Did you know that the world is being flattened? If you don't you are not alone. For most Americans it is an event that happened as we concentrated our attention on the aftermath of 911 and the wars that followed. Even Thomas Friedman, the author of The World is Flat, admitted even he just stumbled upon it. (To hear Friedman's MIT speech click here.) Friedman says that while he was concentrating on understanding the roots of 911 he found something that startled him. At the same time America's attention was on Iraq and Afghanistan, India and China were plugging in the pieces that were “leveling the global economic field”. Interestingly enough, it was from that quote Friedman derived the title of his book. In his speech Friedman goes on to discuss the effects flattening is having on America and the world and the fact that it was American ingenuity that provided the mechanism for the process to evolve.

According to MITWorld, “Friedman’s list of “flatteners” includes the fall of the Berlin Wall; the rise of Netscape and the dotcom boom that led to a trillion dollar investment in fiber optic cable; the emergence of common software platforms and open source code enabling global collaboration; and the rise of outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining and insourcing. Friedman says these flatteners converged around the year 2000, and “created a flat world: a global, web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, geography and increasingly, language.”

I experience flattening effects frequently. I bet you do too. When was the last time you called for tech support and the person on the other line lived within four time zones of you? The key to all of this is that when we talk about the flattening effects that China and India have had on the US what we are not talking about is the fact that both China and India are not really flat themselves. In both of these countries what is happening is the opposite effect. You have many key cities or hubs where the major growth driving the flattening process is taking place. In China it is cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou and in India there is Bangalore and Chennai.

Think of cities like these as mountain peaks. Mount McKinley's all over the place dotting the landscape. ( If you can't get a mental image click on either of these links Shenzhen and Guangzhou and look at the photos.) Now think of how hard it is to maneuver up a mountain and imagine that as you climb it is getting taller with each step. Why are they growing? They are the places that China and India, along with the industries pushing the flattening engine, are putting their resources. They are not investing in infrastructure to connect or flatten the distances from rural areas to their city centers. Instead they just keep building taller mountains. They don't need to worry. A new flattener is being created to assist them in the process of bringing the other billion up-to-speed.

The “flattener” I am referring to is the $100 laptop being created by Nicolas Negroponte and his team at MIT. I do applaud their intentions and believe their creation will archive its purpose.

To give children in developing nations “a window to the world and a tool with which to think ... (a) way for all children to learn learning.”

The laptop is being designed to very rugged, have a full color screen with a detachable keyboard (choose your language and/or dialect), WiFi enabled and USB ports to extend its capabilities. The most unique characteristic will be a wind-up power source. Batteries run low just give it a few cranks and you haven't missed a beat. Instant message your friends and then finish your research at the National Archives.

The idea is to distribute the machines through those ministries of education willing to adopt a policy of "One Laptop per Child." Initial discussions have been held with China, Brazil, Thailand, and Egypt. Additional countries will be selected for beta testing. Initial orders will be limited to a minimum of one million units (with appropriate financing).

I like to say that if the world has flattened the United States then industrial states like Michigan must be in a bowl. If we want to peak our heads above the rim we need to get these same computers in the hands of our children at the same time they are finding the hands of children around the world. If we want our children to be able to compete in a global economy we need leaders who understand how fast this new flattener will be upon us and are willing to act in making technologies like these available to our children. We need our governments, both state and national, to start thinking about providing not only the tool but the conduit to keep them connected, Internet access. Each and every student should have it and will need it to compete on a level playing field. Some might think that last sentence was over the top. Consider this excerpt from a report by the University of California, Santa Cruz. Are We Really a Nation Online? Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Access to Technology and Their Consequences.

"We are clearly not all a 'nation online'. said Robert Fairlie, associate professor of economics at UCSC. “Twenty million children in the United States, have no computer access at home"

Access to a home computer increases the likelihood that children will graduate from high school, but blacks and Latinos are much less likely to have a computer at home than are whites, (and) they found the digital divide is even more pronounced among children than adults.

We must be proactive. Every student needs the same access to technology in order to have a chance in tomorrow's world. Take a close look at the laptop from MIT and form your own opinion. Here is a link to a short video by Andy Carvin of the unveiling in Tunis, Tunisia and this is the question. What role do you think our government should play in making $100 laptops and Internet connection available to every student in the United States? Take a few minutes and mull of what you have just read. I would love to hear what you believe.

Frank