Today my girlfriend and I were discussing cultural differences between emerging market centers, like China and India, and existing market centers like Europe and North America. The discussion had been prompted by something I had read in a New York Times article about Toyota and its manufacturing philosophy.
She raised a good point, but one I didn’t immediately grasp (she’s definitely the smart one). She said that we labour under a false belief that computers will make our lives better. Further discussion clarified hat what she had really meant was that we labour under the false belief that technology will make our lives better. Better living through science. The computer is simply the very public face of this belief.
She pointed out that a typical North American reaction to a problem is to throw research and science at it. To compile numbers, build a simulation, test prototypes. All of these strategies were originally and still are intended to reduce man power or time. Time is, after all, money. This is a concept that is core to North American culture.
Other new emerging markets, like China and India, do not have the vast amount of research and science at their disposal that fifty years of western ascendancy has afforded, and have therefore been forced to throw other resources at the problem. Where western companies and those companies that follow western philosophies throw intellect at the problem, those emerging markets apply the resources they have in abundance. They throw manpower at it.
It is possible we are starting to see where that might be an improvement. There are few people working in North America who haven’t had their jobs affected by the introduction of the computer as a work tool. The computer was introduced to improve our lives – to save us from the tyranny of repeat calculations and mindless tedium. The computer made us feel important, like we were above things as mundane as work.
In the mean time, while we are all sitting around feeling self-important and getting paid far too much for our new lack of productivity, those emerging markets are becoming competitive. The manpower strategy is beginning to prove its worth in the global market, and we’re in a situation where we’ve all become overpaid, underproductive complainers who have been deluded by our culture of entitlement and overcompensation. Fooled into believing that the way we do it is the only right way.
We’ve fallen in love with our tools, and forsaken our products. General Motors will wax poetic about how cars are now manufactured in state-of-the-art facilities, but these facilities were not created and implemented to make the product better, they were installed to improve profit. The company focuses on its tools, and forgets that what it sells is cars.
What has that ultimate tool, the computer, really brought us? Certainly not increased productivity. No improvement the quality of our working lives. It has, as my girlfriend pointed out, simply made our work more frustrating and our lives more menial.
It’s no surprise we’re losing employment and market dominance to India and China. No surprise that the Big Three automakers in North America are hemorrhaging market share to Japanese auto manufacturers who don’t rely on market data to make decisions but instead go out and ask people what they want.
It’s no surprise that North America is losing its ascendancy in world markets, and having to protect its financial policy with military policy.
It’s a new world out there, and I think western society is poorly equipped to compete on this new playing field. We might have created the game and built the field, but now there’s a new breed of player.