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February 26, 2008

Again on social networking sites

I've just realized that I might be behind the curve now.  I admit, I'm not keeping a constant watch on news about the Internet, but in my subjective experience, the amount of English-language media coverage given to blogs has decreased whereas it seems to me that the current information technology zeitgeist has been taken over by social networking sites.  You know, stuff like Facebook, MySpace, etc.  My guess is that blogs and bloggers are starting to find their niche in the Anglosphere, thus becoming more mundane with every passing day.  One certainly can't disregard the high visibility of political blogs in the US and the constant commentary on them provided by the traditional news media.

So: blogs are mainstream now.  What else is next?  Social networking sites, apparently (a.k.a. SNS).  I mean, Foreign Policy did an article on them and The freaking Economist has a Facebook group.  Yeah, I know, it's a bit bizarre.  I wonder who's responsible for maintaing that group?

Okay, so perhaps when such staid auld institutions like The Economist have joined Facebook then it's more a sign of being mainstream than cutting edge (and apropos of nothing, but apparently The Economist's website has been redesigned).  However, being so new, in real time as opposed to Internet time, SNSes have barely been studied by academics so far.  Scholars are still grasping at the answers to such basic questions as who uses Social Networking Sites.  Via the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website (see what I mean about blogs becoming mainstream?), however, I found these two links to various stuff around the Internet related to SNSes:

The first is an article from the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication by Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist from Northwestern University and contributor to the Crooked Timber group blog entitled "Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites" (2007).

Hargittai mentions that "students who have at least one parent with a graduate degree are more represented on Facebook, Xanga, and Friendster than they are in the aggregate sample, while students whose parents have less than a high school education are disproportionately users of MySpace", which is to say that North American socioeconomic divisions are reflected online by which SNS you join: MySpace for the working class, Facebook for the middle class.  This accords with what danah boyd observed in the blogpost that stirred up quite a lot of online reaction, partly because I think Americans don't like to be reminded that class exists in their country (and as another tangent, I'd actually made the exact same observation as her that Facebook and MySpace users were clearly being segregated according to class and had even been half-assedly formulating a blogpost on the subject, though it's just as well that she broached the subject first since she reaches more people and she actually used more than 50% of her ass when writing the post).

Basically, the point of the article is that who joins and stays with SNSes can be somewhat predicted by various demographic factors, and that we might be seeing the rise of a new social divide, this time between those who use SNSes and those who don't.

The second link is a story about how people inadvertently flock and follow leaders when they are in crowds, such that 5% of crowdgoers can nonverbally direct the movements of the other 95%.  Qué interesante, you say.  Nunca he pensado sobre esta tema.  That's not what I really wanted to point out, though.  Instead, look at the bottom of the press release and see that there are buttons for you to share the story on both Facebook and Digg.  I'm somewhat impressed that the University of Leeds' publicity department is on top of this Web 2.0 thing, since university websites are usually not that up with the haps online.  Perhaps even SNSes are approaching mainstream-ness (mainstreamity? I think I like this one more).

Still, nothing can top my last item, this time coming from the antropologi.info blog: it seems that Owen Wiltshire, a grad student at Concordia University in Montreal, is planning on studying how anthropologists who study online social phenomena form online communities themselves.  Yes, you read that right, an online anthropologist is studying how online anthropologists work with each other online.  It's so deliciously reflexive.  He's also got his own blog, so I might just pop over sometime and say whattup.

January 27, 2008

Capitalism: "It might start sucking less"

From The International Herald Tribune:

On the cusp of economic history

Is economic history about to change course? Among the chieftains of politics and industry gathering in Davos for the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, a consensus appears to be building that the capitalist system is in for one of those rare and tempestuous mutations that give rise to a new set of economic policies . . .

"The pendulum between market and state is swinging back," Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organization, said by telephone before traveling to Davos. "The year 2008 is a crucial year that could end up setting the tone for some time to come. What we need is an ideological mutation without falling into the trap of protectionism."

One such mutation in mainstream economic policy took place after the Depression of 1929, which led to a protectionist interlude and then gave rise to Keynesian demand-side policies and eventually the welfare state. Another took place following the oil price shocks in the 1970s, which refocused policy makers' attention to supply-side measures and strengthened those pushing for privatization and free markets as the best way to stimulate growth.

When students of economics open their history books in 2030, they might read about 2008 as the year when the groundwork was laid for a re-regulation of certain markets, a more redistributive tax system and new forms of international policy coordination, economists say.

I don't know, isn't this just more of the classic cycles we're supposed to expect from capitalism?  But having said that, it would be unfair to claim that nothing has changed and that we're stuck in a perpetual circle of death and reincarnation.  Perhaps the roller coaster is a more apt metaphor - things go up and down, but they never go backwards.  After all, the environment is in a more precarious position today and the emerging economies of China and India are far stronger than they have been in the recent past.

So, while no one can expect the abolition or even the gradual phasing-out of the capitalist nation-state system, perhaps we will see some encouraging moves towards allowing more people around the world the chance not to get gang-raped out of nowhere by economic policies they never agreed to.  And perhaps some of these people might be more open-minded to an alternative to the current political-economic system?  Hope springs eternal.

By the way, that picture of Davos just makes me even happier that I'm in Costa Rica right now.  Man, it looks cold up there (although it's snowing so it must be relatively warm, like only -5 Celsius).

January 14, 2008

The World’s Top Social Networking Sites

From Foreign Policy:

The World’s Top Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have made the world seem like a small place after all. But even on the Internet, persistent language barriers and cultural differences mean that the planet may not be quite as interconnected as you think.

Coming to Costa Rica, I found out first-hand how parochial the Anglosphere really is.  It's easy to over-estimate the global reach of English when you're immersed in it, but one must remember that the majority of the world doesn't speak the language of Shakespeare.  The Anglosphere might seem all-encompassing in its totality, but all you have to do is change your linguistic environment and suddenly people are talking about celebrities you've never heard of and singing along to classic songs you never knew existed.

As offline, so also online.  I'm only now dipping my toe into the Spanish Internet and it's rather fascinating to discover the differences Spanish Internet talk has from standard written Spanish (for instance, hardly anyone uses the upside-down symbol things like ¿).

This article from Foreign Policy is a nice round-up of the state of social networking sites in different language zones of the world.  I hadn't known that Orkut was big in India or that its membership had plateaud, and neither did I know that Facebook was also big in the Arab countries, nor that Skyrock even existed.  And finally I found out who's been using Hi5.  Anyway, do read the article, it's only 2 pages long and is a good corrective to English-language ghettoism online.

December 30, 2007

The poor man's Internet

I posted this on the board of the Facebook group Asian Media and Contemporary Cultures but it seemed a shame to just leave it there where only group members could see it.  Lately I've mostly been using Facebook to do stuff that I used to use this blog for, it's just that I've mostly been writing personal stuff (yesterday I visited the rainforest, etc.) and it all seemed to insubstantial to put up on what I consider to be a serious blog.  Anyway, the short essay:

I tried to write this comment in response to the posted article "Communities Dominate Brands: As web content migrates to mobile internet" but it was apparently too long.

Anyway, I wrote that such rah-rah essays extolling the future within our grasp never sit quite well with me because they never mention what happens to people who can't join the revolution.

As a grad student in Canada I couldn't afford to surf the Internet on my phone (that first phone bill was a shocker), and now in Costa Rica I don't even have the option. The government has a monopoly on telecommunications, there are long waiting lists for cellphone numbers and long lineups outside the govt. offices when new numbers are added, and most phones are 5-8 years old. Only in November did ICE (the Instituto Costarricense de Electiricad, which despite the name handles more than just electricity) sign an agreement to allow the use of Blackberries in the country and it was specifically mentioned that it was for the convenience of foreign executives in Costa Rica, not local ones.

This situation has come about mostly through the exigencies of politics, as in many other parts of the world. All of my fellow development workers stationed in Africa that I've talked to have mentioned how much slower the Internet is there than they're used to, and I remember being warned against using Flash in my pre-departure training because it would slow down the computers of developing country users to unacceptable levels. Perhaps viewing the mobile Internet on a PC will be akin to watching colour programs on a black and white tv, but I can't help feeling that we're watching the further economic segregation of the Internet, as indeed already exists for the global high-speed vs. dial-up divide.

Time will tell, I suppose, as it always does. Anyway, what are other people's experience on the subject of digital divides vis-a-vis Asia and other parts of the world?

November 2, 2007

Blog update

So here are some blogs that I've discovered in my time away from blogging and some a little more recently:

  • Passport, the blog of Foreign Policy's editors.  It's all about foreign affairs.  The blog is okay, I can take it or leave it.
  • Managing Globalization, from the International Herald Tribune.  Jagdish Bhagwati and Jeffrey Sachs are apparently attached to it.  This blog is slightly more appealing to me since it's all about the big G.  It's especially interesting reading the interview with Jeremy Hobbs, the executive director of Oxfam International, since he talks about the role of NGOs, a subject near and dear to me right now.
  • The US State Department's blog.  It's pretty much the National Geographic-y depoliticized (ha!) PR copy you'd expect.  It's no accident that it sounds like National Geographic, since the magazine itself was founded with the express purpose of American aggrandizement.  But still, interesting to look at in a car accident sort of way.
  • And speaking of car wrecks, what about the Private Sector Development Blog run by the World Bank?  Check out the subtitle: A market approach to development thinking.  If that doesn't sound off neoliberal alarm bells in your head, then you should get your internal capitalism detector checked.
  • Continuing on with the theme of disaster, I've just now seen that the IMF has a new blog called the Public Financial Management Blog.  Considering the low point the IMF is in right now, I guess every little bit helps in convincing the public that it's relevant.  But as far as I'm concerned, the sooner Bretton Woods is dismantled, the better.
  • While we're dismantling, why not dismantle the whole thing?  Down with nation-states, up with anarchism, says Molly'sBlog. It's more activist-oriented than the usual theory blogs on my RSS feed, but it's certainly helped me get a better grasp on the intellectual underpinnings of anarchism.
  • There's also International Political Economy Zone, a blog devoted to, well, international political economy.  It comes at things from a Marxist-influenced angle.  It's only because of the blog that I understood what exactly the subprime mortgage problem was--briefly, banks gave money in the form of mortgages to people who didn't have the income to meet their mortgage payments, a.k.a. the less well-off, a.k.a. the subprime.
  • Lastly, there is the Institute for Canadian Citizenship's blog, cBook.  With articles in French and English, the blog explores issues related to citizenship: multiculturalism, surveillance, policy issues, recipes for tossed salad, etc (NB: one of these things is not true).  One of my friends writes for them, do check them out; judging from their very empty comments queue, they need all the readers they can get.

March 5, 2007

I fear to look, yet I cannot turn away

This is just one massive train wreck of a  theory-bashing post:

Dear academics,
Have you ever ran across something academic (paper, book, lecture) that you thought was complete and utter bullshit? And yes you can include postmodernism :)

Why did it have to happen when I was offline?  Now it's too late to join in the snarking.  And look at this:

I personally have found that "theory" usually is shorthand for "jargon-laden writing," and that "jargon" is quite often shorthand for "words I don't know and can't be bothered to look up."

BURN!  That's gotta hurt.  And what about this exchange?

M: People hate what they don't understand [i.e., postmodernism].

S: Hold on. Hate what they don't understand? I understand completely, and I think it's bullshit.

R: You completely understand postmodernism? . . . Alright, I'm done now.

G: Oh please god explain it to me.  I think I might have an orgasm.

Really, it's easy to forget that there are people out there who think theory is bunk when one's bookcase is in danger of collapsing from the weight of the cultural studies books stored there.  But then some undergrad comes along shooting their mouth off and wackiness ensues.

February 15, 2007

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it's fascinating to see how China's current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization.  There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots.  All of this recalls "Western" experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you're reading a news article from the 19th century.  The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:

But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers' minds. As members of China's business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. "Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?" I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

"Look at England, look at America," he said. "The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people." (Chinese history books use the phrase "sheep ate people" to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)

"Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn't we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?" I asked.

"If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices," my relative said solemnly. "To get to where we want to get, we must go through the 'sheep eating people' stage too."

In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.

Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

Certainly it's a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It's okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago.  The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries.  Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin.  For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce.  The present isn't the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn't the farcical Napoleon III to the First World's l'Empereur, Marx's witticism notwithstanding.

For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this "stuff" as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and "scientific management" (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the "West" means that things are getting crappier where white people live too.  Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.

In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it's been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries).  "Here we go again," say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully -- note, though, that it's not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power.  Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we're seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.

All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog's shoutout to Racialicious).  Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one's wealth since it's a sign that one isn't a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let's not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they're used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth).  With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas -- again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.

So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).

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February 9, 2007

Kill your advisor

Dear god.

"By 1979 a frustrated Stanford graduate student in mathematics named Theodore Streliski had spent eighteen years in futile pursuit of a Ph.D.  When the last in a string of advisers requested further thesis revision, the student killed him with a hammer."  - Robert L. Peters in Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or Ph.D.

"One of my most-loved profs was a lit/myth guy, and he was shot to death by one of his grad students who'd been working on a PhD for years." (gradstudents)

Like someone from the thread asked, just how often does this happen, anyway?  I mean, really, eighteen years?  Oh, and the advisor-killing part is also shocking.  Still, after eighteen years I might kill someone too.

A Filipino blog, for once

Yes, this post is dangerously on-topic for me.  Rather, it would be if I still maintained the fiction that Sarapen is about my research on Filipino bloggers.

But back to the main plot.  Manuel Viloria at Viloria.com gives Tagalog lessons on the requisite formulas one needs to know to get by in various social situations in the Philippines: "Happy Birthday," "it's raining hard," "I'll avoid pork rinds for now."  You know, the essential things.  The lessons are also being podcast, so you can listen to how things are supposed to be pronounced.

I'm not sure who the audience of these podcasts are supposed to be, though.  "Learn to speak Tagalog now (for free!) to give you the advantage when you travel to the Philippines."  So it's for people outside the Philippines, then.  But which people?  Business travellers wouldn't need this much Tagalog since English can take them almost anywhere in the Philippines, so I must assume these lessons are for second generation Filipinos and non-Filipinos with personal reasons for learning Tagalog (i.e., married to a Filipino).  Which makes sense given the range of social situations covered in the lessons.

Tangentially, I confess that I still haven't got into podcasting.  I'd rather have a text to quickly skim through than a meandering recording that I'd have to listen to in its entirety just to find out if there's anything interesting in it.  When considering blog post vs. podcast, I'd have to go with blog post just for that very reason.  For me, their unskimmability kills most podcasts for me.  Of course, in the case of this particular blog, podcasting is certainly helpful, but in general, I just can't get into them.

And on another tangent, I used to to regularly write about anarchism on my old blog.  Mostly my posts revolved around David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist.  Some month back, I discovered this video of him being interviewed on Youtube and I thought I might as well put it up now.  It's all interesting stuff, I just wish the whole interview was on.

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