Big Ben and Little Jason

It’s been over three weeks since I’ve had a chance to blog (read or write!), and I feel like I’m out of touch with the world in some respects. Then again, I’m sitting on an airplane as I type this, returning from London, where I finally felt like I had a chance to reconnect with the world. I’ve done very little International travel in my life, and while I like to think I understand what’s going on in the world – by virtue of understanding what’s going on in the world of technology – it’s hard to have a valid perspective on any global issue (including technology), if you don’t have a feel for the differences between cultures. While one trip to Europe is hardly enough to provide me this perspective, it certainly reminded me of that fact. It also reminded me that taking time to explore the world is not only enriching, it’s fun.

Here’s one real-world example of what I’m talking about …

In my last two jobs (interactive video development for Microsoft and new technologies for eBay), I have been charged with driving technological innovation in the digital space on a global scale. It’s well-known that among many of the far-East nations, wireless technology has exploded. People use wireless devices not just for chatting, but for gaming, commerce, news, dating, and a whole host of other things that people in the West just don’t use their cell-phones for. SMS is the email of the East, and in China I’ve been told that people don’t even know how to use voice-mail (just not real-time enough for them).

A question I’ve been thinking about for the past couple years while working on technologies to exploit these trends is “Why is wireless so prevalent in certain parts of the world, and not others?”

The answer that’s always been bandied about among my colleagues is that this is a side-effect of pubic transportation. Because in many of the Asian nations public transportation is a way of life (very few people have cars), people are afforded a lot of free time where the only major source of interactivity (you don’t actually want to have to talk to the guy next to you on the bus, do you? J) is through wireless connectivity. Seems like a reasonable theory, and extrapolated would mean that in other parts of the world where wireless is highly available and public transportation is highly prevalent, you would expect the same trends in wireless usage.

But, as I learned this past week, that’s not necessarily the case. In London, public transportation is a staple. Driving and parking in the city can cost up to $60/day; most people prefer the subway or bus to travel from the populated outskirts of town to their jobs in the city. But, in the week I was there, I saw very little use of wireless technology for anything other than voice communication. In fact, empirical evidence indicated that even for person-to-person communication, the average Londoner used his cell phone far less than the typical American.

While this doesn’t prove the public transportation theory wrong, it indicates that – at very least – there are other factors in-play. I could list a number of other possible explanations, but my point here is that to truly understand a culture, it takes more than just a bunch of statistics and theories. There are easier – and better – ways of learning about a culture than reading journals, reports, and blogs…and it only took me 20 years to figure this out…