Kai-fu Lee’s AI Superpowers: Chapter 2

Kai-fu Lee offers an enlightening explanation in how American digital platforms fail in China by disregarding cultural differences. The Chinese don’t, for instance, use search engines like Westerners. There’s a lot of data showing that they have very different search patterns (and Lee has fascinating cultural and historical explanations for why that is). But it’s impossible to explain that to Americans who are full on “everybody is completely identical to everybody else, and to think otherwise is racism.” So US companies fail in China, and Chinese versions of huge US platforms arise in their place.

So far so good.

However, right after delivering this crucial point, Lee demonstrates that cultural differences are hard to understand for him, too. He makes a long and painful argument about how US companies aren’t motivated purely by profit. Instead, he says, they want to change the world and promote the values listed in their mission statements. This is why they aren’t as ruthlessly profit-seeking as their Chinese competitors.

At this point in the book, those of us who live in the US begin to experience fits of uncontrollable laughter. We know very well that those missions and values are a marketing trick. Nobody really cares. Of course, it’s all about profit. Lee takes the mission blabber of US companies at face value, which is a great demonstration of the power of cultural differences.

This chapter also has a great explanation of why Groupon, which was very dominant at some point in the past, faded from view so fast.

What I find interesting about Lee is that he’s obviously a member of deterritorialized supranational elites but he’s such a passionate nationalist that Trump seems very lukewarm in his pro-US rhetoric in comparison. It isn’t stupid, blind pride, though. Lee is very clear-eyed and honest. Maybe this unambiguous national pride is part of the reason why I’m inclined to like whatever he says.

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