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Beijing Bedouins
by Valerie Sartor
2008-07-09 09:27:36
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Modern technological gadgets: young people love them and older people are trying to get used to them. For my grandmother cars represented the height in mobility; for me watching television and later riding in a Boeing 747 started me dreaming about traveling to other parts of the planet. But China's youth doesn't have to go anywhere to be deemed urban gypsies: today's technology allows them to communicate with others anywhere in the world instantly - and it's getting better, faster and cooler as each year passes.

The American thinker Lewis Mumford started writing back in the 1950's about machines as extensions of human consciousness and the consequences of technology upon human societies. In the 1970s Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media and communications specialist highly influenced by Mumford, wrote that the "medium is the message" -communications technology affects the thinking process – and ultimately the way humans organize as social units. McLuhan predicted that everyone would become a 'global village citizen' when linked decisively by electronic technologies. His premise stated that technology would create a new age with one collective human identity. But McLuhan specifically stressed that we should remain aware of the media's cognitive effects because every global village has the potential, due to human frailty, to become totalitarian and full of terror.

Today's youth has grown up with technology, incorporating computers and cell phones into their ordinary lifestyle. Significantly, in Beijing almost every young person I know owns a laptop and a fancy cell phone – these kids are part of the generation I term contemporary nomads because they have the capacity to travel through cyber space and communicate with other people living around the globe. Only limited by their gear and their gadgets, these Beijing Bedouins travel light: the city is full of cyber-oases and cell towers that cater to their crowd. As modern migrants they seem more interested in cyber-connectivity than in travelling across geographical spaces, although many of the curious and able do cross national boundaries to explore other regions of the globe.

Chinese young people rejoice that wireless data connections seem to be getting better all the time. Cellular networks are faster and more reliable. Short-range Wi-Fi hotspots are popping up in ever more places. And a new generation of wireless technologies is already poised to take over, creating wild concepts such as "ultra-reality"[1] that confuses old folks like me but delights the Beijing Bedouins. Yet I like cell phones. When I was younger mobile phones were already widespread, but found mostly in cars because they were so large and clunky; they were used almost exclusively for voice calls. Connecting them to the Internet and even to computers was still unknown when I was thirty.

I was forty when I learned to use a computer and forty five when I finally bought my now obsolete IBM ThinkPad. At that time laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) still required a hairdresser' set of cables to get online, and they connected poorly and slowly. Reading and sending e-mail via a mobile phone—not to mention synchronizing it across several gadgets and computers to create one "virtual" in-box—was something out of Star Trek – but today's kids use it effortlessly.

Another cool toy I got after forty was the digital camera. In my youth people took photos using film and were careful of each shot because the film and developing cost so much money. Now cameras of all sizes and prices are available and they're often added to cell phones as well. Every child is an amateur photographer these days.

In Beijing I have a bi-lingual dictionary on my phone that speaks and lets me write characters. Some phones I've heard have perfumed ring tones and most have fantastic music iPod storage. Video capacity on mobile phones has arrived her in China but still isn't popular in the West. In Beijing cheap high-speed wireless networks are snapping into place and microprocessors that power phones are getting good enough to handle anything a person wants: TV channels and movies, music, games and Internet.

Truly young kids are carrying around their social and entertainment lives in their pockets. "One of the beauties of mobile is it allows you to place-shift," said Paul Reddick, vice president at Sprint Nextel. "A TiVo lets you time-shift by recording something to watch later. Place-shifting takes that a step further, letting you watch something in a different place than usual." iPhones and Blackberries have slammed into the China market as well.

The BlackBerry, designed by Research In Motion (RIM), a Canadian firm, has since 1999 made e-mail on the go seem normal for business yuppies. And there's no denying that an iPhone is a computer made for web browsing. And unless you're really young, it's faster — a lot faster — than the computers you owned not so long ago.

This historic merger, at long last, of two technologies – cell phones and computers- has already proved revolutionary. The mobile phone has changed the world by becoming ubiquitous in rich and poor countries alike. The Internet is used worldwide and more in China than in any other country in the world. These technologies have already changed the way people shop, bank, listen to music, read news and socialize. Now Chinese mobile phones are ready to replace the PC as the primary device for getting online.

Indeed, mobile communications are already changing interactions between people. Traditional nomadic lifestyles keep people close who are already close, especially family members. But to be frank it may do so at the expense of strangers encountered physically (rather than virtually) in daily life. This has serious implications for Chinese society at large.

Ironically, young people can be either more autonomous or more dependent because of this extraordinary technology. Notably, researchers are finding that connectivity is making some people more disconnected from each other. For example, young nomads often feel that the person on the other side of the BlackBerry should be always available - but in reality, all relationships have gaps and down times. The current illusion that everything is available instantly and easily for everyone makes young people less patient, less accommodating toward others. We must remember to be patient: "心平气和" (peaceful heart, mild temper).

Another negative potential for this amazing technology revolves around public (read: unsecure) networks. Young people often feel that because there is no paper trail in these new high-tech communications no tracing is possible. Using wireless and radio waves to transmit sensitive information, whether it is financial or emotional, is not as safe as one may think. People can and will listen in, lift information and use it for their own purposes. In addition, for me personally, involuntarily listening to a person talking loudly about his romantic life on a cell phone while jammed on a bus is not my idea of a literary event, nor is listening to a Transformers movie blasting out of a laptop at a Starbucks. Mobile technology has freed urban nomads from phone lines and hook ups but the concept of public and private spaces have been drastically upset.

Don't get me wrong: Internet and cell phones are very cool tools. But it's significant to note that Internet researchers have found that over 50% of Chinese youth said they went online first for "personal" reasons; 31% said work was the cause; 19% cited school.

Humans can maintain only a limited number of personal relationships; most people typically keep ten to twenty important relationships, out of the approximately 1,000 individuals whom they interact with during their lifetimes. Friendships, in contrast to family relationships, are especially fragile for younger people and require active maintenance or they die. Family ties are accidents of birth and often maintained through obligation, but friendship and romantic relationships are voluntary: they need a regular investment of effort.

Traditionally, young people develop and keep relationships regular exchanges of communication or social interactions. Initial factors that bring young people together: common interests, sports, work, physical attraction/charm, lose power over time. To keep a relationship a young person gradually grows to like those he or she communicates and spends time with and this creates further companionship. Moreover, physical proximity increases the likelihood of friendships and romantic relationships.

But with the advent of the Internet and all these fancy components in cell phones modern Chinese youth is no longer as focused on face-to-face communications. Phone, e-mail, and IM are the three main telecommunication technologies used by young consumers; each has a different kind of social interface. They are not equally useful for building and maintaining social relationships and none is as effective toward emotional maturity as communicating face-to-face.

Telecommunications technologies do affect friendships - positively and negatively. The Internet and mobile phones can link people who are far apart and allow friends to sustain a relationship, the more the communication the less likely the decline in the relationship. But social relationships that are developed and maintained using communications technologies do not have the depth or rate of emotional growth of direct face-to-face encounters. Remembering Mumford and McLuhan's admonitions may be not only timely but also wise, given that mobile technology seems to be moving forward faster than human evolution.

[1] ULTRA-REALITY: Paul Jacobs, CEO of cell phone-chipmaker Qualcomm, says he's betting on a concept he calls ultra-reality — which, as you might imagine, takes advantage of Qualcomm's new broadcast system. How it would work: Let's say 1 million fans of the Arctic Monkeys sign up to see any of the band's new music videos the second each is released. When one comes out, all those fans' phones buzz and immediately start to play the video.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-09 15:38:18
Interesting insightful article. To pick up on your suggestion at the end, Ms. Sartor, allow me to reproduce some initial thoughts of an article on McLuan I contributed to Ovi some time ago:

“Nous regardons le présent dans un miroir rétroviseur. Et nous
allons en marche arrière vers le futur”
- Marshall McLuhan

In his Poetics Aristotle set forth the metaphor as the true mark of genius. For him the most extensive form of metaphor was metaphor by analogy. Moreover, in Medieval times Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy places great emphasis on analogy as a way of making proportionate relations. A poetic, imaginative way of thinking, as pointed out later by Vico in his The New Science, leads one back to the future via language, rhetoric and history and to the realization that at its origins the form and the content, or the medium and the message are one and the same thing.

As his studies on Joyce (an author also greatly inspired by Vico) clearly suggest, for McLuhan the world is a network of analogies which one can read from the book of nature patterned by and revealing an overall intelligence. But for him metaphors are much more than mere analogies coming out of the past. They are very much related to the present. Take the above metaphor of the rear-view mirror which is utilized as a way of examining present cultural phenomena. In his book War and Peace in the Global Village McLuhan discusses at length how he uses the rear-view mirror of Pound and Joyce; how the rear-view mirror is a way to understand the present and envision the future without predetermining and trivializing it, allowing it to surprise us...

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-09 15:46:31

For an in depth treatement of this dangerous idea of trans-humanism currently making the rounds among technology fanatics open the above link to an eye opening article by Katherine Hayles titled "Wresting with Transhumanism."

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