Every now and again I’ll apologize when I don’t need to, and someone will say that’s very Canadian of you. Most people navigate the world in broad strokes. When it comes to discussing other countries, people have learned names, dates, and numbers in formal education, but the real, emotional substance of it is learned amorphously through gossip and rumor. It’s stuff that one person will say, and it sounds right, and everyone nods and agrees and repeats it later. These are literally memes.

Below are some views that most people will read and nod their heads at:

  1. Chinese manufacturing is cheap and low-quality.
  2. German cars are the best-manufactured.
  3. Going to college guarantees entry into the middle class.
  4. The South of France is the fanciest place in the world.
  5. Cereal is good for breakfast.
  6. Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam: third-world countries, small and poor.
  7. Japan is high-tech.

These range from pretty false to outrageously false. I want to talk about China in particular: one of the most culturally foreign nations to Westerners, it is still broadly thought about in terms of old memes. Students learn about Mao, Tiananmen Square, etc. in school, but when it comes to the China of today, their knowledge is almost entirely current soundbites from CNN and older soundbites from CNN that their boomer parents keep repeating. A few examples:

Again – all false. Maybe true some time ago, but wrong today.1 The more egregious ones on manufacturing or creativity are borderline copium. I’m stunned that I can watch TV and listen to senators and congressmen discuss China as if it were the same developing nation of 30 or even 15 years ago. China is a place that is growing and changing so rapidly that not only are there outdated memes from our parents and teachers in the West, but even inside China. A friend of mine, from Shanghai, visited the city of Dalian twenty years ago, when he was a child. He remembers a poor-ish port town, but on visiting it recently, saw that it had ballooned to now five or six million people, comparable to Houston or Atlanta.

I grew up with two statements that I heard about China over and over again:

  1. China was a one-stop-shop for outsourcing cheap manufacturing, but could never compete on the high-end manufacturing (not smart enough) or on product (not salesy and creative enough).
  2. China was churning out good-at-math nerds who would surely dominate computer programming in the future, so don’t bother with that – get a creative job instead.

Both of these were foolish and arrogant views, but common even among intelligent and well-to-do parents. Adherents to the former view have had a rude awakening as skilled American manufacturing has dried up and left. The second view gave up on generational levels of opportunity. The funny thing about these views is that they’re obviously facile if you give them even a moment’s critical thought – but that doesn’t happen, because they’re memes, conventionally held wisdoms that can skip the mind’s bullshit detectors.

That’s not to say that these memes are useless – in fact, they are dangerous because they are necessary. The faster-moving the world becomes, the more powerful generalizations and unquestioned conventional wisdoms are to make sense of a complex environment. The flip-side of the coin is that when these memes no longer apply, that change begins impacting your life very quickly – and it may not be apparent to you for a while.

It is a fast-moving world out there. If you hold an outdated belief and you operate on it as true, that’s probably more dangerous than knowing nothing and being aware of that fact. I’m cutting down on the number of memes I trust – in many domains, my default assumption is skewing hard to the notion that I have no idea. It is essential to continuously update one’s view of the surrounding reality, and if that isn’t possible, it may be necessary to put in extra work to parse it anew from scratch. Much is changing.

  1. To substantiate the argument: Chinese manufacturing was a classic low-end disruption play. At this point, the quality is as good, if not better than, anything you can get in the West. The scale is much greater, as is the variance. The West keeps its edge only in a handful of high-tech niches like semiconductors. The “creativity” stuff is straight-up an elitist delusion. The one-child policy is over and its effects are actively being combated. Air pollution is now well under control in major cities.