A Cautionary Tale about Friedman’s Flat World

the_world_is_flatI’m just plowing my way through Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat”. The “plowing through” comment is no reflection on Mr. Friedman’s writing ability, just on the sheer heft of the book. It’s several hundred pages long. Friedman talks about several dirty little secrets that are holding America back from maintaining it’s lead position in the global market, amongst them an education gap and an ambition gap. I tend to agree. I think North America is becoming complacent and is falling victim to an overwhelming sense of entitlement. I’ve always believe we have a rude awakening coming, and all signs are pointing it being just around the corner. One only has to visit China or India to feel the sheer momentum, driven by ambition and capitalist desire, to be struck by the difference in intensity you feel there and here. The immigrant fueled work ethic that made our society the leader is barely an ember now. Up until recently, that drive was fueled by a flood of top level immigrants from China, Korea, and India, but increasingly, those candidates are choosing to stay home, thanks to the connectiveness of Friedman’s Flat World.

But we also have to realize that we do have some tremendous advantages still in North America, thanks to a highly developed and largely transparent market, relatively free from the friction of bureaucracy or corruption. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than in some other markets. This point was made clear to us with our recent foray into China.

We won a contract to do an eye tracking study in China, but it meant taking our eye tracking equipment with us. Knowing this could cause undue interest on the part of a Chinese customer official, we did our due diligence and spent several minutes on the phone with our local Chinese consulate to make sure this wouldn’t be an issue. We were assured over and over again that this would be a simple case of taking equipment in and out of the country, just like taking a lap top. “No problem” we were told.

So, we sent off our researcher, who luckily is Chinese and who speaks the language, and anticipated no problems. This, of course, was naive on our part. Sure enough, the customs official in China took one look at the large case with the odd looking monitor inside and threw up a red flag. The monitor was impounded. Jess, our researcher, with the help of the client, quickly got a government clearance form with all the appropriate stamps in place indicating that “one eye tracker” was cleared for entry into China. Jess went back to the customs official with paper in hand. She actually had the case in her hands when the official wanted to take another look at the equipment. “Hold it”, he said, “that’s not an eye tracker, that’s a monitor.” Jess tried to explain that the monitor was an eye tracker. It was too no avail. Tears, long explanations, pointing out a brochure, it was all for naught. Once Communist bureacrats make up their mind, there’s precious little wiggle room.

So, the eye tracker is still impounded. The study if 4 days behind schedule. The client is frustrated. We’re frustrated. And it’s all because of a petty bureaucrat and a serpentine system that no one, certainly not a westerner, can figure out. The world may be flat, but that doesn’t make it any less convoluted and complex. In fact, the flattening just brings the ugly mess inside closer to the surface.


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