One of the best critiques of Friedman's metaphor came from Edward Leamer, an economist at UCLA. He had a fantastic prologue to the book review:
When the Journal of Economic Literature asked me to write a review of The World
is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, I responded with enthusiasm, knowing it wouldn’t
take much effort on my part. As soon as I received a copy of the book, I shipped it overnight by UPS to India to have the work done. I was promised a one-day turn-around for a fee of $100. Here is what I received by e-mail the next day: “This book is truly marvelous. It will surely change the course of human history.” That struck me as possibly accurate but a bit too short and too generic to make the JEL happy, and I decided, with great disappointment, to do the work myself.
A few months after Friedman's book was published, in October 2005, Richard Florida wrote in the Atlantic that the world is spiky. In discussing that, Florida threw in more metaphors--valleys, hills, playing fields, ....
I suppose people decided that we have played around with metaphors enough. Enter David Smick and his book, The World is Curved. A Q/A with the author at that website has this:
The title The World Is Curved is sure to draw comparisons with Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. Why did you select the title? Why is the world now curved? Was it ever flat?
Friedman brilliantly presents the first installment of the globalization story, concentrating on the revolutionizing (flattening) of the global supply chain. But there is a second installment—the financial side of the story where the world is not flat; the world is curved. You can’t see over the horizon. Sight lines are limited. As during the subprime mortgage crisis, we are forced to travel down an endless, dangerously twisting and turning road of volatility with steep valleys and risky mountainous climbs. We can’t see financial risk ahead. A small village in Arctic Norway can see its
entire financial future destroyed because its financial managers invested heavily in a Citigroup product called a collateralized debt obligation.
Can somebody please pass a law that playing with metaphors to explain global economic geography will result in a forced Peace Corps volunteer service in Moldova for two years?
As always, it is the first one who gains the attention and money--something that Friedman knows really well. Even if he is not always right in his analysis, he is definitely a trendsetter. I am pretty sure, and unfortunately for Florida and Smick, that people will not pick up the world is curved or spiked metaphors.
Bonus if you read until here. Matt Welch wrote a fine commentary on Friedman's punditry through metaphors and cliche.