MOMA and The Flat World

Paddy Johnson is reviewing MOMA's "Automatic Update" show, which ended a couple of weeks ago--Part One of her piece appears today. I noticed that curator Barbara London used Thomas Friedman's "flat world" metaphor in describing the show, so I submitted the following as a comment to Paddy's post. It's Matt Taibbi in the NY Press discussing Friedman's book The World Is Flat:

The book's genesis is a conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani casually mutters to Friedman: "Tom, the playing field is being leveled." To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase—the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

"As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: 'The playing field is being leveled.'

"What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened... Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!"

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting—ironically, as it were—with Columbus's discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus's discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the "flat world" into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

"'Let me... share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round," he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

MOMA's version of the Flat Earth was an alternative, "steampunk" universe where artists described the coming age of cyber-connectedness using video art and other pre-Internet media. (Apparently the Net is not allowed in museum galleries.)