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The world's not so flat

india Updated: Dec 08, 2011 21:37 IST
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New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman has championed the idea, inspired by Nandan Nilekani, that the world is 'flat'. One implication of the 'flat world' hypothesis is that information technology has democratised access to information, and thereby had a levelling effect on entrenched hierarchies and inequities. The most important of these is the inequality of access created by those connected to the creation and dissemination of knowledge as against those who don't have access and are segregated from the knowledge economy.

Paradoxically, democratisation of access increases the premium placed on the privilege of proximity. An apparent flatness, in other words, hides from view the peaks and troughs that remain. Here are a few reasons for this. Today anyone with a computer and an internet connection can create a blog and offer commentary and analysis on any issue. Amid this welter of electronic stimuli, readers face an 'information overload'. So there's a need to filter this information into usable nuggets of knowledge.

Does this increase, or decrease, the power of the conventional media? Self-evidently, it increases it. The egalitarian space of social media yields to the restored hierarchies provided by time-tested providers of news and analysis like newspapers, magazines or TV channels. The interest, for instance, in the Hindustan Times' blogs, and in new blogs on India, whether it is the Wall Street Journal's 'India Real Time' or the New York Times' 'India Ink' (for which I write), attests to this resurgent influence in a new digital garb of conventional media.

The second example comes from the field of higher education. Not many years ago, one had to register at an elite institution such as Harvard or Yale to apply to the courses on offer. Today, anyone can download their syllabi and track down the readings, many of which are available electronically. Does this increase, or decrease, the value of an Ivy League education? Self-evidently, again, it increases it. Since everyone has access to the same information, the value-addition of actually being at Harvard comes from what's not possible to include in the syllabus or class notes. For instance, in upper-division or graduate seminars, particular insights emerge when a professor and students engage in high-level discussions. These usually form the kernel of essays and dissertations, but enter the publicly accessible domain of digitally-downloadable journal articles years later.

Think for a moment from a professor's point of view. Most of us at smaller institutions toil in relative isolation, in a setting in which colleagues are technicians or teachers rather than thinkers. But for those at elite institutions, there is always the possibility of knocking at a colleague's door, chatting over coffee in the faculty lounge or meeting at invitation-only conferences. These 'network externalities' confer benefits from proximity that can't be captured in a decentralised, digitised world in which everyone sits in an isolated cubicle.

To be sure, globalisation has upended conventional definitions. Trade economists used to distinguish tradable goods from services, which can't be traded. But today's world is characterised by the globalised provision of goods and services that can be traded at low, or zero, cost, as against those that require - or benefit from - the physical proximity between a buyer and a seller. That is why the flattening tendencies of globalisation will only go so far. The privilege of place will remain, and inequalities of power and wealth stay entrenched, albeit in different ways. Recent evidence attests to the remarkable persistence of inequalities in wealth and income, both between rich and poor countries, and among those countries. The world will remain not-so-flat for some time to come.

Vivek Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada

The views expressed by the author are personal