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.