… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

September 20, 2009

Building the future of translation, online

Many of the conversations at the Berkman Center orbit the topic of technological determinism. While no one will actually admit to being a technological determinist, it’s pretty common to hear arguments that a new technology will lead, inexorably, to a change in human behavior. For instance, we’re forced to redefine our ideas of privacy in an era of social networks which encourage/demand revelations about our personal networks. (Interesting piece in today’s Boston Globe suggests that researchers at MIT are able to make pretty good guesses about people’s sexual orientation based on their network of friends on Facebook and knowledge about the sexuality of some members of the network.) Some of my colleagues argue that we’re bound for a future where potentially embarrasing personal information is so pervasive that we’ll need to work out new social norms about what’s acceptable to remember and what we’re socially required to forget.

By spending the last decade or so watching technology adopted, rejected, refashioned and hacked in the developing world, I’ve developed the strong sense that nothing is inevitable simply because it’s possible, and an equally strong sense that the influence of a new tech can be strong, subtle and unexpected. In other words, even if determinism in its strongest form isn’t correct, there’s a reason we keep arguing about it… in many cases, tech’s the trigger for a new cycle of behavior.

I’ve been arguing for some time now that language is a critical force that shapes how we do and don’t use the internet. I made the case a year ago that we need sustained, distributed human efforts to make translation more pervasive in a polyglot internet. In recent talks, I’ve been offering a thought experiment – how would our online behavior change if we never encountered a webpage in a language we don’t speak? What if our browsers were smart enough to know what languages we were comfortable reading and when they encountered another tongue, they’d either find a human translation or use an automatic translator to provide a comprehensible (if imperfect) version of the page?

My friend Brian McConnell of WorldWideLexicon – now Der Mundo – has taken a major step towards making this a reality. Brian is one of the pioneers helping think through distributed translation on the internet. Der Mundo is a long-standing project that invites anyone to help translate interesting texts, contributing whole or partial human translations of documents, allowing users to discover translations of documents and server administrators to make their sites open for translation. Brian has now taken a critical new step of introducing a Firefox plugin which determines the language of a page you’re browsing, looks for human translations and offers them to you, and otherwise connects with tools like Google Translate to provide you with comprehensible text.

The plug-in is part of a family of tools that Brian identifies as necessary to bridge online linguistic barriers: browser tools, web server tools (to open sites for translation), global translation memories (letting translators cooperate and share accumulated knowledge) and language service providers (services that can provide rapid, if imperfect, translations of texts between language pairs). The translation plugin is in an early stage – and can be a bit unstable at present – but it’s thrilling to see someone who’s thought so thoroughly about this field take the steps to bring theory into practice. In his essay on the tools, Brian offers his hope that we’ll see translation integrated into browsers like Firefox in the future. From his words to Mozilla’s ears.

In the meantime, Brian is trying to raise money to accelerate and extend his efforts. If you’re interested in the challenges of multilingualism on the net and can lend a hand, either with fiscal contributions or by becoming part of a development team, Brian’s done very important work for a long time and is one of the smartest and most respected people in the field.

Translation integrated into the browser doesn’t guarantee that internet users will become more cosmopolitan and less parochial in their internet usage. But the absence of tools that make it easy to stumble upon, understand and become interested in content in other languages makes it much less likely that we’ll use the internet as a way to bridge cultural and lingustic barriers. I think of Brian’s project as one of many necessary, though not sufficient, conditions to let us achieve a future where we’re all exposed to great ideas online, no matter what original language they were written in.

June 12, 2009

Invented languages, cosmopolitan dreams

Filed under: Global Voices,ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 8:09 pm

Arika Okrent has a thing for languages. Born in Chicago, she got good enough at Hungarian to teach in Hungary, and learned ASL while getting a masters degree in linguistics at Gallaudet, the world’s leading university for the deaf. Somewhere in the course of a University of Chicago PhD in psycholinguistics, things took a turn for the weird, and she found herself studying languages that don’t get a lot of respect in the linguistics world: invented languages like Esperanto, Lojban and Klingon.

Her fascination with invented languages has led to her recent book, “In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamer Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language”. It’s a damn fine book – I devoured it in two sittings, in the course of a flight to LA and back, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’m not a lover of languages in the way Okrent is, but I am fascinated by absurdly ambitious projects to make the world better (and not just the ones I’m involved with.) And it’s a fascinating surprise to me how many of these language projects involved someone’s sincere, well-meaning and often insane attempt to make the world a better place.

Okrent provides a listing of 900 invented languages created between roughly 1150 and the present, but her focus is on five languages that demonstrate major chapters in the history of language development. One of these languages is Klingon, created mostly to sound badass in Star Trek movies, but which has features that make it a playground for linguists (complex affixes, including honorifics! Object-verb-subject ordering! Glottal stops!)

The other four were created entirely without irony, to solve problems the language designers saw in society as a whole. John Wilkins’s Philosophical Language was an attempt to build a universal language by building a universal metaphysics – once you figured out where every thing, concept and idea fit in Wilkins’s Aristotelian hierarchy, speaking was a breeze. The appeal of such a language is that words explain their own meanings – “zitαs” obviously means “wolf”, since “zi” signifies beast, “t” indicates an oblong head, “α” signifies a larger size, and the “s” indicates that the large oblong-headed beast isn’t tame. The problem isn’t just that it takes a very long time to learn a language that requires you to require how its author thought – it’s very difficult to think as precisely as a language like this requires. Okrent tries to translate a famous Borges passage into Wilkins’s language and gets tripped up on the phrase “it’s clear”. Does this mean “not obscure”? “Transparent”? The precise answers aren’t especially helpful – language is useful not because it’s precise but because it’s understandable.

This is a lesson language designers can’t seem to get their heads around. Perhaps the saddest story is that of Charles Bliss, who Okrent portrays as a deeply disturbed megalomaniac, who designed an elegant pictoral language, then proceeded to harrass and abuse the only community of people in the world who’d adopted the system, a school for developmentally disabled children in Ontario. The crime of the teachers at the center? They used Bliss’s symbols as a way to allow profoundly disabled children to communicate their needs and feelings as a first step towards teaching the children English – this infuriated Bliss, who saw Blissymbolics as a replacement for illogical natural languages. (An alternative version of his life story is available here, from Grant Stott, a student and friend of Bliss’s.)

Okrent finds thorny, difficult individuals associated with many of the languages she studies, and a theme emerges of languages coming to fruition when they’re adopted by someone other than their creators. Loglan, a language created by James Cook Brown to be entirely value-neutral and therefore allow testing of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, never met with much success, while Lojban, a fork from the original project, sports a 906-entry Wikipedia. Okrent credits the fork to Brown’s tendency to alienate and drive away his supporters and the “success” of Lojban to its ability to accept contributions from a wider community of enthusiasts. (Okrent suspects that no one is fluent enough in Lojban or Loglan to actually be considered a “speaker” – in an attempt to specify the parameters of the language, the Lojban community has published a 600 page grammar of the language. That doesn’t include any vocabulary – it requires 600 pages to sufficiently explain the language’s grammar.)

In that sense, the hero of the book is Esperanto. It may be absurdly utopian – can an “auxilliary language”, designed to be everyone’s second language, really bring about world peace? You can find dozens of reasons to criticize its structure, its origins, its implicit Eurocentricity and sexism. But Okrent celebrates the quirky and wonderful community that supports the language, introducing us to native speakers, parents teaching their children Esperanto as a first language, and wonderful expressions of international solidarity that are hard to express in other languages. She’s clearly caught between the temptation to poke fun at the culture and to jump in uncritically. But the messsage is a strong one: languages need a community, a group of people to speak, expand, care for and love a language. Perhaps the best quote in the whole book comes from an Interlingua speaker she meets at an Esperanto gathering. “I think it is a better language. It’s clearer, more logical, and more beautiful than Esperanto, but I have no one to speak it with.”

The idea that languages thrive because of love, not logic, made me think of Erin McKean, perhaps the world’s most passionate advocate for the idea that we should talk about love when we talk about language. A lexicographer, McKean has been a tireless advocate of the idea that dictionaries aren’t rulebooks – they’re collections of the words we use, not prescriptions for words we should and shouldn’t use. Her new project, Wordnik, inverts our understanding of a dictionary. It includes a LOT of words – over 1.7 million (the idea that the Global Language Monitor would be crowning Web 2.0 as English’s millionth word probably pisses her off), many of which don’t include definitions. Instead, Wordnik pulls examples from the web, from Twitter, from any texts the system can get its hands on. (Erin told me that an early version of the system was based on a corpus that included a lot of old Star Trek books. For a while, you would look up “photon” and get information about torpedoes, not about physics.) It’s a fascinating way to change how we think about dictionaries – we can figure out how to use words by seeing how they’re used, and we understand what words are in a language by seeing what words people are using.

I think I found Okrent’s book so fascinating because I feel a certain solidarity with some of the mad linguists she describes. At the very least, I share some of the cosmopolitan dreams of many of these authors. I believe that we’re tapping only a tiny fraction of the Internet’s power to let us understand each other and communicate across cultures because we’ve done so little thinking about language. As Chinese rises in importance online – and English and Chinese speakers continue to misunderstand each other on key issues – I find myself hoping that projects like Global Voices Lingua or Yeeyan will manage to cultivate the passionate community that Esperanto has earned over the years.

May 13, 2009

TED embraces social translation

Filed under: Global Voices,ideas,Media,TED2009,xenophilia — Ethan @ 1:11 pm

My friends at TED have launched an exciting new project today, the TED Open Translation Project. It’s a powerful system to allow the “social translation” of their video content. This tool demonstrates the state of the art in social translation on the web today, and I think there are a lot of lessons in the tool and thinking behind it for anyone who hopes to make the polyglot internet more comprehensible, and for anyone thinking about online cooperation.

I’m aware that most people think of translation as roughly as interesting as developing Linux device drivers – necessary, but far from sexy. My hope is to convince you that translation is one of the keys in helping the internet reach it’s potential and to get you at least a tenth as excited about this new tool and approach as I am.

For the past couple of years, TED has shared an amazing set of videos, talks delivered at the TED conferences in California, the UK, and Tanzania. These talks are some of the most fascinating and thought-provoking video content available on the web – many smart people have discovered TED talks and promptly lost a week or more gorging themselves on intellectual candy.

(A personal top five, for those who’ve not taken a deep dive into the videos that are available. I’m not going to argue that these are the “best” talks given at TED, but they are the ones that have had the most influence on me and my work:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Nigerian minister of finance, on the debate on trade and aid in Africa, framed in deeply personal terms, as she talks about her family’s struggles during the Biafran war.

– Swedish doctor and scientist Hans Rosling uses statistics and visualization to rethink international development over the course of decades and centuries.

Majora Carter on the importance of environmental issues to urban communities, and the connection between community development and the green movement.

– Oxford development economist Paul Collier explains his brilliant book, “The Bottom Billion” in eighteen minutes.

– Nigerian author Chris Abani on humanity, cruelty, compassion and storytelling. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a talk swing between humor and brutality as rapidly and powerfully as Chris does in this talk. When he finished giving it live, I left the theatre because I didn’t want to hear anything else that day.)

For the past couple of years, these talks have been available to anyone with a good internet connection and the time to download them… but they’re only helpful to people who speak English, the language the talks were delivered in. TED, and specifically June Cohen, the director of TED Media, recognized that there’s huge international demand for TED’s content around the world – take a look at TedToChina, a fan site that offers summaries of TED talks in Chinese.

Translation is supposed to be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Professional translators routinely charge between $0.20 and $0.40 per word – translating this blogposts into one other language would cost over $500 at market rates. The cost of machine translation has fallen from cheap to free, with powerful systems incorporated into Google and other search engines… but the results are far from perfect, and tend to miss the nuance of complex texts. Very few of us choose to read blogs – even on topics we enjoy and follow – via machine translation because the experience is so awkward.

But maybe translation doesn’t need to be so difficult and expensive. Maybe it’s something that interested, talented people will do for free, if given the right opportunities and incentives. That idea inspired the Global Voices community to launch Lingua, our project to translate Global Voices content into over twenty languages. In 2006, we discovered that Portnoy Zheng, an amazing Taiwanese blogger, was translating Global Voices stories into Chinese, and inviting other translators to help with his efforts.

We were thrilled, and started pointing Chinese-speaking readers to Portnoy’s efforts. Other groups, starting with the Francophones, proposed that volunteer translation of Global Voices content into other languages become an official feature of our community, and beginning in 2007, we’ve integrated volunteer translations into our site – under many of the headlines on the main site, you’ll see “zh”, “fr”, “mg” or another two-letter language code. Click on that code, and you’ll find yourself on a translation of that post.

There’s a growing movement to make “social translation” – translation of online information by users around the world, motivated more by community recognition and appreciation than by money – a mainstream approach to making the web more accessible to all readers. The movement has been led by the open source software community, and projects like Dwayne Bailey’s pootle toolkit, a set of tools that make it easier to localize open-source software. (Dwayne launched translate.org.za, a project that makes key software available in South Africa’s eleven official languages.) Inspiring projects in the space include WorldWide Lexicon, an open platform to allow cooperative translation of any website; Meedan, an online community that uses social translation as well as machine translation to build dialog between Arabic and English speakers, and dotsub, a powerful video subtitling and translation tool that invites anyone to become a subtitler or translator.

Cohen and her team looked closely at the tools and teams building the social translation movement and built a new community that learned from the successes and failures of other projects in the space. TED’s tool is based on dotsub, with some very powerful new features added, and their model for recruiting, recognizing and rewarding translators is inspired in part by some of the work we’ve done at Global Voices. For visitors to the site, this means that you can browse videos by language, selecting one of the 32 talks available with Spanish subtitles, or the sole talk available in Kyrgyz.

Select a talk in one of its translated forms, and you’ll get a subtitled video, a translated title and description of the talk. Featured in this description are the two people responsible for translating the talk, the lead translator and the reviewer – like Global Voices, TED is inviting translators to join the community, pairing new translators with trusted reviewers to evaluate the work and to offer any changes or suggestions. Another link on the page leads to an “interactive transcript” – this allows a viewer to select a point in the talk and fast-forward to see the slides and images that accompany the speaker’s words.

Not only is this a fantastically cool way to navigate these talks, it leads to my favorite undocumented feature of the system, which Cohen calls “the Rosetta Stone”. Pick a transcript of a talk in a language you speak. Then select subtitles in a language you don’t speak. You can watch the talk in three languages – the English of the speaker’s words, the Spanish of the transcript and the Turkish of the subtitles. (I suspect my wife, who speaks English and Hebrew well, and is learning Arabic, will addicted to this feature in the near future.)

(This ability to view the same text in many languages may turn out to be one of the most important aspects of the project in the long run. As TED translates hundreds of talks, they’re creating “parallel corpora”, the raw material for machine translation systems. This might be too small to build really strong Turkish to Vietnamese translation technology, but the idea of pulling corpora from tools like dot.sub is something that machine translation folks should be taking a close look at.)

The system is launching with 375 translations, representing 42 languages. Some extremely popular talks, like Al Gore’s talk on climate change, are available in over twenty languages – others are available just in English and one other language. What’s remarkable to me is how many of the talks were translated by volunteers – 200 of the first 300 translation posted, and June tells me that 450 volunteer translations are in the queue and will launch soon. She calculates that if TED had to pay for those translations, the 650 underway would have cost roughly $500,000. While that sum might be something sponsors, like Nokia, which is the lead sponsor for the translation project, might have been able to cover, June estimates the cost of translating all TED talks into 40 languages at over $13 million dollars. To achieve what TED really wants to accomplish – all talks in 300 languages – is over $100 million. It’s simply not possible to take on a task of that size without trying a social translation approach.

Why are people queueing up to translate TED talks for free? The system June and TED have launched leverages some of the lessons we’ve learned about social translation:

– Translation can be fun, if the content’s enjoyable. There aren’t a lot of people lining up to translate UN internal memos for free (according to some estimates, transcripts of UN meetings can cost as much as $8000 an hour to produce, leading to an organization translation budget of $100 million per year.) But TED talks are fascinating to a wide audience, and some people are excited about investing the time to translate them.

– Choice matters. On Global Voices, we don’t attempt to translate every story into every language – we let translators choose what stories they’re interested in. We don’t get a complete edition of our content, but we wouldn’t have such great participation if we assigned specific stories to translators. My guess is that TED is seeing a similar phenomenon, and that translators will initially gravitate to a small set of highly popular talks, then start translating talks that meet their personal interests over time.

– Translators need recognition. On the TED site, translators are some of the most prominently featured people on the page – click through on the translator or reviewer’s name, and you get a page featuring her photo, her work and recognizing her contributions. On Global Voices, we try to feature authors and translators equally – that model doesn’t make as much sense for TED, where the speakers are often celebrities, but it’s clear that TED is taking the translator’s role very seriously and honoring the contributions.

– Community matters. Our translators have the same sort of internal communications systems that our authors do – they divide up tasks, consult each other for assistance and support, and generally function as a tight community. My guess is that language communities are going to emerge on TED in much the same way, and that the translator/review mechanism is going to be critically important for building support, friendships and communities.

– Not all rewards are (directly) financial. GV rewards its most productive translators with travel funding to help them attend our annual meetings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see TED try something similar if they’re able to secure the funding. And we’ve found that translators use their GV experience as evidence that they are competent professional translators and gain more professional translation work from their association with us – again, I’d expect to see something similar with TED. My guess is that prominent translators in the TED community will also become “go-to” guys and gals for TEDsters who are looking for contacts in Turkey or Poland.

I’m really excited about TED’s project for two reasons. One is that it’s great to see an organization I respect and admire adopting and improving on a strategy we’ve embraced at Global Voices. June and I had coffee in NYC a couple of weeks ago, and when she told me that the translations produced by volunteers were frequently better than those produced by professional translation agencies, I was so happy I gave her a high-five. It makes perfect sense to me – translators motivated by pride, community support and interest might well do a better job than those just collecting a paycheck.

I’m also thrilled because TED operates on a very large stage, and their embrace of social translation sends a message to organizations and projects around the world who are considering whether and how they tackle issues of language. Because translation is historically difficult and expensive, most organizations have simply avoided it, except when absolutely necessary.

The internet is huge, growing, and being built by people who speak hundreds of different languages. There are editions of Wikipedia in over 200 languages, and some scholars estimate that there’s as much user content created in Chinese as there is in English. Unless we find scaleable, inexpensive ways to translate, we’re each going to face an internet that’s grows everyday, where we find less of the content understandable. Until we figure out better solutions to translation, we’re fooling ourselves into believing we’re more cosmopolitan and connected than we actually are.

Social translation isn’t the only solution, and it won’t solve the problem by itself. But it’s a great first step, and TED deserves real congratulations in building this great tool and bringing this strategy to global prominence… and for it’s commitment to the values of connection and bridging that underly their commitment to making this information available around the world.

April 30, 2009

The importance of being a dork

Filed under: ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 7:30 pm

I had coffee recently with Gavin McCormick, a bright young economist who worked with me at Geekcorps some years back. He took a position with a think tank out West and was telling me that, after leaving Boston, he was thinking about going back to Namibia for a vacation, where he’d spent a difficult year as a volunteer teacher.

“I thought you’d been miserable in Namibia?”

“Well, I had trouble connecting with some people there, but I don’t always connect with people in Boston either. And I miss getting to play with the kids.”

At some point during Gavin’s time in Namibia, we traded email, and I offered my blanket prescription for making friends in other countries: Your best chances to connect with people in other cultures are around eating, drinking, playing music, dancing, playing football (soccer) and having sex. My guess is that “play with kids” belongs on this list as well.

When you’re looking for common ground for connection with people in other cultures, it often makes sense to look for least common denominators. I don’t think it’s a surprise that most Global Voices gatherings end with multinational, multilingual pub crawls. Or that many cosmopolitans I know follow football so they have something to talk
about with cabbies in Bamako.

So why go back to Namibia, Gavin? “You know, when I dance in Namibia, people laugh – I’m a source of entertainment. The white guy who dances badly. When I dance badly in Boston, I’m just a dork.”


Dhani Jones isn’t a great dancer either, despite being a professional athelete. But he’s enthusiastic and doesn’t mind being laughed at, and that’s another critical ingredient for cultural bridging. And his new TV show, Dhani Tackles the Globe, may be the best example I’ve seen of a xenophile finding common ground around the world by sweating.

In his ordinary life, Jones is a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s a talented first-string player but not a superstar – he’s played for three NFL teams, but hasn’t been voted to the pro bowl. Off the field, he’s a larger than life personality, and a good sport, which leaves him well positioned for his new job – celebrity host for the Travel Channel. His show is based around a simple premise – he travels to a country, spends a week working out with a local sports team and uses that as his path towards understanding a country and a culture.

Only three shows have aired so far, but Travel Channel is sufficiently pleased that they’ve committed to a second season. Based on the two shows I’ve seen, that’s a good call. The sportsmen Jones hangs out with are amateurs, people who’ve got a day job and compete in sports like hurling for fun. It’s fascinating to watch an extremely gifted professional athlete get his ass kicked in unfamiliar sports… and sometimes familiar ones. Who can outrun an NFL linebacker? Well, if the race is 100 meters and on sand, turns out almost any Australian lifeguard can.

The Ireland show in particular was excellent – Jones spends a week training with a hurling team for ten days and ends up playing in (and losing) a match. Teams are deeply local – the players are cheered on by their fathers and grandfathers, who played on the same team years before. Jones is respectful of these traditions, training hard with his team, meeting their families for pub lunches and visiting with hurling greats as he attempts to learn a sport that apparently involves the tricky parts of baseball, field hockey and lacrosse. At the end of a week, it’s clear that he’s not a great player of the game, but that he’s won a great deal of respect from the guys he’s playing with.

I’m excited to see how Jones deals with higher cultural barriers – the season includes trips to Cambodia and Thailand, which probably require a bit more cultural bridging than hanging out with rugby players in England. But I’m impressed, not just with Jones’s obvious love for making friends around the world, but with Travel Channel’s apparent comprehension of cultural bridging.

One of the other shows on Travel Channel I watch religiously is Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, which uses food as a jumping off point for exploring countries from Iceland to Namibia. The show Bourdain and team put together in Ghana is good enough that I keep a copy on my laptop so I can show people some of the details of why the country is so special to me. (I had a dozen or so Ghanaian friends over for dinner a few weeks back, and they demanded to watch the show three times…)


If the obvious ingredients for cultural bridging are common ground (beer, football, dancing), and a sense of humor, there’s another key ingredient in these examples: airplane tickets. It makes sense that Dhani Jones would need to go to Ireland to learn about hurling, or that Gavin would need to fly to Windhoek to embarass himself in front of a bunch of Namibians. Other globalists have taken this idea to absurd ends, like Matt Harding, who’s wandered the globe, dancing badly.


Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Are plane tickets the first ingredient in these equations? Do they need to be?

I live just north of Pittsfield, MA, a city of fewer than 50,000 people. For years, the city has held an annual Ethnic Fair. Old timers tell me that this used to be an excuse for people to get shockingly drunk on a summer afternoon, lurching from the kegs at the Polish tent to the German tent to the Italian tent. It’s a very different scene these days. There’s beer, and the ethnic groups that dominated the city when it was a milltown are still here, serving sausages. But there’s a Brazilian booth as well. A Colombian, an Ecuadorian and an Indian booth as well. There’s klezmer on stage before the polka band.

My guess is that there’s an opportunity for me to learn something about Brazilian culture beyond enjoying the two Brazilian restaurants that have opened in town. I suspect it involves losing fifty pounds and playing soccer in a local league. Or putting on my best clubbing clothes and hanging out at Latin Night on Saturday at the Ecuadorian restaurant and dance club. I haven’t done either, and I find myself wondering if part of the equation is that I’m more comfortable looking like a dork in Dakar than in Pittsfield.


One of the reasons I stopped working on Geekcorps is that it became clear that using air plane tickets as a tool for cultural bridging is a prohibitively expensive strategy. It seems like the internet should make it easier for us to stumble into these intercultural encounters, or to engineer them.

There’s no doubt that there are internet “spaces” where people from different countries, with different beliefs and practices, find themselves interacting. These spaces generally form around common interests. That might mean Japanese and American kids getting together to talk about Asura Cryin’… or Arabs and Israelis arguing passionately in the comments thread of a Global Voices article about Palestine. Common interests aren’t always common ground.

And even common grounds can be contested spaces. I’ve been interested in online support groups for expectant mothers, because they tend to display an interesting form of arbitrary connection: the women in the forums have a single thing in commmon – the due date for their baby – and often have lots of cultural distance (location, religion, education level, occupation). I initially saw these spaces as an exciting model for mixing around an arbitrary connection… and it’s clear that lots of people end up making important and lasting connections through these groups. But it’s also clear that it’s possible to pick fights about aspects of pregnancy and childrearing that I, as a nonparent, was completely unaware of.

So here’s my pressing question: if the internet gives us new spaces in which to find common ground with very different people, what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are? Why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, do we seem to keep sorting ourselves into familiar groups?

I’m starting to think that there’s something very special about the willingness to look like a dork. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matt Harding dances badly, but enthusiastically, and that this opens doors for him. Or that Dhani Jones finishes last in races, with a smile on his face. And I wonder whether we’d have more luck building bridges in online spaces if it were more socially acceptable to make fools of ourselves, laughing and being laughed at by our new peers.

April 2, 2009

From protest to collaboration: Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and lessons for xenophiles

Filed under: Africa,ideas,Media,xenophilia — Ethan @ 11:08 pm

A memetic virus gripped the world of popular music in late 1984 and 1985: the superstar benefit single. The phenomenon of superstar benefits can be traced back through George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and The Secret Policeman’s Balls organized by Amnesty International throughout the 1970s. But the epidemic of benefit singles that paralyzed the music scene in 1985 can be traced directly to Bob Geldof and the 1984 Christmas hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. (Video here. God help us all.)

In 1984, Geldof’s band The Boomtown Rats was lurching towards irrelevance and dissolution. He was depressed: ““We did the drugs, did the girls… And then we didn’t. In late October 1984, I was sitting at home. Rock stars don’t sit at home – they tour, they record.” Sitting at home, Geldof watched a documentary by Michael Buerk on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof was stunned that in a decade characterized by excess and consumption in the UK, acute famine was killing hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia. Geldof organized friends in the UK and Irish music scene to record a benefit single, donating the proceeds to famine relief.

The song in question includes some of the most patronizing lines ever written about the African continent:

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
(Oooh) Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

But it was a great commercial success, topping the UK singles charts and raising $14 million and eventually earning Geldof a knighthood. It set the template for future benefit singles: recruit musicians based on their name recognition and fame, give each a single phrase to sing, and rely on their fanbases to purchase the single, the accompanying album and videocassettes. Geldof repeated the Band Aid model with Live Aid and recently, Live 8, a festival to raise “awareness” about Africa which, memorably, included so few Africans that Peter Gabriel felt compelled to hold a companion event called “Africa Calling”. (Geldof explained that he had invited U2, Elton John and Madonna because they’d attract large television audiences, while African artists presumably would not.)

In the wake of the Band Aid success, Michael Jackson organized a similar group called USA for Africa, which recorded “We Are the World” (Video – you’ve been warned.) Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp tried to bring the attention back to the US with a series of Farm Aid concerts. And Steven Van Zandt – Bruce Springstein’s guitar player and television mafioso Silvio Dante – weighed in with “Sun City”.

Van Zandt’s project, called Artists United Against Apartheid, was inspired by his trips to South Africa to research the similarities between Apartheid and Indian reservations in the US. He came away from his South African trips with a special distaste for Sun City, a resort casino created by South African hotelier Sol Kerzner in the bantustan of Boputhatswana, an easy drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Gambling was illegal in South Africa, but in the allegedly independent Tswana “homeland”, authorities voted to legalize gambling and pornographic movies, creating the opportunity for Kerzner to create an easily accessible and legal “Las Vegas” for the enjoyment of white South Africans. (Kerzer used a similar strategy to develop the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, making gambling easily accessible to my fellow New Englanders through a partnership with the Mohegan Indian tribe.)

Sun City recruited musicians from around the world to perform at the casino. Musicians who accepted the invitation were defying a long-standing cultural boycott of the Apartheid regime. Started in 1961 by the British Musicians Union, the boycott was managed by the UN Center Against Apartheid, which maintained a blacklist of artists who defied the boycott and played at Sun City. The Artists United Against Apartheid project sought to call attention to the boycott and to pressure artists not to accept South African invitations – it wasn’t an attempt to raise funds like many other benefit records, though Danny Schechter, an ABC journalist who helped coordinate the project, reports that funds were given to ANC activst Oliver Tambo to support a school in Tanzania.

(Personally, I think “Sun City” stands up to the test of time significantly better than many of the other benefit songs, though that’s a pretty low bar to clear. I’m particularly fond of the juxtapositions in the video, like a bemused-looking Lou Reed mumbling a verse with Hall and Oates. If Reed just grew a mustache and recorded with those two, I think they could have been bigger than ZZTop.)

Van Zandt wasn’t the only American musician thinking about South Africa in 1985. The year before, a friend gave Paul Simon a tape of “township jive” music, probably “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys, a sax, guitar, bass and drums combo, who played mbaquanga music in and around Soweto. Simon was fascinated by the music, which reminded him of 1950s R&B, and he asked his record company to get him in touch with the album’s producer, Hilton Rosenthal, to see whether it might be possible to record with the musicians on the album.

Rosenthal is a fascinating and important figure in South African music history. A middle class white South African, he found himself in charge of the “black music” division for the Gramophone Record Company, the local division of CBS. He wondered whether there was space for music in South Africa that wasn’t purely white or black, and began working with Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, the two musicians who became the heart of Juluku, a racially-integrated band that electrified traditional Zulu music and brought it to a global audience. He recorded collections of township music and attempted to distribute them internationally, and is one of the key figures in developing “world music” as a genre, helping launch the career of Raï superstar Cheb Mami.

As someone who’d recorded an integrated, highly political band in apartheid South Africa, Rosenthal was aware of some of the difficulties Simon might face in recording with Sowetan musicians. He assured Simon that they’d find a way to work together and sent him a pile of other South African records, both mbaquanga acts and choral groups, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And then he set up a meeting with the black musicians union, to discuss whether members should record with Simon.

The musicians had reason to be skeptical of such a collaboration. Paul Simon wasn’t the first musician to have the clever idea of building pop music around the driving rhythyms of mbaquanga. That title goes to one of popular music’s great appropriators, Malcolm McLaren.

McLaren rose to notoriety in the 1970s as the impressario behind the Sex Pistols, a band he created by handpicking kids who hung out as his clothing boutique in the Kings Road. (The boutique sold “teddy boy” clothing, until McLaren moved to New York and discovered the punk scene. He briefly mismanaged the New York Dolls, then brought punk fashion from NYC to London, where the Sex Pistols were extremely successful at marketing his clothing.) After drug overdoses, murder and lots of sensational PR, the Sex Pistols dissolved. McLaren moved onto the next fashion trend – the new romantics – and put 14-year old Annabella Lwin in front of Adam and the Ants, minus Adam, christening the new band “Bow Wow Wow”. Always one to exploit controversy, McLaren had Twin pose nude on the album cover for See Jungle!, replicating the scene from Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” – Lwin’s mother alleged sexual exploitation, and the Scotland Yard investigation that resulted made it difficult for the band to tour, but likely helped album sales.

Bow Wow Wow’s music was heavily influenced both by Burundian rhythms, brought to Britain by musician Mike Steiphenson, and by South African mbaquanga music. But McLaren’s gift for appropriation reached its height with his first solo album, “Duck Rock”. Released in 1983, the album is an amazingly forward-looking collage of influences, incorporating American folk, early hiphop, Afro-caribbean and lots and lots of mbaquanga music. “Double Dutch” (video above), an ode to African-American jumprope culture, is built around an instrumental track, “Puleng”, by the Boyoyo Boys. McLaren didn’t credit the Boyoyo Boys for the track, claiming he’d authored it with Yes bass player Trevor Horn. The album borrowed heavily from other South African acts, including Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, who also worked unpaid and uncredited. (Über-critic Robert Christgau takes McLaren to task for appropriation in his 1983 review.)

When Simon approached Rosenthal about recording with the Boyoyo Boys, he and the Boys were in the early stages of a lawsuit attempting to get royalties from McLaren. (They eventually succeeded in an out of court settlement.) But he supported the idea, and a majority of the black musicians’ union agreed to invite Simon to South Africa to record. They worried that the UN cultural boycott was preventing mbanquanga music from taking its place on the global stage, reaching the prominence of reggae, for instance. Realizing that Simon’s stature could bring a great deal of attention to the local musical scene, they voted to work with him.

Simon had his own set of obstacles to clear. Recording in South Africa with African musicians would be a violation of the boycott. He consulted with Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, both of whom were close to South African musicians, and with their blessing, headed to Johannesburg for two and half weeks to record.

The sessions were unusual ones. Simon didn’t come into the project with songs – instead, he asked the bands Rosenthal brought into the studio to play different tunes, then asked them to combine a few bars of one with a section from another. Three tracks on Graceland, the album that emerged from these sessions, came directly from this process:

“The Boy in the Bubble” was recorded with Tao Ea Matsekha (drums, accordion and bass), from Lesotho. With the Shangaan group, General M. D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters (bass, drums, guitar and six female singers), he recorded the tracks for the song that later became “I Know What I Know.” And for another song, later titled “Gumboots,” he cut tracks with the Boyoyo Boys, the group that had first inspired him.

(The quote above is from Stephen Holden’s excellent New York Times article of August 24, 1986, titled “Paul Simon Brings Home the Music of Black South Africa“. It is, unfortunately, locked behind a paywall…)

On those three tracks, members of those bands share songwriting credits with Simon. On “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, Simon recorded with ten-voice choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo in London and New York, and their founder Joseph Shabalala shares songwriting credits with Simon. For other tracks, including the title track and the hit “Call Me All”, he recorded with a trio – guitarist Ray Phiri and drummer Isaac Mthsli from the band Stimela, and bassist Baghiti Khumalo – Phiri was credited as the arranger of the album.

(Simon’s scrupulousness for sharing credit may not have extended equally to all musicians. The final track of the album, titled “The Myth of Fingerprints”, was recorded with Los Lobos, and while the band is credited as playing on the track, Simon claims authorship of the tune. Steven Berlin of Los Lobos claims that the song was written by the band, and that Simon simply added a vocal on top and stole the song. Simon disputes this, and Los Lobos haven’t taken Simon up on the invitation they allege he made to sue him.)

When Graceland was released, it met with two waves of criticism. Some critics accused Simon of exploiting poor, underpaid South African musicians. This seems a bit hard to swallow – in Johannesburg, Simon paid musicians $196.41 per hour, three times the US pay scale at that point for studio musicians. The musicians who shared songwriting credits with Simon continue to benefit from the royalties on the album, which were especially substantial in 1986, it won the Grammy for album of the year, eventually selling 16 million copies. Graceland also raised the profile of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, already a major international act – Simon produced LBM’s subsequent three albums, which sold well in the US and Europe. Bassist Khumalo went on to record with Gloria Estefan and a variety of other US and African acts; Ray Phiri recorded with everyone from Laurie Anderson to Willie Nelson; Isaac Mthsli went on to support Lucky Dube. My guess is that these musicians, all of whom subsequently recorded with Simon, don’t consider themselves to have been exploited by Graceland.

The second criticism is more subjective – some critics accused Simon of “musical colonialism“, cultural appropriation, musical tourism, and generally of using African influences to spice up his songwriting without thoroughly engaging with the material: “Paul Simon songs with African music attached“. While I can think of dozens of albums I’d consider to be based on cultural appropriation (my favorite offensive example is Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby”, an album that pisses me off so much I gave a whole law school lecture on it) and hundreds of examples of musical tourism, I think Graceland is something different. (Okay, I think the first nine tracks of Graceland are something different – I think Simon’s guilty as charged of tourism on the final two songs, fun but unnecessary excursions into zydeco and Mexican bar-rock.)

At its best, Graceland sounds like Simon is encountering forces to large for him to understand or control. He’s riding on top of them, offering free-form reflections on a world that’s vastly more complicated and colorful than the narrow places he and Art Garfunkel explored in their close harmonies. In “Boy in the Bubble” (video above), the chorus, “These are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call” could serve as a tagline for anyone confronting our strange, connected world. Simon’s not cutting and pasting from a global palette of sounds the way McLaren is – he’s being swept forward by the brilliant musicians he’s playing with, trying frantically to tell us what he sees through the window as the train rushes forwards.

I’m not writing about Graceland because I wanted to write music criticism – I’m thinking about Graceland as a way of explaining xenophilia and bridge figures. My friend David Miller and I were talking about these ideas and the challenge of explaining them, and David asked whether Simon’s work on the album helps explain either concept. In a sense, I think Graceland offers examples of both.

Simon’s encounter with a cassette by the Boyoyo Boys is a classic proto-xenophile moment. What makes Simon a xenophile was the decision not just to interact with the cultural artifact, but to find a way to make a connection with the people who’d made the music. There are lots of fans of African music – the xenophiles are the ones whose interest transcends collecting records and turns into learning, playing, recording and exploring the music and the people who make it.

It’s not a surprise, I think, that Simon’s encounter was brokered by a bridge figure. Hilton Rosenthal had roots both in the record industry that Simon knew and understood and in the black South African music scene, and was able to help Simon and local musicians connect in a way that would have been virtually impossible without his assistance. (Simon reports that he was profoundly aware of the racial tension during the sessions, and on the demands the Apartheid regime made on the musicians – at 4:30 every day, musicians began panicking about the danger of being in Johannesburg without travel permits. It’s likely that many of those musicians would have been afraid to take the risks associated with playing with Simon had Rosenthal, who had recorded and promoted many of their albums, not been able to explain tensions to both sides and create a space for the recording to take place.)

Ultimately, Simon was transformed by his experience connecting with South African musicians. He spent the next year touring the world with musicians he’d played with, and several he hadn’t. The tour featured Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela, two celebrated South African exiles who were deeply and visibly opposed to the Apartheid government.

You can read this as Simon’s attempt to gain political air cover for a project that seems to have garnered critiques from every possible corner. While Paul Simon had twice refused to play at Sun City, Linda Rondstadt, featured on “African Skies”, did, which led to critiques from the AUAA crowd. The UN blacklisted Simon for three weeks, finally relenting when Simon wrote a letter agreeing not to play in South Africa, and pointing out that he’d given his South African collaborators writing credit on the songs. To answer criticism that the tour was about exploiting African talent for his own financial gain, Simon donated all proceeds of the US tour, a third to an anti-apartheid charity, a third to the United Negro college fund, and a third to local charities in the cities he played in. When Simon was finally able to perform in post-Apartheid South Africa, he got criticized on two fronts, one from organizations more radical than the ANC who wanted to see more attention paid to local artists and not to foreign, white artists, and from people who felt the $30 price tag for tickets necessarily excluded black audiences from his performances.

Whatever the validity of the different criticisms, they’re a reminder of how difficult it is to build projects that cross cultures. Simon found himself navigating cultural concerns in his home country (cultural appropriation and tourism, violation of a boycott), in South Africa (exploitation of local musicians, sharing of songwriting credit) and in the countries where the group played. In the process, I suspect he and everyone else involved ended up creating a miniculture around their collective, joint project. Whether the goal is to put on a concert, to translate anime from Japanese to English or to build an international newswire, projects tend to grow their own cultures, heavily influenced by the native cultures of participants, but with their own rules, uniquely derived to allow collaboration to take place.

Ultimately, Simon emerged from Graceland as a bridge figure. Producing Ladysmith Black Mambazo albums, he found himself literally attempting to share what he saw as beautiful and transformative in Zulu choral music with an American audience. It’s hard to imagine Laurie Anderson and Ray Phiri collaborating on “Strange Angels” without introductions brokered by Simon. At a certain point, Simon took over Rosethal’s role as a point of entry into the Soweto music community for musicians who wanted to build new collaborations.

I see Graceland as a balancing act, an example of the nuance required to navigate the disconnection between the US and apartheid-era South Africa. There’s a fine line between McLaren’s sampling of mbaquanga and Simon’s collaborations with mbaquanga musicians. There is, I think, a line… but critical disagreements about which side of the line Simon falls on suggest that the deliniation is far from clean and simple. Steven Van Zandt’s position, a principled stance against engaging with South Africa under apartheid, is a cleaner, neater position than the complex compromise Simon chose, but I doubt it was as effective. Van Zandt helped call attention to a nasty situation in the waning days of the Botha regime – Simon introduced the wider world to a soundtrack for both a revolution and for a new South Africa.

Xenophilia involves this sort of complex negotiation, finding a path that’s about collaboration, not appropriation. It finds ways to engage as well as to protest, to build joint projects that, in turn, build relationships and bridges. In rare cases, you might get something truly special, a record that’s very much worth a listen more than twenty years later.

February 25, 2009

Pippa Norris on globalization and communication

Filed under: Berkman,xenophilia — Ethan @ 3:52 pm

Professor Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School, is focused on “Cosmoolitan Communications” for her forthcoming book, titled “Cultural Convergence”. Working with Ronald Inglehart of the World Values Survey, she’s studying the ways that communications impact the strength of national identity and the trust in outsiders. Her findings – which surprise some of her colleagues – suggest that increased cosmopolitan communications leads to more trust in others and reduced nationalism.

The context for her talk is accelerating connection through globalization, as tracked by surveys like the KOF Globalization index. As globalization increases, we see more opportunity for information to come across national borders. Some view this as a threat – thinkers like Herbert Schiller have suggested that the spread of corporate capitalism will lead towards the spread of American values at the expense of local norms. More recently, Benjamin Barber, in books like “Jihad versus McWorld”, suggests that American capitalism and culture are fundamentally intertwined. These theories have led UNESCO to worry that the availability of information from culturally exporting nations like the US could lead to a decrease in cultural diversity.

To study this, Norris has looked at the export of cultural goods, especially movies, television shows, radio shows and audio recordings. There’s a strong, linear relationship between cultural export and import – while a few nations like the US export a lot of culture and import comparatively little, in general it’s more common to see rich nations import and export a lot of culture, and to see poor countries import and export very little. (Her statistics cover only formal markets – obviously, there’s lots of black market content import that isn’t visible in these statistics.)

American cultural export has expanded over recent decades, and we now take for granted the idea that some countries are likely to dominate cultural discourse. There’s four possible outcomes to this situation:

– A convergence around American and Western culture and values. In this scenario, we’d expect to see minority groups lose their cultural heritage. Norris offers Bhutan as a country that disconnected rather than face this cultural loss, and has seen social changes come about since connecting to the internet and television in 1999.

– Polarization. In this scenario, we might see people encounter American culture and reject it based on its clash with traditional values.

– Hybridization. Cultures encounter one another and there’s a mutual exchange of ideas. The result is something like California cuisine – a little bit French, a little Italian, a little Mexican and a whole lot mixed up.

– The Firewall model. Cultural exports have expaned, but they only impact on cultural diversity if they cross four barriers. They’ve got to be accepted via “trade integration”, they’ve got to be permitted in an environment of media freedom, they need to reach audiences which may not have access to media through digital divides, and most critically, they need to cross cultural barriers. “You’ve learned values from your family, so you’re not always going to absorb these outside influences – you’re going to have some resistance to them.”

To test which of these models might apply, Norris looks at the World Values Survey and looks for relationships between questions about media use and those about national identity and trust in outsiders. Her expectation is that countries that are more connected to others – countries which rank highly on her “cosmopolitanism index” – will have greater trust in outsiders and a less strong sense of nationalism. In addition she expects a “cross-level interaction effect”, where people who live in globalized societies and experience a wide range of media will have an especially strong trust in outsiders and especially weak nationalistic characteristics.

For the most part, this turns out to be true. There’s a loose fit between cosmopolitanism and trust in outsiders, and parochial nations turn out to be less trusting of outsiders. The outliers are especially interesting – the Netherlands, which is extremely cosmopolitan, shows only moderate trust in outsiders. Norris speculates that this is a reaction to recent tensions around Muslim immigrant populations in the Netherlands, referencing the Theo Van Gogh murder. She points to a similar pattern in Germany, where tensions with Turkish immigrants may keep connection high and trust of outsiders only moderate.

For these models to be effective, Norris tells us, we need to control a wide variety of factors. Youth, she explains, tend to be more trusting that the elderly. The better educated one is, the more trusting of outsiders one tends to be. Controlling for these factors, she sees a positive correlation between cosmopolitanism and trust in outsiders, and a similar correlation between news media use and trust. There’s an amplification effect in the case of media users in cosmopolitan societies – they’re especially trusting of outsiders, less likely to be strongly nationalistic, and more likely to feel like they are citizens of the world.

She explains that there’s need for more work on the topic. Some nations have stronger nationalistic tendencies than others – behavior that’s common in the US, like flying the national flag, would be considered provocative in the UK. The fact that nationalism has different baselines in different countries makes comparison difficult. There’s a problem with self-selection biases and media use – people who consume media may be the peple most curious and interested in the outside world. And it’s hard to find data sources that accurately show cultural transmission in new media – the ITU and the UN track total internet users, but don’t have good statistics on whether people are encountering information outside their home countries. (I’m hoping to do some thinking on this topic and see if I can point the good professor in the right direction.)

I thought it was a fascinating talk, though I would offer two cautions. I don’t think it’s possible to accurately analyze cultural influence in developing nations by looking at import and export statistics. In very poor African countries, kids in isolated villages are watching pirated DVDs from the US on the one television in town, often powered by an auto battery. Cultural influence is much broader than financial influence. Second, I question whether nationalism and cosmopolitanism are actually opposed. In my experience working on Global Voices, I’ve met a large number of people who are fiercely proud of their homelands and also excited about being citizens of the world. I’d love to see a way of measuring openness that doesn’t unfairly demonize nationalism in the process.

January 23, 2009

More map lust: global populations in 1890

Filed under: Africa,ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 7:32 pm

I get my best thinking done by speaking. Not just randomly shooting my mouth off… though I certainly do that often enough. No, I like giving talks because it forces me to think through an issue sufficiently that I don’t look like a total fool standing on a stage, talking about a topic.

Of course, sometimes it’s possible to miscalculate. I agreed to give a lunch talk at the Berkman Center next Tuesday on a topic I’ve never spoken about before: Mapping Globalization. I am egregiously unprepared to give this talk. So now I’m putting together slides, a process that forces me to figure out what I actually think about the topic. This process involves a lot of web searches, and that, in turn, is leading me dangerously close to map addiction.

One of the ideas of the talk is the difference between mapping territory, or data about the population of that territory, and mapping infrastructure, the seen and unseen systems that make travel, trade and communication possible. I’ve stumbled across lots of maps of infrastructure from the late 1800s, an interesting time in the history of globalization, when steamships, railroads and telegraphs connected the world to an unprecedented degree and contributed to the wave of migration that brough the foreign-born population of the US to 15%.

Looking for a map of the world from that same time period, I came across this beauty: Area and population of the world 1890. Rand McNally and Company, 1897, from the David Rumsey Map Collection. The map features a small Mercator projection of the world, but a much larger chart that shows the comparative size and population of the nations of the world in 1890. This was, of course, the heart of the Imperial age, where the global ambitions of European powers led to a map where Britain controlled more territory than Russia or China.

I love this chart so much that I made a PNG and JPEG version of it from the MrSID file available on the Rumsey website. Click on the JPEG above, and you should get a fairly large PNG which lets you see in some detail. For more detail, you’ll want to download the image, or use the online viewer at the Rumsey site.

For the European powers listed, note the separations within the pie chart. Generally speaking, the small slice of the pie represents the area and population of the home country, while the huge remainder represents the population and area of the colonies. It’s astounding to think of an age in which it made perfect sense (to those in power, at least) for tiny European states to manage huge swaths of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, thousands of miles away, tenuously connected by telegraph lines and steamships.

My Publius essay on the polyglot internet

Filed under: ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 3:58 pm

For the past several months, the Berkman Center has been involved with an ambitious project, called Publius. On its surface, Publius is a collection of short essays about current issues in the internet and society, written by some of the smartest thinkers in the space. It includes provocative pieces like Clay Shirky on latent communities, Lewis Hyde on the freedom to listen, Ron Deibert on threats to a global communication environment, and Ellen Miller on government transparency. It is, in short, an awfully good place to spend the rest of your Friday afternoon, catching up the conversations, discussions and arguments that animate a place like Berkman, and any other place, physical or otherwise, where people ponder the future of communication and how communication affects society.

John Palfrey’s thinking in launching Publius was to recognize that the emergence of American constitutional democracy didn’t occur in a single moment of crystalline brilliance. It was the product of years of argument, conversation and deliberation, through media like the Federalist papers. Palfrey argues that we’re going through a long, complex constitutional moment as regards the internet, constructing the laws and norms that will govern how we interact with one another through the infrastructure of the internet. As such, Publius is an invitation to post arguments, to ask for the Internet to behave one way or another and make the case for one’s point of view.

I’m late to arrive at this particular party, but recently submitted an essay on a topic I’m deeply concerned about – the emergence of a polyglot internet, and the need for focused efforts to make translation cheaper, easier and far more common to enable global discussions. The essay will be familiar to readers here – indeed, it’s been published on this blog previously, though hidden behind a wall of multilingual text, which has the tendency to encourage readers to immediately press the “back” button. I hope you’ll check it out, and take time to explore the wealth of essays accumulating on the site. I’m deeply honored to be included in the company of such inspiring thinkers.

One of the best things about Publius is that essays often start a spirited debate. I’m looking forward to whatever conversations arise about this brief essay and hope you’ll join in.

January 14, 2009

Seduced by BBC’s maps of British infrastructure

Filed under: ideas,Media,xenophilia — Ethan @ 2:58 pm

I’m in love.

I’ve been blogging these past few weeks about infrastructure and how we understand and misunderstand it. My motives are a bit oblique – I’m working on a writing project that looks at how we have and haven’t used the internet to connect across borders of culture, nation and language. It’s my suspicion that we look at infrastructures like the global internet and assume that since the “pipes” connect us all, we’re building connections. That’s often not the case. When we look at how these networks are actually used – the flow, not the infrastructure – we see that most traffic on international networks is local, and that our interactions are profoundly shaped by patterns of language, culture, friendship and familiarity.

Somewhere in the process of exploring this, I’ve started trying to collect maps that depict flow rather than infrastructure, wondering whether it would be possible to build an atlas that depicts globalization and flow.

Which brings us to my inamorata, the BBC’s series Britain from Above. A set of documentaries aired on BBC in August 2008, Britain from Above uses a combination of aerial photography, visualizations and maps to show the infrastructure that makes modern Britain possible and the flow that occurs atop that infrastructure.

I stumbled onto the series looking for city maps made by following taxis, like the Cabspotting maps of San Francisco by Stamen Design. The video clip above doesn’t offer as satisfying and comprehensive a map as I would like, but does include a critical insight that one can only get from a flow map – the overflow of taxis in Central London from crowded thoroughfares to back streets. The thirty seconds of video when London fills with taxis looks like an advertisement promoting congestion pricing.

Other segments do a similarly lovely job of mapping the flow of air traffic, ferries across the Channel and the massive grid of telephone lines. Other segments simply hint at grids I’d love to see, like the water and sewage lines that provide billions of gallons of water to the nation. (On second thought, mapping flow there could get slightly disgusting.)

The site provides a wealth of segments, and more is promised with a book and DVD planned for release. For a moment I thought I’d found nirvana (nerdvana?) with the project offering a Google Map overlay – unfortunately, it just includes the locations where episodes were shot, not a full visualization of the British sewer system. Oh well, a man can dream.

January 6, 2009

Interview on CBC

Filed under: xenophilia — Ethan @ 8:25 pm

Nora Young, host of CBC’s radio program Spark, was kind enough to interview me on some of my favorite topics – xenophilia and cultural bridging, mostly – a couple of weeks back. That interview is airing in two parts, this week and next, and is accompanied by some other cool stories, including Mitch Kapor on a CTO for the US, and speculations on what would happen if gamers ran the world. Should be a good show – hope you’ll give it a listen.

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