Throughout his book, "The World is Flat," Tom Friedman asks people he meets around the world where they were when they first discovered that the world was flat; that is, when they realized that something profound was under way that promised to change all aspects of business, society and their personal lives. The "something profound" Tom Friedman writes about is the "flattening of the world" i.e., the linking together of people, processes and information everywhere, made possible by advances in technology, standards and market conditions, that is creating a worldwide collaborative platform for innovation in the 21st century.
As I read the book, I kept wondering how I would answer that question. I had had quite a number of such "flat world" moments of recognition in the early days of our Internet Division. In February of 1996, for example, we decided to set up a Web site so people could follow the first chess match between Deep Blue, our chess playing supercomputer, and then world chess champion Garry Kasparov. The Internet and World Wide Web were just beginning to take off out there, and we honestly thought that very few people would be accessing an obscure Web site featuring a chess match, so we hosted it on a small Unix server under the desk of Dave Grossman, one of the pioneers and heroes of IBM's Internet efforts.
As it happenned, Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in the first game of the match, on February 10, 1996. This being the first time a computer had won a chess game against a reigning champion, the news was reported all over the world and newspapers and Web sites gave out the URL to our site so people around the world could follow the rest of the match. Well, our little Web site, being obscure no longer, was flooded with traffic it had not been designed to handle and promptly crashed. We made some frantic phone calls to our supercomputer lab and got them to lend us one of their parallel supercomputers (a cousin of Deep Blue, as a matter of fact). Dave and his team stayed up all night, ported the now famous Deep Blue Web site to the parallel supercomputer, and we were able to accomodate all the traffic that came our way throughout the remainder of the chess match, which Kasparov eventually won 4 - 2. (Of course, as everyone knows, it was but a temporary victory. In the rematch between Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov in May 1997, Deep Blue proved victorious.)
This was a genuinely thrilling event -- but to tell the truth, it didn't spark the epiphany Tom Friedman is describing. For me, that was actually a "smaller", more intimate moment. I honestly do not recall the exact time but it was around the late summer days of 1996. I was attending a meeting in Tokyo, and had arrived the day before from New York. Not surprisingly, given the 13 hour difference, I was up in my hotel room around 4 am, and doing e-mail which I had just downloaded over an Internet phone connection. I was thinking about the Mets baseball game being played back in New York where it was 3 pm, and reconciling myself to the fact that I had no way of getting the game on Japanese TV or radio from my hotel room.
But then . . . I remembered. Live baseball radio broadcasts were starting to be available over the Internet, at the time for free. I found the right Web site, clicked on the URL . . . and there I was, in my hotel room in Tokyo at 4 am, drinking green tea and listening to the live Mets game back in New York, just as I had wistfully wished moments before.
My wish was fulfilled. It felt like pure magic. All of a sudden, the world had shrunk, grown flatter and become incredibly personal.