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The Technology Gap: Why Poor Countries Love Tech & Rich Ones Don’t Trust It

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Technology is like money, it seems. You need some of it … a decent amount, really … to be happy. But at a certain point, it might do more harm than good.

Microsoft recently released a fascinating global survey that unearthed another gap between the developed and the developing world. Poorer countries have a lot more positive feelings about technology than rich countries, and the gap is widening. In the developing world, tech has been a boon for journalism, social connections and employment opportunities. In the developed world, many folks feel just the opposite.

And it makes sense. Mobile phones have brought telecommunications to plenty of places that couldn’t afford to string landlines, for example. On the other hand, in the U.S. and other rich nations, mobile phones are often seen as communication killers — particularly by parents who can’t get the darn things out of their teenagers’ hands. A classic first-world problem.

I’ve written a lot of negative observations about the unintended consequences of technology as part of The Restless Project. I hope no one misunderstands: I’m happy I can see my niece on Skype video calls, I can write books on the beach with my laptop, and I’m really thrilled my father had open heart surgery not long ago in the time it takes to get a tooth pulled. Tech is good. But tech also has its limits, and it’s become a bit of a false god. It’s also really enabling some folks to take advantage of workers, like Uber. There’s billions of dollars in marketing that extols the virtues of tech. Someone has to talk about the dark side. Microsoft’s survey suggests plenty of folks are concerned about that.

In fact, if there’s one thing consumers from all corners of the globe agreed on, it was this: Our very notion of privacy is at serious risk. In 11 of the 12 countries surveyed, respondents said that technology’s effect on privacy was mostly negative. (India was the exception.)

“Majorities of respondents in every country but India and Indonesia say current legal protections for users of personal technology are insufficient, and only in those two countries do most respondents feel fully aware of the types of personal information collected about them,” Microsoft said.

Countries included in the survey were the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Japan and France

Here’s the data on the schism between developed and developing countries and their attitudes toward tech:

  • Impact on Social Bonds. Fully 60% of respondents in developing countries think personal tech has had a positive impact on social bonds, compared to just 36% of respondents in developed countries.
  • Sharing Economy Split. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in developing countries think technology-enabled, sharing-economy services — like Uber and Airbnb — are better for consumers than traditional services like taxis and hotels. But 67% of respondents in developed countries think the traditional services are better for consumers.
  • In the Media We (Don’t) Trust. By a 2-1 margin, respondents in developing countries think personal technology has had a mostly positive effect on trust in the media. But in developed countries, the impression is the opposite: respondents believe by a 2-1 margin that the effect on trust in the media has been mostly negative. These opposing views are born out in the two kinds of countries’ media habits: In developing countries, 70% of respondents get most of their news from social media, compared to only 31% in developed countries.
  • Getting Fit. The difference in opinion about tech’s effect on fitness is striking: 57% of respondents in developing economies think personal technology has made people in their country more fit, thanks to apps for diet management, calorie counting and exercise incentives — but 62% of respondents in developed economies think personal technology has made people in their country less fit, because of the amount of time people waste in front of their PCs, tablets, game consoles, etc.
  • The Tug on Children. In developing countries, the majority of online parents (77%) want their children to have more access to technology, but in developed countries, the majority of online parents (56%) want their children to have less access.
  • STEM and Gender. Finally, there is a real split in engagement regarding the very topic of this survey: science and technology. Although large pluralities of respondents in all 12 countries believe the best jobs in the future will be in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), fewer than six in 10 respondents in developed countries say they are interested in working in STEM, compared to 85% in developing countries. And while 77% of women respondents in developing countries feel encouraged to work in STEM fields,  a minority — 46% — of women respondents in developed countries do.

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