Recently in Communication Category

I have been living in London for two months now. Over the past week, two interesting things happened here. First, Muamar Qadaffi, an autocratic ruler, and a man whose messengers were convicted in court for killing British civilians, was welcome (via satellite) as a guest speaker at the London School of Economics, where the moderator referred to him as "the brother leader". The university, to be clear, is partly funded by the British tax payer. 

A few days later, Julian Assange was arrested due to allegations of "sexual crimes", later found out to be alleged misconduct under an exotic Swedish law that prohibits condom-less sex. Such allegations don't normally get a person on the Interpol's "most wanted" list and trigger an arrest in a foreign country. Clearly, the arrest was driven by pressure from various governments and interested parties.

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'Google News is a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together and displays them according to each reader's personalized interests...

Our articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online....

As a result, stories are sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology and you can choose from a wide variety of perspectives on any given story.'
We often read about the explicit ways in which those in power use the media to manipulate public opinion through censorship, 'spinning', and news management. However, each type of media (TV, the Internet, the Newspaper) affects political consciousness and ideology, even in the absence of any editorial control. 

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Big cop, small cop.
In a recent discussion with an American friend, I pointed out the colossal damage caused to America by the accumulation of additional debt and the bailouts of failed financial institutions. 
My friend, who agreed with me in principle, defended Obama's policies by saying that Obama is conducting the bailouts 'under the guidance of... Bernanke, Summers, Geithner' and that he merely 'continued the bailout started by Bush'. This is a common argument. The gist of it is that things are bad, we need to fix them, but there is no need to hurry. In addition, it justifies the errors of the current president by claiming that similar errors were committed by his predecessor. 

For the purpose of this analysis, we can ignore the fact that Geitner, Bernanke, and Summers were appointed by Obama himself. If someone believes that bailing out financial institutions in this way is a good policy - that's fine. What piques my curiosity is that people who think it is a bad policy are nonetheless willing to accept it and even justify it, and do not see any urgency in eliminating it. 

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As China absorbs the decline in exports created by the global financial crisis, the government is emphasizing the need to increase domestic demand and expedite the development of a local consumer culture. To put it simply - the Chinese government wants local consumers to spend more money in order to reduce the country's dependence on consumers from other countries. China's ability to shift from a production to a consumption-based economy depends on a variety of social and economic factors.  

In 1949, China had a population of 450 million; by 1980, it was close to 1 billion; today, it is over 1.35 billion. The UN's World Population Prospects, updated last year, estimate that China's population will continue to grow slowly during the next two decades and then begin to decline. The number of young people joining the workforce each year is expected to decline from 2010 (see Michael Pettis' blog for more on this). China's population is getting older and might soon begin to get smaller as well. Plenty of commentary is published about the implications this has for China's social security network and economic growth. In addition, it is worthwhile to consider the impact such demographic changes might have on local consumption patterns. 

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"People are prepared to obtain order and tranquility by giving up other values such as democracy and freedom. This dangerous temptation has not disappeared, even today." (Mikhail Gorbachev, 1993)
Protests in Beijing and Shanghai


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Twenty years ago, (some) Chinese people took to the streets and demanded the freedom to speak against corruption, to buy western goods, and to manage their lives without interruption (see Wasserstrom's summary ). Twenty years later, the world is in the midst of a financial crisis, waiting for Chinese consumers to pick up the slack of international demand and drive the global financial recovery. 

On the surface, most Chinese people have little interests in the events of 1989. However, taking into account China's role in creating the current crisis, those events might have a bigger influence on current economic matters than we realize.

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Google is planning to become everything Facebook ever wanted to be. On Thursday, it announced Google Wave, a remarkable new product that has the potential to revolutionize the way we use the web. Seriously. Wave is a platform that turns the web into a never-ending conversation. It allows users to take Twitter's immediacy and Facebook's conspicuousness with them, wherever they go. 

A Wave user can comment, chat, and share photos and links (virtually) anywhere on the web. At the same time, his friends can follow this activity on his Wave page. For example, it allows you to leave a comment on a Blog and see your friend's response to this comment on the same page OR within your Wave page. You can then continue the conversation on a different blog page, or invite other contacts to join  (watch the video presentation, it will make more sense). Wave allows you to do everything you ever wanted, online, using a single account and with remarkable ease of use. 

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China's exports fell by more than 17% in March, following a decline of 25.7% in February. This has been the trend for the last five months, since the beginning of the global financial crisis. About 140 million of China's migrant workers work in export industries. According to official figures, about 23 million of them lost their job since the beginning of the year. Many were sent on long "vacations" and/or are working less hours per week. The figures are based on data from December 2008, and cover only migrant workers, the most vulnerable segment of the local workforce. A more moderate rise in unemployment is visible in other parts of the economy as well. Taking into account the continued deceleration of China's growth over the past 4 months, it is safe to assume that the number of unemployed is now higher. 

China is stuck with too many goods and not enough consumers and is now trying to shift its economy towards local consumption. The task of dealing with rising unemployment while trying to convince workers to spend more money is not going to be easy.

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An old Jewish joke says that modern society is based on the ideas of three old men: Marx said "Everything is about Money". Freud said "Everything is about Sex". Then, Einstein arrived and concluded that "Everything is Relative".

The Chinese economy has slowed down dramatically over the past six months and demand for real estate in China's major cities declined sharply. Concurrently, new data has been published about the disparity between China's male and female citizens and the subsequent troubles Chinese men face when trying to find a wife. Now, a local Real Estate Developer is trying to strike a new balance between Marx and Freud in order to get the market going again.

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Pioneers.
A couple of months ago, (parts of) the world celebrated the 200th of Charles Darwin's birth. The british scientist published On the Origin of Species in November 1859, ten months after Karl Marx published his theory of Historical Materialism in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

For most of their adult lives, Marx and Darwin lived only 20 miles apart, in England, but they never met. Friedrich Engels wrote to Marx about Darwin's 'splendid' new book in December 1859, only a few weeks after it was originally published. Upon reading the book a few months later, Marx recognized the threat it posed to his idea of communism*. Moreover, Marx did not accept the theory of Natural Selection as pure science and wrote to Engels that Darwin merely 'rediscovered his English society among animals and plants'. 

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"The first stage of the economy's domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having -- human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing -- all "having" must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances. At the same time all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them. Individual reality is allowed to appear only if it is not actually real."
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967. 
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Pose.
In 2004, I analyzed the experience of posting short messages online. I used my mobile phone to post 'anything that grabbed my attention' directly to a web site built using a customized version of blogger.com's platform. And so, I started posting little snapshots of my life, made of short sentences, in real time. Today, the world has a dedicated platform for this type of messaging, Twitter.com, and such messages are refered to as Tweets. Back then, I called it verbography - verbal photography. Roland Barthes once wrote that a photograph is unique since it is not only a representation of an object, but also a testament that the depicted object really existed. In this way, the photograph confirms the existence of the object but also destabilizes it by taking it out of the present and into an unknown future, when the photo will be watched (in Camera Lucida).
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Albert Einstein once said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. A couple of millennia earlier, Lao Zi taught us that those who know do not speak and those who speak do not know. We'll get back to these two in a minute.

As a regular user of most of Google's services - Search, Gmail, Analytics, Finance, Reader, etc. - I am often amused by the targeted ads I am served. The ads are a testament to how well Google knows me, and provide a general idea of the assumptions Google makes regarding people of "my kind".

Being a young western man in China, I normally receive ads promoting massage and escort services while reading my mail online or while searching for legitimate restaurants or government offices (as much as these are legitimate...). Such ads normally carry a standard format, stating the name of the vendor, their rates or hours of operation, and offering a link for further information.

China is full of massage parlors, KTVs, "hair" salons, and various other platforms that offer  sexual services. In such a competitive market, service providers that do not differentiate themselves get lost in the clutter. While checking my Gmail this morning, I came across one of the simplest and most elegant ads I have ever seen. It had three words - girl, beijing, shanghai. A click on the ad leads to a landing page with photos of beautiful Chinese girls and links to the web sites of massage and escort service providers in Beijing and Shanghai.

It seems that 21st Century China, eastern simplicity and western technology come together to create surprising results. And indeed, despite the ad's spare prose, it does not take an Albert Einstein to understand what services are being offered.
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In and Out
More than 1.5 billion people across the world have access to the internet, including about 220 million people in both China and the US. The number of mobile phone suscribers worldwide is approxmately 4 billion.

There is an ongoing debate about the effects of these new technologies on social relations and personal identity. The fact that most interpersonal communication in the Western world is done remotely, mediated by technology, gave rise to a variety of theories and observations. Some critics claim that the internet brings about personal isolation,  anxiety, and creates socially-awkward individuals that cannot foster any 'real' or 'meaningful' relationships with others. Others claim that the internet contributes to increased social activity, stronger personal ties, and an overall growth in social capital and trust levels. These are the general attitudes, with plenty of variations and combinations in between.

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Is IKEA china playing love games with its local competitor? IKEA opened its first store in China in 1998. AIKA, one of its biggest local competitors, uses a brand name that is disturbingly similar to that of the Swedish giant.

Things get even worse when looking at the two companies' local brand names. IKEA's Chinese name is YiJia (宜家), meaning something along the lines of "a proper home". AIKA's Chinese name is AiJia (爱家), meaning a "loving home" or "love home". It sounds almost the same as IKEA's YiJia, but adds the "love" element.

A few weeks ago, IKEA opened a new store in Beijing. The campaign to promote the new store features a new catchphrase - AiDeXinTiYan (爱的新体验). The official English version is "more to love" but the literal translation is closer to "a new experience of love". Some may see this as IKEA's jab at AIKA, trying to appropriate the local competitor's signature emotion.

But it seems that IKEA is not the only one chipping away at AIKA's brand name. AIKA is also the name of a famous Japanese anime star. Absolute Anime, a site containing detailed information about anime characters, describes AIKA as:

"a secret agent with the skills, the wits, and the little surprises to take on the impossible... Agent Aika is an action adventure full of pretty ladies, guns, action, drama, and a definite emphasis on the ladies: tons of panty shots and more than a little skin."

Links and Sources
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"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past"

- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Losing the Plot, or the Narrative
My plan was to write a short story, a narrative of about 7000 words. Every now and then, on those inspiring moments, I would make a note to myself to remember certain situations. Later, as I was going through intense times and ideas abound, I began using my mobile phone as a notepad. I began collecting sentences. Every time anything grabbed my attention, I would jot it into my mobile phone and SMS it to myself for future reference, future sober reference. Not necessarily sober from intoxication, but sober from the moment. Every now and then, I would also attach a little photo (mobile phones do these things these days) with the message, either to remind myself of the specific reference or otherwise just as an 'emotional reference'.

After several months of accumulating short messages, I sat down and wrote them on a piece of Word ™ document on my computer. The task was simple, as many of the written pieces - those with attached photographs - were sent directly to my email inbox. I apologize for the somewhat tedious technical description, but it is a necessary preface for latter parts of this paper.

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"Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody"

-Agatha Christie

Introduction

In 1958 the American social psychologist, Merton Deutsch, described trust as a set of actions that increase one's vulnerability to the actions of another (Deutsch 1958).

These days, definitions focus more on the significance of trust for the proper economic and social function of modern society. Trust is seen as a set of logical expectations shared by all those involved in an economic exchange (Zucker 1986:50); it is a cultural resource that acts as a lubricant for economic growth, innovation, and is a precondition for successful technological change (Volken 2002).

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Introduction
The opportunity to 'seek, receive, and impart information and ideas' is recognized by the United Nations as a paramount value. Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) proceeds to stress that people should be able to practice this right 'through any media and regardless of frontiers.'(Ibid)

The right to access diverse and accurate information lies in the foundation of a healthy society; an informed citizen is a good citizen with an ability to perform his role as part of the democratic structure.

Many factors, most of which are beyond the scope of this essay, impinge on the way information is published and gathered in our 'information society'; access to technology and the Digital Divide , media ownership, and state and international regulation have a fundamental, and often detrimental, effect on the quality and quantity of information available for public access.

The World Wide Web is more often that not regarded as an innovation with radical implications on society (Holmes 1998); in the past 10 years, countless books and articles have been written about this medium's 'boundary bashing potential' (Poster 2001 p.173).

The emergence of the internet brought new hope and was hailed by many as a truly egalitarian medium that will offer an unprecedented amount of free information, and 'build a society and an economy of greater opportunity, greater freedom, and harmony.'(Feldman 2004) The World Wide Web is quickly becoming the major source of information for citizens in western democracies, and more slowly in other developing countries.

'Services that help users find their way to content of interest are crucial to the Web's ability to be a useful tool for people', and so 'As the amount of Web content skyrocketed, search engines became increasingly important in sifting through online material.'(Hargittai 2004)

As professor Julie Cohen from Georgetown University points out, the growing use of information technologies 'enables vendors of digital content to exert tighter control over access to and use of that content'(Cohen 2001). This also increases 'control over inputs to creation and communication -- and thus over social "meaning-making processes"' (Ibid.)

Safa Rashtchy, a senior research analyst at the American Investment Bank, USBPJ, predicts that the online search market, with current revenues of almost US $2 Billion per year, will reach $7 Billion by 2007, a growth rate of 35% per annum. (Rashtchy 2003)

Unlike other traditional and new media, search engines are often regarded as agenda-free tools that can be used to find almost everything. On the surface this assumption is not un-true; search engines apparently have no editors and, at least some of them, are still owned by fairly new companies that are not related to old and established media moguls or governments.

This essay aims to put under scrutiny the current leader of the growing search engine industry- Google , and examine the possible influence it has on the way information is accessed in our day and age. This also questions the World Wide Web's ability, with Google as its primary gatekeeper, to be a revolutionary, free and egalitarian source of information.

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Your finger points to the moon, But the finger is blind until the moon appears.

What connection has moon and finger?
Are they separate objects or bound?

This is a question for beginners
Wrapped in seas of ignorance.

Yet one who looks beyond metaphor
Knows there is no finger; there is no moon.

• Ryokan (1758-1831)


Part.1.Introduction. Old Neos.

Electronic media, and the effects it has on the way we experience reality, are under intensive scrutiny by postmodern thinkers - the bigger the part it (or IT) plays in our lives, the more dramatic the announcements regarding its possible effects become.

Theories about reality's distortion, duplication, alienation and even sheer elimination abound, and often make one forget that while these theories, and the thinkers who bear them, are contemporary, the notions in question are far from it. As will be shown later in this essay, the problematic nature of mediated reality has been the concern of ancient human cultures for thousands of years.

This does not mean that nothing has changed. Electronic media still play a significant part in the way our reality is produced and, more importantly, perceived. By juxtaposing old issues and new ones, I am hoping to shed light on one of electronic media's most unique effects.

To sum it in a trendy postmodern phrase - I will use technology as a metaphor in order to contemplate the use of metaphor as a technology.

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Note: The views and observations expressed on this web site are published for the sake of public discussion and do not represent my personal opinion or the opinion of my companies, clients, and/or employers. If you would like to get my opinion on anything, ask me.

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