Category Archives: New York Times

Minds of All Sizes Think Alike

Or «les esprits de toutes tailles se rencontrent».

This post is a response to the following post about Social Network Analysis (SNA), social change, and communication.

…My heart’s in Accra » Shortcuts in the social graph.

I have too many disparate things to say about that post to make it into a neat and tidy “quickie,” yet I feel like I should probably be working on other things. So we’ll see how this goes.

First, a bit of context..

[This “bit of context” may be a bit long so, please bear with me. Or you could get straight to the point, if you don’t think you can bear the context bit.]

I’ve never met Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ), who wrote the post to which I’m responding. And I don’t think we’ve had any extended conversation in the past. Further, I doubt that I’m on his radar. He’s probably seen my name, since I’ve commented on some of his posts and some of his contacts may have had references to me through social media. But I very much doubt that he’s ever mentioned me to anyone. I’m not noticeable to him.

I, on the other hand, have mentioned Zuckerman on several occasions. Latest time I remember was in class, a few weeks ago. It’s a course on Africa and I was giving students a list of online sources with relevance to our work. Zuckerman’s connection to Africa may not be his main thing, despite his blog’s name, but it’s part of the reason I got interested in his work, a few years ago.

In fact, there’s something embarrassing, here.. I so associate Zuckerman to Africa that my mind can’t help but link him to Erik Hersman, aka White African. I did meet Herman. [To be exact, I met Erik at BarCampAustin, which is quite possibly the conference-like event which has had the most influence on me, in the past few years (I go to a lot of these events).] When I did meet Hersman, I made a faux-pas in associating him with Zuckerman. Good-natured as he seemed to be, Hersman smiled as he corrected me.

EthanZ and I have other contacts in common. Jeremy Clarke, for instance, who co-organizes WordCamp Montreal and has been quite active in Montreal’s geek scene. Jeremy’s also a developer for Global Voices, a blogging community that Zuckerman co-founded. I’m assuming Clarke and Zuckerman know each other.

Another mutual contact is Christopher Lydon, host of Radio Open Source. Chris and I have exchanged a few emails, and Zuckerman has been on ROS on a few occasions.

According to Facebook, Zuckerman and I have four contacts in common. Apart from Clarke and Hersman, there’s P. Kerim Friedman and Gerd Leonhard. Kerim is a fellow linguistic anthropologist and we’ve collaborated on the official Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) site. I got in touch with Leonhard through “Music 2.0” issues, as he was interviewed by Charles McEnerney on Well-Rounded Radio.

On LinkedIn, Zuckerman is part of my third degree, with McEnerney as one of my first-degree contacts who could connect me to Zuckerman, through Zuckerman’s contacts.

(Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I haven’t name a single woman in this list. Nor someone who doesn’t write in English with some frequency, for that matter.)

By this time, my guess is that you may be either annoyed or confused. “Surely, he can’t be that obsessed with Zuckerman as to stalk him in every network.”

No, I’m not at all obsessed with Ethan Zuckerman in any way, shape, or form. Though I mention him on occasion and I might have a good conversation with him if the occasion arises, I wouldn’t go hang out in Cambridge just in case I might meet him. Though I certainly respect his work, I wouldn’t treat him as my “idol” or anything like that. In other words, he isn’t a focus in my life.

And that’s a key point, to me.

In certain contexts, when social networks are discussed, too much is made of the importance of individuals. Yet, there’s something to be said about relative importance.

In his “shortcuts” post, Zuckerman talks about a special kind of individuals. Those who are able to bypass something of a clustering effect happening in many human networks. Malcolm Gladwell (probably “inspired” by somebody else) has used “connectors” to label a fairly similar category of people and, given Gladwell’s notoriety in some circles, the name has resonance in some contexts (mostly “business-focused people,” I would say, with a clear idea in my mind of the groupthink worldview implied).

In one of my earliest blogposts, I talked about an effect happening through a similar mechanism, calling it the “Social Butterfly Effect” (SBE). I still like it, as a concept. Now, I admit that it focuses on a certain type of individuals. But it’s more about their position in “the grand scheme of things” than about who they are, though I do associate myself with this “type.”

The basic idea is quite simple. People who participate in different (sub)networks, who make such (sub)networks sparser, are having unpredictable and unmeasurable effects on what is transmitted through the network(s).

On one hand, it’s linked to my fragmentary/naïve understanding of the Butterfly Effect in the study of climate and as a component of Chaos Theory.

On the other hand, it’s related to Granovetter‘s well-known notion of “weak ties.” And it seems like Granovetter is making something of a comeback, as we discuss different mechanisms behind social change.

Interestingly, much of what is being said about weak ties, these past few weeks, relates to Gladwell’s flamebait apparent lack of insight in describing current social processes. Sounds like Gladwell may be too caught up in the importance of individuals to truly grok the power of networks.

Case in point.. One of the most useful pieces I’ve read about weak ties, recently, was Jonah Lehrer‘s direct response to Gladwell:

Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Reading Lehrer’s piece, one gets the clear impression that Gladwell hadn’t “done his homework” on Granovetter before launching his trolling “controversial” piece on activism.

But I digress. Slightly.

Like the Gladwell-specific coverage, Zuckerman’s blogpost is also about social change and he’s already responded to Gladwell. One way to put it is that, as a figure, Gladwell has shaped the discussion in a way similar to a magnetic field orienting iron filings around it. Since it’s a localized effect having to do with polarization, the analogy is fairly useful, as analogies go.

Which brings me to groupthink, the apparent target of Zuckerman’s piece.

Still haven’t read Irving Janis but I’ve been quite interested in groupthink for a while. Awareness of the concept is something I immediately recognize, praise, and associate with critical thinking.

In fact, it’s one of several things I was pleasantly surprised to find in an introductory sociology WikiBook I ended up using in my  “Intro. to Society” course, last year. Critical thinking was the main theme of that course, and this short section was quite fitting in the overall discussion.

So, what of groupthink and networks? Zuckerman sounds worried:

This is interesting to me because I’m intrigued – and worried – by information flows through social networks. If we’re getting more (not lots yet, but more) information through social networks and less through curated media like newspapers, do we run the risk of encountering only information that our friends have access to? Are we likely to be overinformed about some conversations and underinformed about others? And could this isolation lead to ideological polarization, as Cass Sunstein and others suggest? And if those fears are true, is there anything we can do to rewire social networks so that we’re getting richer, more diverse information?

Similar questions have animated many discussions in media-focused circles, especially in those contexts where the relative value (and meaning) of “old vs. new media” may be debated. At about the same time as I started blogging, I remember discussing things with a statistician friend about the polarization effect of media, strong confirmation bias in reading news stories, and political lateralization.

In the United States, especially, there’s a narrative (heard loud and clear) that people who disagree on some basic ideas are unable to hear one another. “Shockingly,” some say, “conservatives and liberals read different things.” Or “those on (the) two sides of (the) debate understand things in completely different ways.” It even reminds me of the connotations of Tannen’s booktitle, You Just Don’t Understand. Irreconciliable differences. (And the first time I mention a woman in this decidedly imbalanced post.)

While, as a French-Canadian ethnographer, my perspective is quite different from Zuckerman, I can’t help but sympathize with the feeling. Not that I associate groupthink with a risk in social media (au contraire!). But, like Zuckerman, I wish to find ways to move beyond these boundaries we impose on ourselves.

Zuckerman specifically discusses the attempt by Onnik Krikorian (@OneWMPhoto) to connect Armenians (at least those in Hayastan) and Azeris, with Facebook “affording” Krikorian some measure of success. This case is now well-known in media-centric circles and it has almost become shorthand for the power of social media. Given a personal interest in Armenians (at least in the Diaspora), my reaction to Krikorian’s success are less related to the media aspect than to the personal one.

At a personal level, boundaries may seem difficult to surmount but they can also be fairly porous and even blurry. Identity may be negotiated. Individuals crossing boundaries may be perceived in diverse ways, some of which have little to do with other people crossing the same boundaries. Things are lived directly, from friendships to wars, from breakups to reconciliations. Significant events happen regardless of the way  they’re being perceived across boundaries.

Not that boundaries don’t matter but they don’t necessarily circumscribe what happens in “personal lives.” To use an seemingly-arbitrary example, code-switching doesn’t “feel” strange at an individual level. It’s only when people insist on separating languages using fairly artificial criteria that alternance between them sounds awkward.

In other words, people cross boundaries all the time and “there’s nothing to it.”

Boundaries have quite a different aspect, at the macrolevel implied by the journalistic worldview (with nation-based checkbox democracy at its core and business-savvy professionalization as its mission). To “macros” like journos and politicos, boundaries look like borders, appearing clearly on maps (including mind ones) and implying important disconnects. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a boundary separating two groups and the conflicts between these two groups reify that boundary. Reaching out across the border is a diplomatic process and necessitates finding the right individuals for the task. Most of the important statuses are ascribed, which may sound horrible to some holding neoliberal ideas about freewill and “individual freedoms.”

Though it’s quite common for networked activities to be somewhat constrained by boundaries, a key feature of networks is that they’re typically boundless. Sure, there are networks which are artificially isolated from the rest. The main example I can find is that of a computer virology laboratory.

Because, technically, you only need one link between two networks to transform them into a single network. So, it’s quite possible to perceive Verizon’s wireless network as a distinct entity, limited by the national boundaries of the U.S. of A. But the simple fact that someone can use Verizon’s network to contact someone in Ségou shows that the network isn’t isolated. Simple, but important to point out.

Especially since we’re talking about a number of things happening on a single network: The Internet. (Yes, there is such a thing as Internet2 and there are some technical distinctions at stake. But we’re still talking about an interconnected world.)

As is well-known, there are significant clusters in this One Network. McLuhan’s once-popular “Global Village” fallacy used to hide this, but we now fully realize that language barriers, national borders, and political lateralization go with “low-bandwidth communication,” in some spots of The Network. “Gs don’t talk to Cs so even though they’re part of the same network, there’s a weak spot, there.” In a Shannon/Weaver view, it sounds quite important to identify these weak spots. “Africa is only connected to North America via a few lines so access is limited, making things difficult for Africans.” Makes sense.

But going back to weak ties, connectors, Zuckerman’s shortcuts, and my own social butterflies, the picture may be a little bit more fleshed out.

Actually, the image I have in mind has, on one side, a wire mesh serving as the floor of an anechoic chamber  and on the other some laser beams going in pseudorandom directions as in Entrapment or Mission Impossible. In the wire mesh, weaker spots might cause a person to fall through and land on those artificial stalagmites. With the laser beams, the pseudorandom structure makes it more difficult to “find a path through the maze.” Though some (engineers) may see the mesh as the ideal structure for any network, there’s something humanly fascinating about the pseudorandom structure of social networks.

Obviously, I have many other ideas in mind. For instance, I wanted to mention “Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America.” Or go back to that intro soci Wikibook to talk about some very simple and well-understood ideas about social movements, which often seem to be lacking in discussions of social change. I even wanted to recount some anecdotes of neat network effects in my own life, such as the serendipity coming from discuss disparate subjects to unlike people or the misleading impression that measuring individualized influence is a way to understand social media. Not to mention a whole part I had in my mind about Actor Network Theory, non-human actors, and material culture (the other course I currently teach).

But I feel like going back to more time-sensitive things.

Still, I should probably say a few words about this post’s title.

My mother and I were discussing parallel inventions and polygenesis with the specific theme of moving away from the focus on individualized credit. My favourite example, and one I wish Gladwell (!) had used in Outliers (I actually asked him about it) is that of Gregor Mendel and the “rediscovery” of his laws by de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak. A semi-Marxian version of the synchronous polygenesis part might hold that “ideas are in the air” or that the timing of such dicoveries and inventions has to do with zeitgeist. A neoliberal version could be the “great minds think alike” expression or its French equivalent «Les grands esprits se rencontrent» (“The great spirits meet each other”). Due to my reluctance in sizing up minds, I’d have a hard time using that as a title. In the past, I used a similar title to refer to another form of serendipity:

To me, most normally constituted minds are “great,” so I still could have used the expression as a title. But an advantage of tweaking an expression is that it brings attention to what it implies.

In this case, the “thinking alike” may be a form of groupthink.

 


My Problem With Journalism

I hate having an axe to grind. Really, I do. “It’s unlike me.” When I notice that I catch myself grinding an axe, I “get on my own case.” I can be quite harsh with my own self.

But I’ve been trained to voice my concerns. And I’ve been perceiving an important social problem for a while.

So I “can’t keep quiet about it.”

If everything goes really well, posting this blog entry might be liberating enough that I will no longer have any axe to grind. Even if it doesn’t go as well as I hope, it’ll be useful to keep this post around so that people can understand my position.

Because I don’t necessarily want people to agree with me. I mostly want them to understand “where I come from.”

So, here goes:

Journalism may have outlived its usefulness.

Like several other “-isms” (including nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and racism) journalism is counterproductive in the current state of society.

This isn’t an ethical stance, though there are ethical positions which go with it. It’s a statement about the anachronic nature of journalism. As per functional analysis, everything in society needs a function if it is to be maintained. What has been known as journalism is now taking new functions. Eventually, “journalism as we know it” should, logically, make way for new forms.

What these new forms might be, I won’t elaborate in this post. I have multiple ideas, especially given well-publicised interests in social media. But this post isn’t about “the future of journalism.”

It’s about the end of journalism.

Or, at least, my looking forward to the end of journalism.

Now, I’m not saying that journalists are bad people and that they should just lose their jobs. I do think that those who were trained as journalists need to retool themselves, but this post isn’t not about that either.

It’s about an axe I’ve been grinding.

See, I can admit it, I’ve been making some rather negative comments about diverse behaviours and statements, by media people. It has even become a habit of mine to allow myself to comment on something a journalist has said, if I feel that there is an issue.

Yes, I know: journalists are people too, they deserve my respect.

And I do respect them, the same way I respect every human being. I just won’t give them the satisfaction of my putting them on a pedestal. In my mind, journalists are people: just like anybody else. They deserve no special treatment. And several of them have been arrogant enough that I can’t help turning their arrogance back to them.

Still, it’s not about journalist as people. It’s about journalism “as an occupation.” And as a system. An outdated system.

Speaking of dates, some context…

I was born in 1972 and, originally,I was quite taken by journalism.

By age twelve, I was pretty much a news junkie. Seriously! I was “consuming” a lot of media at that point. And I was “into” media. Mostly television and radio, with some print mixed in, as well as lots of literary work for context: this is when I first read French and Russian authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I kept thinking about what was happening in The World. Back in 1984, the Cold War was a major issue. To a French-Canadian tween, this mostly meant thinking about the fact that there were (allegedly) US and USSR “bombs pointed at us,” for reasons beyond our direct control.

“Caring about The World” also meant thinking about all sorts of problems happening across The Globe. Especially poverty, hunger, diseases, and wars. I distinctly remember caring about the famine in Ethiopia. And when We Are the World started playing everywhere, I felt like something was finally happening.

This was one of my first steps toward cynicism. And I’m happy it occured at age twelve because it allowed me to eventually “snap out of it.” Oh, sure, I can still be a cynic on occasion. But my cynicism is contextual. I’m not sure things would have been as happiness-inducing for me if it hadn’t been for that early start in cynicism.

Because, you see, The World disinterested itself quite rapidly with the plight of Ethiopians. I distinctly remember asking myself, after the media frenzy died out, what had happened to Ethiopians in the meantime. I’m sure there has been some report at the time claiming that the famine was over and that the situation was “back to normal.” But I didn’t hear anything about it, and I was looking. As a twelve-year-old French-Canadian with no access to a modem, I had no direct access to information about the situation in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia still remained as a symbol, to me, of an issue to be solved. It’s not the direct cause of my later becoming an africanist. But, come to think of it, there might be a connection, deeper down than I had been looking.

So, by the end of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, I was “losing my faith in” journalism.

I clearly haven’t gained a new faith in journalism. And it all makes me feel quite good, actually. I simply don’t need that kind of faith. I was already training myself to be a critical thinker. Sounds self-serving? Well, sorry. I’m just being honest. What’s a blog if the author isn’t honest and genuine?

Flash forward to 1991, when I started formal training in anthropology. The feeling was exhilarating. I finally felt like I belonged. My statement at the time was to the effect that “I wasn’t meant for anthropology: anthropology was meant for me!” And I was learning quite a bit about/from The World. At that point, it already did mean “The Whole Wide World,” even though my knowledge of that World was fairly limited. And it was a haven of critical thinking.

Ideal, I tell you. Moan all you want, it felt like the ideal place at the ideal time.

And, during the summer of 1993, it all happened: I learnt about the existence of the “Internet.” And it changed my life. Seriously, the ‘Net did have a large part to play in important changes in my life.

That event, my discovery of the ‘Net, also has a connection to journalism. The person who described the Internet to me was Kevin Tuite, one of my linguistic anthropology teachers at Université de Montréal. As far as I can remember, Kevin was mostly describing Usenet. But the potential for “relatively unmediated communication” was already a big selling point. Kevin talked about the fact that members of the Caucasian diaspora were able to use the Internet to discuss with their relatives and friends back in the Caucasus about issues pertaining to these independent republics after the fall of the USSR. All this while media coverage was sketchy at best (sounded like journalism still had a hard time coping with the new realities).

As you can imagine, I was more than intrigued and I applied for an account as soon as possible. In the meantime, I bought at 2400 baud modem, joined some local BBSes, and got to chat about the Internet with several friends, some of whom already had accounts. Got my first email account just before semester started, in August, 1993. I can still see traces of that account, but only since April, 1994 (I guess I wasn’t using my address in my signature before this). I’ve been an enthusiastic user of diverse Internet-based means of communication since then.

But coming back to journalism, specifically…

Journalism missed the switch.

During the past fifteen years, I’ve been amazed at how clueless members of mainstream media institutions have been to “the power of the Internet.” This was during Wired Magazine’s first year as a print magazine and we (some friends and I) were already commenting upon the fact that print journalists should look at what was coming. Eventually, they would need to adapt. “The Internet changes everything,” I thought.

No, I didn’t mean that the Internet would cause any of the significant changes that we have seeing around us. I tend to be against technological determinism (and other McLuhan tendencies). Not that I prefer sociological determinism yet I can’t help but think that, from ARPAnet to the current state of the Internet, most of the important changes have been primarily social: if the Internet became something, it’s because people are making it so, not because of some inexorable technological development.

My enthusiastic perspective on the Internet was largely motivated by the notion that it would allow people to go beyond the model from the journalism era. Honestly, I could see the end of “journalism as we knew it.” And I’m surprised, fifteen years later, that journalism has been among the slowest institutions to adapt.

In a sense, my main problem with journalism is that it maintains a very stratified structure which gives too much weight to the credibility of specific individuals. Editors and journalists, who are part of the “medium” in the old models of communication, have taken on a gatekeeping role despite the fact that they rarely are much more proficient thinkers than people who read them. “Gatekeepers” even constitute a “textbook case” in sociology, especially in conflict theory. Though I can easily perceive how “constructed” that gatekeeping model may be, I can easily relate to what it entails in terms of journalism.

There’s a type of arrogance embedded in journalistic self-perception: “we’re journalists/editors so we know better than you; you need us to process information for you.” Regardless of how much I may disagree with some of his words and actions, I take solace in the fact that Murdoch, a key figure in today’s mainstream media, talked directly at this arrogance. Of course, he might have been pandering. But the very fact that he can pay lip-service to journalistic arrogance is, in my mind, quite helpful.

I think the days of fully stratified gatekeeping (a “top-down approach” to information filtering) are over. Now that information is easily available and that knowledge is constructed socially, any “filtering” method can be distributed. I’m not really thinking of a “cream rises to the top” model. An analogy with water sources going through multiple layers of mountain rock would be more appropriate to a Swiss citizen such as myself. But the model I have in mind is more about what Bakhtin called “polyvocality” and what has become an ethical position on “giving voice to the other.” Journalism has taken voice away from people. I have in mind a distributed mode of knowledge construction which gives everyone enough voice to have long-distance effects.

At the risk of sounding too abstract (it’s actually very clear in my mind, but it requires a long description), it’s a blend of ideas like: the social butterfly effect, a post-encyclopedic world, and cultural awareness. All of these, in my mind, contribute to this heightened form of critical thinking away from which I feel journalism has led us.

The social butterfly effect is fairly easy to understand, especially now that social networks are so prominent. Basically, the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory applied to social networks. In this context, a “social butterfly” is a node in multiple networks of varying degrees of density and clustering. Because such a “social butterfly” can bring things (ideas, especially) from one such network to another, I argue that her or his ultimate influence (in agregate) is larger than that of someone who sits at the core of a highly clustered network. Yes, it’s related to “weak ties” and other network classics. But it’s a bit more specific, at least in my mind. In terms of journalism, the social butterfly effect implies that the way knowledge is constructed needs not come from a singular source or channel.

The “encyclopedic world” I have in mind is that of our good friends from the French Enlightenment: Diderot and the gang. At that time, there was a notion that the sum of all knowledge could be contained in the Encyclopédie. Of course, I’m simplifying. But such a notion is still discussed fairly frequently. The world in which we now live has clearly challenged this encyclopedic notion of exhaustiveness. Sure, certain people hold on to that notion. But it’s not taken for granted as “uncontroversial.” Actually, those who hold on to it tend to respond rather positively to the journalistic perspective on human events. As should be obvious, I think the days of that encyclopedic worldview are counted and that “journalism as we know it” will die at the same time. Though it seems to be built on an “encyclopedia” frame, Wikipedia clearly benefits from distributed model of knowledge management. In this sense, Wikipedia is less anachronistic than Britannica. Wikipedia also tends to be more insightful than Britannica.

The cultural awareness point may sound like an ethnographer’s pipe dream. But I perceive a clear connection between Globalization and a certain form of cultural awareness in information and knowledge management. This is probably where the Global Voices model can come in. One of the most useful representations of that model comes from a Chris Lydon’s Open Source conversation with Solana Larsen and Ethan Zuckerman. Simply put, I feel that this model challenges journalism’s ethnocentrism.

Obviously, I have many other things to say about journalism (as well as about its corrolate, nationalism).

But I do feel liberated already. So I’ll leave it at that.


Mental Imaging

To be honest, I found the following TEDtalk disturbing.

Rick Smolan tells the story of a girl | Video on TED.com

In that video from one of those selective conferences held through Technology, Entertainment, Design, Smolan describes his role in the adoption, by some of his American friends, of a then pre-teen “Amerasian” girl (a Korean girl fathered by an American soldier during the Korean war). The now grown-up woman’s American name is Natasha (despite the talk’s title, she’s not merely “a girl”). Natasha does get a “cameo” of sorts at the end of the talk. But the story is told by Smolan, from Smolan’s perspective. During her brief appearance on stage, Natasha tells Smolan that she’ll tell him later about points he has gotten wrong. But, on that occasion, Natasha graciously smiled for the camera and didn’t participate in the conversation. She’s the topic, not the narrator.
Unfortunately, I can’t find this woman’s birth name so I don’t know how to spell it. It would be awkward for me to call her “Natasha” when referring to her before her adoption. Most of the presentation revolves around this person’s life before being adopted. The rest of the story is the “Happy ending” section of the Hollywood movie she apparently wasn’t directing.

I know, I know… It’s a “charming” story. No, I don’t want to be a killjoy. Sure, everyone involved had purely altruistic intentions (even the uncle who had recuperated his niece). Yes, I’m quite happy for this woman, that she is apparently living a “good” life (though I can’t measure people’s happiness by watching a presentation about them). But, as saltydog said in another context, the story is “somewhat self-serving and lacking in depth.”

Now, to be honest, I’m not that sensitive to nice pictures (I’m more aurally oriented). My attitude toward journalism can’t be called “sympathetic.” The tendency to “pull at heartstrings” in some Anglo-American mainstream media, I find manipulative. Even adoption, I can be ambivalent toward, partly because of horror stories. So maybe I’m both missing something important and putting too much into this. But the point is, my reaction to this presentation isn’t very positive.

Because the story is so “charming,” I might need to justify myself. Even if I don’t need to, I’ll do so. Because this is my main blog and it serves me that kind of purpose, on occasion.

In that video of a “Korean Amerasian adoption story,” we have a self-conscious photojournalist from the United States who basically admits both to having been on a sort of mission (like all journalists, he mused) and to not having known what he was doing at the time. Smolan seemed so honest about how clueless he has been that I sincerely expected another direction for the plotline. I kept waiting for the twist. Especially at TED, which keeps priding itself on “inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.”

During his TEDtalk, Smolan kept referring to mental images he was having. Through his actions, Smolan was explicitly trying to make reality itself fit those images. Because these mental images came from an admittedly clueless perspective, the overall process doesn’t sound like an extremely charming story.

Sorry!

Smolan also mentions movie-type heroism on several occasions and it sounds like he was trying to write life as a movie script. Using the “American” looks of a young Korean girl as a major part of the plotline. With not-so-subtle allusions to racial categories.

Weird.

Like saltydog, I much preferred the orphanage anecdote to the “beauty queen” and “cheerleader” photographs. Part of the reason is that the anecdote is more dynamic and more human than the pictures. This anecdote can also be a basis for empowerment, on the part of the girl who became Natasha, as opposed to the pictures which simply show conformity to local ideals.

One interesting thing about that specific anecdote (that this girl was organizing the orphanage on her own, after just a few days there) is the fact that it contradicts the “saved girl” story. On the basis of this anecdote, it would be presumptuous to say that this woman would be leading a disastrous life had she stayed in Korea instead of being “saved” by those well-meaning people in the United States. One could even hypothesize, given the limited data supplied by Smolan, that this relatively young girl could have since become a socially engaged Korean woman, helping people in her home community. With the current state of South Korean society, we might even assume that this woman would be living a comfortable life. And since her story isn’t over, one wishes that the next chapters will be as nice as the first ones.

Though, as we’re told, “Amerasians” were probably teased in that specific environment at that specific time, Smolan doesn’t make a good case for this particular girl being misadapted to the context in which she grew up. Simply put, apart from her grandmother’s wish, what solid proof do we have that “this girl” absolutely needed to be saved?

Smolan’s perception, based purely on superficial observation, that this girl was subservient to her uncle sounds like blatant ethnocentrism. Smolan does have the honesty to convey a few of the uncle’s comments about this. But the conclusion still is that intervening in a family’s business is the normal thing to do, for an American photojournalist receiving a request from a Korean woman he saw for a few days.

Smolan’s inviting young “Amerasian” adults to prove to the girl’s uncle that she would have a terrible life based on their own experiences sounds very manipulative, misinformed, and misleading. Because Smolan sounds too much like a nice guy, I have a hard time calling him arrogant. But his actions do sound like they were animated by arrogance.

Smolan repeatedly said how misled he was so I eventually thought that he was leading the (elite) TED audience into a story about his own “learning to be humble and to not judge from appearances.”

Not at all what happened.

What happened was more of a book or film pitch. Smolan may be a great guy. He also seems to be involved in a social marketing campaign. He’s allowed to do so, of course. But it’d be disingenuous to call the effort purely “charming.”

Furthermore, there’s the matter of this focus on one individual “little girl.” Makes for a nice Disney picture and for U.S. doctrines (foreign or domestic). Pulls heartstrings. Doesn’t necessarily help in the grand scheme of things. Especially when this focus comes from a photojournalist who seeked out this one girl on the premise that her grandmother originally didn’t want her to be seen by outsiders.

As Apollyon and jackyo have been asking in an Asian-friendly forum, what about the other “Amerasian” children involved? What about the broader case of Koreans or other people born in warzones, who have been fathered by U.S. or other foreign soldiers? If the girl who became Natasha did have to be saved, what about those other children? And if, as would be my hypothesis, this one girl could have led a nice life without leaving Korea at the onset of adolescence, aren’t there other children (in Korea or elsewhere) who could have a “better life” thanks to the compassion of those people in the United States?

There’s also the whole question of racial prejudice, present in the background yet not addressed directly in this talk. This one is a complex story, which would be worth more than lipservice. Racialism takes different forms in the United States and in Korea. Natasha’s experience in those two societies could shed some light on those issues. But, in the hands of journalists, individual stories often become more allegorical than insight-generating. Personalizing those issues isn’t a technique to engage in discussion. It’s a way to shut down communication.

Back in 1993, while emphasizing technological issues and the book contract that Smolan eventually signed, the New York Times mentioned Natasha’s Story as that of “an orphaned Amerasian girl” (regardless of whether or not her mother was still living at the time). Natasha herself isn’t named or given flesh, in that short piece about Smolan. She’s mentioned as the topic of a book and/or movie. A plot device more than a breathing character.

I sincerely hope that Natasha still knows how to empower herself. I sincerely don’t think she needs Smolan or anybody else to narrate her life.


Well-Rounded Bloggers

While I keep saying journalist have a tough time putting journalism in perspective, it seems that some blogging journalists are able to do it.

Case in point, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan:

Anatomy of a ‘Blogging will kill you’ story: Why I didn’t make the cut | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com

I didn’t read the original NYT piece. On purpose. As I’ve tried to establish, I sometimes run away from things “everybody has read.” Typically, in the U.S., this means something which appeared in the NYT. To the extent that, for some people, “if it’s not in the Times, it didn’t happen.” (Such an attitude is especially tricky when you’re talking about, say, parts of Africa which aren’t at war.)

This time, I’m especially glad I read Dignan’s piece instead of the NYT one because I get the gist of the “story” and Dignan provides the kind of insight I enjoy.

Basic message: blogging can be as stressful as any job yet it’s possible to have a well-balanced life as a blogger.

Simple, useful, personal, insightful, and probably more accurate than the original piece.

Oh, sure. It’s nothing new. It’s not a major revelation for most people that it’s important to think about work/life balance.

Still… As it so happens, this specific piece helped me think about my own blogging activities in a somewhat different light. No, it’s not my job (though I do wish I had a writing job). And I don’t typically stress over it. I’m just thinking about where blogging fits in my life. And that’s helpful.

Even if it means yet another blogpost about blogging.


New/Old Media: NYT Groks It

As an obvious example of “Old Media” in the U.S., The New York Times is easy to criticize. But the paper and the media company have also been showing signs that maybe, just maybe, they are home to people who do understand what is happening online, these days.

Back in September 2007, for instance, the NYT decided to make its content freely available. While The Times wasn’t the first newspaper to free its content, the fact that the “newspaper of record” for the United States went from a closed model (TimesSelect) to an open one was quite consequential. In fact, this NYT move probably had an impact on the Wall Street Journal which might be heading in a similar direction.

The Times‘s website also seems to have progressively improved on the blogging efforts by some of its journalists, including composer and Apple-savvy columnist David Pogue.

Maybe this one is just my personal perception but I did start to read NYT bloggers on a more regular basis, recently. And this helped me notice that the Times wasn’t as “stuffy and old” as its avid readers make it to be.

Possibly the silliest detail which has been helping me change my perception of the New York Times was the fact that it added a button for a “Single Page” format for its articles. A single page format is much more manageable for both blogging and archiving purposes than the multiple page format inherited from print publications. Most online publications have a “printer-friendly” button which often achieves the same goal as the NYT’s “single page” button yet, quite frequently, the printer format makes a print dialogue appear or is missing important elements like pictures. Not only is the NYT’s “Single Page” button a technical improvement over these “printer-friendly” formats but it also seems to imply that people at the Times do understand something about their online readers.

This “Single Page” button is in a box, with other “article tools” called “Print,” “Reprints,” and “Share.” The “sharing” features are somewhat limited but well-integrated. They do make it easy for some social networkers and bloggers to link to New York Times content.

FWIW, my perception of this grande dame of print publications is greatly influenced by my perception of the newspaper’s blog-friendliness.

Speaking of blog-friendly… The major news item making the New York Times Company seem even more sympathetic to bloggers is the fact that it has contributed to a round of funding which provided WordPress.com’s parent company Automattic with 29.5 M$.

Unsurprisingly, Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg blogged about the funding round. Candidly recounting the history of his company, Mullenweg whets our appetites for what may be coming next in WordPress and in other Automattic projects:

Automattic is now positioned to execute on our vision of a better web not just in blogging, but expanding our investment in anti-spam, identity, wikis, forums, and more — small, open source pieces, loosely joined with the same approach and philosophy that has brought us this far.

While some of these comments sound more like a generic mission statement than like a clear plan for online development, they may give us a glimpse of what will be happening at that company in the near future.

After all, chances are that integrating technologies will be one of the Next Big Things. In fact, some other people have seen the “social networking” potential of WordPress.com, though this potential is conceived through a perspective different from my original comments about WordPress.com’s network effect. Guess I’ll have to write a wishlist for WordPress.com features (including support for ubiquitous social networking, podcasting, and learning management).Still, what the funding announcement means to me has more to do with the integration of “Old Media” (print publications like The New York Times) and “New Media” (online services like WordPress and WordPress.com). As luck would have it, I’m not the only blogger who thinks about the positive effects this Old/New Media integration may have.

As an aside, to this Austinite and long-time sax player, Matt Mullenweg’s Texas and saxophone connections are particularly endearing. Good thing I’m not an investor because I would probably follow my gut feeling and invest in Automattic for such irrational reasons.

Ah, well…


Research and Regulations

Talk about chilling effects

Colleges and Universities – Institutional Review Boards – Ethics – New York Times

Interesting that the NYT should take this issue on. Because of its readership, it might have an impact. Many researchers have, in fact, been having these discussions, including in ethnographic disciplines.


Islam and “Western Imagination”

[Update: I forgot to thank Djemaa Maazouzi for sending that link to a seminar mailing-list… So, thank you Djemaa! Sorry for the delay…]

Thinking about Lila Abu-Lughod‘s powerful Eurozine “Lettre” The Muslim Woman. The Power of Images and the Danger of Pity.

In the common Western imagination, the image of the veiled Muslim woman stands for oppression in the Muslim world. This makes it hard to think about the Muslim world without thinking about women, sets up an “us” and “them” relationship with Muslim women, and ignores the variety of ways of life practiced by women in different parts of the Muslim world. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod emphasizes that veiling should not be confused with a lack of agency or even traditionalism. Western feminists who take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of oppressed Muslim women assume that individual desire and social convention are inherently at odds: something not borne out by the experience of Islamic society.

Though it uses veiling as a starting point, Abu-Lughod’s insightful piece reaches to several important issues of religious tolerance, global policy, cultural awareness, secularism, liberalism, and thoughtful respect and consideration for human beings. This piece is in fact so powerful and thoughtful that it seems irrelevant to add much to its content.

Let us wish that more people will grow their understanding of both Islam and “The West” through a careful reflection on those issues.

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Stable Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Canada

This is a slightly edited version of one of my posts on the LingAnth mailing-list. Susan Ervin-Tripp had posted a message about endangered languages. I mused about possibilities for bilingualism or multilingualism to be stable. Claire Bowern described such patterns. As a follow-up, Peter Patrick mentioned the Canadian situation. As a Québécois, I felt compelled to post something about what I perceive Canadian bilingualism and multilingualism to be like. This is not meant as an expert opinion on the situation.

Without further ado…

Glad to see such an interesting discussion about language diversity. My two (Canadian) cents, to keep the ball rolling. (I’m sending those comments as a French-speaking linguistic anthropologist from Montreal who is not a specialist of Canada.)
Bilingualism in Canada is quite specific. Unless otherwise specified, the term “bilingual” refers to individuals who are fluent in both French and English. There is a perceived imbalance in the degree of “bilingualism” among French- and English-speakers. Bilingualism in other languages tends to be treated separately. Fluency is evaluated using many criteria, including “accent” and even eloquence.
English and French are the (only) two official languages in Canada. Official status for both languages has important consequences in federal politics and administration. Given the official status of both languages, bilingualism often implies advantages in professional placement. New Brunswick is the only province to be officially bilingual (it has the largest French-speaking population outside of Quebec); Quebec is officially French-speaking (with important political consequences); other provinces are officially English-speaking; territories follow federal regulations, though Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun has official status in Nunavut (not sure on the details).
Functional bilingualism can be said to be fairly stable in some specific regions. However, the situation in most French-speaking communities outside of Quebec is usually perceived as a potential switch from French to English: children of “inter-marriages” are likely to only speak English. This switch is perceived, in French-speaking communities, as tantamount to language loss. Language insecurity is at rather high levels in many French-speaking communities outside of Quebec.
In Quebec, the perceived likelihood that French would disappear has decreased dramatically over the past several years. In such a situation, bilingualism is infrequently perceived as a threat. French-speaking Quebeckers appear quite secure in their (our) language use and they (we) will often use English in multi-lingual situations, without any fear of language, status, or identity loss. Perhaps because of French language ideology, English-speakers fluent in French tend not to speak French with native speakers of the language (outside of formal contexts in which bilingualism might be expected).In short, the general model is one of monolingual communities (either French- or English-speaking) with bilingual individuals.Multilingualism is often seen as a completely separate issue. Apart from the status of the French language here, multilingualism in Canada seems fairly comparable to multilingualism in the U.S., despite significant differences in policies and in perceptions. A simplistic explanation of differences: for a relatively long time, Canadian policies have tended to emphasize the right for immigrant groups to “maintain their cultural identities,” including their native languages (the “mosaic” model instead of the “melting pot”); several languages besides English and Spanish are involved in social and political issues; multilingualism is probably more of an urban phenomenon throughout Canada (most of the Canadian population is concentrated in a relatively small number of cities); languages of First Nations/Aboriginal/Native/Autochtonous groups are the object of some concern but relatively little attention is paid to those issues by the general population.
Regardless of these issues, the three-generation pattern [monolingual to bilingual to monolingual] is perceived as the dominant one throughout Canada, with relatively few exceptions. Stable bilingualism in, say, Punjabi and English or Italian and French is usually limited to specific neighborhoods in one of Canada’s largest cities.
To briefly go back to the original article which sparked this discussion, language diversity in Canada is probably increasing but the notion that this diversity might threaten English is rather uncommon. One of the reasons might be that functional bilingualism is perceived favourably by many people.

I’m posting it here because I’d be delighted to get feedback on it. More specifically, I’d like to be proven wrong on some of those issues. The best way to overcome one’s own biases is to publicly discuss them and it’s quite possible that my perspective or that my observations are flawed.

In fact, I noticed after posting that message that the Northwest Territories (NT) follow their own language policies, giving official status to several Aboriginal languages. From a page on language rights:

The Official Languages Act recognizes the following Official Languages: Chipewyan, Cree, Dogrib, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuktitut, (including Inuvialuktun and Inuinnaqtun) and Slavey (including North and South Slavey). They are given equal status according to the individual provisions of the Act.

I originally thought that Nunavut (NU) was the only Canadian Territory with its own language policies (different from federal policies). My impression is now that the status of Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun in NU is “more official” than the status of Aboriginal languages in NT, but that might have to do with the fact that NU’s governmental website seems to be fully available in Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun and the NT one is only available in English. If I’m not mistaken, Yukon (YK) directly follows language policies from the federal government. Of the three territories, NU has the highest proportion of native speakers of neither English nor French (71.4% in 2001). NT has a much lower proportion of native speakers of neither English nor French (19.4% in 2001). YK only had 9.9% of native speakers of neither English nor French in 2001.

(Interesting statistics on languages in Canada’s provinces and territories.)One thing I’m really not sure about is how different Canada is from the United States in terms of languages of “First Nations/Aboriginal/Native/Autochtonous groups.” From colleagues who work with such groups, I get the impression that some groups are “better off” on one side of the U.S./Canada border than some other groups but that, maybe, the situation is fairly equivalent on either side. I would assume that such a pattern would apply to language policies but I don’t know much about any of this. My general impression is that Inuktitut, Ojibwa, and Cree languages are rather well-protected in Canada and that Navajo and Ojibwa are well-protected in the United States. This impression might have more to do with my rudimentary knowledge about the number of speakers of those languages in the United States and Canada than with actual language policies.Another thing that would merit discussion is the proportion of active bilinguals among French- and English-speaking communities. The overwhelming impression among French-speakers (at least in Quebec and New Brunswick) is that they (we) are the ones who “accommodate” English-speakers by speaking English even in situations in which French-speakers greatly outnumber English-speakers. However, it seems to be a contentious subject as English-speakers are said to feel that they are the ones accommodating French-speakers. Some English-speaking friends alluded to this, but language use is a bit too touchy a subject for conversation among “bilingual” friends. There’s a lot of research on those issues, some of which I have read, but I’m still not clear on what is really going there. So I was walking on egg shells when I wrote my message, trying not to make any specific claim about accommodation. As a French-speaker who has lived in both Quebec and New Brunswick, my strong impression is that we, in fact, do accommodate much more frequently than English-speakers would in most informal situations. I really would like to be proven wrong, as I can’t wrap my head around the discrepancy. I guess that this is the point at which I’m too much of a French-speaker.

Another reason for me to post that message here is that, apparently, a colleague would like to use my message (as is) in class. Not that I expect others to use it but in such a situation, it seems even more important for me to ensure that my message isn’t too inaccurate.

So, again, I’d be really happy if some people could post comments here telling me inaccuracies in my short explanation on language diversity in Canada.


France and Higher Ed

[Yet another older draft…]

Choses Vues » Blog Archive » Higher education in France

(That link now leads to a paid article. Here’s another link to the article.) Perhaps typical of NYT pieces these days, this article is rather detailed without being edifying and somewhat provocative without being thought-provoking. It’s also very ethnocentric. Too bad, though, as the issue would merit a thorough analysis. Coming from French-speaking institutions outside of France and currently connected with academic institutions in the U.S., my personal perspective is quite different. Not that the issues with the French system are at all surprising to me. But comparison with the United States doesn’t really bring the issue forward. As Paul says, Scandinavian institutions could provide more interesting models. My experience in Switzerland and Quebec is also significantly different from what is described in the article. Not that any one of those post-secondary educational systems is perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. But post-secondary education is not limited to France and the United States. In fact, France and the U.S. are isolated cases in today’s educational world. What might even be surprising to many people is that those two countries are often much more similar than different. For instance, the extremely high prestige afforded a precious few institutions is a striking feature of both educational systems (Grandes écoles, Ivy League…). It might exist in other places (say, England) but, at least, it’s not characteristic of universities in Quebec. In Canada generally, most academic institutions have much of the same status, despite attempts by MacLean’s to rank universities every year (à la Princeton Review). While the rankings have some effect, they are much less restrictive than what exists in either the U.S. or France. Also, faculty members across Canada get almost exactly the same salary for the same position, irrespective of their host institution. Disparities in salaries exist at many other levels but they usually don’t distinguish one institution from the rest. Will probably post a blog entry about this pretty soon.


“You Should Expand Your Reading Base”

Open Source » Blog Archive » Chomsky: My Dinner with Hassan
Thank you, Thomas Ricks!

Actually, his attitude through most of that conversation is quite refreshing. Humble yet assertive, honest yet tactful, insightful yet unafraid of obvious facts. Just shows that there’s life outside the New York Times groupthink, even within the United States media-obsessed world…


Not Another Teen Novel?

McCafferty's two novels, which also deal with teenage anguish and inadequacies

How unique! 😉 


Anthropologists and Foreign Policy

Maureen Dowd NYT Didn’t See It Coming, Again (via The Neil Rogers Show)

One smart anthropologist reinforcing the idea that “mirroring” – assuming other cultures think like us – doesn’t work would be a lot more helpful than all of the discredited intelligence agencies . . .

So, the psychological concept of projection applied to cultural contacts. Not sure which anthropologist coined the term but it does make sense in an anthropological context.

The piece as a whole is rather typical NYT op-ed. Still, it’s interesting to see references to applied anthropology in such a context.