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April 10, 2005

Flat v Horizontal

In his new book, The World is Flat, NYTIMES columnist Tom Friedman calls attention to the great tectonic movements being brought about by the force of a connected world of bits and bytes. Friedman has  gotten his fingers onto the outlines of perhaps the biggest story of our time at a moment when most Americans are looking inward and elsewhere. Compared to the economic impacts of the massive supply chain pipeline between China and the US (they make, we consume), and those of an equally burgeoning outsource system between India and the US (they do, we consume), the Iraq War abroad and the cultural wars at home may even yet appear as shadow plays on the screen of history.

Rather ironically, at the height of the Terry Schiavo brouhaha, a little more than a week ago , we found ourselves  being admonished, as Americans, by someone who had traveled from abroad expressly for the purpose of sounding a warning.  We should, he urged,  get a hold of our ourselves so we might continue our role as world technology leaders.

Here in Dymaxia we tend to see the world not as flat, but to use a little less tricky phrase, horizontal. For instance, in our horizontal world, we have the impression that our tech support guys for this site --available 24/7, BTW-- are in Hong-Kong; yet, we can't be quite sure. We do know, however,  that you, dear readers, land here from all over the world. Looking at a 24 hour bar chart of visits to the site, it's impossible to see where the US business day begins and ends. In actuality, it's a pretty flat bar chart, that looks an awful lot like a piano keyboard!

Without trying to elevate the term or merely pun, we are going to argue that "horizontal" is different from "flat" and question whether Tom Friedman has noted the difference and, more importantly, it's real political significance. This, because horizontal implies a system that is non-hierarchical, one that is peer to peer and one that allows us to reach from any endpoint to any other endpoint without interference. Because of this horizontalness, the Internet provides a level of connectivity that extends far beyond what was imagined just a decade or so ago when this all began to roll out. In the boom exuberance, capital flowed like wine downhill from Sonoma to Silicon Valley and the great build-out took off. Fiber cable that might have taken the governments and the great TELCO'S decades to finance, was laid out across the continents and oceans and, with a certain lag, began to be lighted up. First in were the Wal-Marts and Merrill Lynchs of the world who sought to cut their costs for a competitive edge. Then came the end-user services and suddenly millions of individuals, who by reasons of geography and politics, had been kept well behind the cutting edge, became part of the same highly elastic wavelength.

As a result, even as the War on Terrorism put the kybosh on immigration, Indian and Chinese programmers and designers no longer had to be physically in the US to find out what problems the leading edge was dealing with and thus where the entrepreneurial opportunities lie. So, as Friedman reports, suddenly there were millions of young, hungry, well educated Asians able to find work in their own countries. And it wasn't just data entry, low level tech support and outdated COBOL coding they were being asked to do by American corporations with bloated valuations, desperate to meet quarterly projections.

Most non-geeks would be hard pressed to explain what the Open Source Movement is all about even if they had heard of its existence. The importance of Open Source --and it's not only the threat this movement poses to Microsoft's hegemony-- is that any programmer can join into an open source development group to work on a project that is unpaid, self governing and with a resulting end product that is generally free to the user. More significantly, Open Source developers are often busy building the kind of cutting edge software applications that the new horizontal world requires. These social networking platforms, like wiki's,  and social web-knowledge building, or other group activities that allow for the efficient sharing of writing, photos, videos, audiocasts and beyond  in the vast sea of new content and applications that is being spawned, all rely on group, self managing activities that greatly speed up the development process. Some people wonder why trained developers would volunteer so much time and effort with no direct pay but, in fact, there can be no better means of connecting and learning from one's peers around the world --since these are often truly global efforts-- than getting involved in a cutting edge project.

This activity spawned by low barrier, horizontal connectivity and communication has brought us all to a new inflexion point, a term that was popularized by Intel founder Andy Grove, to describe critical points in time where everything changes. We saw IBM topple when software development became "off-the-shelf' and more efficient ways of developing and building it were evolved by the mainly West Coast based software companies; M$FT now faces the same possible fate. The know-how for efficient, team software development, and the high tech process, platforms and financial infrastructure that grew up in its wake to make Silicon Valley the epicenter of the last boom, is now being spread around the world, peer-to-peer via the horizontal platform.

When giant seismic changes occur below, there are always massive reactions to follow on the surface. We dare to be optimistic enough to think this momentum cannot be totally suppressed but we do strongly fear that attempts will be made to throttle and control the Internet. We have the potential to make major strides towards a horizontal world built on this layer of global connectivity. In the background, we already hear the footsteps of those very powerful forces who would like to mold and game the system by tampering with all layers of the Internet in order to make it work to their advantage, while subverting and reversing the movement to openness through technical, economic, judicial and legislative barriers.

And to get back to the urging of our guest from across the pond, who, we of course, hope will read this; Taking the lead now, at this critical juncture, means assuming the responsibility to make sure that, despite major forces to the contrary, the playing field remains horizontal and the interlopers and censors are kept at bay. It will take more than a flat, nonpolitical, effort and it will have to be global.

Posted by dymaxion at 12:19 PM


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