Monthly Archives: September 2011

Call me Illiterate.

Computer programmers use a language to communicate with a machine to get it to function in a certain way. Now, most of us don’t speak this language, but we do speak a more conversational style of computer.

Think about it, how frustrated were you when you updated to Windows 2007?  All of a sudden there was no file tab! How about when you used your first Mac – What, there’s no ctrl, alt, delete? It reminds me of the first time I tried to speak French in France. Who knew screaming “garcon” at a waiter was outdated!

If you can follow me on this analogy, it would only seem fair to compare the navigation of computer to the speaking of a language. For most of us, it is not something that came completely natural until we used it regularly. In middle school, I took computer classes and felt about as frustrated and nervous as I did when speaking French in French class. With more and more use I learned the languages, computer and French, and could use them more fluently. Just like language, when I took a retail job and stepped away from computers, I was a bit rusty when I took my office job – unfortunately just as I am with my college French.

Kids today aren’t waiting until middle school to learn how to use a computer. They are waiting until they are developed enough to be able to hold the weight of an iphone.  The generational gap is astounding. I see it in my office, and I’m sure when I’m the age of the people I’m teaching to “copy and paste”, the people in their 20’s will be talking about me in the same way. The language of computer is growing and it is necessary to be fluent in it to grow in the United States and in the world.

Of course, it’s hard for us to even imagine being illiterate. But we too learned the computer language, it didn’t just come naturally. We practiced, we utilized and we conquered. Throwing a computer into a village without computers with little guidance, is as good as throwing a Marylander into Akureyri, Iceland and telling them to speak Icelandic. Computers are a language and need to be treated and taught like one. Hopes and crossed fingers won’t do the trick.


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Patriotism as a Tool for Political Parties

NPR recently published an article about nationalism, its roots and whether or not it’s a good thing. It also discusses the difference between nationalism and patriotism in the U.S. It bassically implies that there is a fine line between the two in the American context.

To see patriotism in the U.S, the article says,

“• Go to a baseball game where fans often croon “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

• Check out the American flag pins on the lapels or collars of nearly every politician.

• Listen to Toby Keith’s current hit Made in America and read how it inspired a Michigan kindergarten class to create an “American-made show-and-tell.”

Call it what you will — American nationalism or patriotism — it is covering the country like a Wi-Fi cloud — above the fruited plain from sea to shining sea.”

Patriotism/nationalism are especially prevalent around election time, and with that comes accusations of being unpatriotic. This, I think, is where nationalism hurts the U.S. Being a patriot, or a nationalist, can be a very positive thing. It brings people together to support the military, it helps create a community in general. It allows a sense of pride that usually cannot be broken. Those are important functions for a nation. But, when patriotism is used as a tool for fighting and breaking up community sensibility, it is negative. We see this in  the U.S. political party system. Parties pit people, and each other, against each other under the guise of patriotism.

The NPR article says, “Patriotism permeates contemporary American politics. As do accusations of unpatriotic behavior. Of course, the word “patriot” is a subjective characterization, and most politicians use it as code for someone who shares their beliefs.” So, a republican calls a democrat unpatriotic for supporting Obamacare and thinking higher taxes are a good thing, while a democrat would call a republican unpatriotic for not supporting Obama’s heath care system and higher taxes. Really, this has nothing to do with being patriotic.


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Raise the Flag

 Off of route 50 heading east from D.C., right when you pass the Bowie Town Center exit, there flies the largest American Flag in the world. Now, of course, I can’t be certain that it is truly the largest, but since I was a kid I remember driving by this exit and thinking wow – that is one big flag. I would get that tingling feeling in my tummy about how I should be more appreciative of my country.

Now, I find that this sense of nationalism, which I referred to above as the tingling in my tummy, is something that ebbs and flows with time and current events. More particularly, highlighted in the readings, is that it is directly influenced by media.

 The media tells us how and when to feel patriotic. Patriotism, in this sense, is being defined as a cultural, more specifically, visual, representation of nationalism. After 9/11 how many people put a flag in their yard? I know my family did. After the last election, how many people waited in lines at the porta john’s at then president-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration? I know I did. Why? The media sensationalizes events.

 By NO MEANS am I belittling 9/11 or President Obama. Instead, I am saying that the firemen posed like Iwo Jima are the patriotic image related to 9/11. This is not because it had anything to do with the events, or those who died, or even World War II, it’s because the media caught this and found a way to relate it back to the American people. Those who didn’t even know of the battle of Iwo Jima now know, at the very minimum, it is a patriotic image.

 On a similar note, how many people watch women’s soccer? How many people watched the US women go into a shoot out in the FIFA Women’s world cup? The media doesn’t need tragedy to promote nationalism.

 Whether it’s Ronald Regan wearing a cowboy hat, or the biggest flag in the world displayed outside of a used car dealership in Bowie, Maryland – Americans like to feel American. We like to be reminded of our nationalism. And the media likes to get the attention.

Parachute Journalism v. Culture

I want to examine more a topic that I brought up in class this week with foreign correspondence, especially from the American perspective. This issue is called “parachute journalism,” which according to one essay  “is the dispatching of globe-trotting reporters and camera crews…to cover the latest breaking news…There’s nothing polite about some of the outcomes.”

Parachute journalism involves reporters and photographers flying in to countries or regions in conflict without any prior knowledge or interest in the historical or cultural aspects of the conflict- CNN reporting tends to follow this model. The problem with parachute foreign correspondence is that culture and history drive conflict, so neither aspect should be left out of reporting. Parachute journalists tend to cite political events and general societal norms as background, but don’t go in depth with learning about and reporting background information. It focuses on the day-to-day events on the ground, which doesn’t help readers/viewers understand the issue well.

Parachute journalism is detrimental to how American’s perceive the world, as I mentioned in class, because it can perpetuate the us v. them mind set. This is one way that the media aides in creating American nationalism. With parachute journalism, Americans can’t begin to understand or relate to conflicts in other regions.

One model for foreign correspondence that some media outlets are using is far more effective than the parachute model. It involves hiring correspondents that live in the countries that coverage focuses on and have broader regional knowledge to refer to. The New York Time uses some reporters who live in the region they are covering. Anthony Shadid, who covers the Middle East, is one example. Here is a story he wrote on Bahrain that explains history and culture in depth.  He has written similarly in depth stories about Egypt, Syria and Libya.

However, the NYT also uses the parachute model. Here is a Columbia Journalism Review article that discusses the two models and shows more examples.

The challenge of change

To have a certain national identity seems to most of us to be as natural as having first, middle, and last names that were given to us at birth and signify our belonging to a family, or maybe even to a whole clan. Our nationality is like an extended family which we feel an emotional attachment to and which provides us a sense of belonging—whatever meaning each one of us bestows upon this word. It becomes second nature, and I venture to guess that few ordinary people question the meaning of this relationship.

However, as Karim H. Karim and Silvio Waisbard point out, nationalism is first of all an invented, imaginary concept, and second, it possesses a dual “elastic” nature, which is both capable of uniting and to excluding, and bring about liberation or genocide. Also the nation as a socio-political category bears a close relationship with politics (nation-states) and the economy (international trade), neither of which are the most humane and ethical realms of human activity. In addition, the national subdivision of human kind is not the ideal, nor is it the final stage of human development (see for example Jeremy Rifkin’s talk on The Empathic Civilization:

As deceptive and illusionary as nationhood is, I think in reality it is extremely hard to remove its blinders. First of all, a person has to realize that these blinders exist; second, he or she has to find the opportunity to leave the territory over which these blinders operate, for an extended period of time; and third, a person should be open-minded about the variety of information he or she would be exposed to in a different country, and willing to accept the inevitable change of worldview this experience is most likely going to bring about. It means that stepping out of your national “shell” involves a lot of work on the side of the individual, including real-life experience (sometimes even painful experience, like culture shock). And here I think is the key to the problem discussed in Silvio Waisbard’s article, namely why despite the great expectations, the global media do not contribute to the “broadening [of] cultural horizons and fostering transnational communities.” (p 385) Instead, “audiences are typically indifferent to the plight of others portrayed in world news.” (p 386)

To see the picture of the “other” on a TV screen, as colorful as it may be, is not enough to bring about serious value change in people. Even more so, people become desensitized from overexposure to information that they can’t personally relate to. At the same time, not many individuals are willing, or capable, or have the opportunity, to travel abroad and to obtain the necessary exposure to the “otherness” of different cultures. In this respect I think that the phenomenon of third culture kids (or TCKs) is of special interest. Scientists believe that children who spend their formative years (when they are under 15) in different cultures are not attached to any one particular culture, which molds their personality in a very peculiar way. They tend to possess “superior diplomacy, flexibility, linguistic ability, patience and sophistication.” (Nina Killham, World-Wise Kids, p 229) TCKs are also “good observers, less judgmental and less prejudicial.” (Killham, p 230) They also possess a heightened sensitivity to world events and “have a three-dimensional view of the world. ‘A  TCK will read a headline in a newspaper, and can often smell the smells, hear the sounds, and identify with the pain and disaster a half a world away.’”

TCKs are probably the closest one can get to the cosmopolitanism discussed in Waisbard’s article. That’s not to say that other people don’t possess all these valuable characteristics, but again, they are usually the result of extensive education (including self-education) and firsthand experience. One does not become cosmopolitan by simply watching TV, or consuming other mass media.

Nationalism is but one of the stages in the social development of human kind. Now that we face challenges that threaten our existence as a species (for example, climate change), the cultivation of empathy, “solidarity and commitment to universal values” (p 385) must climb higher on the agenda of the international community, and obviously there is no simple solution to this task.

The-world-isn’t-that-bad theory

In my line of work, fundraising, cultivation is an important tool to, well, cultivate. We start with weee little donors and hope that with our charm, business model and scientific updates, we can help our donors bloom into major supporters of our cause. This is why, for me, Gerbner’s cultivation theory makes me chuckle. Not because it’s incorrect, but more because in my business we look at cultivation as a positive tool. Something that will help us, help our cause and in turn help the donor.

 Our whole theory is, the more time you touch a donor (letters, phone calls, e-mails, visits), the more likely the donor will become a strong partner to the organization. This is cultivation. In the cultivation theory, there is a similar outcome. The theory claims that the more TV you watch the more warped your world is. Your sense of reality is affected by what you see on TV. How many people think Kazakhs from Kazakhstan look Eastern European because of Borat? Now, cultivating in fundraising should never present a false view, but it can affect perceptions like the cultivation theory claims.

 Gerbner’s mean-world hypothesis takes it a step further saying that not only can TV change your view on reality, but too much violent TV will make you scared of the world. The world may be scary, but the chance of a serial killer dressed as clown while playing the ice cream song on a harmonica, in a stolen school bus abducting you is, to say the least, unlikely, except on Law and Order, of course. Frankly, I’m much more scared of being overcharged at a coffee shop.

 If the mean-world hypothesis holds true for many people in our society, how about the good-world hypothesis? If I can convince you through cultivation, that your support could help cure a disease wouldn’t you be more willing to donate? If the more I see you, the more you trust me and the more you trust my organization makes the disease a little less scary, wouldn’t this be a well-the-world-isn’t-that-bad theory?

Cultivation may change your views on reality, but it also may build a sense of compassion that you wouldn’t otherwise have. It can be argued that cultivation can change your views; but whether it leads you to a mean, mean world, or a hopeful new beginning, that is the question.

The Social Media Focus: An Orientalist POV?

“Innis sees a dialectical relationship between society and technology: they influence one another mutually. According to this view, certain social forms and situations encourage the development of new media; these media, operating within existing situations, react back on society to produce a new cycle of change. It would thus be a mistake to consider Innis a technological determinist: he does not believe that technology drives social evolution. He does, however, appreciate the considerable power invested in communications technologies and monopolies of knowledge to shape culture.”

Innis’s ideas about the relationship between society and technology help to offer a great theory behind what much of the debate about the recent uprisings in the Middle East has focused on.

How much of an effect has social media had on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the protests elsewhere? Although many academics, policymakers and professionals, including journalists, seem to agree that social media wasn’t the actual cause of the “Arab Spring,” just a facilitation tool, Western media outlets remain focused on this aspect, which is problematic.

Rabab El-Mahdi, an editor for Jadaliyya, wrote in April that this focus on the social media role shows that we have been looking at the revolution in Egypt from an orientalist perspective.

In the case of Egypt, the recent uprising is constructed as a youth, non-violent revolution in which social media (especially facebook and twitter) are champions. The underlying message here is that it these “middle-class” educated youth (read: modern) are not “terrorists,” they hold the same values as “us” (the democratic West), and finally use the same tools (facebook and twitter) that “we” invented and use in our daily-lives. They are just like “us” and hence they deserve celebration. These constructions are clear from a quick look the CNN, Time, Vanity Fair and others representations of the so-called leaders or icons of this revolution.”

I think that Innis’s point that technology does not drive social and cultural change is correct in the context of the Middle East. This media reliance on the social media story has taken credit away from the revolutionaries and protestors. It has ignored human agency to create change. Instead, we should be asking, “Why did the protestors choose to use social media?”

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