After the Flat World, Comes the Deep World: A Conversation With Thomas Friedman

The New York Times columnist tells Haaretz how 2007 was a technological tipping point that can only be truly realized if the U.S. and China overcome their trust deficit

U.S.-China relations

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist and former correspondent for the paper in Lebanon and Israel, is known to many as the author of a book about globalization, “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.” It remained on The New York Times best-seller list for two years after its release in early 2005.

But the flat world is changing. China’s economic power has increased further since 2005, Beijing and Washington are waging a trade war, and social media has changed the internet of the early 2000s. There are also more authoritarian rulers; Donald Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India are only two examples.

Is it responsible today to maintain the optimism of “The World is Flat”? Friedman doesn’t paint a rosy picture but believes that the situation is reversible, and has even coined a phrase to describe the new world – “The world’s gone from flat, to fast, to deep.”

Will the three current superpowers – the United States, China and Russia – lead the world in the next century or should we expect the rise of new powers and the decline of the existing ones?

“I don’t see any power that will supplant any of these three. India would be the natural one to suggest, but misgovernance, I believe, still holds India back. It cannot build the infrastructure it needs – roads, highways, telecoms – to move more of its people from extreme poverty to the middle class, although it has moved many. I think Russia will become increasingly irrelevant and it will be a two-superpower world.

“But even those two – the U.S. and China – will not realize their full potential. I believe America has the best governing system in the world. I believe China has the worse governing system in the world. But China is getting 90 percent out of its bad system and America is getting 20 percent out of its good system. Both are underperforming.”

Can the state system sustain the growing power of global corporations like Google and Facebook that are increasingly amassing state powers like surveillance and censorship?

“It’s not clear. These tech companies are growing – both in size and capabilities – at the pace of Moore’s Law; that is, exponentially. But the ability of governments to regulate them moves at an analog pace, at best. We’re living in the gap between those two, and it’s not sustainable. Governments have to get smarter, faster, and the tech companies have to realize that they only thrive if democracies work and can govern them. Otherwise, there will be a backlash.

“My favorite story in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s book ‘The Second Machine Age’ is when the Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he’d prepare for a chess match against a computer, like IBM’s Deep Blue. Donner replied: ‘I would bring a hammer.’ The tech companies have to beware – and we need to beware – that our frustration with them does not reach a point where more than a few people would like to break them up with a hammer.”

Thomas Friedman
Saul Loeb / AFP

Pretty good year

You wrote your famous book “The World is Flat” in 2005. Is the world still flat?

“Yes, it is. In fact, it’s gotten much flatter than I ever imagined in the sense I was using the term. When I said ‘the world is flat,’ what I meant was that we had created a telecommunications/technology platform on which more people than ever were able to compete, connect and collaborate on more things in more ways on more days from more places for less money than ever before. And today, even more people than I thought now have access to that platform. But the real issue today is not that the world is getting flatter, it’s that the world is getting ‘deep.’

“To understand how, let me give you my own brief technological history of the 21st century. Technology moves up in steps, and each step tends to be biased toward a certain set of capabilities. I would argue that around the year 2000, a group of technologies came together that were biased toward connectivity because of the dramatic fall in the price of fiber-optic cable. We were suddenly able to wire much of the world and, as a result, connectivity became fast, virtually free, easy for you and everywhere. Suddenly I could touch people whom I could never touch before and I could be touched by people who could never touch me before. And I gave that era a name. I said it felt like the world is flat.

“Around 2007, another set of technologies came together that made the world 'fast.' That is, they enabled us to do a huge number of complex tasks with just one touch. We took friction and complexity out of so many things thanks to another price collapse – a collapse in the price of computing, storage and software. With just one touch on an Uber or DiDi or Lyft app, I could page a taxi, direct a taxi, pay a taxi, rate a taxi and be rated by a taxi. With just one touch! Complexity became fast, virtually free, easy for you and invisible. This all happened in and around the year 2007.

“The year 2007 was a remarkable year. The iPhone was introduced that year by Steve Jobs. Facebook opened its platform to anyone with a registered email address and went global in 2007. Twitter split off onto its own platform and went global in 2007. Airbnb was born in 2007. VMware went public in 2007 – the technology that enabled any operating system to work on any computer, which enabled cloud computing.

“The cloud was born in 2007. Hadoop software – which enabled 1 million computers to work together as if they were one, which gave us Big Data – was launched in 2007. Amazon launched the Kindle e-book reader in 2007. IBM launched Watson, the world’s first cognitive computer, in 2007. The essay launching Bitcoin was written in 2007. Netflix streamed its first video in 2007. IBM introduced non-silicon materials into its microchips to extend Moore’s Law in 2007.

“The internet crossed 1 billion users in late 2006, which seems to have been a tipping point. The price of sequencing a human genome collapsed in 2007. Solar energy took off in 2007 as did a process for extracting natural gas from tight shale, called fracking. GitHub, the world’s largest repository of open source software, was launched in 2007. Lyft, the first ride-sharing site, was launched in 2007. Michael Dell, the founder of Dell computers, retired in 2005. In 2007, he decided he’d better come back to work.

“Yes, 2007 was a big year. As a result of all of these innovations, the world was not only flat, it got fast.

“Today, we have taken another step up to another platform. And now the world is getting ‘smart.’ And it is being driven by still another price collapse – the collapse in the price and size of sensors. Now we can put sensors, we can put ‘intelligence’ into anything and everything. We can put intelligence into your refrigerator, your car, your toaster or your shirt. We can make your car drive itself, your refrigerator stock itself and your shirt talk to your doctor.

“This is a world of ‘no touch.’ It all just happens by sensors talking to machines and vice versa. The other day I got a text message on my cellphone that said I had an appointment in my office in 30 minutes and I was 35 minutes away by car. It made me smart with no touch.”

Deep everything

So what comes next? What’s the next defining technology platform?

“Well, I believe that when the world gets flat, fast and smart, what happens next is that it starts to get deep. Think about it. What happens when your shirt has sensors in it that can measure your body functions and then tell your e-commerce grocery store what foods are right for your particular body and DNA, and to buy them for you at Walmart and deliver them by an autonomous vehicle or drone to your refrigerator, and restock them when the refrigerator announces that you’re running low? That is ‘deep.’ And that’s where we’re going.

“And that’s why – in my opinion – ‘deep’ is the word of the year. Have you noticed how many things we're now describing with the word ‘deep’? Deep mind, deep medicine, deep war, deep fake, deep surveillance, deep insights, deep climate, deep adaptation. We keep applying this adjective ‘deep’ to describe our newfound abilities to hit targets in medicine or war, to identify leverage points in research, to find needles in haystacks of data or to fake any face, voice or image with an accuracy or at a depth and with an impact that was simply unimaginable just a decade ago.

“And this is now posing the biggest challenge to globalization and particularly for U.S.-China trade and technology relations. Why? Well, as I noted earlier, for the first three decades of our relations, the U.S. and China became interdependent trading what I called ‘surface’ goods. But over the last decade, China became a more middle-income country and a technology powerhouse of its own, capable of making and exporting deep technologies of its own – smartphones, artificial intelligence systems, 5G infrastructure, electric cars and robots and chat bots.

“I’m all for it. For the West to have China as a competitor in these areas will only drive innovation up and drive prices down. But what is different about all of these ‘deep technologies’ that we’re now competing over is that they literally get imbedded deep into your house, into your bedroom, into your infrastructure, into your factory or into your community. And this is posing a whole new challenge.

“American officials are asking: How can we install Huawei 5G deep in our cities and homes? Can we trust that it will not be used by the Chinese government to spy on or turn off our electricity in a war? And China is asking the same about American technologies, especially after Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency had hacked Huawei in order to hack every country where Huawei installed its phones and wires.

“Today both America and China want to sell each other and the world deep technologies and services – but we have not developed the trust needed to buy and sell such goods to each other at scale. To put it bluntly, China and America have lost their framework for rising together. We’re trying to continue rising together, we’re talking about continuing to rise together.

“But, alas, the context for our interdependence – the depth of it, the degree of it and the intensity of it – has entered a new deep place. But we have not developed the deep trust we need to guide, govern and inform how we operate such deep technologies in each other’s countries.

“So instead of enjoying a healthy interdependence today, we’re starting to experience an unhealthy interdependence. That is, we’re having a tit-for-tat tariff war and seeing things like an outright ban on U.S. companies installing or selling technology to Huawei. And so instead of rising together we are falling together.

“How we reverse this tailspin and create a whole level of trust in U.S.-China relations is, in my view, the most important issue on the planet today – other than climate change – and the future pace and scope of globalization depends on it being reversed.

“If America and China succeed in overcoming this trust deficit, the world will continue to become more interdependent in a healthy way – and our two countries will rise together. If we fail, globalization will fracture and our two countries will go back to rising apart and we will live in a two-technology world – one Chinese-led, one American-led – with a digital Berlin Wall down the middle. Every country in the middle – like Israel – will have to choose which system to join.”