to some vacation destination once a year, that is a nice touch. But it’s a far cry from the benefits business derives from the same infrastructure. And this is the nasty, decidedly un-flat problem with most of these technologies: the benefits are accruing disproportionately to part of the population.”

“What you are saying is that they contribute to widening the gap between rich and poor? But I always thought that technology — take mass production of automobiles, for example, raised the average income and living standard, to where now just about everybody can afford one?”

“I think there’s increasing evidence to the effect that this trend has reached its peak and is rapidly reversing. But think about our clogged-up sphere of the hollow world with its different levels of technologies and transfer points again: don’t you think that rather than trying to improve each technology by itself all the time, what we should really worry about is the design of the entire system of different levels and their transfer nodes?

“For example: how many different levels should we aim at? Are more levels better than fewer? What about the efficiency, accessibility, cost of transfer nodes? How do the different levels work together? And if you consider the empty space between the improved transportation routes bulging-out voids of even pedestrian inefficiency: how vast should those neglected regions be, how far should they be allowed to bulge out (a measure of inequality similar to the sagging curve of GNP distribution in a national economy)? And how do we treat those who have to still live in those bulged-out areas (that can be physically quite close, just as the slum dwellers living right next to the elevated train taking more fortunate travelers to the airport in speedy comfort) but actually are in an outward bulge of light years of inaccessibility?”

“You are raising some profound and uncomfortable questions there, my dear Abbé. But what about the communication technologies that led Friedman to his flat-out flat world claim?”

“Right. Remember, we already observed that the communication technologies have achieved speed that place their time-distance spheres very close to the center of our little hollow world. And the difference between jet travel and the internet, for example, is that the latter has infinitely more transfer points — as many as there are computers connected, wired or wireless, to the telephone network. And there are few if any intermediate levels for which cumbersome transfer nodes would be necessary. The simplicity of this system — in terms of number of access points and levels of modes to reach the desired level — is one of the huge advantages of modern communication. But..”

“I knew you’d get around to some but..”

“You are getting to know me too well. Yes. There’s a but. It is the fact that the speed and convenience of the internet has been achieved at the expense of sacrificing mass. Persons and goods still have to travel by more old-fashioned means. A rule of thumb is: the heavier, the more old-fashioned, slower and more costly the transport. It seems that there are serious imperfections in the levelness of the playing field Friedman is so excited about — involving communication technologies — and movement of goods and real people. From that point of view, it’s not all that level, and I am not sure we have even studied these relationships well enough to begin to understand them, let alone applaud them as the ultimate in economic and social fairness as Friedman seems to do.

“And most of all, the vehicle for his unreserved praise of this development, the flat world image, does not help the growth of such understanding: its simplicity if not simple-mindedness rather gets in the way of reflection and insight. And that could become quite dangerous, because policies based on such common views can quickly and devastatingly become counterproductive, their implementation tending to use the most advanced modes of transportation and communication. Which, as experience should show, does not in the least guarantee that what is being transported or communicated is either beneficial or true.”

“Or beautiful, weren’t you going to add?”

“Bogubertissime, by all the gum in my favorite collection of arguments, you are learning! And whether you are concerned about the beauty of a balloon from the outside or inside, flat just flat-out ain’t beautiful!”

******

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