ImageIn “The Art of War,” the great Chinese General, strategist and tactician, Sun Tzu, stresses the importance of understanding and identifying your terrain.  As Griffith (1971) explains, Sun Tzu knew that in order to plan your path forward and achieve success you must first know where you are going and assess your terrain “in terms of distance, difficulty or ease of travel.”

2000 years later, Sun Tzu wouldn’t recognize the terrain of China, much less the global environment we exist in today. China now is home to the world’s largest number of mobile phone and Internet users, technologies that have played a significant role in the rapid financial growth of his country.  As Forbes (2013) proclaimed just last week, China has, once again, increased its standing “as a country with one of the world’s fastest-growing number of billionaires in the past decade.”

The dual impact of globalization and technology have most certainly changed China and our world radically, yet, despite such advances, we still find ourselves struggling to describe our new terrain.

New York Times columnist and author, Tom Friedman (2007), characterizes our world terrain, following the rapid growth, development and availability of technology, as flat.  As Friedman (2007) explains, “the flat world platform is the product of a convergence of a personal computer with fiber-optic cable with the rise of work flow software.”  In short, we are all connected – and technology now allows us to communicate, collaborate and compete from anywhere in our digital universe.

While Friedman (2007) envisions a level global playing field in which developing countries can now capitalize on technological capabilities to enhance their economic development,   Professor Richard Florida (2005) sees “growing inequality across the world and in countries.”

The George Mason University researcher points to the massive growth of urban centers and suggests that the flat world theory masks heightened tensions and growing division among “the world’s growing peaks, sinking valleys, and shifting hills.”  Florida (2005) argues that urbanization – and the rapid growth of technology in urban centers – has created regions of  “have” and “have-not’s” and, as such, a world terrain that is “spiky” – not flat.

In Washington D.C. this weekend, protestors are gathering to criticize the use of technology by the NSA on American citizens while Federal HHS employees and contractors work overtime to fix the growing technical problems in the failed launch of the Health Insurance Marketplace for the Affordable Care Act.  President Obama might thus describe our terrain as “bumpy.”

Perhaps labeling our terrain is meaningless.  Regardless of whether we disagree on whether it is flat, spiky – or even bumpy, we seem to agree that our world is in a constant state of transformation and that technology and globalization are leading such change.

Instead, our focus should be on enhancing the growth and development of technology, sharing this valuable resource with the rest of the world and maximizing the resulting global economic benefits.


Griffith, S. (1971). Sun Tzu – The Art Of War.  Oxford University Press,  Digital.

Friedman, T. L. (2007). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. Release 3.0. Picador, ISBN: 978-0312425074.

Florida, R. (October, 2005). The world is spiky. The Atlantic Monthly, 48-51.

Sun Tzu and the Terrain of Technology


13 thoughts on “Sun Tzu and the Terrain of Technology

  1. Bonny Barr says:

    Some great insights and analysis! It is hard to believe that China has such use of technology! I loved the Shirkey TED video talking about the snowballing power of the chinese people and their use of TWITTER and Social media to make their voices heard. To me that is the truly empowering aspect of technology. Reminds me of an Indigo Girls song, “Let it Be Me”; “when you see turning off the light switch is their only power, then we stand like spotlights in a might tower, all for one and one for all…”

    • jvap2013 says:

      Bonny – I enjoyed the Shirky TED video, too. In fact, we held a TedX event just this weekend here at Georgetown. I have found the Ted/Tedx events to be very thought-provoking and insightful. One that you might enjoy is the 2011 Ted talk by John Hunter. It was actually rated the most influential Ted Talk of 2011. Hunter actually speaks to his teaching Sun Tzu’s Art of War to fourth graders who were tasked with saving the world through a World Peace Game. I have included the link below if you are interested. As for China, they have seen amazing change in such a short period of time. As the Forbes article noted, “no other society has changed so overwhelmingly, so fast, going from too poor for bicycles to owning Ferraris in two decades.” But Florida (2005) would find mounting evidence of the inequality he addressed in his research. In rural and farming areas away from Beijing, Shanghai and Guanzhou you will not find the wealthy – but the poor – many of whom live without the most basic necessities of life – such as running water and electricity. To his credit, China’s new leader, President Xi Jinping has made it a priority of the government to spend more time, money and resources on improving the lives of these citizens. He was the first leader in quite some time to actually visit these poor rural provinces – with media in tow – to meet personally with residents and discuss his plans to address quality-of-life issues and improve economic opportunity in China’s struggling regions. It will be interesting to see if his reforms and new government outreach efforts succeed.


  2. arizona126 says:

    Your posted prompted a few thoughts…. First is how right you are that regardless of our level of agreement on the spikiness or bumpiness of the technological world, we are bound to agree that the pace of change is staggering. There are so many companies, innovations, and ideas whirling around us that are impacting our personal and professional lives in significant ways.

    The second thought I had after reading your post was the potential negative consequences or controversy that often accompany well-intended technology. The NSA spying is one example. The potential privacy infringement from social media websites is another. The course and a few others have caused me to pay a lot more attention to the privacy policies of any site that I might join or visit regularly.

    I love technology and am thankful to have so much of it around us, but I do think we need to be cautious about privacy and the rules that govern our social interaction.

    • jvap2013 says:

      You are so right about privacy issues.

      Next to the economy – I think privacy issues (specifically related to technology) will be one of the most debated issues in both the upcoming mid-term and 2016 Presidential Elections. It was interesting that Secretary Clinton chose to address the issue of privacy just this weekend in one of her rare political speeches that was open to the public.

      While the NSA revelations continue to garner much of the attention on this issue, it is the use of technology by local law enforcement and local government that is starting to concern many people. The use of big data systems by law enforcement are nothing new. New York City has used such a system for years. Following 9/11, you can argue that such technology is warranted. But there is always the concern that such technology could be corrupted and used for purposes other than anti-terrorism or law enforcement efforts.

      The New York Times wrote an article a couple of weeks ago you might enjoy – on this very concern – and the growth of big data technology in Oakland , California. Here is the link to the story:

    • moirawalsh says:

      Well put. I totally agree with you about the advantages of technology, particularly in research, however, having dealt with teen Twitter issues with my students all week long, I am very depressed about strides in and advantages of technology. I have seen page upon page of the f-word (and every other word) with no content and pictures that should have never been made. It is very depressing to see how low human beings can go when given the given the basic freedoms in cyberspace. I do not think that this was what the founding fathers had in mind.

  3. bwatwood says:

    Nice post…and I loved the reference to the twin issues of NSA spying and HealthCare.Org rollout as examples of digital impact in current terms. Bumpy indeed…and it suggests (to use another metaphor) that we are exploring leadership while engaging in white-water kayaking…with all the swirling eddies and currents tugging at us.

  4. lrc00053 says:

    Your last paragraph made me think about an organization I have followed for the past few years.

    “Instead, our focus should be on enhancing the growth and development of technology, sharing this valuable resource with the rest of the world and maximizing the resulting global economic benefits”.

    The organization is called One laptop per child and they provide laptops for children in underdeveloped countries with a mission to empower the world’s poorest children through education. This organization believes that the root cause of our rapidly changing world is digital technology. They also believe digital technology is the solution to the rapid changes. Their way of addressing this solution is to provide a connected laptop to children in order for them to have the key to fully develop and participate in the changes. The limits of their poverty can be erased as they learn to work and connect with others around the world. This allows those children to have access to modern materials, education and to engage their passions that will help them expand their experiences.

    People born into poverty do have an opportunity to escape the gravity of their economic situation only when they have the ability to realize there is a way out. Technology is the instrument that provides poor children a way out.

    • jvap2013 says:

      What a great organization – and I share your belief that technology can be an extraordinarily valuable tool for poor children living in poverty.

      Microsoft recently announced a new effort in Africa where they are beaming the internet into school rooms in a remote rural village using available broadcast channels. The year-long project just began this month. The link to the CNN article is below.

      But there is also a need to expand access to the internet here at home. While most of us take such access for granted, there are many underserved rural areas in the United States that simply don’t have quick and easy access to the internet and online services.

      The USDA has made this a priority of the agency in recent years. Just this week they announced grants totaling more than $20 million to provide free broadband access to schools and libraries in rural states and communities.

      As you suggested, access to digital technology is empowering and such access should be made readily available here at home and around the world.


  5. acc07855 says:

    The interesting reference you begin with to Sun Tzu reminds me of–wait for it–SEC football and, before you roll your eyes in disgust, or, perhaps, disappointment, I would point out that Steve Spurrier, when he was the head coach at Florida, cited Sun Tzu as his inspiration for coaching his teams. The success of his teams there and at South Carolina have focused in the principles he teaches, noting, in particular how once a team begins racking up victories, they weigh, one upon the other, on opponents who begin to believe in the wiliness and invincibility of his teams. We might remember adaptability from Lowney’s Heroic Leadership and how the Jesuit exemplars succeeded individually. When I read Friedman, I was actually thinking about the Jesuit examples from Lowney. The core of what Friedman is talking about with Nilekani and his comment–“the playing field is being leveled” (p. 7)–which led him to his flattening epiphany, calls into question the application of the leadership traits of Jesuits
    – Self-awareness (understanding strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview)
    – Ingenuity (confidently innovating and adapting to embrace a changing world)
    – Love (engaging others with a positive, loving attitude)
    – Heroism (Energizing through heroic ambitions) (Lowney, 2005, p. 9)
    The question is–how do we interpret them. What Friedman sees in Nilekani is the flattening of differences between people and places, the opposite of Florida’s (2009) assertion that the peaks and valleys are widening.
    I kind of liked your closing comment about meaninglessness in referencing the NSA debacle and wondered what you though the Affordable Health Care launch and subsequent problems that followed. I have generally found in dealing with technology that, ultimately, it will fail everyone that depends on it. That is one of the things that I think is striking about all three writers. The touchstone is technology and, as a linking element, the flattening or the peaks-and-valley effects, only require a 404 Error, a server shut down, or a dust storm to shatter it all.

    Lowney, C. (2005). Heroic leadership: Best practices from a 450-Year-Old company changed the world. Chicago: Loyola UP.

    • No eye rolling here. I read and re-read Sun Tzu numerous times during my Navy days and early academic career. One of my favorites.

      • jvap2013 says:

        No eye-rolling necessary, Dr. Watwood.

        I am amazed at how popular Sun Tzu remains. His tactics, as you know, are taught in courses at all of the military academies and most of the public and private colleges in the United States.

        If you go to and search for books regarding Sun Tzu you will fine Sun Tzu themed books for “Sales Warriors,” “Traders and Investors” and – my personal favorite – “Parents of Teenagers.”

        It is pretty impressive that an author whose main body of work was written thousands of years ago – and was translated into almost every language – remains so relevant today.

    • jvap2013 says:

      Great reference of Coach Spurrier. Applying Sun Tzu’s tactics and principles to football – or any professional sport – does seem natural.

      And, like you, I, too, am a big fan of Chris Lowney. In addition to the Jesuit Leadership Traits you cited above, Lowney (2003) also wrote about the importance of Jesuit adaptability – and that “succeeding in this world requires individuals to cultivate the personal skills needed to thrive in an environment of near permanent change.”

      As for the failure of the Affordable Health Care Launch, I was truly perplexed. As was noted in the Ted Talk this week by Shirky, President Obama’s two presidential campaigns were noteworthy for their ability to utilize technology and social media – and to do so effectively. They truly changed the way national political campaigns operate. Given that, I would have never imagined that an organization that had enjoyed such success with creating and launching new technology – and had made national health care the top priority of their administration – would encounter so many problems with the launch of the Affordable Health Care Marketplace.

      Like many Americans, I am waiting to find out what went wrong, how it can be fixed and what it will ultimately cost.


      Lowney, C. (2003). Heroic Leadership. Loyola Press; Chicago.

      • Five years of technological use by the Obama administration have a difficult time overcoming years of bureaucratic inefficiency. I recall from my Pentagon days that in the ramp up to Desert Storm, the Army, Navy and Air Force radios could not communicate because each service had bought radios that were incompatible with other services.

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