Adventures of a digital man in America


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Adventures of a digital man in America is a column where Peeter Vihma, an Estonian sociologist, filmmaker and author, currently a Fulbright Fellow at Cornell University, NY, is bringing you his personal monthly reports into the American digital economy, government and society.

Getting the wheels rolling

I am beginning with a personal story that I think beautifully cuts through the digital layers of the modern world for a regular fellow such as I.

This August a longstanding dream of mine came true. I left the familiar setting of Estonia behind and moved together with my wife Claudia and our almost-3-year-old daughter Amanda to USA. I have always wanted to experience living in this country. Sure, I have visited, but one thing is to take the subway for a drink in Manhattan and quite another is to be standing — the three of us and our six suitcases — in pouring rain in downtown Ithaca on a Wednesday morning and trying to figure out how to start a life in this small town.

In situations like this it becomes much clearer what digitalisation actually does for us. Both digital private and public services. What I did was instinctive for me. I called a cab. Why didn’t I remember to open my Uber or Lyft app earlier? Because the cab did indeed arrive. After an hour of waiting. And it had already other people inside.

This is not a joke!

Later I heard that no-one I know knows no-one who relies on taxis in Ithaca. No-one also knows why they still exist there. But that wasn’t until later.

It is not a myth that in America you can’t live without a car. Even in Ithaca, a cozy and small East Coast college town which has arguably one of the best public transport systems in the whole country. Since we are in Ithaca for a year, I had decided to buy a used one. But this takes time and life doesn’t wait.

Jump to a week later. We had just found a daycare for Amanda – but it was on the other side of the town, 10 miles from our house. Yes, we had taken Uber and Lyft for the first two rides to check the daycare out but this option would have been quite steep for my wallet, as you might guess. And pleased as we were in discovering that electric bikes are well woven into the youthful Ithaca infrastructure, neither me nor Amanda is quite in shape for taking them that far.

So I was thankful to the Great Spirit when I discovered that Ithaca has a company that operates a network of pay-by-hour cars scattered around the town. Registering with them is quite simple and intuitive. I was almost through with it when I hit a bump. For insurance purposes I had to prove to them that I had not committed any traffic violations in the last five years. Since I have no previous record in the US, I called their office for instructions.

“Well we need something!” the polite voice on the other side instructed me. “Contact your government office for that.”

Does your government speak the analogue or digital language?

It would be “fun” to imagine how this process would have looked like back in the analogue days. I probably should have called some office in Estonia, sent letters, waited for them to return for weeks and months while Amanda would have not been able to get to daycare. Which would have put a whole lot of pressure on both, my wife’s and my own professional lives. Which would have put a whole lot of stress on our private lives. Which… Ok, enough. Let’s stop here.

Luckily, being a citizen of Estonia, I used my mobile-ID to log on to my digital dossier and within 2 minutes I had generated a document that said I was not a road maniac. (Well it didn’t exactly say that, but that is what I explained the line “Peeter Vihma has not violated any of the following paragraphs” sort of meant.)

I have to be honest, there was a note of pride when I called them back to report on the task accomplished – 3 minutes after finishing my last call.

All they did was say “Wow” and ask me to send them a description of what I did so that the next Estonian in their system would already have guidance online.

Jump another week forward. I am finishing filling my mothers’ maiden name in yet another document for the university bureaucracy. Cornell is huge, 18 000 employees and 14 000 students. No wonder fitting something as irregular as a visiting Fulbrighter into the system is tricky. But I wish I could fill in the paperwork just once and be done with it even if I have to present it yet to another office.

As I wait for the clerk to take info from the form that I have just filled and type it into a computer I browse for used cars.

And I know that once I have found a suitable one the Department for Motor Vehicles awaits with its own forms – the MV82s and DTF-802s. Just like the olden days.

Changing perspectives on digitalisation

What is a country? It is people and landscapes and buildings and things people do in them. People here are great. I have yet to grow cynical about the how are you’s and smiles that I get here and everyone feels truly polite and considerate. I love it.

Perhaps one of the reasons we Estonians love our digital services so much is that we are not very warm and welcoming person-to-person? I sure hope not. But underneath there is the structure that holds it all together. The system. The filing cabinet.

I hope to bring to you people and stories of how the American back-office is changing, what are the dreams and challenges in this field. The way I experience this as a sociologist studying environmental governance, and as an Estonian so used to digitalisation I have forgotten how it feels to fill in forms.

So that in my personal life I would have more time to pay attention to the people, buildings and landscapes.

Written by
Peeter Vihma

Sociologist, filmmaker & author


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