I just returned from an international conference on the Legal, Security, and Privacy Issues in Informational Technology (LSPI). The conference was held in Hamburg, Germany, and it attracted a truly international cast of participants from addresses spanning six continents. I met extraordinary people, and I learned much about the common struggles in different countries over law and technology issues. In the process, I gained some new perspectives on my own country.
I intend to cover several aspects of the conference over the next few days. For now, let me just mention some general observations that arose out of this experience.
The world is smaller than ever; we have opportunities to communicate and interact that were impossible only a few years ago. Innovations in language, technology, and politics are coalescing to make this possible.
English is becoming the new lingua franca. Despite the fact that the conference was in Germany and most participants were from non-English-speaking countries, everyone spoke English. Most of the local people in Hamburg did as well. A librarian at the Max Planck Institute provided a statistic that suggests why this is so: there are 34 languages in Europe that are spoken by at least 2 million persons. It is impossible to have mastery of all these languages, and English is emerging as a sensible common denominator for those who interact with people from other countries -- which happens to include just about everyone.
Technology also brings us together. Despite the fact that we had different linguistic and cultural beginnings, we all had an interest in business development and the utilization of the Internet as a part of the commercial realm. The common desire to explain and adapt technology and to interconnect with other countries is driving people to communicate, just as those who engaged in shipping and trade would otherwise do so.
The freedom and opportunity to travel, wrought by new political openness and economic progress, also allows us to come together. Our conference included participants from China (mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), as well as from former Soviet sattelite countries. Though the topic of freedom in China created some interesting tensions, the possibility of dialogue on these points was amazing - and clearly not possible only a few years ago.
One evening several of us ventured out for a walk along the Alster lake, a prominent feature in Hamburg. Seated around the table were conference participants from Australia, Greece, Turkey, Germany (one born in the East, one in the West), the U.K., Poland, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the U.S. I reveled in the freedom and the rare opportunity to be in Germany, eating white asparagus and potatoes, and drinking French and German beverages, with such an interesting group of companions. Though we came from different backgrounds and cultures, we had much to share and to enjoy.
Late that evening, I walked back to the hotel with Anna, a researcher from Poland. (Yes, we walked late at night in a large city. I am pleased to report we had not the slightest basis for fear in doing so. In the U.S., we have theoretical freedom to do that, but the absence of security makes that freedom impractical. We have much work to do on this front.)
Anna made this observation about the United States: “It seems like a place where there is always the possibility of yes.” I was floored by this description, which seemed to capture the value of openness to ideas and to opportunity that we value in our country. Hopefully, this same value is emerging elsewhere. Given the choice, wouldn’t you choose to do business with people who valued the “possibility of yes”, i.e., who wanted to give you what you needed, and would break down barriers to do so?
I will close by saying hello to my new international friends from LSPI, and to express a special gratitude to Anna at the University of Gdansk for this wonderful observation. I hope we can all live up to the ideal of living with the “possibility of yes” in mind.