Fair Trade and Fairphone

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A TEDTalk about fairness and products…

Conditions for Digital Living: India, Swe, USA

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The Open Society Foundations‘ Mapping Digital Media programme has been mapping the macro framework relevant to this micro exploration — the state, conditions and challenges of digital media landscapes in some 55 countries.

The US report was published early on in 2011, the Swedish report a while ago as well, and the India report —  yesterday.  (A project to produce the Finnish report has just received funding from the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation!)

How can these reports inform the micro-level, personal or personalized reflections of this project?

First, the basic figures of internet and mobile phone penetration tell us a lot. What chart might represent what country?

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And yet, looking at the conclusions of these studies, one issue become clear: Digitalization does not bring diversity — unless we explicitly demand it and work for it, as citizens, content-creators, consumers. Another contradiction: Infinite possibilites – more of the same.

From the SWE report:

Pluralism of voices in the media is variable. On the one hand, UGC on digital platforms is increasing dramatically, both on social media and on news media websites. Th us, the number of voices is increasing and more citizens are participating in public debate. On the other hand, there is still a considerable domination by elite sources in the most important news outlets. This pattern has not changed, despite the contradictory trend on digital media platforms.

From the USA report:

Most people now have access to more information than at any previous time, but the decimation of traditional print and broadcast newsrooms and a lack of viable methods for financing in-depth reporting in the digital age means the nation is at a delicate moment in communications, news, journalism, and free speech. It also unfortunately remains the case that race, gender, income, education, geography, age, disability, and sexual orientation all continue to unjustly shape Americans’ opportunities for both accessing and being represented in high-quality reporting. …

Simultaneously, the digital revolution has upset old business models. As a consequence, there exists a looming—though not certain—market failure in the production and circulation of publicly relevant news, especially at the local level. Traditional media are scrambling to maintain balance in the new environment, but have been slow to adapt.

From the India report:

The multiplicity of television channels within a language market has not led to significant diversity; visible variations in content are more a reflection of diff erences in the dominant interests driving or owning these channels—namely, politicians and political parties, business ventures associated or affiliated with political groups, and different sections within the business community. In short, the visible diversity, especially across television news channels, indicates a variety of dominant voices. 

The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

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This book takes up a possible (negative) aspect of digital technology in terms of privacy and democracy.

TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov

Imagine a world in which humanity—equipped with powerful self-tracking devices—finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropriately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do. Car keys, faces, factoids: we will never forget them again. No need to feel nostalgic, since that moment is surely stored somewhere in your smartphone—or, more likely, your smart, all-recording glasses—you can stop fantasizing and simply rewind to it directly. Politics is freed from all the sleazy corruption, backroom deals, and inefficient horse trading. Parties are disaggregated and replaced by Groupon-like political campaigns, where users come together—once—to weigh in on issues of direct and immediate relevance to their lives, only to disband shortly afterward. And even those who’ve never bothered to vote in the past are finally provided with the right incentives and so they rush to use their smartphones to “check in” at the voting booth.

Crime is a distant memory, while courts are overstaffed and underworked and prisons are unnecessary. Both physical and virtual environments—walls, pavements, doors, log-in screens—have become “smart.” That is, they have integrated the plethora of data generated by the self-tracking devices and social-networking services so that now they can predict and prevent criminal behavior simply by analyzing their users. Newspapers no longer publish articles that their readers are not interested in; the proliferation of self-tracking combined with social-networking data guarantees that everyone gets to read a highly customized newspaper that yields the highest possible click rate. No story goes unclicked, no headline untweeted; customized, individual articles are generated in the few seconds that pass between the click of a link and the loading of the page in one’s browser.

While there are many in Silicon Valley who subscribe to an “internet-solutionism” ideology and find such a technology-driven utopia enticing, Morozov finds this sort of future terrifying. He argues: “Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection—and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity, and imperfection—will prove to be prohibitively expensive in the long run.

See more at the Institute for Public Knowledge.

Does this relate to the dystopian techno-future portrayed in the haunting Tom Cruise film Minority Report?

When the Electricity is Off

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I found these notes in an old journal today. They are reflections on what could be considered another type of digital diet. That is, what happens when we can’t use electricity, upon which digital devices depend?

The power went out the other day because of a really hard rainstorm that caused a tree to fall down over the power line at the bottom of the driveway. The tree was huge and rotten, so we think the weight of the water on the leaves finally caused it to fall over.  We couldn’t drive anywhere because the tree was blocking the cars in, so I spent the day at home listening to the rain drip down the chimney.

I made a list of the things that you can and can’t do when the power is out. I found the list interesting because the can/can’t activities didn’t seem to fall into any rational categories, in the sense of one set being things that I prefer to do. For example, when the power is out, you can’t: toast bread, use the electric tea kettle, read at night, use a computer, connect to the internet, vacuum, blend with the blender, use the sewing machine, watch TV. When the power is out you can: kiss, talk, brush your hair, cook on the woodstove, eat a salad, laugh, run, look at the things growing in the forest, go swimming, chop wood, feed the chickens, write with paper and a pen.

(The some what radical, but often interesting) James Howard Kunstler writes about how we tend to think that “the internet will save us” as energy becomes more scarce and if things become unstable socially. Because, we think, using the internet, we would be able to work, share information, stay in touch, etc. without leaving our houses. But, he points out, if “electricity is on the fritz” and is only on a couple of hours a day, or not at all for a week, then that would seriously hamper any thought to continuing a normal life via our computers.

So, that’s some interesting food for thought..

Digital Living: Sweden

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I’ve been thinking over the last days of how to describe the differences between digital living in the US and Sweden, as an American spending quite a bit of time in the north. Are there differences?

The more I think, the more I feel that there are more similarities than differences, that some cultural differences aside (largely related to Sweden’s stronger public safety net and related expectations), daily life in Sweden is swept up in many of the same patterns as shape digital life in the U.S. today.

Daily Life Abroad

On a personal level, Internet access allows me to stay much more connected to the US when I’m in Sweden than otherwise. I can continue to work “there” (the US) even when I’m here (Sweden). My colleagues are largely the same, as is my day-to-day work. In New York, as in Sweden, I spend a large part of my working day at my laptop, sipping cups of tea, reading and writing.

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I can still access and participate in the US internet landscape even when I’m not physically in the US. This sounds mundane, but it’s actually pretty amazing when one stops to consider the implications. And, I indeed continue to participate much more in the US-online-world than I do in the Swedish one. With a VOIP phone I can even keep my NYC office number, easily calling the US or receiving calls. And, with a six-hour time difference working cross-continentally with the east coast US feels relatively reasonable (3pm in Sweden = 9am in NYC). Even when I’m in the US, many of my work relationships are mediated by technology, as collaborators and clients often live in other US cities, sometimes on the other side of the country.

To put things in perspective, I think about the story a friend told me about her time in China. As a young student at Yale in the 1970s she got the opportunity to study in Beijing just after the Cultural Revolution, at a time when the country was generally quite closed to foreigners. At Beijing University (often considered China’s equivalent Harvard) there was a small reading room with foreign newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. The room was off-limits to Chinese students, but foreign students and a handful of scholars were allowed access. The newspapers were often at least a week old, given the transport time involved. But, my friend would read the news, now and then, to get a sense of what was happening in the world and at home in North America. After two years in Beijing, surrounded by Chinese language and culture with only slow and occasional access to “home”, returning to the West was a shock.

Shared Language, Shared Culture

My friend’s experience abroad in 1970s China is certainly very different from my experience of living in Sweden today (I also spent stretches of time in China in 2004/2005/2006, but that’s a different story!) Here, many instantaneous lines of connection remain open for me with the US. And, there are many similarities between New York and Stockholm life — or, perhaps, better said, many Swedes and Americans participate in a shared international culture of iPhones, well-roasted coffees, hip secondhand shops, the Millennium trilogy of Stig Larsson books, big theater showings of the Hobbit, American TV shows, and Swedish bands ranging from ABBA to First Aid Kit.

Part of this crossover is related to the fact that a large majority of Swedes speak and read English very well. Bookstores and libraries in Stockholm typically have a large selection of English language books, Swedish academics often publish in English, and some workplaces are entirely English-speaking. Despite the fact that English is not one of Sweden’s official minority languages, government websites and services are often offered in both Swedish and English. All of this is not for the benefit of native English speakers alone, but rather allows Sweden to connect with a large international community with English as a lingua franca.

In digital culture, the overlap is often even more clear. Many computer-related words have been taken directly from English into the Swedish language. Apple devices like iPhones are incredibly popular. And, episodes of American shows like Portlandia and True Blood are available on the Swedish public television website.

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Episode of Portlandia currently available on SVTplay.

The media connections continue: recently a Swedish relative began reading The Economist and The New Yorker on his tablet — as this digital option is much cheaper than an international paper subscription and makes it affordable. A woman I spoke with in a shop in Stockholm in early January had just finished gorging on a set of American science fiction novels she’d ordered on Amazon.com. Many of the books, she said, had labels from US libraries — presumably books the libraries had purged from their collections. And, a friend showed me beautiful antique quilts from the southern US that she’d won on Ebay and had shipped to Sweden.

(This digital exchange isn’t always so smooth — for instance, I can’t buy Swedish language media via my US-based iTunes account, and it’s hard, though by no means impossible, to access certain American media online from abroad.)

Non/Digital Summers

Nevertheless, there are some basic differences (and many more subtle ones — surely including those I haven’t yet discovered). Most markedly, Sweden’s social safety net with affordable day care, low-cost and high-quality healthcare, support for families with children, and long vacations has an impact on life in general, as well as on digital norms.

I’ve slowly learned, for instance, not to expect a reply if I email someone between mid-June and mid-August. A reply is possible — just not a given. During these summer months much (but not all) of Sweden is off on vacation: ideally and idyllically at a small family cabin by a lake or the ocean. Many offices shut down for at least a month, and it’s not uncommon to receive an email auto-reply informing you that the person in question won’t be back in the office for six weeks. That is, there is a social expectation, in the professional world at least, that even the digital shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with these holy summer months.

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Of course, there are exceptions. And, perhaps they are becoming increasingly common. With mobile broadband more people can take the internet to even previously remote locations because, as this short article explains, service is available in 99% of inhabited locations in Sweden (note the photo of the couple using a laptop in their camping tent). Further, many parents feel increasingly pressured to bring not just their own, but their children’s digital devices on vacation.

A real life example: last summer we visited a friend and her family at their beautiful small old summer house in the countryside. She was working on finishing a book on the history of black metal (music) and explained that she was often up half or all of the night after her little girls went to sleep working on it. She could send chapters to her collaborator, she explained, via her mobile phone — which could be connected to her computer for net access.

Digital Patterns

From my own window in the Swedish countryside I can see four tall white birch trees, and behind them a gray 3G mast, just as high. Sometimes I ask myself: would I be willing to give up using a mobile phone if it meant that I didn’t have live in the shadow of its infrastructure? What’s the price of 99% mobile coverage? (In achieving the ideal of ubiquitous access Swedish telecom companies faced unexpected delays, as many citizens fought the arrival of 3G towers on or near their land. In part because mobile telephony is classified as a potential environmental hazard, local cities and towns had to consider these objections, even if, in reality, most weren’t heeded.)

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While there are some differences in the build-out of telecom infrastructure in the US and Sweden, the overall patterns are remarkably similar. From the consumer side, there has been a decline in landlines in favor of mobile and VOIP telephones over the past decade in both places. Home broadband and internet use have increased markedly (see US stats here; and Swedish stats here), and now tablet use is on the rise. One interesting difference is the cost of a mobile phone service in the two countries: 4 cents per minute in Sweden versus 18 to 25 cents per minute in the US, according to a 2010 study,

Surprisingly, 1.3 million people in Sweden — about 1 in 7 people — don’t have the internet at home.  This is much less than in the US, where as of April 2012 34% of adults didn’t have a home net connection, or 1 in 3 people. Still, for those who don’t have the internet at home, or don’t get online regularly, the patterns in both countries are remarkably resonant. In both the U.S. and Sweden, those under 65, who have higher levels of education, and higher incomes are much more likely to be online at home. In addition, the reasons given for not being online are similar.

Perhaps the difference in the degree of disconnectivity between the two countries is reflective of the fact that due to a long history of supportive policies, Sweden is more socio-economically equal than U.S., leading to less drastic gaps in education and income.

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Video still from De Bortkopplade (“The Disconnected”)

On a cultural level, corresponding patterns are also evident. In Sweden, like the US, as increasing numbers of us become connected, more of us are experiencing internet burnout. Or, a growing sense that we can’t survive without our digital devices: not always a pleasant sensation. About 40% of Swedes, for instance, say they can’t “live a normal life” without the internet, and 7 out of 10 “can’t live” without their mobile phone.

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Percent of people in Sweden who “Feel that the spend too much time with the Internet, 2009-2011″, see study here. Bar graph labels, left to right: Never, Sometimes, Often, Very Often.

Still, in both countries, researchers and students at the biggest technical universities continue to study gaming and other digital futures with excitement and it’s considered to be more harmful for children to grow up without regular technology access than for them to spend too much time with devices. At the same time, over a recent lunch with a Swedish colleague, she related, with concern, how hard it can be to pull her children away from computer games and bring them outside: a situation perhaps not to unfamiliar to many parents in the US.

So, is digital living in Sweden different than in the United States? One could say that in some ways it is, but it’s perhaps more interesting to explore the surprisingly many parallels and interconnections.

The Electricity Giant

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A weekend trip to a store in Sweden called El Giganten, translation = “The Electricity Giant”. Given that Swedes, and Americans, use way more than our fair share of the world’s energy I felt guilty shopping at a place that celebrates “giant” electricity use.

The store sells computers, iPads, electric razors, space-heaters, tech accessories, etc.. I bought a printer. The signs that say REA mean “sale!”

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Five Star Existence (film)

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Here is a recent documentary by a Finnish filmmaker which seems quite relevant to the digital living project!

Five Star Existence Sonja Lindén (2011, 84 min)

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With the world at our fingertips, does technology make us freer? Amidst all the hurry and worry of the modern information society, are we happier? These are the core questions of Finnish filmmaker Sonja Lindén’s contemplative look at our wired existence.

Our communication habits have changed drastically in the past 20 years. As the pace of technological innovation accelerates daily, expectations intensify in the workplace, where hectic multi-tasking and 24/7 availability are the norm. Lindén also notes how our relationship to movement has changed; it is now possible to live a life entirely sitting down.

But while the sedentary nature of playing video games results in spine problems for some young people, a computer mouse stuck to the forehead of a disabled woman has given her a new independent life. How does machinery affect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being? How can we rediscover a balance between our natural rhythm and the rapidly escalating demands of modern society?

Beautifully shot and poetically paced, Five Star Existence was selected for International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s Competition for Feature-Length Documentary. Lindén’s sensitive, nonjudgmental treatment of these questions creates a heavily thought-provoking cinematic essay on the intertwining of machine and human being.

See the trailer, here.

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