Babble On

25 January 2009

The Value of Minority Languages

2103512683_7bbf68822e_mLanguages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.

We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.

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So this is Christmas

26 December 2008

Hong Kong, in Three Street-Side Scenes

I'll get you the moon and the stars, by lenchensmama, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Words are sometimes not enough to express the feeling engendered in a moment, the sense that something ineffable has shifted and changed. There are only glimpses, flashes of memory like single frames in a half-forgotten movie, and if you transcribe it all into prose befitting the moment you’ll lose it to the syntax, the unerring formality of the written word. A series of images might suffice, but even then the meaning will stir somewhere below the surface, not quite escaping, never really extending to anyone else. Allow me, then, to offer a compromise, a word picture, a witness statement of Christmas in Hong Kong.

See first the carollers, singing with conviction that outstrips talent, some shuffling notes to read the words by candlelight, others with song after song ingrained in memory. In a doorway they stand, the entrance to a church. The façade has seen better days and the indifferent crowd shuffles past, drawn by the call of commerce. In Jordan something – everything – is always for sale. But the carols rise above it all, drown even the wail of taxi horns and the deep, deep throb of double-decker buses waiting impatiently at traffic lights. Look back into the doorway and see who these people are. Chinese, yes, and Indians. Africans and Australians. Filipinos and Indonesians.

This moment could be an emblem for everything that Hong Kong so often fails to be. It speaks volumes that the few people who stop to watch do so in patient wait for photo opportunities, as they might with caged pandas and as they do at stylised Christmas displays throughout the city. Sometimes someone else’s idea can be enticing, but not enticing enough.

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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.

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In Civitas, Servitude

8 June 2008

On the Implications of Citizenship

Loyalty conflict, by beta karel, with Creative Commons licence Who wants to be a citizen? That’s an important question because most people are never asked. They’re born into the role and it could well mean very little to them in their daily lives. Sure, many people apply for citizenship, even hold dual citizenship and are expected to walk away from something to prove their complete or provisional loyalty. But most of us simply think of citizenship as an ideal and the citizen as someone lodged between a role model and a relic, depending on the point of view. Still, we keep talking about responsibility to this country or that, and the dubious ‘fact’ that rights bring with them duties. These are traces of citizenship buried within our perceptions of the world. But do we want them, and even more importantly do we need them?

My answer is no.

In a previous post I made clear my position on citizenship. With its links to civility, in its attachment to the status quo at some level or another, the very notion is a curb on dissent. You could counter that the idea of ‘social citizenship’ actively encourages change with its focus on equal rights and opportunities. But even if that focus leads to activism, it is a form of activism that carries with it an implicit allegiance to equality as a new status quo, another way of dressing up the body politic.

Throughout its history the seemingly natural concept of the ‘citizen’ has always shifted attention away from the implications of citizenship. The English word derives from the Latin ‘civitas’, which denotes place of residence and political affiliation together. A citizen was originally a product of a city-state – Rome principally, but also the Greek city states before it. The city created the citizen, gave him rights above others and responsibilities in government. In the shift to democracy and other modern forms of governance the word has never lost that dual designation of person-place.

What unites us is greater than what divides, by seriykotik1970, with Creative Commons licenceSo can we ever be citizens of the world, as some people like to declare themselves? Yes, of course, but there will always be a tension between the place of origin and the place of domicile. Those who hold citizenship in one country and live in another generally lack rights of some kind. I’ve met Filipinos who have lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years but have no legal right to reside here longer than the term of their current labour contract.

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The Social Language of Ideas

8 May 2008

On Communicating Notions of Change

Edinburgh on the hill 1... by Today is a good day, with Creative Commons licenceBig ideas are tough going. They don’t occur to most people because abstracts are often unwelcome intrusions into practical, steady lives. The best ideas tend to flow into situations where rapid change is necessary, like business or medical science. Commerce is a hotbed of new ideas because profitability is never permanent – forcing change quite simply helps a company outpace the market. And medicine, tied closely to the business of drugs, patents and health management, also has the added burden of ethical concerns. Change must happen because it ensures profitability, saves lives, improves lives. That’s enough to get a lot of people thinking. But what about social problems that don’t seem as urgent? After the age of ideologies, how can big ideas make people think again?

Despite its promise to rectify social ills, Marxism failed because it couldn’t find a suitable form of government. Karl Marx’s profound insights into political economy became ruthless dogma in the hands of state communism, a beast that he and Friedrich Engels failed to envision when describing post-revolutionary governance in their Communist Manifesto. So we have capitalism, which is less an ideology than an assumption – a belief that the market works and everything in it will find a good and proper place, as long as governments don’t overly interfere.

Morning Meeting at the Fish Market, by Lucas Jans, with Creative Commons licenceThat might sound naïve, but we should never forget that the market isn’t a thing, much less a thing manipulated by all-powerful corporations or scheming individuals. Sure, there’s manipulation, but it’s of people. The market is a self-regulating social framework – a network of people interacting with other people. Paul Seabright describes it as the meeting place of strangers in pursuit of self-interest, which is not all that different from how I described the importance of familiar strangers to communities in a recent post. And even in its most negative manifestations, this market – our mega-community – can tell us something about the social language of ideas.

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Where to Now?

1 May 2008

A Pause to Consider

shadows, by bastet [ FREE TIBET ], with Creative Commons licenceI once heard a delightful, if slightly garbled, presentation that began with the curious line “welcome to here”. The greeting seemed sufficient, and the speaker probably didn’t need to mention where he was. Or so I thought. But on reflection it’s not always obvious where ‘here’ is. Sometimes it pays to stop and look around, note changes in the landscape, and only then decide where to go next. In that sense, blogging is a journey into uncertainty for both the reader and the writer. So this post is my first stop along the way – a pause to reflect and consider before moving on once more.

Much of the early impetus for this blog came from the realisation that I had a great deal to say about things that didn’t seem to fit, modes of thought that appeared peculiar if I skimmed off the presumptions. Along the way I’ve drawn criticism for my position on online book reviews, knowledge management, the conceptualisation of outer space and journalistic writing. Most of it has been well founded and I’ve changed stance, whether almost fully or just partly. That seems to me the great value of blogging – being able to debate and reiterate, being involved in a conversation. It’s not precise, but it has allowed me to compare ideas with people from around the world, to learn and unlearn.

More recently I’ve moved away from a focus on ideas to a focus on events, or more precisely one event. The disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores in Hong Kong has shaken my family, not only because she was part of our local community, a familiar stranger, but also because the way her case was being investigated seemed too subdued, not urgent enough. It shook my family because Vicenta was Filipino, and thus easily ignored.

I’m the only non-Filipino in my household of five. So much for my kids’ future.

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Familiar Strangers

27 April 2008

One Woman, Two Crowds in Hong Kong

Strange Fruit, by rogiro, with Creatve Commons licenceOne of the things that quickly become apparent when attending a protest rally is that despite the age-old accusation of rent-a-crowds, most people really don’t know each other. Sure, they might know of each other, which is never terribly difficult when you come from a small community, but they’re not overly familiar, and names are often the first thing exchanged. In my last post I wrote that internal differences are the real strength of a community, but does this lack of familiarity in a protesting crowd zap that strength, wither any resolve? As it happens, quite the opposite is true.

Two rallies were held in Hong Kong today, one in my small community of Discovery Bay on Lantau island and the other in the Admiralty business district, both as a reaction to the less than transparent way the Hong Kong authorities have been investigating the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores, a Filipino migrant worker. In a sense the attendance of strangers at both rallies – people who, by and large, knew of each other more than they really knew each other – mirrored the Hong Kong life of the woman we were remembering, the woman in whose memory we were demanding justice be done.

strange, by we-make-money-not-art, with Creative Commons licenceMany people in Discovery Bay knew of Vicenta, but not all that many people knew her. Likewise, or perhaps even more so, on Hong Kong side. Such are the work conditions of a domestic helper, with only one day off a week and a full schedule of chores to fill the day and at least part of the night. In these circumstances, friendships aren’t easy to form, and when they happen they’re often held back by the sheer workload. Vicenta had friends who will remember her dignity, her happiness and her compassion. But to most people here, Vicenta was what Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman have called “a familiar stranger”.

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