Blog Post

Actually, Tom, The World Is Pretty Uneven: Response to Friedman's NY Times "Theory of Everything"

In today's New York Times, bestselling author and journalist Thomas L. Friedman writes "A Theory of Everything (Sort Of)" to explain popular rebellions across the Arab world, Israel, Europe, England, and even the Tea Party's protests here.  That is certainly a bold move, to compare rebellions against brutal tyrants (Libya, for example) to the Tea Party's opposition to tax dollars being spent on Medicare or, in some cases, public schools. Friedman is, after all, master of the grand theory and he is certainly right that many different kinds of people in different countries are angry this year and expressing that anger in protests and in violence. Friedman thinks there is one grand explanation:  the Internet.  The middle-class and working classes around the world are being shrunken out of jobs, credit, and entitlements.  A connected world also means that multinational corporations can send jobs where there is the cheapest, best talent supply at any level, from sweatshops to research scientists.  So not only is the middle class being squeezed at home (wherever home is) but there are big wages to be had . . . elsewhere.  Widening income gaps, growing resentment, unrest.  "We are fighting for an accessible future," is the slogan of this summer's Israeli protests.   And, Friedman asks "Why now?"  Why now, of all times when the future has seemed bleak, is there an explosive articulation of despair?   He believes that hyper-connection enabled by the Internet is the game changer.


Among those who resort to the "Internet made us do it" theory of the world, I often find Friedman more subtle in his thinking than some other commentators. I'm not a kneejerk Friedman hater, not at all.  He often has a grasp on what interconnected globalized technology means to world economic forces and helps me to rethink (even if I disagree with his point of view) what distributed labor and consolidated wealth mean.  Even when I find his conclusions untenable,  I find his ability to connect and interconnect causes that the Internet does  link--complex relationshps of work and culture and ideology and economics--more illuminating than many simplistic and reductionist arguments that still are rooted in twentieth-century  binaries.   (To wit:  his explanation of the key differences between the Internet and the World Wide Web in The World is Flat remains one of the most succinct and incisive discussions of the importance of that distinction, conceptually and functionally, that I've read anywhere.) 


You can see, I'm working hard to give him his due.  But this op ed piece stretches so far for a grand theory of the world's current uprisings and protests and riots that I have to demur.  Friedman glosses too quickly over the fact that the last twenty years have seen a radical Right-ward anti-Keynsian redistribution of wealth to the world's super-rich in many of the countries he points to, including in the U.S. And in the U.S. the Tea Party is hardly the only group to be mad or to feel disenfranchised and excluded from an "accessible future."  Making their "astoturf" protest stand for American discontent seems almost a wilful tilting of the global political configuration into misalignments, as if all protests are similar and equal.   They are not.


I agree that hyperconnectivity changes economics in profound ways.  What gets left out of this equation is agency and design by those in power who are doing this rearranging.   There is a current throughout this essay that somehow all this has happened a little bit by accident or, worse, maybe because these rebellious folks worldwide have all gotten a bit too soft for this hard-knocks, workhard world.  He writes:  "Not only does it take more skill to get a good job, but for those who are unable to raise their games, governments no longer can afford generous welfare support ot cheap credit. . . .Alas, for the fifty years after World War II, to be a president, mayor, governor or university president meant, more often than not, giving things away to people.  Today, it means taking things away from people."  What?  We're not talking about gifts but social structures, social values.  The dazzling counter-argument Friedman offers to this Keynsian world of give-give-give that supposedly makes people noncompetitive because of their dependence on the welfare state . . . is China


Last time I looked, that soaring socialist-capitalist economy was still pumping the equivalent several hundred billion dollars a year into improving infrastructure and keeping people at work, building better housing, roads, bridges, and schools, including investments in sustainable energy, environmental engineering, and a variety of social purposes (education, culture, the arts, and even family planning).  So, while the mobs of London protest the collapse of the safety nets of the welfare state, including the rise in university tuition, at the same time that there are no jobs for working and middle class people, China is growing richer by redistributing wealth to more and more of its impoverished (still ten percent of the population) citizens.  The government still owns all the country's main banks and controls manufacturing of oil, steel, and other resources.  The government also controls financial markets and services.  China is not exactly the Tea Party's dream of an ideal society.


Friedman's argument is that our "hyperconnected" world allows for the elimination of more routine work so that now, to be middle class you "have to study harder, work smarter and adapt quicker than ever before."   That overlooks the fact that, to be working class requires the kind of financial stimuli that the Chinese have invested in.  To raise their rural and urban poor, they are pouring billions not just into faster connectivity but into cement. For buildings.  For jobs for manual laborers.  China now produces more cement than any other country in the world and consumes about 40% of the world's cement supply.   In the U.S. we have all but abandonned infrastructure support for jobs that can be obtained by those without high technology skills.  In the UK and Europe that is also the case.   We have also stopped offering training in the vocational skills that used to be commonplace in every high school, and that allowed for trained workers in the manufacturing segments of society. 


China runs the banking system in its country--and also payrolls the building of banks, schools, roads, bridges.  It is a veritable WPA of government-financed infrastructure support that is helping to support its billions of impoverished citizens based on a theory of connected society that says you cannot become a vast technological superpower without also having supports for the working classes.   All the technology in the world still depends on hardware that has to be manufactured, on laptops and mobile phones and hard drivers and servers and other devices that are produced on assembly lines.   You cannot have a vibrant technology sector without a cheap labor force producing what are still, despite their circuitry, machines.  In 2011, China became the top manufacturing economy in the world.  


Friedman points to all the Chinese kids flooding into American universities with perfect 800 scores.  The way he frames that implies that the Chinese work harder, are smarter, are more skilled than American kids who, it seems also to be implied, are lazy, dumb, unskilled.  Please rethink that, Mr. Friedman.   First, the kids with those top scores are the Chinese elite.   Second, they can afford U.S. college tuitions that more and more working and middle-class American kids cannot.  A dean at a major state university recently told me that one quarter of undergraduates are now from China, all paying the coveted out-of-state and international tuition that helps subsidize the dwindling number of seats offered to the state's own exemplary students with the perfect 800 scores. We are basically defunding our own state educational system at the same time that the Chinese are improving theirs.   Third, it is crucial to note that the Chinese elite still want to send their kids to American universities.   If the problem were just that we've grown weak and slack and soft, why would the elite of the strongest economy in the world want their kids to be educated by us? 


There is something fundamentally askew in Friedman's examples and in his deep thinking, something almost punitive as if "American is losing ground" is because "American kids today are losers."  That current has to be seriously reexamined.   "Unemployment today still remains relatively low for people with college degrees.  But to get one of those degrees and to leverage it for a good job requires everyone to raise their game.  It's hard."  Hard?  Is that the real problem here?   I'm not sure what he means by "raising their game" but it is evident that, in state after state, we have "raised their tuition."   If college and a highly skilled workforce is the key to success in this high-tech era, we are certainly missing the boat by making college unaffordable by more and more of our population.   If China is the answer to how to succeed in a high-tech, globalized, hyperconnected world, maybe it is because they are smart enough to invest in infrastructure and take advantage of the educational system that we, as a country, seem determined to abandon. 


You can read Thomas Friedman's "Theory of Everything" (Sort Of), August 13, 2011, New York Times, here:



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . .  One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."

For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.

  [NYSI cover]



I am totally in sympathy here politically -- and somewhat at odds in terms of how to conceptualize the unevennesses you properly introduce here!

Indeed, parts of the unevenness are undoubtedly conscious manipulation of political life, economies, and personal wealth on the parts of various folks in particular and the groups they essentially "own."

Their agency in this form is powerful, important, morally questionable, and necessary to remember, point out, organize against, and attempt to unveil, demystify, denaturalize. Essential and important political work.

But that analysis is itself perhaps a bit even.

Agency is far more complex than either that radical poltical urgency, or some techno-determinism. Uneven would be very helpful here.

I know you know this. And I know that when we are up against political outright lies, or even forms of inadvertant misinformation, it is compensatory and valuable to reaffirm that we can make things happen otherwise. That the otherwise really really matters, as well as noting carefully who benefits, how, why, and in what ways.

But... uneven. More agencies in the all our worlds. More accretions of historical infrastructures only partially remembered or perceived. Different ecologies of sensation and possibility in play in ways unpredictable and necessary to ride in waves of hope and as well as see carefully their consequences and problems.

It is so hard to keep all these in play in any reaction of importance. It is so hard to make good alliances and keep clear how much we don't know in the middle of having to do things that assume knowings.

Your work does this and cares about this. Put that up against Friedman. We are the ecologies. And yes, yes, yes, that transfer of weath matters so much, and is NOT the sign of progress, or economic health, or the ways things are, or media and technology forces. And yes, a program of how to interfere with this transfer of wealth is something I wish to participate in -- in as many ways as I know how to engage. With you. With others.


Thanks so much for taking the time to respond, Katie.  I think you are right about the complexities of agency and history.  Grand theories only take us so far and then the exceptions and specificities are what really count.  


Cathy, thanks for your insightful, rousing response to Friedman. Your counter-argument to his pat description of the superiority of Chinese college applicants is extremely helpful here, but I'm left feeling forlorn about the fact that in the public discourse on economics and education, China is continually Otherized. For those of us who study the relationship between language and historical change, I fear the consequences of this tendency will be quite grave. It is so easily recycled, particularly in popular news media. When it comes to the murkiness of agency, which Katie K. rightly brings up, perhaps we do have some when it comes to choosing whether or not to paricipate in this trend. This is, of course, no critique of your choice to invoke the binary in order to dispel myths about it -- we need more nuanced accounts to help unsettle it.


I agree completely.   I would not have brought up China except that Friedman did and I want to make that situation far more complex.   I keep hearing "China" being both glorified and demonized in ways that seem very unproductive in local and global terms and feel like we all have to know more and use fewer generalizations and comparisons without knowing a lot more.   Thanks for your contribution.  I agree wholeheartedly!


Cathy, I find your thinking on this matter flawless.


Your response to Friedman is great. I only wish more people were reading it.

I wonder if people of Friedman's age and economic status don't need to try a bit harder themselves? There seems to be a strong resistance among people of his vintage and status to seeing the digital revolution for the wondrous possibility and way forward that it is. There will continue to be those like Friedman who have marked tendency to paint digital technology as the most dangerous thing going, but their thinking is proving evidently flawed and simplistic.

The only place I see your argument going a bit awry, Cathy, is when you write "All the technology in the world still depends on hardware that has to be manufactured, on laptops and mobile phones and hard drivers and servers and other devices that are produced on assembly lines.   You cannot have a vibrant technology sector without a cheap labor force producing what are still, despite their circuitry, machines." I am not convinced that the multiplicity of criminally low-paid Asian manufacturing jobs are a fair trade for the more rationally paid jobs that are lost here in America, either a numerically or ethically. Nor do I believe that a fair and ethical digital revolution should be built  upon slave wages in a repressive society. There is something disquieting to me about the idea that social change in the West and beyond should depend upon an abused working class in China.

Regarding Chinese students: My anecdotal experience was with the scion of a wealthy Shanghai family. I tutored him in Spanish when I still lived in Pennsylvania. He was attending one of the area's top private prep schools and hired me HIMSELF, not because he wasn't getting a good grade in Spanish, but because he didn't think his teacher was very good and he wanted to become fluent in Spanish for the international business career he had already imagined for himself. There is a long-range view and a hunger for success that seems natural to the ethic of  even upper class Chinese kids. I write "even" because here "upper class" often translates in reality into "soft and indulged." I rarely tutor kids because I don't like teaching the unwilling: I've never had an American kid seek me out on his/her own. But as bright and motivated as he was, my Chinese student was remarkably arrogant, rude and unfeeling. He had nothing good to say about his classmates at the school and treated me more like a tool he was using than a person. Obviously, as you remark, there is something special about our schools and universities that have people coming from half way around the world to seek out. What is it?

I have always felt that this "something" was creativity, that flexibility of mind and capacity for play from which truly wonderful ideas spring. This is what people growing up in China today often lack.  Lest we forget, totalitariasm has a way of beating the joy out of people: Without joy there is no play, and without play there emerge no truly great ideas. So while the Chinese generally disrespect much about our society, they recognize that we have something that they want enought to pay for it.

An afterword: I am investigating the world of Bitcoin. Are you familiar with this new monetary system? Bitcoin was launched in 2009 and for me it represents the single greatest threat to nation-centric power ever. The idea that a monetary unit that is not issued by any country should have gained so much value and currency in the past two years is an indication to me that there is a quiet revolution among not just the oppressed working classes around the world, but also among the upper middle classes who are tired of having their economic future decided by central governments who have proven over and over again to not have their best interests in mind.

Revolution? Evolution? Let's see.




Thanks for the great comment.  And I'd love to learn more about Bitcoin.   I have read a little and it sounds fascinating---and certainly, given that our current monetary system is broken, could possibly offer some solutions.   I hope so!