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My last shit talk

Towards the end of the term I started to wonder what my takeaway from these 10 fabulous inspiring lectures on Social Media Campaigning is. I guess I can say I feel empowered as I really began to see and appreciate the power of Commons, of Participation and of Doing. But feelings are not reliable, until they are transformed into something real, in other words, until they are realized. Luckily as I conclude my series of shit talk with this post, I’ve got an idea that I’m very eager to try out. 

Prototyping a better education for China

Puahhhh. A better education for what? For who? As I wrote down those six words, I almost felt like I had ‘irony-deficit syndrome’ (Errol Morris’ vocabulary used to describe Donald Rumsfeld ). 

Okay. So for this China:

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For their China:

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For her China:

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These are all pictures taken by the girl in the above photo. She was a graduate who joined the Teach For China programme that aims to narrow the astonishing gap in terms of educational resources and qualities between affluent China’s big cities and low-income municipalities. She was also my roommate in our undergraduate years. I could go on babbling a whole day about how and why I believe education should be creative, interesting, equal and open, but she did it and made it happen. 

During a recent conversation she told me she was looking for the right video for her geography class as the videos she found online were either documentaries that could easily bore the young kids or commercial advertising clips that were not adequately informative. Then we came up with this idea of making a video about London, gathering creative talents around us to make a short, interesting, real and educative clip for the kids.

Education should be open to all and thus given by all. So maybe in the near future there can be a social media campaign about that and maybe over 10 months, 20 years or even a longer period of time there will be a large body of videos made on different subjects not only for kids in underdeveloped areas but for everybody. 

Maybe, and maybe not. 

Shut the duck up and just do it!

Didn’t someone say that people who think too much should be drowned? I think that someone is a genius.

Grassroots Environmental Movement—the starting point for constructing a Chinese civil society?

This post is written on citizen science and civil society vis-à-vis a grassroots environmental movement started in China by civic forces at the latter half of the year 2011, namely the ‘I Monitor the Air for My Country’ Campaign. I’ll first provide some background for this movement and then analyze it briefly from the perspectives of media coverage, civic participation and class politics.

The Green Beagle Campaign—‘I Monitor the Air for My Country’

Recently China’s smog crisis has attracted much domestic attention. However, until the severe pollution actually manifested itself in forms of smog and fog, environmental protection had pretty much been absent in the Chinese public’s awareness or government’s political agenda, despite the fact that the ‘sustainable development’ discourse had been circulating globally for a while.

The ’I Monitor the Air for My Country’ environmental campaign was started by a Chinese NGO named Green Beagle in 2011 to ‘pressure the Chinese government into standardizing and publishing its air quality monitors.’[1]  Inspired by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing which started publishing on its website its own PM 2.5 readings (an indicator of air quality then used only in China for laboratory research and not disclosed to the public) in 2009, which largely contradicted the Chinese government’s reports of air quality and pollution level, Green Beagle encouraged general public members to carry portable PM2.5 monitors and keep records of Beijing’s air quality at various locations and times. 

The campaign gained popularity on the Chinese microblog platform weibo after Southern Weekly, a major Chinese newspaper published an article titled 'I monitor the air for my country' on 28th Oct 2011 with the following cartoon, which was a mockery of a propaganda poster from the 1960s and 1970s that presented the unity and patriotism of petroleum workers during the cultural revolution. image

(click on the image for an English report on the same campaign two days after the Southern Weekly report)

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(the original propaganda poster)

I ran a search of the hashtag ’I Monitor the Air for My Country’ (#我为祖国测空气#) on weibo. The hashtag first appeared on 28th Oct 2011, after the publishing of the Southern Weekly article and it was clear that the cartoon quickly became a widely circulated meme.

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A Critical Analysis

With the help of social media and mainstream media coverage, the campaign was to a certain extent a success. At least authorities began to monitor and publish PM 2.5 data. It’s also a success in the sense that it awakened the power of civic participation that had always been latent. As commented by Barr and Zhang: ‘In a country where government controlled media was once the only real source of information, grassroots attempts to spread environmental knowledge is a bigger deal than some may realize.’[2] 

However, there were also much criticism concerning the data published by Green Beagle on Weibo. Accuracy of data collected with cheap portable devices by poorly-trained citizens and methods of data collection were brought to question, not a uncommon criticism when it comes to citizen science. Interestingly, much of these criticism comes from officials and authorities who are always big on ‘expertise’. It is worthy noticing here that if expertise is really reliable why would there be such a craze of self-measurement by citizens in the first place? As open networked science becomes the trend, how much longer can governments cling to ‘expertise’?

In fact, instead of the above criticism of such self-organized citizen movement which has become almost a cliche by now, I would argue analyzing the class politics behind such civic participation is much more important. In the case of the Green Beagle Campaign, the data collected by citizens are 100% from big cities in China. However as China progresses into service economy industrial sites and factories have moved into small towns and the backland area, whose voices are largely under-represented. Whether environmental pollution is as severe in these places and how much residents in these areas are aware of environmental protection are thus issues that I think deserve more attention.

References:

[1] [2] China’s green warriors. By Michael Barr and Joy Y. Zhang, Special to CNN

Social Business or Social Entrepreneurship or WHATEVER

Okay, let’s come straight to the question: Is social business a valid idea? I am not talking about social business here in the sense that a business has a networked instead of a hierarchical organization, or in terms of how they use social media to interact with customers, but simply, a business that does social good or even is completely grounded in social work. 

Personally I was very excited about such a concept of ‘social business/entrepreneurship’, but now I’m more skeptical if not critical. Who knows whether this idea is not another stunt for personal or corporate publicity (Sorry if someone is offended; don’t take it personally), or just an invention to make the entrepreneurs themselves feel better? Well, let’s look at two examples.

#Starbucks

Here is the scenario: you are standing at the counter in Starbucks, or McDonald’s if you are one of those (I am both-“-) waiting for the change for your latte or cheese burger. You look around and your eyes fall on the little donation box in front of you. At this time you get your change back. What do you do? Or in another case, you walk into the shop to buy a drink and you see this:image

What do you do?

Sometimes I leave the 1p, or 5p, or 50p change, that is when I just happen to feel good or when I am too ashamed to take the 1p into my pocket and leave kids in Africa starving (again no offense!)…I don’t usually wonder where the money actually goes, nor have I actually given this whole donation thing serious thought, until yesterday I got stopped by someone from a non-profit research organization when I walked out of a Costa and he tried to get me to make an on-spot text donation, saying ‘it’s just 3 pounds; it’s cheaper than a coffee in there’. And I thought: hang on a minute, where is all this going?

So I sat down and started to think about this charity and philanthropy thing in relation to consumerism. Certainly I’m not the only one who has, or is made to have (as in the above case) a bad conscience when consuming. But it seems something different in the consumer society is evolving, which can lead to what Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen considers as an ‘ethical economy'[1] where 'the measurement of intangible value is related to the ability of a company to act as a virtuous global citizen', or what Slavoj Žižek calls an 'ultimate form of consumerism'[2] (in a much more critical and cynical way) where 'the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity, like you pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist but you do also your duty towards environment, the poor starving people in Africa…' 

(Watch the full film here: The Pervert’s guide to Ideology; below is RSA’s animated version of the similar idea by Žižek.)

So is Starbucks a ‘virtuous global citizen’? Is it the new way for economy to go? In the meantime, what is the way for traditional NGOs and charity organizations? Leaving those as open questions, let’s turn to have a look at social business in China.

#Social business in China

In one of my previous posts—-ICT for Change #1—-I briefly named several social enterprises in China. One of them is BottleDream (technically it is a website that presents successful cases of social enterprises abroad as social business was quite a new idea back in 2011-2012 in China) founded by Kenny Choi (the guy in the photo below; if the picture doesn’t show the link should still work). Examples of those case studies are a ‘Design for the other 90%’ exhibition in New York and the Q Drum project in South Africa. The experience with BottleDream inspired Choi to quit his job as an interactive designer in Tencent QQ and set on a journey to document stories of social innovation and social change by creative young people around the world, with completely crowd-funded money!  (For some reason I could not embed the video about him here so just click on the picture and you will be taken to youtube to watch the trailer of the documentary.)

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The documentary seems to provide some hope of real-life social entrepreneurship but I use ‘seems’ here because I want to wait till the whole documentary is out to form a more rounded judgement. Choi went back to Guangzhou, the capital of Canton province, and started a co-working space named Yi-Gather (which again is not a new idea in the West but might serve as another example of China’s rising creative sector). It would be interesting in the long term to examine the developing pattern of China’s creative industry and see whether it follows the neo-liberal logic. 

[1] The Ethical Economy-Rethinking Intangible Value. Available at: <http://www.europeanfinancialreview.com/?p=7365>.

[2] Slavoj Žižek on Starbucks. Available at: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHYKN97u2xM>. 

 

Creative Mapping

I always collect hand-drawn maps of cities I visit in China. A lot of them are just beautiful cute maps ( though sometimes eccentric as well) that look like these:

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(a map of cafes in the city of Guangzhou)

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(a food map of the city of Chengdu)

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(Strolling in the city of Suzhou)

These are creative maps that do not, or do not merely serve the navigation function of a traditional map. However most of the times they are simply cultural artifacts for tourists. There is absolutely nothing wrong with artists earning a living by drawing fun maps, but in this case I want to look at the political implications such creative mapping has or could have, since I did once stumble into an artist, a native Shenzhener, who made a fabulous sarcastic map of the city of Shenzhen. Behind the sarcasm is concern and concern is what makes positive change happen. Below is the cover and a few snapshots of the map.

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(Hand Painted Map of Shenzhen City)

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(poor-rich road sign and the golf field)

There are simply too many culturally-coded dark humors in the map that might not make sense to you at first sight. I will try explain just a few. In the middle of this snapshot (the green part) is a golf field. A few guards are apparently guarding it while their boss is about to take a shot at the golf ball (a head of man who is probably the original inhabitant of the land before it got turned into a golf field). 

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(university and Coastal City Shopping Center)

In this snapshot, the university is being mocked as a mass-manufacturing factory: young people enter the conveyer belt of Shenzhen University and end up the same and “dead”. At the bottom of the picture is another sarcasm targeting consumerism as the statue of liberty gets replaced by a statue of a luxurious handbag.

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(airport)

The town of chaos in this picture refers to the Bao’an district in the city of Shenzhen, which became deserted and environmentally lifeless after city planners decided to build an airport there.  

The map is full of memes. While other hand-drawn maps simply add to the expanding body of artistic commodities in China, this map does something different. It is not merely for collection and appreciation, it is the way of an artist to participate in social change. It is one strand of force that seeks to bypass out-spoken political activism (as it is a ridiculously stupid thing in the context of China ) and contributes to positive social change. It’s a small voice, and yet powerful. 

"Go on messing up the cities!" somebody cries.

Enlightenment in a digital age

This journal is written on data, code, body, anonymity, safety and enlightenment in a digital age, by someone who isn’t a techie or geek, who wasn’t interested in becoming one and who is now learning the new language of a digital world. 

For Kant, “enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”, immaturity being the “inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another" (What is Enlightenment?). I would like to think this is a good definition (although there is a whole counter-enlightenment argument represented by a bunch of you-know-who French philosophers and what they are saying makes sense as well) because for me it has much personal relevance. But it seems enlightenment in a digital age is a tough task as anonymity, security, truth all become entangled. I will try to illustrate this through a few examples (mainly exercises from class).

#wiki

When I was building my own wiki page, I uploaded a picture for my profile. But it was a picture of me a few month ago, so I decided to upload again a recent one but to my surprise (and possibly to someone else’s appallment), the old one was not to be deleted or replaced but instead only updated, which means both files were kept. In this case, wikimedia is a huge data bank where every click and every move of its users are gathered and can be traced. This, according to Bruno Latour (“Beware, your imagination leaves digital traces”) is a “stunning innovation”. Latour also argues ”the ancient divide between the social on the one hand and the psychological on the other was largely an artefact of an asymmetry between the traceability of various types of carriers” which to me stands quite valid. However, this breakdown between “social” and “personal” as we continue to share things/ourselves online and leaving traces of data that are stored in places we do not usually see might seem to many a breaching of privacy, which again is justifiable. After all, the dichotomy of inner and outer life has existed for hundreds or thousands of years.

# Scraperwiki & Exif Viewer

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I scraped my twitter followers using Scraperwiki and came up these sets of data about them; I also tried Exif Viewer with a few of my pictures online and offline. Luckily there is not too much information to be leaked but the exercises are nonetheless telling, not only in the sense that we again leave traces online in forms of unseen data but also in the sense that my body has now incorporated a new form of existence, which is a body of data. This is more evident with the next example.

#Facebook

A few days ago on the day of facebook’s 10th anniversary, people who logged onto their facebook page would find a “look back” video presenting their past photos, most-liked statuses and more with tacky or catching music (depending on how you see it). Regardless of people’s feelings towards the videos, it is undeniable for many Facebook has been documenting their lives.

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But how? This brings us back to data and the enlightenment question. Usually loading a facebook page is fairly quick but sometimes when there is a little problem and the whole process takes longer, we get a chance to see the skeleton of the page without any of its fancy or user-friendly features, which probably looks like this:

One question one might want to think about with facebook’s fancy pages or videos is how much does that contribute to people taking things for granted and have no clue about what is going on or how these are made possible (basic knowledge about HTML for example)? Are we more or less enlightened with this new technology?

To briefly conclude, if traceability/invisible data is a defining feature of the online world, then what about anonymity? And if anonymity is the norm, then where is the place of truth, or personal and national security,  and why and how should we verify things? It seems the very nature of the Internet itself is contradictory and how can one enlighten oneself in face of such complexity? I don’t know, but I’m intrigued to find out and keep trying, because at the end of the day, I still agree with Haraway that “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (A Cyborg Manifesto). 

ICT for Change #1

Welcome to the first of my series of shit talk. This post is mainly a reflection on the past two Social Media Campaigning lectures: “social media as a platform” and “agile campaigns and social movements”.

First of all, I do not want to pretend that terms such as “campaigning”, “social movement”, “activism” were not new to me and start dropping all other fancy terms such as “affordance”, “striated space” and “critical hacktivism” (I quite like this idea actually). Thanks to a different cultural background where these practices are not, or have not been staged frequently or ostensibly for quite some time (arguably since 1989), I would like to de-construct the terms a bit here instead of taking them for granted. The major question is: Are the values embedded by these terms universal or culturally-specific? It is unfair to assume that China has always been the way it is now and freedom of speech has always been repressed. In fact, the past century has been marked by political turbulence and revolutions. The 1919 May Fourth Movement, which was part of a larger New Culture Movement that advocated the abandonment of traditional Chinese values embodied by Confucianism, featured a generation of students and intellectuals that were concerned about the future of the nation and were publicly discussing political and social issues. Traditional media such as newspapers and magazines provided a platform for debates on Western values of “Democracy” and “Science”, nicknamed as “Mr. D” and “Mr. S”, on Marxism and pragmatism. The Chinese Communist Party was founded shortly after and gradually rose to power. The evolution of the CCP’s political ideology is another story that I won’t go into today but the end of the story is that we now have what is called a Chinese-style socialism and representative democracy, which I will leave to confuse you and for you to judge. But another major movement has marked such a transformation which eventually led to the disappearance of certain public voice, namely the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest/Massacre, at the forefront of which were once again university students who were then demanding a more liberal approach to economic and political reform. One of my favorite renditions of the movement is that after the bloodshed Chinese citizens and government have reached an invisible agreement: economic growth is rewarded at the expense of political voice.  

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(Original link: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1905170_1898162,00.html)

Coming back to the question posed at the beginning, I would say the answer from Chinese history is not a very clear one. But given that the notion of “history” entails a complicated entanglement amongst knowledge, discourse and power and is therefore possibly problematic, particularly in the Chinese case, I would base my following argument on my personal belief in the freedom of individual choice and the right to information/enlightenment as a prerequisite to it. Having said that, I shall now return to the discussion of the social impact of media technologies.

When I look at Tahrir and Taksim Square Protests, it is hard not to associate them with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and wonder what would happen if social media had been invented by then. In the case of Egypt and Turkey, it was not merely social media, but global social media—-facebook and twitter—-that fueled the protests and drew global attention and therefore global support to a certain extent. But if such was the picture, which is what it looks like now:

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(created by the author)

I know, it would not have been too encouraging. In fact I would argue and I believe many would agree that Weibo, a Chinese social network that was created in 2009 and became massively popular later when exposure of scandals went viral, has now been “captured”[1] or assimilated by existing party system as officials began to censor posts and delete them. Assimilation might not always be undesirable; indeed it might be a great way to improve a governing system. But my primary interest is in what McQuillan calls “critical hacktivism” as a way “to connect the affordances of social technology to social innovation” that “evades capture by existing institutional and knowledge structures”[2]. A hacker as someone “who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”[3] has the potential alongside the critical power of intellectuals and academics to actively change social status-quo for the better. Shifting my attention back to China, I have seen very recently promising social innovation projects emerging, including non-profit ones such as MaDTED to China, and PechaKucha Guangzhou and social enterprises such as SocialBeta (aspiring to become a Chinese Mashable) and BottleDream. These social projects are led by young people, but they differ from a “social innovation assemblage”[4] such as Social Innovation Camp, in the very way they are organized. In the following posts I hope to explore further the difference and discuss their role in social change and whether or not critical hacktivism has a future in China.

[1][2][3] Critical Hacktivism. Dan McQuillan 2012

[4] Hopeful Hybrids: the idea of social innovation assemblages. Dan McQuillan 2012