Flat, Spiky, or Irrelevant?

Columbus suspected the world was round when he sailed west to India in 1492.  Why, then, did Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman declare the world to be flat half a millennium later? And, what prompted Richard Florida to redraw Friedman’s flat world as a spiky terrain?  Finally, will technological advances render the debate irrelevant?

Geographically the world is actually a bumpy oblate spheroid, but Freidman and Florida are not referring to a physical shape.  Their Earthly silhouettes are metaphors for the influence of technological advances on the global economy.  The main observation in Freidman’s (2005, 2007) best seller The World is Flat is that the Internet and globalization are enabling supply chains that bridge countries and flatten the world.  Friedman proposed that ten flatteners, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ending with a proliferation of “Steroids” (as he calls personal mobile digital devices like the iPhone), are shaping the 21st century.

The world is pretty flat if you think about where the components of the iPhone are made, or if you consider that the iPhone enables a user to call tech support in India for help with a Samsung TV that was made in South Korea.  Smartphones have certainly changed my workplace, with checking emails and tweets in the middle of meetings being commonplace.  Many US workers spend over 30 hours a week on email, answering work emails at home and personal messages at work.  The divide between work and home flattens even more as people “friend” coworkers, and businesses switch from dedicated websites to a Facebook presence to make it easier to connect.

In the 2006 article “The World is Spiky”, Richard Florida countered Friedman’s flat world with a spiky, urbanized terrain.  Florida pointed out that there is a great divide between the urban culture of technocrats in Shanghai (the spikes) and the rural culture of farmers in villages in western China (the valleys).  In 2015, 53% of the world was urbanized, just about the same portion of the population using the Internet in 2016,  51%.  These spikes are influencing businesses, including the university where I work.  For example, our online course and program offerings reach additional populations as an increasing number of flat areas (such as northern India) start to rise.

Said Elias Dawlabani takes the flat-spiky debate a step further in his article “The World is Bifurcated and Disrupted” by suggesting that the spikes (the thriving economic areas) exist on a very interconnected level, while the valleys (the economically stagnant areas) are isolated.  Dawlabani argues that technology produces a rate of change so rapid that Friedman’s, or any, model, is inevitably incomplete.  Whether flat, spiky, or bifurcated, it is likely that the disruptive power of technology will continue to influence the world’s metaphorical landscape.

Today, the disruptive power of technology is seen in smart machines.  Cars are self-driving, and Siri can answer a myriad of simple questions.  As an emerging technology on the cusp of being a major industry disrupter, artificial intelligence tops Gartner’s top 10 strategic technology trends for 2017.  Artificial intelligence is already influencing my university, as we design programs to teach students about robot and drone technologies.

In his TED Talk, Nick Bostrom reflected on the rise of machine intelligence and cautioned about its dangers.  Bostrom is especially wary of what the goals of a machine super-intelligence might be.  How we ensure that something similar to the three laws of robotics made famous by Isaac Asimov get into every machine intelligence may be the most important problem of this century.  Steven Hawking shares Bostrom’s view that artificial intelligence brings great risk.  Hawking says that figuring out space relocation is important because the odds are good that nuclear terrorism, climate change, or artificial intelligence will destroy the Earth within a thousand years.

Eventually, the shape of the world—physically or metaphorically—may not matter, or even exist.  But for now, at least, the interdependence of the world’s physical and metaphorical landscapes brings infinite possibilities.  It is up to us to make the landscapes relevant.


10 thoughts on “Flat, Spiky, or Irrelevant?”

  1. Nice post. As the curse notes, “We live in interesting times.” I can recall as a teen reading Issac Asimov’s I, ROBOT, with its famous three rules, but the book that really captured my attention was Robert Heinlein’s 1966 THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, in which the lunar colony revolts against rule by Earth. One of the main characters, Mike, is actually the lunar base computer that has become self-aware. This was 50 years before Nick Bostrom’s talk!

    As you noted, the metaphor is less important than what we as leaders do with it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dr. Watwood,

      In THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, I remember Mike as having the most trouble understanding humor, especially funny once versus funny all the time. Maybe instead of a Turing test, we need a stand-up comedy test!


      Liked by 1 person

  2. MKD,

    Thank you for sharing the Dawlabani post. A first read left me with a feeling of anxiety about the age of disruption. It gave me a greater sense of the type of anxiety that has been created by a reduction in the need for the types of manufacturing and production that have been a part of the world economy since the rise of the Industrial Revolution. I was particular drawn to what Dawlabani (2015) referred to as the “decline and entropy phase.” The rapid changes to the world based on technology and innovation have also led to a rapid change in the kinds of jobs and industries needed to meet the needs of consumers. In some areas, we do not appear to have kept pace.

    So how do we make this landscape relevant? How do we as leaders help our industries expand, change, and grow to meet the pace and change of a technological and connected world that may render what we individually do as irrelevant before we know it?

    All the best,
    The Ayes Have It


    Dawlabani, S. E. (2015, May 21). The world is bifurcated and disrupted [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/said-elias-dawlabani/the-world-is-bifurcated-a_b_7344532.html


    1. The Ayes Have It,

      It is very interesting to live in this age, especially since, as Dawlabani (2015) pointed out, the final outcome is difficult to define. How does a country, such as the US, adapt to a system where there are no jobs for many people, but machines produce great wealth? Will some states refuse to allow such a system? Is Democracy even viable with such a system? There are a lot of books out there predicting the future, but I don’t think Future Shock (Tofler, 1970) is done with us quite yet. Tofler’s main point is that the pace of change is increasing, with no end in sight. Those who cannot easily adjust to this change will suffer Future Shock. Leaders can help people learn and adapt so change does not shock them. As Freidman (2005) said in The World is Flat, the workers who are “really adaptable” (p. 238) will have jobs that cannot be outsourced.

      I appreciate the discussion!



      Dawlabani, S. E. (2015, May 21). The world is bifurcated and disrupted [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/said-elias-dawlabani/the-world-is-bifurcated-a_b_7344532.html

      Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

      Tofler, A. (1970) Future Shock. New York: Random House.


      1. Interesting points, Mary! I wonder though if Tofler could have truly considered the pace at which innovation, technology, and growth itself would change. Is there a point at which no leader or State in its current existence will be able to adjust and adapt to such rapid change? It feels a difficult question to answer when the outcomes are truly beyond our imaginations!

        The Ayes Have It


  3. Enjoyed your post and as I read through your discussion of the exponentially accelerating pace of change I recalled an article which questioned the direction of technology now that Moore’s Law is dead after 50 years of predicting the expansion of computing power and the shrinking of the resister which powered such growth. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601441/ moores-law-is-dead-now-what/ What does it matter that such guideposts are gone? How do we lead in such ambiguous terrain? I found some inspiration in terms of leadership which I feel you allude to in your final comment suggesting that it is up to us to make our landscapes relevant. Michelle Martin, discussing the work of Meg Wheatley emphasizes the need for leaders to focus on hosting space for people to collaborate and work toward solutions. http://www.michelemmartin.com/thebambooprojectblog/2015/12/work-in-progress-the-leadership-lab.html This idea of hosting space seems an intriguing way to consider leadership in such ambiguous terrain. I look forward to learning more and thought you too might be interested in the concept.
    To the unknown! Tricia


    1. Are you kidding!? I stumbled on it through following a couple links reading a completely different source. Well the universe is surely aligning. I am very excited to spend more time contemplating the blog – initial readings always feel cursory.


      1. Tricia and Dr. Watwood,

        Loved the Michelle Martin blog, and really looking forward to exploring the leader-as-host concept later in this class. After reading HEROIC LEADERSHIP (Lowney, 2003), I embraced the idea that everyone is a leader. Extending the idea through leadership that leverages the connectivity of today’s world sounds very exciting!



        Lowney, C. (2003). Heroic leadership: Best practices from a 450-year-old company that changed the world. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press.


  4. I found your post interesting, specifically the idea that the terrain of the world is irrelevant. I had not thought about the flat vs. spikey debate as having a third option. After reading your post, I have to agree. An article by Mourdoukoutas (2011) contrasted the good and bad aspects of globalization. For instance, he pointed out the increased globalization leads to more volatile markets and greater risks for companies. I think globalization may change the dynamic of problems such as educational access or inequality, but there will still be challenges.


    Mourdoukoutas, P. (2011) The good, the bad and the ugly. Forbes Market. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2011/09/10/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-side-of-globalization/#121625d73c21


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