There’s Something in Absentia

14 July 2009

On Absence and Return

Ozone Playground, by Pulpolux !!! with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licenceAbsence is often considered an intentional void, a failure to be rather than the result of a distraction or restriction. There is often a condemnation involved, at least implicitly. A list of absentees, absenting oneself from a vote, being absent without leave – none of these measure or define behaviour deemed appropriate. Yet an absence is simply the lack of an expected presence, a disappointment only because it defies what we want rather than determines what is probable, or perhaps even possible. Absence speaks to our suspicion, whispers that someone else has erred.

How, then, do we rein in our expectations, or the presumption that a regular presence is necessarily and alone a good presence? One way would be to appreciate the aggregate rather than the individual. What do we achieve together more meaningfully than alone? Teams tend to outperform the combined capacity of their individual members, and societies – by and large – maintain the trajectory of their change despite emigration and remigration. It would be difficult to define either of these examples as a form of stability, yet they both indicate that a certain type of continuity has greater value than even the most identifiable absence. Sure, any sports fan could cite a team that failed after one member left (Michael Jordan’s first retirement, anyone?) but on a social scale, even with an increase of absences, the dilution is barely measurable.

Of course, this all goes to prove that my recent lengthy absence from the blogosphere is a small nothing in a vast ocean of somethings. But it’s so often difficult to escape self-censure, which is ultimately the whisper of the ego against the roar logic. No wonder I have ringing in my ears.


The Limits of Tolerance

21 February 2009

Or, the Spam Filter Waits

The Argument, by Thomas Hawk, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The Internet is sometimes a haven for fools. “Multiculturalism is a form of self-hating genocide”, wrote ‘Drew’ in response to my post on multiculturalism and China, apparently in ignorance of the conditions for genocide and displaying an unwillingness to engage in the debate that ‘yourfriend’ had initiated. The best he could manage was a rant about cultural separation that I deleted. Had he bothered to read anything else on Greetings Earthlings, including the end of the post he was commenting on, he would have known that my household usually contains two different cultures, and at the moment three. I’m not sure what I find worse, the intransigence or the ignorance. In any case the comment pushed past the limits of my tolerance.

Not incidentally, that raises an interesting question. On what is intolerance based? I wrote a post last year about eugenics, which is a convoluted attempt to justify intolerance using pseudo-scientific methods and a good deal of bluster. But any form of intolerance begins with a simplifying premise that like should only attract like, that cultural, social, political and personal boundaries are impermeable. There is no inherent logic to follow this premise, no immutable law of human dynamics that proves it must be so.

Circumstances do tend to separate people into groups based on language, outlook and other greater and lesser perceptions, but absolute separation is neither natural nor likely. Apartheid failed because it was improbable given the demographics of South Africa, ‘ethnic cleansing’ is condemned because it is immoral. The human condition is one of admixture, whether on a local, regional or global scale. ‘Yourfriend’ admirably outlined that admixture in southern China two weeks  ago.

The intolerance of other people’s social and genetic conditions is a form malcontent, which is much of what my debate with ‘yourfriend’ was about, from my perspective at least. And I was happy to engage someone who disagreed with me in certain ways then because there was no insistence on absolute separation and or anything like the asinine comment that ‘Drew’ left, whereby diversity could only be achieved on a global scale by reserving each country for its own homogeneous and unchanging people. It was “not too complicated” he said, which I took as meaning ‘simple’ in the sense of being limited and dumb.

Blog trolls like ‘Drew’ compress complexity into irrelevance, offering solutions to ‘problems’ only they imagine without bothering to test and re-test their own logic, to learn. A little intolerance rebounded back their way never hurts. ‘Drew’, meet the spam filter. I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.


Why Multiculturalism?

1 February 2009

Response to a Response

Get to the Point. By boliston, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)In response to both my last post and my original post on multiculturalism and China, ‘yourfriend’ has written a number of perceptive comments, arguing that multiculturalism as an ideology (not to be mistaken for a country being multicultural) is not a viable concept and thus not applicable to China. Other points, including a more accurate definition of Chinese ‘nationalities’ as ‘ethnicities’ and a critique of Professor Crane’s original argument are well worth reading, so I’ll reprint the three comments here with very minor editing (mainly the correction of a mistake that ‘yourfriend’ pointed out). If anyone else would like to offer comments on the topic, please do – discussions such as these can be crucial ways to learn. I’ll reply tomorrow.

Correction: I’ll have to reply on Tuesday, given that I have a course to attend tomorrow night. In the meantime, what do other readers think of multiculturalism, and – as ‘yourfriend’ asks in a more specific manner – how can or should we define nationality and culture?

First Comment – Response to the Original Post

The post makes less sense to me each time I read it. China is already multicultural, why the debate on whether “whites or blacks” can be “Chinese”?

Multiculturalism is a pretty loosely defined ideology, and there is no sense in using China’s current “multiculturalism” to make an argument for expanding it to include “blacks and whites” in China. I came to think that you didn’t have much of an appreciation for the ethnic and regional differences within the PRC, but I might have been wrong. I apologize if I am.

I question the quote by Crane here:

If Chinese multiculturalism does not deepen, if whites and blacks and other racial and ethnic groups cannot become Chinese, China will discourage the very people it has invited to understand its language and culture; and in the process it will be limiting the global market for its cultural products and undermining its world-wide political influence.

This is very speculative. The global market for Chinese cultural products is not very large; and especially not for genuine Chinese cultural products. At least to Americans, they consume Americanized cultural products created by “ethnic people” for the sake of novelty … very debasing, and all-around an unpleasant trade.

Read the rest of this entry »


Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

31 January 2009

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Blogger on Holiday

11 August 2008

My Middle-Class Misadventure

Sometimes, the oldest ideas are the most easily misunderstood. Take the word ‘holiday’, for instance – it’s been in the English language since at least the Twelfth Century, when it sounded more German than anything else, but most people don’t really understand what it means. Originally denoting a ‘holy’ day in the Christian calendar that allowed no labour, it later slid towards describing any day, or group of days, in which work was suspended. The term implies movement only in the somewhat abstract sense of escaping the obligation to toil, usually for someone else.

Yet increasingly over the course of the last century the notion that a holiday is necessarily a physical journey has crept into the language. It’s a middle class thing. Where once the bourgeoisie boasted mainly self-employed entrepreneurs with little time for rest, it’s now stuffed full of salaried professionals and other white-collar workers with the same ‘leave’ entitlements as their distant labouring cousins. But they’ve got more money and many are dual income couples – the prefect recipe for a little time in the sun, or the cold, or wherever else they might want to be.

So taking a holiday has slid lazily into meaning time spent anywhere else but here, with the authenticity of the period measured by the distance travelled, the fun others presume you’ll have and the almost miraculous refreshment you’ll feel from having been and returned. Because there is always an endpoint – holidays are only valuable in hindsight, recalled again at work as the years roll by.

But what of those people who resist the urge to travel while on holiday, those who can’t afford it or simply have better things to do? You would think the language is flexible enough to encompass the choice. But you’d be wrong.

I spent a great deal of time explaining to clients last week that, yes, I was going on holiday for two glorious weeks but, no, I wouldn’t be leaving Hong Kong. The retort, disturbingly enough, was that if I only intended to stay at home, perhaps I could do some work for them. For Hong Kongers, even expatriates who speak no other language than English, ‘holiday’ is a synonym for ‘escape’, and if you don’t escape, you must toil.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Grand Conversation

20 July 2008

Featuring Our Cognitive Surplus

One of the ironies of blogging is that in pursuit of the grand conversation, the epitome of Web 2.0 togetherness, writing often takes precedence over reading and the chance to comment on some-one else’s blog dwindles with each new post. Those of us who work professionally as writers and editors feel this the most, partly because we read so much in our line of work anyway, but also because a small distraction in a day can set a project back by hours. And if it’s not done by six o’clock, you just have to keep working into the night. Or on the weekend. So as I try to do from time to time I’m using this post to highlight a blog that I really should be commenting on, Greg Sadler’s new effort, Our Cognitive Surplus.

Many bloggers are sceptical about new blogs, wanting evidence of longevity before the initial burst of enthusiasm can be evaluated. But my opinion is that silence never encourages, and that enthusiasm grows with enthusiasm returned. Greg left a couple of very pertinent remarks here earlier in the week, on both my rudimentary (and yet to be tested!) comment policy and my recent consideration of Roman historiography. They struck me as intelligent and meant very much in the spirit of conversation, so I visited his blog to see what else he’s been ruminating about.

Greg writes from Canberra in Australia, and while his focus is by no means on the city, he does capture its essence in one brief burst – his comments on being accosted by evangelical Catholics in Civic had personal resonance for me, having lived thereabouts for six years. Canberra is very often a city of extreme and contradictory opinion, thrown about without much consideration for whether anyone is listening. Greg’s also perceptive in his assessment of the encounter, considering the importance of beliefs expressed even as he rues the lack of an internally functional paradigm within much religious debate. In other words, reason flies out the window all too often when dissent dares object to the received wisdom.

You might not agree with everything Greg writes, but that’s the whole point. He wants to start a conversation, and disagreement is inherent in any dialogue. So Greg, if you’re reading this, I will reply to your comments soon and I’m sure there’ll be much more to talk about. To everyone else who cares to converse, pay Our Cognitive Surplus a visit. It’s just beginning, but there should be a great deal more to come.


Abuse is Cheap

16 July 2008

Or, a Rudimentary Comment Policy

Although it seems so much like a cliché, to say abuse is cheap is the most satisfying response to irrational and irresponsible comments left on blogs. Thankfully, Greetings Earthlings has only ever attracted pertinent comments, many of which have made me think again about important issues. Some – especially my exchange with Patrick Lambe about knowledge management – still have me thinking. But today the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, received a ranting, possibly delusional comment about my wife and two close friends who have been working with me seeking justice for Vicky Flores and her family. So it’s time to reflect on invective, and think about what might pass for a comment policy here.

What makes someone rant at people who have given countless hours of time, significant amounts of money and sent themselves almost to exhaustion to help others? Jealousy could nail it, or derangement if the logic slips enough, but neither are particularly satisfying. Obviously the Internet offers convenient anonymity from which to fire barbs, although relatively few people realise just how simple it is to track down the IP address and thus location of a bitchy commenter. No, it’s not about ease of use. It’s got something do with quality.

Regardless of what else I could be accused, I pride myself in writing well, not only because I want people to read and agree, but also because I value ideas and their articulation. Not everyone sees things my way, but at least they can see what I’m getting at. Blog flamers, in contrast, really have no idea. Just as words strung out sequentially don’t necessarily constitute a sentence, a scattering of insults and wild presumptions are unlikely to comprise a comment.

As I mentioned earlier, abuse is cheap. Not only is it worth little in one sense of the word, but it’s also sleazy, both degrading of its context and demeaning for its perpetrators. And I intend to save abusive commenters from themselves.

So here comes what will pass for a comment policy on Greetings Earthlings. Any personal abuse of me or anyone else, including public figures, will be deleted. Attack my ideas or those of other commenters if you like. Attack the blog’s layout – criticise my choice of images if it pleases you – but I ask you to do so from a rational perspective.

After all, logic is everyone’s friend in this truly puzzling world.


Flickr Fascination

9 July 2008

On Images and a Little Innovation

The very best images capture something of the movement that brings a moment alive, the idea central to a new understanding. They drag the viewer in and speak to the senses of what has been and what might have been, just beyond the frame. For every fact they leave a promise, an invitation to return later to think again. I mentioned in a previous post how Roy Blumenthal’s artwork on Flickr does just that. Roy offers his electronic paintings under Creative Commons licences, which are superb invitations to revisit, use, reuse and share. But the more I’ve been using Flickr to find the images that populate my posts – that explain, contradict or reinforce what I mean – the more frustrated I’ve grown with its Creative Commons search function.

Flickr is a fantastic resource for any blogger and an endless source of fascination for me. It offers something for everyone, from the truly weird and the powerfully stated to the deeply experimental and the blandly pornographic. That’s the whole point – it draws people in, allows them to share their efforts with those who are likeminded, or who might well become likeminded after a browse or two.

By every indication, Flickr groups, the virtual communities that form around certain styles, subjects and themes, are very much alive and well. As Clay Shirky observed in Here Comes Everybody, even the most ad hoc groups on Flickr serve the valuable function of allowing people to organise themselves without organisations. Photostreams featuring social movements and protest rallies abound.

But that’s also a problem. Ask Flickr to search for images labelled ‘poverty’, for instance, and you’ll soon see countless photos of middle-class white people protesting about conditions in the third world. It’s all a little abstract. You’ll also find the stunning and equally moving photography of Gregory Smith, founder of the Children at Risk Foundation in Brazil, which is a saving grace. Finding an image that speaks to you is a moment to treasure – a precise point in time at which you can learn something valuable. But finding another ‘make poverty history logo’ is a hollow experience. It leaves little else to say.

Thankfully there’s an alternative way of searching Flickr for Creative-Commons-licensed images. When I was speaking on the Everyday Extraordinary Lives Show podcast the other day, Mike Seyfang mentioned to me a web application that’s been around for a while and seems to have quite a few happy usersflickrCC.

Read the rest of this entry »


Connecting the Commonplace

3 July 2008

A Podcast on Possibilities

Neon mic, by fensterbme, with Creative Commons licencePrivilege is an under-rated word – it tends to convey a sense of unwarranted wealth and power when it can more easily be a synonym for honour. The two concepts are diametrically opposed but together can produce a synthesis of sorts, with the honour perhaps just a little undeserved. In that sense I had the privilege earlier today of speaking to Dave Wallace and Mike Seyfang on their Extraordinary Everyday Lives Show. Along with Kent Newsome, the pair host occasional podcasts that range across the spectrum of technology, networking, people and ideas. Much of our focus today was on the work I’m doing with domestic helpers here in Hong Kong, especially in relation to Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death. But the concepts shifted from the significance of Creative Commons licensing to the nuances of activism and on to technical solutions for networked text messaging.

As I say, a privilege. You can listen to the podcast at the site, or download it to listen at your leisure.

Dave Wallace has featured here at Greetings Earthlings! a few times now, first as a commenter and then as the inspiration behind ideas I’ve reworked or reinterpreted. He describes his Lifekludger blog as an “ecosystem for enriching human life”, and his capacity to identify connections that other people might just barely notice is only really apparent when you speak to him in person. Or as ‘in person’ as a connection between Hong Kong and Adelaide will allow.

Mike Seyfang, a self-confessed “IT-git”, is also a pleasure to speak with because he digs into concepts and shakes their entrails. He’s particularly fervent about the possibilities of open licensing for intellectual property, and has featured at the Creative Commons wiki. He also blogs at Learning with the Fang, which I’ll be visiting a great deal in the near future.

Meela & freedado, by pierofix, with Creative Commons licenceTogether the pair made me think more about the intersection of people and technology that’s becoming more commonplace, and indeed more liberating, as new possibilities move from fertile minds to people on the street who are busy living, learning, working and laughing. And from that everyday activity, other ideas move in the opposite direction.

It’s like an ecosytem, as Dave would say, or a merging of memes. Most importantly its about people meeting people regardless of the distance between them.


Getting Organised for Good

25 June 2008

After the Limits of Web 2.0

Unorganized City, by Christy C, with Creative Commons licenceSome people can never really get organised, but others do it with natural ease. At the group level much the same occurs, with everything possible from loose yet effective organisation to downright chaotic failure. But in blogs, social networking platforms like Friendster and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Web 2.0 is a great leveller, offering forums for spontaneous activity, flexible boundaries that allow groups to form, function and disperse with minimal effort.

In Here Comes Everybody, Cay Shirky calls this “organising without organisations” and the sense of freestyle coordination plays out most often in protest movements. The other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, is a classic case of that, or at least seems to be. But ask yourself what more could be achieved if this sort of temporary organising became permanent, if Web 2.0 could be a decisive factor in social change.

That notion has been a constant concern lately as the group behind a Death in Hong Kong has started to manoeuvre it away from a focus on one disappearance and death to the broader social, economic and legal problems faced by migrant workers in Hong Kong. So when reading Dave Wallace’s brief Lifekludger post on Clay Shirky and the limits of Web 2.0 yesterday I encountered a few simple but serious issues very much worthy of further consideration.

Dave specialises in workarounds, and he needs to because he’s quadriplegic. Lifekludger is an attempt to draft a community of like-minded people, those willing to look beyond the way things are to how they might yet be, with a nudge or two. Workarounds are ways of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. I mentioned Dave in a previous post, and his observations tend to make me stop and think, then think again.

Traffic Light, by johnmarchan, with Creative Commons licenceThis time around Dave simply mentions that the social networks created on Web 2.0 tend to be used for STOP actions when GO actions, or forms of positive change, are needed to give his concept of a “collaborative ecosystem” more traction. He does so while introducing a recent Clay Shirky interview that breaks open the whole idea of network limits to poke at how they function.

Shirky mentions that continuity and a density of trust are crucial in moving towards more permanent Web 2.0 networks, but that conversation and a shared mission easily break down. We have a protest culture, he says, but “we don’t yet have a constructive culture”. He also mentions, at the prompting of the interviewer, that third generation mobile phones are starting to proliferate in developing countries, which will rapidly narrow the ‘digital divide’ in telephony.

Read the rest of this entry »


After the Event

30 May 2008

What Whispers Beyond the News?

Old New News, by ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceEvents are the meat of journalism, the mainstay of the traditional media. When something out of the ordinary happens, when a peculiarity eventuates, it grabs our attention. We seek more information in newspapers and magazines, on television or on the radio. Some of us read hybrid old-media websites – the Sydney Morning Herald online has been my mainstay for almost 12 years now. Even so-called ‘citizen journalism’ has given us hotspots like OhmyNews and CJReport, where non-professionals can write, and write very well, about the events around them. But do we always need novelty, should we be paying events the amount of attention that we inevitably do? What happens after the event, when the story no longer screams headlines but speaks in quiet suggestions instead?

Over the last week I’ve been preparing the second blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, for the transition from a specific focus on the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores to a more comprehensive, multi-author coverage of migrant worker rights and the consequences of a highly discriminatory immigration policy in what is often described as Asia’s ‘world city’. I’m sure we’ll lose readers in the process, because not everyone in the community who wants to know about Vicky’s terrible fate will care much about the accumulation of infringements on what is often a very precarious liberty. But we might gain more, because I hope to report on the little victories, the small amounts of happiness, even the great moments of joy that are rarely considered newsworthy.

Its Sandwich Time!!! By ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceBlogs, you might think, are a triumph of trivia, but I trust I’ve made a good case against that presumption in my last few posts here, in all of them if I’ve been communicating well enough. Most of what I write about on this blog happens when time has passed, when its time to think. That’s well after the event, tucked away in the whispers of what happens next, what might have happened then, what should happen now.

It might be un-eventful, but it doesn’t lack importance, whether to the here-and-now of everyday life or to the wider, more ethereal plane of ideas.

Read the rest of this entry »


Risk and Redemption

28 May 2008

On the Crucial Importance of Mistakes

Disney Institute -- Steamboat Willie Says Take Risks, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons LicenceAll too often we think of mistakes as inherently wrong, as disappointments, as fundamental disjunctures. They’re everything we strive against, and witness to our bitter failings. But I want to suggest that mistakes can be liberating, that they’re small, undernourished risks of the sort that, tended carefully, just might deliver enormous opportunities. Of course, they could also slap us back down to the grit of our everyday lives, but then we’d be none the wiser anyway. So we have the opportunity to learn given to us when things don’t work out, like a half-minute free-for-all in the supermarket of change. Now that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

After completing my last post I both made and unmade a mistake, which is no mean feat. I learned something, I lost something and I eventually gained a whole lot more. My mistake, after receiving a friendly comment from Dave Wallace, lay in presuming that the fantastic ‘Lifekludger first idea’ image I originally used in the post was really meant for his Lifekludger blog, even though his friend Roy Blumenthal had offered it on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I removed the image just in case, writing to both men to explain. But, as it happened, Roy left the most gracious comments here noting that I was free to use the image and any others that he offered.

So the image is back in this post, partly because I want to discuss ideas that Dave Wallace is grappling with on his blog, and partly because it matches nicely the other two Roy Blumenthal images that I’m using.

If a picture says a thousand words, then Roy’s paintings speak long and then speak again, at the interval between technology and art, on the margins of creation and reproduction. Roy creates most of his images on a tablet PC, and works – in one of his many guises – as a visual facilitator, someone who attends conferences and captures speech as it’s spoken, distilled into images that refine and release thought, motion, colour, shade, difficult to grasp abstracts and absolute certainties.

The initial image on this post is one of the fascinating results, a mix of metaphor, movement and challenge to change all rolled into one. Roy’s art speaks of the very moment at which risk becomes reality, that split-second when an opportunity – to learn, and to unlearn – rushes up, about to rush by. It’s not precise, it’s not exact in a formal way; it’s more of a workaround, a compromise, a sort of accommodation with the promising inadequacies of life.

Lifekludger first idea, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceDave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog is a lot like that too, although to call it a blog overshadows its power as a kind of electronic thought tablet. Dave uses the term meme, and it seems to be a work in perpetual process. A Kludge, not incidentally, is a workaround, a way of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. Dave Wallace is interested in what you might call life-hacks, and he brings to bear on them the perspective of a quadriplegic former mechanic who is seeking new tools to shift between contexts, who is exploring the possibilities of social networks in the Cyber Age.

Read the rest of this entry »