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Technology & Innovation

The Middle Man Takes Center Stage

What’s the Big Idea? 

Want to scare a book publisher, a record store owner, or even a doctor? Creep up behind her and shout: disintermediation! This is the term du jour for “cutting out the middle man,” which happens any time a producer of something – a writer, a band, or a pharmaceutical company – can find a way to go direct to the consumer.  The Internet and the mass media are making this easier than ever, which is part of what prompted Thomas Friedman to predict dire times for middlemen in his bestseller, The World Is Flat.

But not everything is digitizable, yet. In other areas of the increasingly networked global economy – areas dealing with distribution of physical goods and the international implementation of on-the-ground services, the middle man is more in demand than ever.  It’s a big, multilingual, multicultural world, after all. According to economist and author Daniel Altman, culture-bridging experts will thrive economically well into the foreseeable future.  As companies set up operations in new countries, they need bicultural middlemen – lawyers, fixers, and accountants among them – to smooth things over with the locals. Businesses are willing to pay generously to open doors to new markets.

There are other kinds of opportunities, too, for savvy importers of unique foreign products and services into markets that are ripe to receive them. For Altman, Roy Lee – the guy who brought films like The Ring to America – is the poster child for this new breed of global entrepreneur.

What’s the Significance?

One obvious conclusion is that an international background can be a tremendous advantage in the emerging global marketplace, and that anyone lucky enough to possess one would be wise to focus on smart ways of bridging the cultures they know best. And that America, whose economic supremacy throughout the second half of the 21st century has brought out her worst isolationist tendencies, would be wise to start paying closer attention to the rest of the world. Not a bad time to start learning Mandarin…

Another is that the activities of these middlemen can profit not only the middlemen themselves, but also the countries they connect, and the global economy as a whole. They are in high demand precisely because of the enormous economic potential their assistance can unlock. For post-crisis and long suffering nations such as Afghanistan, these opportunities can be a lifeline to independence from foreign aid, higher standards of living, and a self-sustaining future.

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