Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The World is Flat

I (Andy) just finished reading the book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman. There's an excerpt which was published in the Times Magazine here, and I strongly recommend you read it and/or the book. In the book, Friedman describes ten changes which have happened in the past decade or so which have put all the people of the world on much more equal footing than they have been for the past couple of millennia. He writes that the power to achieve and connect and the dynamic force driving change has transitioned from nations to corporations, and from corporations to individuals. With all the technological innovations available to us, huge numbers of people can now do leading-edge work from wherever they were born: they no longer have to travel to centers of commerce to avoid being left out of the successful classes. As he writes, an engineer in India or China (or scores of other countries) can do work equal in quality and skill to the work of anyone in the U.S. This fact means that workers in the USA lose the security of having leading-edge, high-value-added, good-paying jobs available to them, since someone in Bangalore can perform the same job equally well at 1/5 the wages.

I found myself making a bunch of notes about things that occurred to me while reading The World is Flat. I don't usually get this deep into the books I read--even the good ones--but this one really resonated with me. I think it's related to this trip we're about to embark on and the work I've been doing for the past 12 years at ESI. So here are some of the notes I scrawled on my bookmark, about which I'd like to think while we're traveling around the world.
  • How do the workers in Bangalore feel about performing low-thought jobs all the time? OK, so sitting in an air-conditioned room in front of a computer, talking on the phone to someone halfway around the world is a far cry from selling food or handmade goods on the street. But the work that many of these people are doing is well below their skill levels: there are graduates of very competitive universities transcribing notes or taking orders. How soon will they demand work that actually taxes their abilities? Will there be enough of that work to satisfy the desires of the workers?
  • How connected is the whole world? We're going to set off with the expectation that we can update this blog from cybercafes in almost every city we visit. But how omnipresent is an internet connection? And how connected does everyone in the world want to be? I love Google and the ability to find information almost instantaneously, but am I missing the simpler pleasures of the card catalog and the stacks of books? And does everyone in the world also want any fact at their fingertips, and will they contribute their knowledge/facts/culture to the massive amount of mostly English-speaking data on the web? How is that going to affect our lives in the coming decade?
  • Is human labor going to become a domain for arbitrage: will traders quickly shuttle work from country to country, chasing wages that are just a bit lower than those offered elsewhere? Are people (or their job functions) becoming fungible items, completely interchangeable with each other?
  • What's going to happen when China and India develop significantly? Where will they get the resources to produce the products that middle- and upper-class people demand? Where will their waste be put? Where will they outsource their work?
  • Is there a demand for people who are "culture guides," who explain their native culture to offshore workers and inspect what they're doing/saying/producing to make sure that the customers see the products as genuinely of their own culture? For example, someone to inspect translated manuals so that strange locutions are avoided, or someone to coach customer service reps on the proper accent and slang to use, or (closer to the area I work in) someone who looks for the unwritten assumptions in design specifications and ensures the developed product will meet the customer's expectations.
  • With the global competition to work harder, or to be more productive, than workers in other countries, will everyone be chained to rat wheels, running as fast as they can just to try to stay ahead of the billions of other workers who are vying to take their place? Who is going to have any leisure time to enjoy themselves? Sure, more people will have more money, but how can anyone be happier when we're all working 12- and 16-hour days?

One last, unrelated, note. Yesterday, I told the folks at ESI that I'd be leaving in August, and today I sent out an email to a bunch of my friends and colleagues at work (or who I've worked with in the past) letting everyone know about our plans and my impending departure. I was encouraged by the overwhelming display of support for our decision, and that everyone tactfully avoided rubbing in the fact that I am deserting them and they'll have to do extra work to finish everything that we've planned to do. I also got a lot of "I wish I could do that" and "I wish I was as brave as you" comments. While it's flattering to be seen as an intrepid explorer, I'm more of the view that this is something that almost anyone can undertake, to some extent. Sure, it took a lot of cajoling by Loey to make me come to this realization. And not everyone is blessed by rapidly-increasing home values and a reasonably good expectation that their skills can get them a new job in relatively short order when they want one. But traveling doesn't have to be round-the world or expensive. And there's always going to be demand for some sort of labor out there, though it may not be the perfect job for the long term. Maybe we'll end up in Shanghai or Singapore or Amsterdam or Sydney, competing with people there for a job that'll let us stay there. But (returning to the original subject of this entry), we'll probably be competing on just as level a field in a few years even if we stay home. So why not do some traveling now and jump into the global labor market a little early?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The labor arbitrage is already going on. HP is closing their Puerto Rico plants and moving production to Singapour.

May 27, 2005 4:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home