Category: Technology & Society

Google+ Thoughts (II)

Posted on July 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. 1 Comment

Earlier thoughts on Google + here.

Word on the street says that Google+ has already surpassed ten million users, an impressive feat considering that the service is still only available by invitation. Buzz in the media seems to be mostly positive. Social media heavyweights have giddily joined. The Google leviathan is growing- their profits are apparently up 36%.

So will Google + inevitably conquer the social networking world and relegate Facebook to the Friendster-like ether? No. And Twitter, which I think is probably more threatened by Google + than Facebook, should be fine as well.

First of all, tech junkies tend to forget that not everyone thinks like them. A large number of people are satisfied with Internet Explorer, for example, which to a tech geek is akin to being satisfied with a Model T. Millions of people still use Hotmail or Yahoo for their e-mail. Others don’t see the need for purchasing a smart phone, even if they could afford it.

Where Facebook thrived was in being able to bring those people- ones not normally technologically inclined- into the social media orbit. People who could barely turn on a computer began signing up for accounts and zinging off friend requests to their family and friends, and before long they were uploading photos and linking articles like seasoned professionals.

While it’s natural to assume that these people will glide easily over to Google +, I think a significant percentage of them will say: “I just got used to Facebook and now I have to start all over again? Forget it. I’m staying put”. Others might just feel oversaturated…they already spend all their time on social networks and need another one like a hole in the head.  Still others might feel uncomfortable with giving yet another corporation all their data.

Earlier I thought Twitter would be the first casualty of Google +, but now I’m not so sure. For the same reason that people still use Hotmail or Internet Explorer, Twitter might just survive simply due to a large number of people being satisfied with it and not wanting change. Facebook too will probably prove more resilient than its predecessors like MySpace and Friendster. Until your grandma starts posting old photos on Google +, it’ll be too early to write Facebook’s obituary.…

Digital-Era Manners

Posted on April 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society, Uncategorized. 2 comments

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe have an interesting series at Slate debating manners in the new digital age, and in this article they have a brief chat about whether or not to call back if someone doesn’t leave a voice mail.

I’m with Farhad. I hate voicemail. As he says, you can’t skim it, you can’t preview it, and in the vast majority of cases the message left is totally useless. If someone has a message for me, I’d much rather receive it via text or e-mail than via voice mail. Like Farhad, I automatically call back anyone who calls me regardless of whether they left a voice mail or not, so why bother leaving a message?

I should note though that my opinion was informed by six years in China, a country where voice mail doesn’t exist  for some reason. I didn’t miss it, though, and can’t remember hearing anyone complain to me that they wished China had it.

That aside, what are some general etiquette tips in our modern, digital era? Here’s a few I’ve come up with.

  • Playing with one’s phone idly; i.e., checking e-mail, is only acceptable when one’s alone. Doing so when someone’s talking to you is extremely rude.
  • Interrupting a conversation to take a phone call or to reply to a text is OK so long as an apology and “excuse me” are proffered and the delay is very brief. Leaving someone sitting there while you have a casual 10-minute conversation is rude
  • Turn your ringer off for goodness sakes!
  • This day and age, it’s frankly unacceptable if people are lax about returning e-mails. I’m an inveterate letter writer and realize that not everyone has the inclination to write several paragraphs to a friend, but I demerit people who fail to reply at all to e-mails I have written within a reasonable time frame.
  • I have no problem at all with people using cell phones on subways, planes, buses, and trains and think people should get over their aversion to dealing with cell phone chatter.
  • That being said, one thing I do appreciate about the US is that people are relatively quiet when speaking on the phone. Not so in China, where people will shout at high volumes as if they’re standing alone in a vast, empty canyon rather than crammed onto a city bus with 40 other people. The worst I ever saw was in Laos, where an older man at an airport actually put his call on speaker and shouted into the phone as if it were a walkie-talkie.
  • Being something of a traditionalist, romantic break-ups should be done in person, over the phone, or with Skype. E-mails and texts are too impersonal.
  • I appreciate the hands-free technology used these days, but people who walk down the street talking into a headset still look like raving lunatics to me. As long as they know that, they’re fine.
  • I’m a curmudgeon in my use of language and have accepted that lol, brb, roflmao, and other acronyms have become accepted into our common vernacular. But only in writing. Please, please, please don’t say it out loud.
  • Oh, and if you’re buying something at a shop, don’t talk on the phone. Even the scrooges at the Westside Market deserve better than that.


What’s in a Name?

Posted on March 10th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Technology & Society. No Comments

Being a journalist and activist in China is trying at even the best of times, but especially so when choosing to criticize the Communist Party. Michael Anti has made a career out of doing just that, bravely taking the Chinese government to task for its odious censorship of the Internet and other forms of media. Anti, of course, is not a Chinese name- it is the English name of the journalist Zhao Jing- but is more than just a ‘pen’ name, too. In a media environment as sensitive as that in China it is imperative that a writer obtain a degree of separation from his true identity, even if just rhetorically.

This apparently isn’t good enough for Facebook. Citing a breach of its ‘no pseudonym’ policy, the Internet giant abruptly canceled Anti’s account in January.  Gone, immediately, were the thousands of contacts he cultivated over the previous three years. (Full disclosure: I was one of Anti’s “friends” even though I have not met him personally). Since then, Anti has tried to restore his account but to no avail, saying quite sincerely that he “can’t function using his Chinese name”.

I appreciate Facebook’s policy of insisting on legal names, and think that doing so was one of the main reasons it eclipsed MySpace so easily a few years ago. But in a police state like China there is real value in shielding- even partially- one’s true identity. Michael Anti didn’t choose his name out of self-promotional zeal. He did it so that his controversial content could have that much more breathing room and exposure. For people in Anti’s field services like Facebook are essential in the dissemination of content that would otherwise remain buried.

I realize that with 500 million users Facebook may not have enough time to police every single one of their users’ pages, but surely they can separate between people like Anti and others with a less solid case for using a separate identity. For Anti, having his Facebook page canceled is more than a nuisance- it’s a professional setback.

(Hat tip to Evan Osnos at the New Yorker)

Update: Our friends at Gawker have picked up the story. Good- hopefully with a little more attention Facebook will restore Anti’s page.…

Quote of the Day

Posted on December 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Technology & Society. 1 Comment

From the Twitter feed of Blake Hounshell:

‘(Julian) Assange: ‘I believe that history will be separated into pre and post-cablegate phases’.

Hmmm. Hounshell’s hashtag- #delusionsofgrandeur- pretty much sums it up.…

Wikileaks and Me

Posted on December 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Me, Technology & Society, US Politics. No Comments

A few days ago students in my Masters program- at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University- received the following e-mail from administrators:

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Office of Career Services

This writer from the Morningside Post found the insinuation that we’ll damage our careers by commenting on the Wikileaks scandal offensive. Even Democracy Now! picked up the story.  I do find the story a little ridiculous. I wonder if in five years someone will get this e-mail:

Dear so and so,

We’ve reviewed your application to work for the Department of State and have decided we can’t offer you the position you seek. Although you’re eminently qualified and talented and we’d love to have you under ordinary circumstances, the fact that you referred to Julian Assange as a ‘douchebag’ in a Facebook post dated December 1, 2010 and wrote three pithy paragraphs evincing skepticism of the ultimate significance of Wikileaks means that you’ll never get a security clearance and you’ll never work for Uncle Sam. Don’t even think about the Peace Corps, loser!


Foggy Bottom

Who knows? I could be wrong. But it seems ridiculous to me that it’s damaging to write about a current event that is on the front page of the newspaper every day. It isn’t as if Private Bradley Manning leaked the cables to SIPA students!

UPDATE: Here’s The Huffington Post with more, including this quote from one of my classmates:

“They seem to be unable to make the distinction between having an opinion and having a contractual obligation to keep a secret,” said Hugh Sansom, a masters student from New York.

Students were taken aback by the email, said Sansom, who described his non-American classmates — nearly half of this year’s incoming class at Columbia speaks a native language other than English — as “amused and surprised.”


Wikileaks and You

Posted on December 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Technology & Society, US Politics. No Comments

Since the Wikileaks release of some of the over quarter million diplomatic cables from the US Department of State, I’ve struggled to sort out my thoughts on the issue. My initial response was condemnation- how could an organization be so irresponsible to place people’s lives in danger? Another response was ridicule- why did Julian Assange risk his life and that of others in order to release what basically amounts to embarrassing, but non-revelatory, bits of diplomatic communication?  What did he think he was going to accomplish?

At the same time, the cable leak raises some uncomfortable questions. Would I be more supportive if the leaks occurred under a Bush, rather than Obama, Administration? What if Bradley Manning had leaked the information to accredited journalists rather than Assange?

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to these questions. One of my criticisms of recent US foreign policy was its lack of transparency, dating from the Bush era lies about Iraq and the unlawful detention practices associated with the bogus ‘war on terror’. Obama’s reluctance to reform these trappings of a security-industrial state have been inadequate and disappointing.

Then again it seems perverse to expect all diplomatic activity to be conducted in the open. None of the revelations thus far have been more than just embarrassing- did anyone think the US would have a more positive appraisal of Russian democracy?- but the need for diplomats to speak candidly with their governments is obvious.

What effect will these leaks have? I doubt Assange would be happy to hear this, but the likeliest effect of the info dump is increased secrecy. Diplomats will now be aware that their missives are potential targets for dissemination and will take steps to conceal them further. This will raise the costs of communication but will ultimately have little effect on how the US conducts its business around the world.

One wonders if Assange believes that the crux of American power- something he is reported to view as malevolent- is its moral authority, and that the release of sensitive materials will undermine this authority and thus American power. The source of American power is actually pretty simple- money and guns- and no amount of leaking will change that.…

Chinese-Style Internet Censorship in SE Asia?

Posted on October 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. No Comments

Earlier this week I attended a panel discussion on internet censorship in China featuring Xiao Qiang, the prominent Tiananmen Square dissident and editor of China Digital Times, and the Chinese social scientists Dr. Lu Xiaobo and Dr. Wang Guomin. All three men were optimistic that the Great Chinese Firewall’s days were numbered, and that the rise of liberal thought on the Chinese internet augured well for the future.

In today’s Guardian comes a more sobering view: not only does the firewall have staying power in China, it is acting as a model for Southeast Asian governments keen to control the media:

Governments across south-east Asia are following China‘s authoritarian censorship of the digital world to keep political dissent in check, the Guardian can reveal.

VietnamBurmaThailandCambodia and the Philippines have all moved or are moving towards monitoring internet use, blocking international sites regarded as critical and ruthlessly silencing web dissidents.

• In Vietnam, the Communist party wants to be your “friend” on the state-run version of Facebook, provided you are willing to share all personal details.

• In Burma, political unrest can be silenced by cutting off the country from the internet.

• In Thailand, website moderators can face decades in jail for a posted comment they did not even write, if the government deems it injurious to the monarchy.

While much is made of China’s authoritarian attitude towards internet access, a majority of south-east Asian governments have similar controls and , rather than relaxing restrictions on internet use, many are moving towards tighter regulation.

Notice how this list includes nominally democratic regimes like Thailand and the Philippines as well as the usual autocracies in the region.

The obvious implication, as the Guardian mentions, is that the internet won’t necessarily lead to press freedom as everyone once thought it would. Governments across the world are proving far more adept at developing censorship tools than users are in circumventing them.

But despite these constraints it is simply impossible for all information to be censored. Even in Myanmar, where less than 1 percent of the population goes online, the government occasionally has to shut the internet off completely in order to stifle dissent. And while the GFW used to annoy the hell out of me in China, in practice it never prevented me from obtaining valuable information of any kind.…

Bibles for Porn

Posted on March 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. 16 comments

It appears that a group of atheists in San Antonio, Texas, have launched a program in which college students can swap Bibles and other religious texts for high-class pornography. The idea is for people to equate the two rather than to actually promote porn. Clever? No doubt. Effective? I’d say no.

As an atheist, I’m well aware that our popularity ranks somewhere between Dick Cheney and herpes. Voters would almost certainly elect a transsexual murderer president, so long as he was a believer, over an atheist. I’d like very much to be able to put my weight behind an effective pro-atheist movement.

Bibles for porn isn’t it, for a few reasons. For one thing, it reinforces the image of atheists as a group of licentious libertines who would spike the school water supply with LSD given half a chance.  Hardcore Christians like to think that their morality derives entirely from faith, and that ergo those without faith somehow lack a morality. This idea is of course wrong, but handing out porn is hardly the way to disprove it.

The second thing I object to is the notion that the Bible is ‘smut’, as the program’s manifesto calls it. Hardly. The Bible is a book upon which the foundation of Western culture is based. For that reason alone, it has immense historical value. Rather than trading Bibles in for porn, atheists should actually sit and learn it. The world would be better off if people were to analyze ‘sacred’ texts critically rather than simply adopt their tenets wholesale.

Far more effective were the light and breezy ‘atheist bus’ campaign that made a slight stir in England last year.…

Buzz Buzz

Posted on February 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. No Comments

So a week into the Google Buzz era and…I like it! Seems to be a nice recovery from the Google Wave debacle, which went over like a lead balloon. I think Buzz has the potential to be a nice addition to the social networking sphere- sort of a Facebook without all the extra crap and a more streamlined, intuitive version of Twitter.

But I do have one distinct fear- China does not look kindly upon social networking platforms. Should the Great Firewall rise up and smack down Buzz, there will be some dreadful collateral damage: Gmail. And yes, while a Gmail ban might spur China-based netizens to invest in VPN’s most people aren’t really prepared to do so. A gmail ban would rank far higher on a pain-in-the-ass-meter than the Facebook/Twitter blocks.

So while I like Buzz, part of me wants it to fail so that my precious Gmail account doesn’t get harmonized.…

Google Thoughts

Posted on January 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Technology & Society. 4 comments

Like Chris I’ve hesitated to weigh in on the latest Google news, though needless to say I consider the company’s brinkmanship with the Chinese government troubling news indeed. James Fallows of the Atlantic and Sky Canaves of the Wall Street Journal have provided a useful summary of what is and isn’t happening with the search engine here.

In practical terms Google’s possible departure from China would have little effect. For web searches in Chinese Google’s rival Baidu is better, anyway. Google’s YouTube doesn’t work here, but Youku and Tudou both do. For most every service Google provides there is a domestic equivalent in China.

Yet the symbolic importance of Google’s maneuver is significant. In particular, the idea that the spread of the internet will necessarily challenge the Communist Party’s iron grip on power in China has come under further question. To borrow a phrase from the popular Chinese blogger Han Han, the People’s Republic is in the process of creating the world’s largest local area network (LAN). Beijing’s efforts to manipulate the web are becoming more, not less, successful.

A second idea being challenged? That multi-national companies can operate with impunity in China. For years global firms have salivated over China’s 1.3 billion-strong population and eye-catching GDP figures, imagining that what sells in Peoria might, too, in Xi’an. Yet Beijing has shown that any attempt to tamper with its desire to suppress dissent will not be tolerated.

I agree with John that acquiring a virtual private network (VPN) will before long become de rigeur for China’s internet users. As I wrote over a year ago, I believe China’s efforts to censor the web will only stop once everyone finds a cheap and easy way to work around the firewall.

As for me, paying 50 US dollars a year for unfettered Internet access is a small price to pay for a sense of personal freedom as well as a middle finger raised to the worst excesses of the Chinese nanny state.…