Pascal Zachary, who teaches journalism at Stanford, wrote a provocative piece for the New York Times about stereotyping in the global technology community. His purpose is to shed light on how innovation actually works. "Talk of national identity rarely comes up in public," he notes, "but privately many people — from academia to venture capital firms — take for granted that the contours of a career in technology are often shaped by the national origin of the technologist."
Few business people would admit that they harbor crass stereotypes about other cultures. But some economic historians can find correlations between national origin and success (or failure) in specific fields. For example, Italians really have excelled at design, but the country has produced few great programmers. So far.
The problem is that, while stereotypes may have some foundation in history, they do not necessarily predict the future. The Japanese may have excelled at copying the innovations of others in the 1970s, but the success of Toyota and Sony proves that they have achieved unmatched levels of creativity since then. China, he suggests, may be on the same path.
Pascal's analysis applies more broadly than to technology, but interestingly, he blows off discussion of stereotypes that other countries may have of America, claiming it is "too big and diverse for easy generalizations." Well, China's pretty big and much more diverse than commonly thought.
I suspect much of the world has pigeonholed America's national character pretty decisively. Like most stereotypes, it has some foundation in fact. The big question is whether we can change the facts sufficiently to change the stereotype.
Original url: New York Times Op Ed