The New World Order: Flat, Spiky or Divided?

Just started Who’s Your City by Richard Florida out of personal interest but also to better figure out why it is the Vancouver sometimes works, and sometimes really doesn’t work. Figuring out that puzzle, and doing something is part of the reason I joined Vision (and yes, I’m still recovering from the victory celebrations).

I’m already sensing a convergence between Florida and some of my other favourite authors – namely Friedman (who Florida references) and Thomas Barnett (author of The Pentagon’s New Map among other books).

All three are noticing the same thing, and are even writing along similar veins, but there remain important distinctions, with important policy implications.

Flat: Friedman (whom I’m least familiar with) says the world is flat, that innovation, industry, commerce, etc… can now happen anywhere, so we have to prepare for a flat world. Here, I’d argue the core unit of analysis is the individual. We are all free agents, able to do anything or be anything, so we’re going increasingly going to start doing it anywhere. Yes, Friedman believes that governments and industry have massively important roles, but he ultimately sees a world where any place can become a place where people can prosper. If they agitate for it and build it.

Spiky: Florida’s analysis is that world is quite spiky, dominated by a set of mega-regions and super-cities where the bulk of the economic activity and culture is produced. These hubs are connected to one another and largely uncaring of the enormous economic valleys that separate them. For Florida, the fundamental unit of analysis is the city (or mega-region). These determine where power and influence will flow. Importantly, mega-regions cannot be constructed overnight – indeed there is a powerful self-reinforcing mechanism at work. Mega-regions attract talent from around the world, both further increasing their status and starving smaller cities and regions of the key resource – social capital – they need to grow. Individuals are important – but only in so far as they cluster. Countries are important too – in the Friedman sense that they create a generally favourable atmosphere – but they are not critical to the equation.

Divided: Barnett sees a divided world. One on the one side is the Functioning Core, characterized by economic interdependence and incentives to abide by rules, one the other is the Non-Integrated Gap characterized by unstable leadership and absence of international trade and weaker incentives to abide by international rule sets. Barnett’s primary unit of analysis is the state. He is principally concerned with the impact of globalization (and the rule-sets it creates) on state actors – how it constrains them and incents them to behave certain ways. In this world citizens are influence, but it is connectivity, largely (but hardly completely) determined by the state that matters most. Convince a state to connect with the world, and it’s path towards free market democracy (or some close variant) is predetermined.

I had so much fun mashing up the Firefox download map with Barnett’s map (and had an incredible response) I thought I’d try to do the same again but with these three authors. Below is a Flat World, overlaid with Spiky depiction of where the most innovation (patents) occurs, overlaid with Barnett’s division between the Function Core and the Non-Integrated Gap. Hoping to write more about these three views of the world over the coming weeks.

What’s interesting about the map’s below is that Barnett and Florida correlate quite nicely. And while they are complimentary I think it Florida’s reinforces the best critique of Barnett’s map I’ve read to date:

“Connectedness is a network property and networks are fractal not contiguous. There is no contiguous region that is disconnected. Within each disconnected country there are islands of connection and within each connected country there are islands of disconnection. This is true at all levels, continents, nations, regions, cities, and companies, right down to individuals. There are terrorist cells in US cities fighting to disconnect the world and Journalists with satellite cell phones in remotest Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia working to connect everything.”

I’m willing to bet almost anything that Florida’s maps follow a power law distribution. And the above description – well in Florida’s map there are valleys of non-innovation and non-connectivity within Barnett’s Core. The question is: Can the Mega-Regions assert enough control over these values to ensure their rule-sets are followed?

Innovation (# of patents)

Flat spiky and divided

Connectivity (Light Based Regional Product per Square Kilometer)

Flat spiky and divided (econ)


9 thoughts on “The New World Order: Flat, Spiky or Divided?

  1. Frank Hecker

    I think John Harris's critique of Barnett (“Within each disconnected country there are islands of connection and within each connected country there are islands of disconnection.”) is a bit too clever. The important point is that in a connected country (Barnett's “Core”) there are consistent rule sets imposed by the state and on which people can rely (to a high degree of probability). To the extent there are (relatively) disconnected regions and individuals within such a country, they do not threaten the overall operation of the rule set. Thus the “terrorist cells in US cities fighting to disconnect the world” are a public safety problem (like other criminal activity), but not an existential threat.In the “Gap” countries the situation is exactly reversed: there may be “islands of connection” within such countries, but in the absence of a reliable state-supported rule set the country as a whole is dysfunctional: There may be “journalists with satellite cell phones … working to connect everything”, but their efforts are futile in terms of their impact on the country's population as a whole.

    1. John R. Harris


      As I said above its been a few years since I wrote that piece. It’s not really fair to cite current events but I think this might be worthy of mention. I would suggest that the “islands of connection” we have seen in the middle east in the past months are exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Lybia are all showing that small groups of connected people can be an existential threat to repressive regimes and their actions are far from futile. National boarders are permeable to information for good or ill.

  2. Jeremy Vernon

    Harris' critique of Pentagon's New Map also uses, at best, equivocal terminology. No real-world network is fractal, that's just patently silly. To suggest that the IP-backbone or the global finance sector behaves the same way as domestic or regional systems is absurd. Complex adaptive systems, like any of the networks Barnett includes have emergent properties – if they were fractal this would be impossible. What I think Harris intends to mean is that the networks Barnett indicates are scale-free, which is not the same as being fractal. This is somewhat true but still problematic.Secondly, to suggest a plurality of systems is equally absurd – especially when one refers to things like the internet (note the definite articles) or the global financial system. While it's important to recognize the different degrees of connectedness across the globe and not have a binary designation; his sound conclusion/recommendation can't be arrived at by his premises.

    1. John R. Harris

      Well, it’s been a while since I wrote that piece. I’ve been cleaning up my blog and found this site, so forgive the long delay in responding. Since you seem to be a little confused on several issues, I thought I’d give you some pointers.

      Taking your points in order.

      Of course networks can be fractal. There are several methods for calculating the fractal dimension of a network, this has been done for many networks including the internet and the web. Look up “fractal dimension of a network” on wikipedia for a nice description of how to measure the fractal dimension of a real world network. They even use the internet as an example.

      I am suggesting the IP backbone behaves the same way as domestic and regional systems. I dont think this is absurd, in fact i think its rather obvious. This is the definition of self similarity which is one of the primary properties of fractal systems.

      I think there is plenty of evidence that networks, fractal ones at that, can be complex adaptive systems which have emergent properties. I would suggest you do some reading on food webs which are complex adaptive systems, that are fractal networks, and have impressive emergent properties. Neo Martinez has done some very interesting research on this.

      You are right the networks I was talking about are scale-free, they are also small-world. These are properties of networks that indicate they might be fractal but do not prove it.

      The Internet (note the definite article) is a complex adaptive system that is based on a fractal network. It has emerged from the network of networks. The plurality of systems is a fact that anyone familiar with the technical details of the internet could not deny.

      Finally, While I’m happy you think my conclusion is sound, I’m sorry you were unable to follow my argument.

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  5. Marauder Doc

    Incredible Map! I would add only one thing to make it complete, since Friedman's analysis is based on the individual, perhaps including an indicator of population density on the map would make it more externally valid.

  6. Marauder Doc

    Incredible Map! I would add only one thing to make it complete, since Friedman's analysis is based on the individual, perhaps including an indicator of population density on the map would make it more externally valid.


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