Dont Overlook the Global Tech Economy

Opinion: There is a tide in the affairs of the tech community that U.S. politicians may not notice, Tom Friedman warns in his new book.

There are few things stranger—for a journalist—than seeing a well-respected columnist talk to an audience and tell listeners the story of their lives.

But thats what happened last week when the New York Times International Affairs columnist, Tom Friedman, spoke to the annual meeting of TIE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) in Santa Clara, Calif.

Friedman, who is on tour promoting his latest book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, found himself getting applause for lines that probably make his usual audience sigh in resignation—particularly ones about how Western whites will have to cede economic and political power and authority to their non-white, non-Caucasian rivals.

But most TIE members, Indian and Pakistani immigrants or the sons and daughters of those immigrants, are living the very story Friedman is telling in his book. They are just one part of the Silicon Valley community, people who work on the web and who take a networked life for granted. For them—for us—the world has been, in Friedmans awkward metaphor, "flat" for some time.

Thats not to say that Friedman or his book or the publicity tour on which he embarked are to be dismissed out of hand. Hardly. What he says may not be important. Its important, however, that he is the one saying it.

Having gone to Bangalore, India, in 2004, Friedman described his epiphany as he was interviewing young Indian men and women working in call centers for U.S. companies. "I got progressively sicker and sicker. It was a growing sense I had with each interview that while I had been sleeping—while I had been off covering the Olive Tree Wars— something really big had happened and I had missed it."

Yup. And it is a telling fact that he changed "we" to "I" in "while I was sleeping" for his audience of bicultural entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists.

Friedman then went on to talk about how he realized that Indians were participating in the global economy the same way that he was used to thinking that American corporations—and only corporations—not only participated in but dominated that economy. The individual, he said, is the economic unit of the future, not the company or the corporation.

That Friedmans voice is being raised now—on the brink of the 10-year anniversary of Netscapes public offering—is another milestone. With Googles stock holding, with the renewed sense of optimism that deal has given the valley, Friedmans announcement that computers and computer technology matter—indeed are vital to the U.S. economy—is going to put a new focus on whats going on in tech.

How the tech community uses that opportunity, however, is more important now than when Wall Street was paying such close attention. There is simply more at stake, as Friedman correctly, if belatedly, points out.

Calling the turn of the last century "the mother of all inflection points," Friedman went on to make a bold prediction. "Over time, I believe it will change everything. It is bigger than Gutenberg and the printing press."

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read Stan Gibsons commentary on globalization and its effect on the tech industry.

Now theres the kind of rhetoric Silicon Valley loves to hear. But why so late in the game? Well, Friedman said, the "mother of all inflection points" was hidden from view. "It was disguised by 9/11, Enron and the bust."

Maybe to folks living on the East Coast and only reading the New York Times it was disguised. And, to some extent, it still is. And thats a serious problem, Friedman said. "Right when were at this incredible inflection point, no ones talking about it," he marvelled.

But thats not the case either. The problem is that the talk from some of those most affected by this "flattening" is either hostile, as when record companies sue people who make software that allows them to share music—or dismissive, as when tech companies are treated as fads.

What is apparent is that our understanding of individuals ability to participate in the global economy—as individuals, as individual economic units—needs a new set of political answers and solutions from both parties. Whats also apparent—to more and more people like Friedman outside the valley—is how little work is being done in this respect.

Just take a look at the way outsourcing was treated in the last election: It was reviled by Democrats and ignored by Republicans. Thats not a good way to create policies for a new global economy.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about outsourcing as a political issue in the last election.

Which is one example of why Silicon Valleys business community cant expect its way of looking at the world to find favor with the nations politicians, Friedman warned. "If you dont do something, its not going to go your way," he said. "The natural drift of this thing is in the wrong direction."

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