A Turn of the Lens

I spent a few days in the United States on business this past week.  I thought it might be an opportune time, therefore, to pivot my lens and share a few musings about the land of my birth, which I now view from afar.

Living in China for 6 ½ years has taught me a great deal about the United States.  Not directly, of course.  In more ways than the average American and Chinese realize, I think, the two worlds could not be more different.  And that’s not going to change any time soon.

China has, however, given me a richer and more defined context within which to understand my home country and culture.  And while context does not, in itself, promote learning, it does promote understanding.

So, here goes.  And, remember, I don’t profess to be right or wrong.  My goal is to stimulate thinking and, in the end, hopefully, understanding.  (If you get there, please share with me.)

I believe there are two primary reasons why in its relatively short history the United States has become a global superpower and home to the largest economy in the world.

The first is that Americans have always embraced education.  And, as a result, we have the largest, most accessible, and arguably best education system in the world.  It’s not perfect.  And it is failing far too many of our most needy students.  But that, I believe, can be fixed.

Forget about the standardized test scores.  Yes, the Asians dominate those.  That’s not going to change by having longer school days and more test preparation time.  It’s cultural  and systemic.

And in the end it doesn’t matter.  There is a huge difference between having knowledge and having the ability to apply it.  The Chinese excel at acquiring knowledge.  But they sometimes struggle to apply it.

Americans, on the other hand, have the opposite skill set.  We can be just a tad lazy about acquiring knowledge, but we excel at applying it.  And I believe we have our education system to thank for that.

Above all else, the skill of applying knowledge promotes natural curiosity.  And, as I have written before, natural curiosity, above everything else, is what built the America we know today.  In the aftermath of World War II a nation wondered; a nation dreamed; a nation of people asked themselves what they could do to change the world.

American children are taught the most lesson of all - how to think for themselves and to defend their conclusions.
American children are taught the most valuable lesson of all – how to think for themselves and defend their conclusions.

In turn, U.S. educators moved away from rote learning decades ago and turned their attention to teaching children to think independently and to communicate their thoughts vigorously and effectively.  (I personally believe the Vietnam War helped to promote this pivot but that’s another story.)

As an employer in the global economy I can tell you straight away which skill set is more valuable in today’s global economy.  It’s no contest.  My company doesn’t need people with knowledge.  We can provide that and it’s changing daily anyway.  We need people who know how to acquire knowledge and how to apply it.  And, more specifically, how to apply knowledge to solve problems and to see and seize opportunities.

So if the U.S. wants to maintain it’s footing in a shifting world we should continue to invest in the kind of education that got us where we are today.  Make it even better.  And just as importantly, make it more accessible.  But don’t copy what the test-score champions are doing.  That will only give us better test scores.  That won’t give us better students.

The second reason for the U.S.’ success, in my opinion, is that we have always embraced diversity.  And, I fear, we are losing that edge.

We’ve all read and heard that the U.S. is a country of immigrants.  Except for Native Americans we all came from somewhere else.  (As you can imagine, the Chinese find this almost impossible to grasp.)  But that only gets to the issue of ethnic diversity.

Real diversity – the kind that matters in problem solving – is much broader.  Of course it includes ethnic diversity, religious diversity, and gender diversity.  But real diversity is a diversity in worldview, from whatever its source.  This level of diversity embraces differences in experience, priorities, and aspirations – the things that shape our cognitive conclusions.

I believe this is why the U.S. has, in the past, always embraced the underdog.  What is the underdog?  The underdog is the one that is not expected to win.  Why not?  Because the underdog does not look or feel like the previous winners.

In the 1968 Summer Olympics Dick Fosbury didn't look like a winner.  But he 'flopped' his way to gold and changed the sport forever.
In the 1968 Summer Olympics Dick Fosbury didn’t look like a winner. But he ‘flopped’ his way to gold and changed the sport forever.

But we embrace them nonetheless.  And it is, almost without fail, the winning underdog that redefines the contest.  The winning ‘winner’ notches another win.  But it is the winning underdog that changes the game forever.

But here’s the rub.  We still, from what I’ve observed, applaud the underdog, particularly in sport.  I’m not sure, however, we still embrace the underdog, particularly in areas that are more personal than a sporting event we are merely witnesses to.  And I have a theory as to why.

As Westerners we are linear thinkers.  I’ve written about this many times before.  We see the world through a lens of cause and effect and linear progression.

I believe, however, that we’ve allowed our linear thinking, and the linear worldview it inevitably results in, to mutate into digital thinking and a digital worldview and there’s a big difference between linear and digital.  If there is anything I’ve learned in my 60 years on this earth it is that life is not black and white.  Most of what happens in life falls along an infinite spectrum of gray.

The problem with a black and while world, of course, is that there are no shades.  And without shades there is no transition.  And without transition there is no context and answers and solutions are either right or wrong.  They’re digital.

And in a digital world the distance between the embrace of diversity and intolerance is short indeed.  You are or you aren’t.  And since there is no middle in the B&W world, the ‘are’ and the ‘aren’t’ tend to be defined by the most extreme of positions.

But why have we become so polarized?  Why is there such a fine line between right and wrong on virtually every issue?  Why have diversity and difference become mutually exclusive?

We live in a digital world.  But digital technology doesn't fully explain digital values.
We live in a digital world. But digital technology doesn’t fully explain digital values.

When talking about the digitization of anything, of course, there is always a tendency to jump immediately to the technology that has so completely – and so quickly – changed our lives in such profound ways.  Communication technology is, after all, digital by definition.

I believe this is only part of the answer, however.  Technology is merely a transmitter.  It processes inputs into outputs.  It does not, of and by itself, spawn either one.

To fully understand the way in which technology has changed the world, therefore, I believe we must look at the way we process the output of technology – the ways in which we interpret it, extrapolate it, and apply it to our belief systems and our day to day behavior.

As noted in previous posts, Westerners tend to be transmitter-oriented in their communication style.  The burden of effective communication rests with the transmitter.  The effectiveness of communication in this worldview is a function of proper transmission.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are receiver-oriented, meaning that the burden of effective communication rests with the receiver.  You almost have to be, I think, if you live in a land of 1.3 billion people.  It is simply impossible for all of those people to be speaking at the same time with universal effectiveness.

And isn’t that the world which technology has created in the U.S. and other Western countries?  If technology is all about the quantity and speed of input processing and transmission, hasn’t the practical effect been to turn a land of 300 million people into a land of billions, where each person has the communicative transmission power that in a prior generation took a group of people – even a village – to generate?

Perhaps, in other words, it is time for us to take a page from the Chinese and other Asian cultures.  Perhaps in a world of 24/7 social media, 10-syllable Tweets, and 3-second sound bites, it is no longer reasonable to put the burden for effective communication on the speaker.  Perhaps, in other words, technology has knocked the yin-yang of communication hopelessly out of whack.  In a world in which there is an infinite supply of the ability to transmit, we need to become better listeners.

In a world of such prolific transmission do we need to  become more receiver-oriented in our communication?
In a world of such prolific transmission do we need to become more receiver-oriented in our communication?

Marshall McLuhan was right, of course, when he noted, “the medium is the message.”  The context in which he made that insightful observation, however, was a society and culture shaped by transmitter-oriented communication.

And perhaps that’s precisely what McLuhan’s many contemporaries were alluding to, consciously or not, when they noted that America needed to ‘chill out.’  Said at a different time for different reasons, but even more relevant today.

We do need to chill out if we are going to survive the Internet era and not implode in the process.  We need to spend a little less effort on transmitting and a little more time and effort on listening.

In the end, it was a good trip.  I stepped off the plane and filled my lungs with clean air.  And I drank luxuriously from every water tap I came across and laughed at my childish abandon.

Be thankful, America.  Despite all of the issues we face, we’ve got it good!

Access to clean air and clean water is priceless.
Access to clean air and clean water is priceless.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.