Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Power of Imagination

On page 442 and 443 of his book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman illustrates the power of imagination. He shows how it can go both ways - positive and negative – by contrasting the events of 11/9/89 and 9/11/01. His final thought urges us to work toward cultivating positive imagination. I agree with his sentiments 100%, which is why I’d like to take the time to explain and discuss this important concept.

Friedman starts by talking about 11/9/89 when East Germany opened up the gates of the Berlin Wall and let East Germans pass into West Germany, which ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Friedman also refers to the forces, of imagination, that lead to 11/9/89, such as Hungary removing border restrictions with Austria. Next, the pressure on East Germany not only to opened up passage through the Berlin Wall but also opened up travel restrictions to Hungary. The significance being that traveling through Hungary to Austria, just as crossing into West Germany, led to the "free world." Friedman writes,
"Someone there in Hungary, maybe it was the prime minister, maybe it was just a bureaucrat, must have said to himself or herself, 'Imagine - imagine if the Soviet Union were frozen in place. Imagine - imagine if East German citizens, young and old, men and women, were so emboldened by seeing their neighbors flee to the West that one day they just swarmed that Berlin Wall and started to tear it down?'" Also, as background info, in the rest of the book, Friedman talks about how 11/9/89 was a "flattener," meaning that the tearing down of the Berlin wall made the world smaller because it allowed more people to have access to freedom and democracy. It allowed more people to have access to information, to the tools of capitalism, and the chance to follow their dreams; the ability to live in hope and not fear.

Friedman then contrasts 11/9/89 with 9/11/01 by showing that imagination and a smaller world can benefit the bad guys to. The terrorists have a cause and they can use the same imagination, along with tools of the free world (which he talks about in the book), to cause great terror. Thus, he writes a faux conversation that Bin Laden may have had where he imagined the great destruction that could happen if they flew planes into the World Trade Center.

I think one of the two most telling lines of this section is in the next paragraph - "There is one thing, though, that has not and can never be commoditized - and that is imagination."

By commoditized he means simplified and transformed into a commercial package. It also can't be turned into a mathematic formula that can be done with a computer or by a Chinese person or Indian behind a computer. It is the "imagination" he is saying that really makes a difference in the world. It makes a difference between a good service and a plain old service. It is the difference between a vanilla idea and one modeled after Rocky Road. Thus imagination is true and it can't be faked, it can't be outsourced, it can't be digitized, it can't be - commoditized.

Finally, and probably my most favorite paragraph of the whole book, Friedman writes, "Therefore, thinking about how we stimulate positive imagination is of the utmost importance. As Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the IBM computer scientist, put it to me: We need to think more seriously than ever about how we encourage people to focus on productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization - peaceful imaginations that seek to 'minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence rather than self-sufficiency, inclusion rather than exclusion,' openness, opportunity, and hope rather than limits, suspicion, and grievance."

I especially like the last part because it is what people with disabilities have been saying for a long time. This really underlines what I believe in. To use positive imagination to "stimulate...productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization." To "encourage people to...minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence..." To "seek...inclusion rather than exclusion" and "openness, opportunity, and hope rather than limits, suspicion, and grievance."

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