Is the World Flat, Round, or Spiky? Questions on Globalization

Is the World Flat, Round, or Spiky? Questions on Globalization

In this article, we expand upon the discussion of globalization, and more specifically, we discuss differing viewpoints on the issue of globalization. We shall examine whether the world is continuing to become more and more globalized, and in turn, more connected through mediums such as social media and other advanced technologies and communications, or whether the world, despite any technological advancements, is continuing to be concentrated on very local communities. That is the argument that others pose. That while we are globalizing, it is in a way that is concentrated on the importance of cities or large urban areas.

The World Is Flat

One of the key voices who advocates the idea that globalization is making various sorts of interactions much more commonplace is Thomas Friedman, whose book “The World is Flat” has received a great deal of attention, both by supporters of his ideas, as well as those that challenge his arguments. In his work, Friedman argues that the world is becoming more and more connected, and in a way that has removed significant limitations to communications, business, trade, amongst other things. For example, Friedman, in making his argument, points to the ability of businesses to set up their work offshore, the ability and ease in which they can outsource positions (whether it is through factories or call-centers, for example). In addition, he also points to the rise of quicker and better communications. According to Friedman, with the rise of communications, the internet, and globalization, business have little limitations in their daily activities, something that did not exist the same way decades ago. Today, people can set up companies in which can focus on working and serving customers thousands of miles away. In fact, some not only sees the continued “flattening” of interactions taking place, but some view what is happening as a key moment in human history. For example, Friedman, while citing David Rothkopf, who was “a former senior Department of Commerce official in the Clinton administration and now a private strategic consultant” (48), talks about his view of what is transpiring in this globalized world, saying “I am convinced that the flattening of the world, if it continues, will be seen in time as one of those fundamental shifts or inflection points, like Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the rise of the nation-state, or the Industrial Revolution–each of which, its day, noted Rothkopf produced changes in the role of individuals, the role and form of governments, the ways business was done and wars were fought, the role of women, the forms religion and art took, and the way science and research were conducted, not to mention the political labels that we as a civilization have assigned to ourselves and to our enemies” (49).

The World Is Not Flat

Despite the attention that Friedman and other globalists have received for their work on rising globalization and interconnectedness, their arguments are not without criticism. One of the strongest proponents for the idea that the world is not flat–challenging idea put forth by Thomas Friedman–is Professor Pankaj Ghemawat of the IESE Business School and the Harvard Business School. His argument is that while there is connectivity between states and actors, “the world is not nearly as connected as these writers would have us believe. Despite talk of a new, wired world where information, ideas, money, and people can move around the planet faster than ever before, just a fraction of what we consider globalization actually exists” (56).

For example, in his 2007 Foreign Policy article “Why The World Isn’t Flat,” Ghemawat looks at measures of globalization to see if the numbers back up arguments that we are becoming more and more global. For example, in his analysis of foreign direct investment data (the amount that countries invest in other countries), he argues that foreign direct investment is only at about 10 percent, meaning that the vast majority of investment is actually local, and not global, like some have suggested. Furthermore, these sorts of findings are not limited to FDI, but rather, this seems to also apply for other sectors such as phone call revenues, management research, private charity, patents, and portfolio investment, amongst other things. And even when looking at trade-to-gdp ratios (which is viewed as one key indicators for the rise of globalization) is roughly 20 percent (Ghemawat, 2007). Thus, countries are not trading with one another as if borders do not exist. And even when looking at the is of communications and globalization, it is true that the internet has broken down barriers. However, it is also important to note that most use this technology to communicate locally (within a country) with this technology (Ghemawat, 2007). 

Thus, the idea that the the world is flat is not the case, at least not the way that supporters of the idea of the “flatness” of the world suggest, and, as Ghemawat (2007) argues, “the most astonishing aspect of various writings on globalization is the extent of exaggeration involved. In short, the levels of internationalization in the world today are roughly an order of magnitude lower than those implied by globalization proponents” (57).

Justin Fox, in a November 3rd, 2014 piece published in the Harvard Business Review, argues that the world as we understand it is not flat, or not yet, anyways. According to Fox, globalization is real and does exist, but, he argues, that “the pace isn’t all that fast, and the overall level of global connectedness still hasn’t gotten back to its all-time peak of 2007. The overwhelming majority of commerce, investment, and other interactions still occur within — not between — nations.” To make his argument, he cites the DHL Global Connectedness Index 2014 (which is collected by Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven Altman, that looks at “trade, capital, people and information flows to give a picture of how entwined we citizens of the world are with each other” (Fox, 2014).

Looking at the data, Fox (2014) points out that there is a decrease in overall breadth of global connectedness. As Fox (2014) explains, “Breadth is a measure that reflects how many different countries a particular country is interacting with and the distances over which interactions occur, among other things. So the tourist trade in the Bahamas, while it scores high for depth because there are lots of tourists, doesn’t have much breadth because more than 80% of them come from one country, the U.S., that is less than 200 miles away and accounts for less than 10% of the world’s outbound tourists.”

This decline has lead Ghemawat to say that while there is still significant economic activity between states, much of the recent trade has been “between developed countries and developing ones[,]” as well as trade “among the developing countries.” Compared to developing and devoting state trade, what you are not seeing nearly as much is trade between economically developing and economically developed states, and we are finding even less of this trade is between economically developed states (in Fox, 2014).

Thus, critics of the idea of a flat world suggest that we are nowhere near the picture painted by those who view the world as one without significant boundaries. And they argue that even if there is a rise of globalization, it will not be smooth and without issues (Ghemawat, 2007).

The World Is Spiky

Richard Florida, who is the Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, wrote a 2005 article in The Atlantic entitled “The World Is Spiky.” In this piece, he also challenges Friedman’s idea that the world is flat, and, instead, argues that what we are are seeing is a larger move and overall concentration of populations towards urban centers. In fact, he argues that “[t]he most obvious challenge to the flat-world hypothesis is the explosive growth of cities worldwide. When looking at populations, for example, Florida points out that “[t]he share of the world’s population living in urban areas, just three percent in 1800, was nearly 30 percent by 1950. Today [in 2005] it stands at about 50 percent” (48). He also points out that in economically developed states, “three out of four people live in urban areas” (48).

But along with population concentrations in urban centers, there is also a rise of economic output concentrated in urban centers, with many cities having extensive economic output and influence in the world. Moreover, there seems to be a concentration of scientists in urban centers, as well as those who are creating various products and ideas. Thus, some have argued that these cities are becoming even more central for business, creative outputs,  amongst other things. Thus, Florida (2005) argues that there are distinctions between cities and non-urban centers on some of these issues, something that globalists tend to argue against.


Florida, R. (2005). The World Is Spiky. The Atlantic Monthly. October 2005. Available Online: 

Friedman, T. L. (2005) The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York, New York, Picador.

Fox, J. (2014). The World Is Still Not Flat. November 3rd, 2014. Harvard Business Review, Available Online:

Ghemawat, P. (2007). Why the World Isn’t Flat. Foreign Policy, pages 54-60.

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