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July 04, 2015

Poland vs the United States: the cutting edge of technology

This is the ninth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

No matter what's your take on the United States, there is no denying that the country has been on the forefront of scientific and industrial progress for much of the past century. In that time frame alone, the nation's research institutions and corporations have made countless fundamental contributions to almost every single aspect of contemporary technology - from polymer science, to computing, to aviation, to medicine, to nuclear power, to space exploration, to communications, to modern warfare.

Given the country's track record of relentless innovation, one would expect its residents to be quick to embrace technological novelties and futuristic design trends. But when it comes to everyday living, I find that the opposite is often more true. Let's take banking: many of my Polish friends recoil in terror when they find out that the world's most sophisticated financial system still settles many private transactions by writing checks; that in stores, you usually swipe the magnetic strip and scribble your name on a piece of paper; or that sending a wire transfer usually involves a trip to your bank, a hefty fee, and waiting a couple of days.

For many of them, it must be equally perplexing to visit a typical well-off American home. Kitchens are a good example: in much of continental Europe, the standard of upscale kitchen architecture tends to revolve around sleek, sterile looks constructed out of flat panes of glass, steel, plastic, and concrete; the drawers and cabinets will cleverly blend in to reveal space-age appliances hidden inside. The kitchen is, in essence, the embodiment of technological progress and of modern design aesthetics.

In the US, the European school of design has gained some foothold in pricey downtown apartments targeted at the wealthy youth - but the dominant, all-American archetype looks nothing like it. Many of the newly-built houses will feature old-fashioned, bulky granite countertops and ornate but functionally basic colonial-style wooden carpentry; most of the fancy small appliances will feel like they were pulled straight out of the 30s, too. Decorative details, such as crown moldings, vaulted ceilings, and marble columns are thrown in to differentiate luxury developments from the housing available to the middle class. Elsewhere in the house, featureless top-loading washing machines and clunky upright vacuums are a common sight.

The contrast is interesting and difficult to explain; it's certainly not that Americans are Luddites: they are quick to take lead with many types of utilitarian technologies. The country pioneered and popularized everything from refrigerators, to air conditioning, to dishwashers, to automatic transmission, to smartphones, to microwaves. It's also not that the residents show special reverence to the traditions of the bygone days. Perhaps the utilitarian principle is key: it may be that consumers judge many of their purchases based the utility and lasting value of the durable goods, more than their novelty or the image said goods may project.

If so, the observation would fly in the face of the country's reputation for rampant consumerism, a stereotype frequently contrasted with the meditated sophistry of Europe. But then, the conclusion may be overly broad: even within the United States, there are many interesting differences in how tangible goods are used to signal personal wealth. In Los Angeles or Miami, just like in much of Europe, luxury sports vehicles are a widely accepted symbol of affluence. In Silicon Valley, the practice is frowned upon, with many of the dot-com millionaires living in unassuming homes and driving fuel-efficient cars. Perhaps this is a matter of social conscience; perhaps of having different priorities; and perhaps simply of fearing that they would be vilified by the society.

For the next article in the series, click here.


  1. Americans are more mobile. As such they may pay less attention to the stuff they're less likely to take with them when moving to other coast. In Poland we (more often) own our apartments for decades or for a lifetime so we tend to invest into them and get attached to them for good.

    As for banking: contactless, rapid payments in big cities are norm for at least 3 years (we call them "paypass", guess why?;). It's common to carry absolutely no cash as everything from vending machines to small shops in villages are accepting some forms of electronic, usually rapid, payments (even the taxi drivers are not making any excuses to accept it as they used to 10 years ago, not to mention mobile payment with apps like myTaxi, etc.). I hardly visit the ATM more than once a month or two. All the revelations about Apple Watch letting people pay with their wrist for BigMac are usually commented with irony as this technology is not compatible with existing system hence completely useless in Europe.

    Another example: LTE, Introduced in Poland in 2010, available in all big cities in 2011, now over 75% of population is covered by it.

    Yet another example, the broadband speed. This time Romania, is about twice as fast as US with Lithuania (former USSR republic) even faster! Not to mention the prices :)

    1. Apple Payments is interesting, because it's by far not the first attempt to build a contactless payment system. Banks, telcos, phone vendors, and third-party companies have been trying for a long time, and there just doesn't seem to be a whole lot of customer buy-in. Perhaps Apple will be different, but TBH, I'm not holding my breath. That said, carrying cash is uncommon in the US, too; it's just that magstripe is still king.

      The previous entry ( may provide some useful context for capital-intensive technologies such as LTE and broadband; it's not the only factor, but comparing small and densely-populated European states to the US is tricky.