The US Versus the World with Technology

There is an interesting story in the Washington Post last Friday regarding cell phones and its use as a social networking tool. The idea is simple: the GPS in your phone lets your friends on your phone know when you are in physical proximity to their phone. The idea is that you, through your phone, have “presence” and your friends can see you out when you are in their area.

I first heard about this use of cell phone technology in 2003 at a conference Mike and I attended in Geneva Switzerland in conjunction with a United Nations event on the Internet Society. At the conference, 5 executives from the Asian divisions of various technology companies–from Microsoft to Samsung–talked about the use of technology in Asia such as social networks via cell phones. The use of Internet and other technologies in Asia–from text messaging to streaming video to cell phones–were much more advanced than what we were using in the United States and were more widely adopted.

What was interesting was the views of some Americans at the conference toward this use of technology generally compared to the views of others from Europe and Asia. Americans were much more concerned about issues of security, privacy, and the like compared to others. What many other international participants saw as advances in technology and technology use, Americans saw as threats. In what had to be the most amusing exchange of the conference, one American got into an exchange about the threats to privacy with the 5 executives. It then came out that this person not only did not have a television, she did not have a cell phone or use the Internet regularly. (Why was she at a conference on the digital society?!)

The debate about the role of technology in elections is similarly divided. Americans are concerned about electronic voting. Europeans are conducting experiments with voting on cell phones and Estonia will have their second election with Internet voting in March. The Dutch, French, and Swiss already do regular trials of Internet voting. It will be interesting to see, in a few years, how American elections compare to those internationally. Given the vast differences we have in our views of technology, there might be quite a difference.