Friday, August 22, 2008

"It's Not a Revolution if Nobody Loses"

September/October 2008

"It's Not a Revolution if Nobody Loses"

A new age of "technological reproducibility" is here. Ugh.

By Emily Gould

Early in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, Clay Shirky--an Internet scholar at New York University who also profita­bly shares his expertise with organizations like Nokia, Procter and Gamble, and News Corp.--reminds his readers that our moment of rapid, technology-abetted social change is not without historical precedent. The ­century-­long "chaotic period" that followed the invention of movable type was even more confusing, he says. At one point, things got so weird that an abbot published a defense of the scribal tradition then being eclipsed by the printing press and, because he wanted it disseminated cheaply and efficiently, had it printed rather than having it copied by the scribes whose livelihoods he was defending.

What would the poor abbot say if he knew that much of what the good old printing press seems to be spitting out these days is books about the technology that ended books' 400-year winning streak? Sure, the Internet has been inspiring dead-tree guides to optimizing its power while minimizing its dangers for almost as long as it has existed, but right now this section of the nonfiction shelf is glutted. From last year's Send, which promised to guide n00bs (newbies, for you n00bs) through the niceties of e-mail correspondence, to Jonathan Zittrain's warning about the dangers of "tethered appliances" like iPhones, to Lee Siegel's wounded polemic against the culture of online meanness he calls "blogofascism," to linguist Naomi S. Baron's warnings about the way IM totes compromises expression and comprehension IRL, to Daniel Solove's musings about the YouTube-diminished "future of reputation," publishers are banking on the notion that whenever we're not busy twittering our lives away, we'd like to be reading a pop-scholarly analysis of why we're doing so and how we could be doing it better. Who do they think is buying these books, anyway?

Media Martyr: Walter Benajmin believed that modern media permitted a revolution in perception that made us prey to dictators and false gods. He might have been talking about Facebook.
Credit: Ullstein Bild/The Granger Collection

Actually, come to think of it, I'm buying them--all of them. I'm doing it for odd reasons, though, and I'm looking in them for something that I never quite find. Like an expatriate who reads every new novel that's set in her homeland, I read books about the Internet to remember the time I spent working and living there, to contrast my memories with the authors' impressions and see how well they hold up. In Shirky's descriptions of the way new Web-based social tools are restructuring businesses, communities, and relationships, I recognize familiar scenery. He knows what he's talking about--he's lived there too. You get the sense, though, that he's somehow managed to avoid walking down any dark alleys, or staring too long at any piles of fetid garbage.

The thing is, Internet books are inevitably either cheerleadery or chidey, and Shirky [who writes about open-source Web publishing in this issue --Ed.] is a cheerleader. He makes a good case, too, for the rightness of celebrating the ways that blog, wiki, and social-networking technologies have enriched our lives, though he acknowledges that we're losing freedoms as quickly as we're gaining them. "It's not a revolution if nobody loses," he says, and he goes on to describe three kinds of losers: the workers whose industries are undermined by the free dissemination of information they used to control; the journalists who, like those 15th-century scribes, have lost their professional identity and prestige; and the people who come to harm when "bad groups"--his deftly apolitical and therefore inoffensive example is pro-anorexia support groups--are able to assemble and distribute information more easily. In general, however, you get the sense that he doesn't mind sacrificing these losers on the altar of change.

But there is another, larger kind of loss happening, and in order to understand it, we might turn to the tech-trend literature of an earlier era.

In Berlin in the mid-1930s, the German­-Jewish Marxist literary and cultural critic ­Walter Benjamin (who killed himself in 1940, lest the Nazis have that pleasure) wrote a sprawling yet intensely epigrammatic essay called "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," which is assigned in order to confuse nearly every college student who takes a comp-lit class in America today. Freshly translated (it used to be called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which, although more lumberingly Teutonic, has the virtue of evoking an image of robot sex) and newly packaged with an assortment of his other "writings on media" in a hipster-friendly paperback, Benjamin's best-known work is ... well, as they say on Facebook, it's complicated. Man, is it ever complicated. The essay begins by describing the ways film and photography have changed human perception. Benjamin argues that because such exact simulacra of reality can be mass-distributed and mass-consumed, we have a new, more distant relationship to authentic reality--and he concludes that these changes in perception clear a path for fascism.

Not exactly cheerleadery, then. And while it's easy to be distracted by Benjamin's dusty examples--Chaplin's films and Picasso's paintings--and therefore lulled into thinking he's describing a different world from Shirky's ... well, don't be. Substitute blogs and social-networking platforms and Twitter and YouTube and Wikipedia for film and photography, and the nearly century-old essay becomes a relevant, piercing alarm.

In celebrating the tools we're all thoughtlessly adopting, Shirky ably demonstrates how useful they are in allowing us to share our common interests and keep track of each other's whereabouts. Thousands of Xena: Warrior Princess fans, previously unknown to each other, are uniting at Internet-organized meetups. Text-message blogging platform Twitter, normally just a way of bragging about the party you're currently attending in real time, can become a tool of dissent if you happen to become a political prisoner (and somehow manage to hang onto your phone, as an activist blogger recently did in Cairo). Shirky even believes that technology is creating and enabling "love"; when he talks about the hundreds of thousands of people who are collaboratively building Wikipedia, he says they "love one another in its context." He fails to mention--or maybe he fails to notice--that the "love" and "freedom" he describes don't mean quite what they did back when our meat acquaintances outnumbered our Facebook "friends."

Maybe, in the same way that Benjamin says the difference between "follow[ing] with the eye, while resting on a summer afternoon, a mountain range on the horizon" and experiencing that same mountain range at a remove (imagine a picture postcard) makes it harder to appreciate the real thing ("Gosh, this mountain is beautiful! Just like a postcard!"), social-media technologies are creating simulacra of social connection, facsimiles of friendship. By ignoring that difference, as Shirky mostly does, we keep moving heedlessly toward a future where the basic human social activities that these new technologies are modeled on--talking, being introduced to new people by friends--are threatened.

These concerns probably aren't foremost in the minds of Shirky's readers, who are probably just trying to figure out how to wield more influence in the new world he describes. But it's worth thinking about the kind of book that Shirky, a lucid enough thinker and writer, would compose if he were more concerned with the uses of online "love" and "freedom."

And if we're concerned about that, what can we do? What would Benjamin do, besides worry about what's lost every time a Tumblr post is reblogged?

Here's something to try as (trust me!) a pointless experiment: cease to log in to your instant messenger for a week. You'll find out quickly that for some of the "buddies" on your buddy list, you immediately cease, for all intents and purposes, to exist. Or go one step further: delete your profile from Facebook and stop blogging. Stop reading blogs. Stop attending social events you find out about online. See how your world shrinks, and if you're brave, see if you can stick with your foray into social-media abstention until you start to see your world opening back up again--maybe in different ways.

Temporarily pretending that the world hasn't changed may be instructive, but it is neither Shirkian nor Benjaminian. As Walter Benjamin probably wouldn't put it, there's no point in clinging to what used to seem to be real. But I'm still waiting for the author who, without being like the guy who defended scribes in print, finds a way to say that we shouldn't let this stuff run amok just because it can and it wants to. Because it does want to.

Emily Gould was an editor at from September 2006 to November 2007. in may, she wrote a cover story, "Exposed," for the New York Times Magazine about her time blogging for Gawker. Free Press will publish her first book--of autobiographical stories--in 2010.

"I Just Called to Say I Love You"

September/October 2008

"I Just Called to Say I Love You"

Cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space.

By Jonathan Franzen

One of the great irritations of modern technology is that when some new development has made my life palpably worse and is continuing to find new and different ways to bedevil it, I'm still allowed to complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start telling me to get over it already Grampaw--this is just the way life is now.

I'm not opposed to technological developments. Digital voice mail and caller ID, which together destroyed the tyranny of the ringing telephone, seem to me two of the truly great inventions of the late 20th century. And how I love my BlackBerry, which lets me deal with lengthy, unwelcome e-mails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I did it with my thumbs. And my noise-canceling headphones, on which I can blast frequency-shifted white noise ("pink noise") that drowns out even the most determined woofing of a neighbor's television set: I love them. And the whole wonderful world of DVD technology and high-definition screens, which have already spared me from so many sticky theater floors, so many rudely whispering cinema-goers, so many open-mouthed crunchers of popcorn: yes.

Credit: Christina Paige

Privacy, to me, is not about keeping my personal life hidden from other people. It's about sparing me from the intrusion of other people's personal lives. And so, although my very favorite gadgets are actively privacy enhancing, I look kindly on pretty much any development that doesn't force me to interact with it. If you choose to spend an hour every day tinkering with your Facebook profile, or if you don't see any difference between reading Jane Austen on a Kindle and reading her on a printed page, or if you think Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest Gesamtkunstwerk since Wagner, I'm very happy for you, as long as you keep it to yourself.

The developments I have a problem with are the insults that keep on insulting, the injuries of yesteryear that keep on giving pain. Airport TV, for example: it seems to be actively watched by about one traveler in ten (unless there's football on) while creating an active nuisance for the other nine. Year after year; in airport after airport; a small but apparently permanent diminution in the quality of the average traveler's life. Or, another example, the planned obsolescence of great software and its replacement by bad software. I'm still unable to accept that the best word-processing program ever written, WordPerfect 5.0 for DOS, won't even run on any computer I can buy now. Oh, sure, in theory you can still run it in Windows' little DOS-emulating window, but the tininess and graphical crudeness of that emulator are like a deliberate insult on Microsoft's part to those of us who would prefer not to use a feature-heavy behemoth. WordPerfect 5.0 was hopelessly primitive for desktop publishing but unsurpassable for writers who wanted only to write. Elegant, bug-free, negligible in size, it was bludgeoned out of existence by the obese, intrusive, monopolistic, crash-prone Word. If I hadn't been collecting old 386s and 486s in my office closet, I wouldn't be able to use WordPerfect at all by now. And already I'm down to my last old 486. And yet people have the nerve to be annoyed with me if I won't send them texts in a format intelligible to all-powerful Word. We live in a Word world now, Grampaw. Time to take your GOI pill.

But these are mere annoyances. The technological development that has done lasting harm of real social significance--the development that, despite the continuing harm it does, you risk ridicule if you publicly complain about today--is the cell phone.

Just 10 years ago, New York City (where I live) still abounded with collectively maintained public spaces in which citizens demonstrated respect for their community by not inflicting their banal bedroom lives on it. The world 10 years ago was not yet fully conquered by yak. It was still possible to see the use of Nokias as an ostentation or an affectation of the affluent. Or, more generously, as an affliction or a disability or a crutch. There was unfolding, after all, in New York in the late 1990s, a seamless citywide transition from nicotine culture to cellular culture. One day the lump in the shirt pocket was Marlboros, the next day it was Motorola. One day the vulnerably unaccompanied pretty girl was occupying her hands and mouth and attention with a cigarette, the next day she was occupying them with a very important conversation with a person who wasn't you. One day a crowd gathered around the first kid on the playground with a pack of Kools, the next day around the first kid with a color screen. One day travelers were clicking lighters the second they were off an airplane, the next day they were speed-dialing. Pack-a-day habits became hundred-dollar monthly Verizon bills. Smoke pollution became sonic pollution. Although the irritant changed overnight, the suffering of a self-restrained majority at the hands of a compulsive minority, in restaurants and airports and other public spaces, remained eerily constant. Back in 1998, not long after I'd quit cigarettes, I would sit on the subway and watch other riders nervously folding and unfolding phones, or nibbling on the teatlike antennae that all the phones then had, or just quietly clutching their devices like a mother's hand, and I would feel something close to sorry for them. It still seemed to me an open question how far the trend would go: whether New York truly wanted to become a city of phone addicts sleepwalking down the sidewalks in icky little clouds of private life, or whether the notion of a more restrained public self might somehow prevail.

Needless to say, there wasn't any contest. The cell phone wasn't one of those modern developments, like Ritalin or oversized umbrellas, for which significant pockets of civilian resistance hearteningly persist. Its triumph was swift and total. Its abuses were lamented and bitched about in essays and columns and letters to various editors, and then lamented and bitched about more trenchantly when the abuses seemed only to be getting worse, but that was the end of it. The complaints had been registered, some small token adjustments had been made (the "quiet car" on Amtrak trains; discreet little signs poignantly pleading for restraint in restaurants and gyms), and cellular technology was then free to continue doing its damage without fear of further criticism, because further criticism would be unfresh and uncool. Grampaw.

But just because the problem is familiar to us now doesn't mean steam stops issuing from the ears of drivers trapped behind a guy chatting on his phone in a passing lane and staying perfectly abreast of a vehicle in the slow lane. And yet: everything in our commercial culture tells the chatty driver that he is in the right and tells everybody else that we are in the wrong--that we are failing to get with the attractively priced program of freedom and mobility and unlimited minutes. Commercial culture tells us that if we're sore with the chatty driver it must be because we're not having as good a time as he is. What is wrong with us, anyway? Why can't we lighten up a little and take out our own phones, with our own Friends and Family plans, and start having a better time ourselves, right there in the passing lane?

Socially retarded people don't suddenly start acting more adult when social critics are peer-pressured into silence. They only get ruder. One currently worsening national plague is the shopper who remains engrossed in a call throughout a transaction with a checkout clerk. The typical combination in my own neighborhood, in Manhattan, involves a young white woman, recently graduated from someplace expensive, and a local black or Hispanic woman of roughly the same age but fewer advantages. It is, of course, a liberal vanity to expect your checkout clerk to interact with you or to appreciate the scrupulousness of your determination to interact with her. Given the repetitive and low-paying nature of her job, she's allowed to treat you with boredom or indifference; at worst, it's unprofessional of her. But this does not relieve you of your own moral obligation to acknowledge her existence as a person. And while it's true that some clerks don't seem to mind being ignored, a notably large percentage do become visibly irritated or angered or saddened when a customer is unable to tear herself off her phone for even two seconds of direct interaction. Needless to say, the offender herself, like the chatty freeway driver, is blissfully unaware of pissing anybody off. In my experience, the longer the line behind her, the more likely it is she'll pay for her $1.98 purchase with a credit card. And not the tap-and-go microchip kind of credit card, either, but the wait-for-the-printed-receipt-and-then-(only then)-with-zombiesh-clumsiness-begin-shifting-the-cell-phone-from-one-ear-to-the-other-and-awkwardly-pin-the-phone-with-ear-to-shoulder-while-signing-the-receipt-and-continuing-to-express-doubt-about-whether-she-really-feels-like-meeting-up-with-that-Morgan-Stanley-guy-Zachary-at-the-Etats-Unis-wine-bar-again-tonight kind of credit card.

There is, to be sure, one positive social consequence of these worsening misbehaviors. The abstract notion of civilized public spaces, as rare resources worth defending, may be all but dead, but there's still consolation to be found in the momentary ad hoc microcommunities of fellow sufferers that bad behaviors create. To look out your car window and see the steam coming out of another driver's ears, or to meet the eyes of a pissed-off checkout clerk and to shake your head along with her: it makes you feel a little less alone.

Which is why, of all the worsening varieties of bad cell-phone behavior, the one that most deeply irritates me is the one that seems, because it is ostensibly victimless, to irritate nobody else. I'm talking about the habit, uncommon 10 years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words "LOVE YOU!" Or, even more oppressive and grating: "I LOVE YOU!" It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don't understand the language. It makes me want to scream.

The cellular component of my irritation is straightforward. I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that's being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being's home life. The very essence of the cell phone's hideousness, as a social phenomenon--the bad news that stays bad news--is that it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal. And there is no higher-caliber utterance than "I love you"--nothing worse that an individual can inflict on a communal public space. Even "Fuck you, dickhead" is less invasive, since it's the kind of thing that angry people do sometimes shout in public, and it can just as easily be directed at a stranger.

My friend Elisabeth assures me that the new national plague of love yous is a good thing: a healthy reaction against the repressed family dynamics of our Protestant childhoods some decades ago. What could be wrong, Elisabeth asks, with telling your mother that you love her, or with hearing from her that she loves you? What if one of you dies before you can speak again? Isn't it nice that we can say these things to each other so freely now?

I do here admit the possibility that, compared with everyone else on the airport concourse, I am an extraordinarily cold and unloving person; that the sudden overwhelming sensation of loving somebody (a friend, a spouse, a parent, a sibling), which to me is such an important and signal sensation that I'm at pains not to wear out the phrase that best expresses it, is for other people so common and routine and easily achieved that it can be reëxperienced and reëxpressed many times in a single day without significant loss of power.

It's also possible, however, that too-frequent habitual repe­tition empties phrases of their meaning. Joni Mitchell, in the last verse of "Both Sides Now," referenced the solemn amazement of saying I love you "right out loud": of giving vocal birth to such intensity of feeling. Stevie Wonder, in lyrics written 17 years later, sings of calling somebody up on an ordinary afternoon simply to say "I love you," and being Stevie Wonder (who probably really is a more loving person than I am), he half succeeds in making me believe in his sincerity--at least until the last line of the chorus, where he finds it necessary to add: "And I mean it from the bottom of my heart." No such avowal is thinkable for the person who really does mean something from the bottom of his heart.

And, just so, when I'm buying those socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts "I love you!" into her little phone, I am powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted. Yes, a lot of domestic things get shouted in public which really aren't intended for public consumption; yes, people get carried away. But the phrase "I love you" is too important and loaded, and its use as a sign-off too self-conscious, for me to believe I'm being made to hear it accidentally. If the mother's declaration of love had genuine, private emotional weight, wouldn't she take at least a little care to guard it from public hearing? If she truly meant what she was saying, from the bottom of her heart, wouldn't she have to say it quietly? Overhearing her, as a stranger, I have the feeling of being made party to an aggressive assertion of entitlement. At a minimum, the person is saying to me and to everyone else present: "My emotions and my family are more important to me than your social comfort." And also, often enough, I suspect: "I want you all to know that unlike many people, including my cold bastard of a father, I am the kind of person who always tells my loved ones that I love them."

Or am I, in my admittedly now rather lunatic-sounding irritation, simply projecting all this?

The cell phone came of age on September 11, 2001. Imprinted that day on our collective consciousness was the image of cell phones as conduits of intimacy for the desperate. In every too-loud I love you that I hear nowadays, as in the more general national orgy of connectedness--the imperative for parents and children to connect by phone once or twice or five or ten times daily--it's difficult not to hear an echo of those terrible, entirely appropriate, heartbreaking I love yous uttered on the four doomed planes and in the two doomed towers. And it's precisely this echo, the fact that it's an echo, the sentimen­tality of it, that so irritates me.

My own experience of 9/11 was anomalous for the lack of television in it. At nine in the morning, I got a phone call from my book editor, who, from his office window, had just seen the second plane hit the towers. I did immediately go to the nearest TV, in the conference room of the real-estate office downstairs from my apartment, and watch with a group of agents as first one tower and then the other went down. But then my girlfriend came home and we spent the rest of the day listening to the radio, checking the Internet, reassuring our families, and watching from our roof and from the ­middle of Lexington Avenue (which was filled with pedestrians streaming uptown) as the dust and smoke at the bottom of Manhattan diffused into a sickening pall. In the evening, we walked down to 42nd Street and met up with an out-of-town friend and found an unremarkable Italian restaurant in the West 40s which happened to be serving dinner. Every table was packed with people drinking heavily; the mood was wartime. I got another brief glimpse of a TV screen, this one showing the face of George W. Bush, as we were departing through the restaurant's bar. "He looks like a scared mouse," somebody said. Sitting on a 6 train at Grand Central, waiting for it to move, we watched a New York commuter angrily complain to a conductor about the lack of express service to the Bronx.

Three nights later, from 11:00 p.m. to nearly 3:00 a.m., I sat in a frigid room at ABC News from which I could see my fellow New Yorker David Halberstam and speak by video link to Maya Angelou and a couple of other out-of-town writers while we waited to offer Ted Koppel a literary perspective on Tuesday morning's attacks. The wait was not short. Footage of the attacks and the ensuing collapses and fires was shown again and again, interspersed with long segments on the emotional toll on ordinary citizens and their impressionable children. Every once in a while, one or two of us writers would have 60 seconds to say something writerly before the coverage reverted to more carnage and wrenching interviews with friends and family of the dead and the missing. I spoke four times in three and a half hours. The second time, I was asked to confirm widespread reports that Tuesday's attacks had profoundly changed the personality of New Yorkers. I could not confirm these reports. I said that the faces I had seen were somber, not angry, and I described seeing people shopping in the stores in my neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon, buying fall clothes. Ted Koppel, in his response, made clear that I'd failed at the task I'd been waiting half the night to perform. With a frown, he said that his own impression was very different: that the attacks had indeed profoundly changed the personality of New York City.

Naturally, I assumed that I was speaking truth and Koppel merely retransmitting received opinion. But Koppel had been watching TV and I had not. I didn't understand that the worst damage to the country was being done not by the pathogen but by the immune system's massive overresponse to it, because I didn't have a TV. I was mentally comparing Tuesday's death toll with other tallies of violent death--3,000 Americans killed in traffic accidents in the 30 days preceding September 11--because, not seeing the images, I thought the numbers mattered. I was devoting energy to imagining, or resisting imagining, the horror of sitting in a window seat while your plane came in low along the West Side Highway, or of being trapped on the 95th floor and hearing the steel structure below you begin to groan and rumble, while the rest of the country was experiencing actual real-time trauma by watching the same footage over and over. And so I was not in need of--was, for a while, not even aware of--the national televised group therapy session, the vast techno-hugathon, that unfolded in the following days and weeks and months in response to the trauma of exposure to televised images.

What I could see was the sudden, mysterious, disastrous sentimentalization of American public discourse. And just as I can't help blaming cellular technology when people pour parental or filial affection into their phones and rudeness onto every stranger within earshot, I can't help blaming media technology for the national foregrounding of the personal. Unlike in, say, 1941, when the United States responded to a terrible attack with collective resolve and discipline and sacrifice, in 2001 we had terrific visuals. We had amateur footage and could break it down frame by frame. We had screens to bring the violence raw into every bedroom in the country, and voice mail to record the desperate final calls of the doomed, and late-model psychology to explicate and heal our trauma. But as for what the attacks actually signified, and what a sensible response to them might look like, attitudes varied. This was the wonderful thing about digital technology: No more hurtful censoring of anybody's feelings! Everybody entitled to express his or her own opinion! Whether or not Saddam Hussein had personally bought plane tickets for the hijackers therefore remained open to lively debate. What everybody agreed to agree on, instead, was that the families of 9/11's victims had a right to approve or veto plans for the memorial at Ground Zero. And everybody could share in the pain experienced by the families of the fallen cops and firefighters. And everybody agreed that irony was dead. The bad, empty irony of the '90s was simply "no longer possible" post-9/11; we'd stepped forward into a new age of sincerity.

On the plus side, Americans in 2001 were a lot better at saying "I love you" to their children than their fathers or grandfathers had been. But competing economically? Pulling together as a nation? Defeating our enemies? Forming strong international alliances? Perhaps a bit of a minus side there.

My parents met two years after Pearl Harbor, in the fall of 1943, and within a few months they were exchanging cards and letters. My father worked for the Great Northern Railway and was often on the road, in small towns, inspecting or repairing bridges, while my mother stayed in Minneapolis and worked as a receptionist. Of the letters from him to her in my possession, the oldest is from Valentine's Day 1944. He was in Fairview, Montana, and my mother had sent him a Valentine's card in the style of all her cards in the year leading up to their marriage: sweetly drawn babies or toddlers or baby animals voicing sweet sentiments. The front of her valentine (which my father likewise saved) shows a pigtailed little girl and a blushing little boy standing beside each other with their eyes bashfully averted and their hands tucked bashfully behind their backs.

I wish I were a little rock,

'Cause then when I grew older,

Maybe I would find some day

I was a little "boulder."

Inside the card is a drawing of the same two kids, but holding hands now, with my mother's cursive signature ("Irene") at the feet of the little girl. A second verse reads:

And that would really help a lot

It sure would suit me fine,

For I'd be "bould" enough to say,

"Please be my Valentine."

My father's letter in response was postmarked Fairview, Montana, February 14.

Tuesday Evening

Dear Irene,

I'm sorry to have disappointed you on Valentine's Day; I did remember but after not being able to get one at the drugstore, I felt a little foolish about asking at the grocery or hardware store. I'm sure they have heard about Valentine's Day out here. Your card fit the situation out here perfectly and I'm not sure if it were intentional or accidental, but I guess I did tell about our rock troubles. Today we ran out of rock so I'm wishing for little rocks, big rocks or any kind of rocks as there is nothing we can do until we get some. There is little enough for me to do when the contractor is working and now there is nothing at all. Today I hiked out to the bridge where we are working just to kill time and get a little exercise; it's about four miles which is far enough with a sharp wind blowing. Unless we get rock on the freight in the morning, I'm going to sit right here and read philosophy; it hardly seems right that I should get paid for putting in that kind of day. About the only other pastime around here is to sit in the hotel lobby and take in the town gossip, and the old timers who haunt the place can sure put it out. You would get a kick out of it because there is sure a broad cross section of life represented here--from the local doctor down to the town drunk. And the last is probably the most interesting; I heard that he taught at the University of N.D. at one time, and he seems really to be quite an intelligent person, even when drunk. Normally the talk is pretty rough, about like Steinbeck must have used for a pattern, but this evening there came in a great big woman who made herself right at home. It all sort of makes me realize how sheltered a life we city people live. I grew up in a small town and feel quite at home here but I somehow now seem to view things differently. You will hear more of this.

I hope to get back to St. Paul on Saturday night but cannot tell for certain now. I'll call you when I get in.

With all my love,


My father had recently turned 29. It's impossible to know how my mother, in her innocence and optimism, received his letter at the time, but in general, considering the woman I grew up knowing, I can say that it was absolutely not the sort of letter she would have wanted from her romantic interest. Her valentine's cutely punning conceit taken literally as a reference to track ballast? And she, who spent her whole life shuddering free of the hotel bar where her father had worked as a bartender, getting a kick out of hearing "rough talk" from the town drunk? Where were the endearments? Where were the dreamy discussions of love? It was obvious that my father still had a lot to learn about her.

To me, though, his letter seems full of love. Love for my mother, certainly: he's tried to get her a valentine, he's read her card carefully, he wishes she were with him, he has ideas he wants to share with her, he's sending all his love, he'll call her as soon as he's back. But love, too, for the larger world: for the varieties of people in it, for small towns and big cities, for philosophy and literature, for hard work and fair pay, for conversation, for thinking, for long walks in a sharp wind, for carefully chosen words and perfect spelling. The letter reminds me of the many things I loved in my father, his decency, his intelligence, his unexpected humor, his curiosity, his conscientiousness, his reserve and dignity. Only when I place it alongside the valentine from my mother, with its big-eyed babies and preoccupation with pure sentiment, does my focus shift to the decades of mutual disappointment that followed my parents' first few years of half-seeing bliss.

Late in life, my mother complained to me that my father had never told her that he loved her. And it may literally be true that he never spoke the big three words to her--I certainly never heard him do it. But it's definitely not true that he never wrote the words. One reason it took me years to summon the courage to read their old correspondence is that the first letter of my father's that I glanced at, after my mother died, began with an endearment ("Irenie") that I had never heard him utter in the 35 years I knew him, and it ended with a declaration ("I love you, Irene") that was more than I could stand to see. It sounded nothing like him, and so I buried all the letters in a trunk in my brother's attic. More recently, when I retrieved the letters and managed to read through them all, I discovered that my father had in fact declared his love dozens of times, using the big three words, both before and after he married my mother. But maybe, even then, he'd been incapable of saying the words out loud, and maybe this was why, in my mother's memory, he'd never "said" them at all. It's also possible that his written declarations had sounded as strange and untrue to his character in the 1940s as they now sound to me, and that my mother, in her complaints, was remembering a deeper truth now concealed by his seemingly affectionate words. It's possible that, in guilty response to the onslaught of sentiment he was getting from her notes to him ("I love you with all my heart," "With oh so much love," etc.), he'd felt obliged to perform romantic love in return, or to try to perform it, the way he'd tried (sort of) to buy a valentine in Fairview, Montana.

"Both Sides Now," in the Judy Collins version, was the first pop song that ever stuck in my head. It was getting heavy radio play when I was eight or nine, and its reference to declaring love "right out loud," combined with the crush I had on Judy Collins's voice, helped to ensure that for me the primary import of "I love you" was sexual. I did eventually live through the '70s and become capable, in rare accesses of emotion, of telling my brothers and many of my best male friends that I loved them. But throughout grade school and junior high, the words had only one meaning for me. "I love you" was the phrase I wanted to see scrawled on a note from the cutest girl in the class or to hear whispered in the woods on a school picnic. It happened only a couple of times, in those years, that a girl I liked actually said or wrote this to me. But when it did happen, it came as a shot of pure adrenaline. Even after I got to college and started reading Wallace Stevens and found him making fun, in "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," of indiscriminately love-seeking people like me--

If sex were all, then every trembling hand

Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words--

--those wished-for words continued to signify the opening of a mouth, the offering of a body, the promise of intoxicating intimacy.

And so it was highly awkward that the person I constantly heard these words from was my mother. She was the only woman in a house of males, and she lived with such an excess of unrequitable feeling that she couldn't help reaching for romantic expressions of it. The cards and endearments that she bestowed on me were identical in spirit to the ones she'd once bestowed on my father. Long before I was born, her effusions had come to seem intolerably babyish to my father. To me, though, they weren't nearly babyish enough. I went to elaborate lengths to avoid reciprocating them. I survived many stretches of my childhood, the long weeks in which the two of us were alone in the house together, by clinging to crucial distinctions in intensity between the phrases "I love you"; "I love you, too"; and "Love you." The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say "I love you" or "I love you, Mom." The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible "Love you." But "I love you, too," if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the "too," which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. I don't remember that she ever specifically called me out on my mumbling or gave me a hard time if (as sometimes happened) I was incapable of responding with anything more than an evasive grunt. But she also never told me that saying "I love you" was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn't feel I had to say "I love you" in return every time. And so, to this day, when I'm assaulted by the shouting of "I love you" into a cell phone, I hear coercion.

My father, despite writing letters filled with life and curiosity, saw nothing wrong with consigning my mother to four decades of cooking and cleaning at home while he was enjoying his agency out in the world of men. It seems to be the rule, in both the small world of marriage and the big world of American life, that those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa. The various post-9/11 hysterias, both the plague of I love yous and the widespread fear and hatred of the ragheads, were hysterias of the powerless and overwhelmed. If my mother had had greater scope for accomplishment, she might have tailored her sentiments more realistically to their objects.

Cold or repressed or sexist though my father may appear by contemporary standards, I'm grateful that he never told me, in so many words, that he loved me. My father loved privacy, which is to say: he respected the public sphere. He believed in restraint and protocol and reason, because without them, he believed, it was impossible for a society to debate and make decisions in its best interest. It might have been nice, especially for me, if he'd learned how to be more demonstrative with my mother. But every time I hear one of those brayed parental cellular I love yous nowadays, I feel lucky to have had the dad I did. He loved his kids more than anything. And to know that he felt it and couldn't say it; to know that he could trust me to know he felt it and never expect him to say it: this was the very core and substance of the love I felt for him. A love that I in turn was careful never to declare out loud to him.

And yet: this was the easy part. Between me and the place where my dad is now--i.e., dead--nothing but silence can be transmitted. Nobody has more privacy than the dead. My dad and I aren't saying a whole lot less to each other now than we did in many a year when he was alive. The person I find myself actively missing--mentally arguing with, wanting to show stuff to, wishing to see in my apartment, making fun of, feeling remorse about--is my mother. The part of me that's angered by cellular intrusions comes from my father. The part of me that loves my BlackBerry and wants to lighten up and join the world comes from my mother. She was the more modern of the two of them, and although he, not she, was the one with agency, she ended up on the winning side. If she were still alive and still living in St. Louis, and if you happened to be sitting next to me in Lambert Airport, waiting for a New York-bound flight, you might have to suffer through hearing me tell her that I love her. I would keep my voice down, though.

Jonathan Franzen is the author of the novels The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, and The Corrections, as well as the nonfiction works How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Column: How to ensure online shopping is s

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Column: How to ensure online shopping is safe

By Associated Press

Q: With so much talk about Internet security problems and credit card fraud, how do I protect myself while shopping online?

A: One of the biggest risks in shopping online is clicking on a link to what appears to be a legitimate site but is, in fact, a forgery run by criminals interested in your credit card number and other personal information. An estimated $3.2 billion was lost to such "phishing" sites in the United States last year, according to a survey by Gartner Inc.

Watching out for fraudulent sites isn't hard, and is the crucial first step in a secure online shopping experience. The key in most cases is to type in the Web site's address independently, and not to follow links sent in e-mails, as those can often be malicious spam sent by the creators of the bogus sites.

Most Web browsers will alert you when you're navigating to known phishing sites or those serving up viruses, but the key word there is "known." Many harmful sites are set up and dismantled within 24 hours, so it's often a cat-and-mouse game to identify and block them before the criminals have a chance to inflict too much damage.

Also look for your browser's address bar to turn green; that's a sign the site you're visiting has paid for -- and passed -- an extra layer of background checks to verify it's a legitimate business. The so-called Extended Validation Secure Sockets Layer certificate is a new feature that also indicates the site is sending your data securely using proper encryption methods.

If a site doesn't have that feature, look for the traditional SSL padlock when you get to a site's order page, and click on that if you have doubts about the site's authenticity. It will identify the site's owner and the agency that issued the SSL certificate. The padlocks are not always foolproof, however, because scammers can spoof them.

Once you're comfortable that the site you're visiting is authentic, the question becomes: how do you pay for things?

Security experts recommend that you never use a debit card, because if criminals intercept the information, any charges are taken directly from your account and it takes longer to get the money back than if it were stolen from a credit card.

Experts also say it's helpful to have a dedicated credit card for online purchases. That makes it easier to monitor for fraudulent activity, since the payments aren't mixed up with daily purchases.

Banks are excellent at resolving cases of credit card fraud quickly, whereas it may take days or weeks to replenish a debit card account that's been drained by thieves.

Security experts also suggest setting up a separate e-mail account to register for online shopping sites, and use a different password for that account than your regular e-mail account.

The danger of linking all your online purchases to your primary e-mail account is that if hackers are able to steal your username and password for that site, they can then use that information to infiltrate your e-mail and get passwords for other accounts. A common way of doing that is to use the "forgot my password" feature on many sites and have the information e-mailed back to an account that they now secretly control.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

2008 Young Innovator


2008 Young Innovator

JB Straubel, 32

Tesla Motors

Engineering electric sports cars

As he pulls away from the headquarters of Tesla Motors in San Carlos, CA, JB Straubel apologizes for the condition of the car. The outside looks fine, a gleaming orange. But inside, instruments dangle from the dashboard. A message scrawled on blue masking tape warns that the passenger's-side air bag is disabled. A bell chimes mysteriously. The car had been shipped to England and subjected to vibration tests designed to "shake it apart and kill it," Straubel says. Now it's an engineering car--one Straubel, the company's chief technology officer, feels comfortable drilling holes in and bolting prototype hardware to. "It's pretty much already written off," he says. "But it's also the fastest car in our fleet at the moment."

He punctuates the sentence by hitting the accelerator. Straubel looks remarkably calm as the car surges forward, pressing him into the seat. From a dead stop at the on-ramp, it takes just a few seconds to overtake the vehicles on California's Highway 101. In sports cars, this kind of acceleration is ordinarily accompanied by rapid-fire shifting, but Straubel never takes his hands off the steering wheel. Powered by batteries and an electric motor, the Tesla Roadster isn't bound by the limits of old-fashioned gas-burning engines. At its top speed of over 120 miles per hour, it remains in its first and only gear.

Straubel doesn't come close to 120 miles per hour today. Since the car can accelerate to 60 miles per hour from a stop in just under four seconds, "you get caught up to traffic pretty fast," he says, easing off the accelerator. "It kind of spoils you." It's easy to see why this powerful alternative to gas-guzzling internal-combustion engines (see Hack, "Tesla Roadster", September/October 2008) has generated such remarkable excitement.

Credit: Gregg Segal

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Straubel, more than anyone else, is responsible for the car's impressive acceleration. The Roadster is the first production model from Tesla, which was founded to mass-produce high-performan­ce electric cars. The car's carbon-fiber exterior and aluminum frame, which make it visually appealing but keep it light, are based on designs from British automaker Lotus. Straubel and his hand-picked team, however, engineered the car's brains, muscles, and guts--the electronic controls, electric motor, and battery pack that enable the Roadster to beat many of even the quickest gas-powered cars off the starting line.

Electric cars are best known for their environmental benefits: they produce no harmful emissions, and they're so efficient that they reduce total carbon emissions even if the electricity used to recharge them comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels. But Straubel's achievements capitalize on another, less appreciated advantage. Gas engines deliver their peak torque--the key to acceleration--only within a limited range of engine speeds. Keeping the engine in its optimal range requires a convoluted system of gears and clutches, and acceleration is still compromised. Electric motors, however, deliver maximum torque from a standstill up through thousands of revolutions per minute. That makes it possible to use a transmission with just one or two speeds--and it makes electric cars more responsive than gas-powered ones. Yet most electric vehicles haven't reaped the full benefit of their torque advantage, says Marc Tarpennin­g, one of Tesla's founders. That's because they have typically been underpowered, partly in an effort to make them as inexpensive as possible. Straubel set out to change that.

During his early days at Tesla, the company licensed a number of technologies from AC Propulsion, a small company that had pieced together a prototype electric car with acceleration similar to the Roadster's. Tesla's founders decided to use AC Propulsion's parts to produce their own prototype. But those parts were "ruinously expensive," Tarpenning says, "and no two were alike." Straubel has since reëngineered almost every one of them.

It was soon clear that the extreme torque provided by electric motors can be a problem, especially in a high-powered car. Without a well-tuned motor controller, the torque can jerk the driver around, says Andrew Baglino, one of the engineers Straubel hired. What's more, the complex interplay between the driver's application of the accelerator, the conditions of the road, and the electronic characteristics of the battery and motor can have unexpected consequences. AC Propulsion's controller was "a hokey analog syste­m--messy circuitry that was 20 years old," Straubel says. As he and his team worked to develop a production-ready car, they found that one controller would work well while another would inexplicably fail. "We'd debug it for weeks trying to figure out what the hell was different, and we never could," Straubel says. The unreliable controllers would sometimes cause the motor to jitter. Worse, at times all power would cut out--once, as the car was hurtling down the highway.

Straubel reasoned that a digital control system would solve these problems. Switching to digital would require starting from scratch, but he was sure the new system would both improve performance and speed development. Yet the decision was made to stick with the analog system, in the hope that its kinks could be worked out.

Undeterred, Straubel put Baglino to work on what appeared to be a side project: designing test equipment that put the company's motors and batteries through the paces of simulated driving cycles. This equipment was to have digital controls, which Straubel intended to translate into a digital controller for the car.

Meanwhile, the engineers continued to painstakingly debug the analog system. "It felt silly to be solving problems that we knew we were trying to make obsolete," Straubel says.

After months of working on the digital test equipment, the engineers had learned enough to design a prototype digital controller. It worked, and soon the messy analog system was gone. The jittering and jerking gave way to a digitally controlled, reliably smooth ride--and a car that was, incidentally, far more responsive.

The Roadster's exceptional motor, too, is a tribute to Straubel's persistence. Tesla initially used a third-party transmission that included two gears--one to accelerate from a stop and the other to reach high speeds. The system gave the Roadster a top speed of more than 120 miles an hour. However, the shifting system routinely wore out after just a couple of thousand miles. So Straubel found a way to replace it with a single-speed gearbox. Early on, Straubel and his team had redesigned the patterned metal plates and wire coils at the heart of electric motors to improve both efficiency and torque. But the electronics feeding power from the battery to the motor still limited its output. To exploit the added torque, Straubel added higher-performance transistors and retooled the electrical connections between the motor and the gearbox. These changes increased the torque that the motor could deliver at low speeds and allowed the engineers to use a single-speed transmission without sacrificing either acceleration or maximum speed.

But Straubel's most notable contribution may have been to keep the car from bursting into flames. Tesla's founders decided from the start to power the car with lightweight lithium-ion batteries of the type used in laptops, and they knew they had their work cut out for them. If lithium-ion cells are pierced, crushed, overcharged, or overheated, they can combust. The challenge was even greater because the individual cells were small: it would take 6,831 of them to give the car a decent range. All those cells would have to be wired together into an ensemble that was durable but allowed the charging and temperature of each cell to be carefully controlled.

This was fine with Straubel, who had been building electric ­vehicles since before he was old enough to drive and had long wanted to make a laptop-battery-powered car. Under his direction, all those goals were reached. But along the way, the team discovered that in some (extremely rare) cases, manufacturing defects within a cell could cause it to heat up and catch fire without any outside cause. (This problem led to the recall of millions of laptop batteries in 2006.) Using computer models, Straubel found that if any one of the 6,831 cells caught fire, it could set off its neighbors, starting a chain reaction that could destroy the battery pack and turn the car into a smoldering wreck. Tarpenning asked at the time, "So, JB, what's going to happen to our energy storage system?"

As it turned out, the solution was already at hand, largely because of an argument Straubel had won early in the development of the battery pack. The car's initial design called for air cooling to control the temperature of the batteries and extend their lifetime. But Straubel quickly realized that that approach wouldn't provide the necessary control.

"We had a lot of heated discussions about what direction we should go," Straubel says. But his cool-headed logic, along with some hard figures, won the day. The resulting liquid cooling syste­m--a network of tubes running past almost every cell in the pack--also offered a solution to the problem of the spontaneously combusting cell. With slight improvements, the system was able to evacuate the heat from a flaming cell so quickly that it couldn't set off its neighbors. As with the digital controller, Straubel had been able to find a solution, even if it meant going against the grain.

Tesla began shipping Roadsters this year; the first four were delivered by June. Richard Chen, a former Google product manager who hopes to have his car by Christmas, mailed in a $100,000 check long before the production car existed, and before the company had even announced a price. His excitement is not unique: the car, which has a base price of $109,000, is back-ordered for at least a year.

Its success may have an impact well beyond Tesla's bottom line. Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman, was quoted in Newsweek as saying that the Roadster was a deciding factor in GM's decision to return to electric cars after abandoning them several years ago. If a Silicon Valley startup can do it, he reasoned, why can't GM? What's more, the Roadster may be changing the image of electric cars and increasing their chances for success. People such as Chen, who got to test-drive the car before finalizing his purchase, are buying it not to save the planet (though the green credentials are a nice side benefit, Chen says) but simply because it's so much fun to drive.

These days, Straubel is focusing on improving the Roadster and engineering a sedan to open up a new, wider market for the company. And tentative plans are in the works for a small car, such as an electric version of Daimler's tiny, inexpensive Smart car.

All that means long days for Straubel, and part of what keeps him going is the belief that he's doing something important: finding a way to deal with the world's energy woes. But he seems most driven by pure enjoyment. That's clear enough when he's behind the wheel of the latest version of the Roadster, whose new electronics can deliver far more power than the first version had. "It's amazing what a few hundred more amps can do," he says, laughing, after a burst of acceleration. "It's fun, huh?" --Kevin Bullis

35 Innovators Under 35

September/October 2008

35 Innovators Under 35

Technology Review presents its eighth annual list of leading young innovators.

By TR Editors

At Technology Review, selecting the TR35--our annual list of leading young innovators--always produces equal parts excitement and frustration. Selecting just 35 men and women, all under the age of 35, from a pool of more than 300 outstanding nomi­nees is always difficult, but learning of the remarkable technologies they've invented and discoveries they've made so early in their careers is awe inspiring. We select the TR35 on the basis of their accomplishments as researchers, inventors, or entrepreneurs. To help evaluate the importance and impact of these accomplishments, we rely on our panel of experts (click here for a list of this year's judges).

This year's group of innovators is transforming everything from the cars we drive to the way we use computers, treat heart attacks, and manage our e-mail. Several are working on ways to conserve and more efficiently produce energy, others to help us collaborate and connect; still others are taking advantage of the body's capacity to heal itself. As they fight disease, global warming, and the complexity of life in the 21st century, the TR35 aspire to truly improve the world.

Click here for a complete list of the 2008 TR35.

Vision(ary) Entrepreneur

Vision(ary) Entrepreneur

Here's the basic formula for entrepreneurship: Understand a problem, grasp its full context, connect previously unconnected dots, and have the vision, courage, resourcefulness, and persistence to see the solution through to fruition.

Case in point...

Today, over 400 million people worldwide live in poverty. Most depend on the use of their hands and their eyesight to provide for themselves and their families. As they age, near-sightedness threatens their livelihoods. For more than 40% of these people, a pair of over-the-counter glasses sold in any Western drugstore would substantially increase their productivity and quality of life. But many people don't have access to these eyeglasses.

During dozens of medical missions to the developing world, Dr. Jordan Kassalow, a practicing optometrist and public health expert, saw the problem firsthand. It was obvious that scores of near-sighted people languishing in poverty needed glasses. But Dr. Kassalow also realized that if a member of a community had the right tools and skills as well as access to inexpensive glasses in a range of standard prescriptions, he or she could become that community's optometrist.

That's a classic "win-win": motivated workers gain access to a promising entrepreneurial opportunity (paying twice the wages of typical local jobs), and their customers get inexpensive, yet potentially life-transforming eyeglasses. Dr. Kassalow saw the problem, understood the context, and connected the dots. He founded the Scojo Foundation, now called VisionSpring; its mission is to "reduce poverty and generate opportunity in the developing world through the sale of affordable eyeglasses."

With seed capital from George Soros's Open Society Institute, VisionSpring launched a pilot program in India. Additional support came from a high-end reading glasses company that Kassalow and his business partner, Scott Bernie, started, which donated 5% of its pre-tax profits to the endeavor. As the for-profit organization grew, so did the non-profit.

Today, VisionSpring operates in 13 countries and has trained over 1,200 "vision entrepreneurs" who have in turn sold over 100,000 pairs of glasses in communities with an average daily income between $1 and $4. In 2007, the group also committed to tripling its impact in three years as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. But how?

One of Kassalow's strategies for growth involves an innovative franchise operation in which more than 30 non-governmental partners are plugging the "Vision Entrepreneur" program into their existing economic development activities, reducing VisionSpring's need to build out costly infrastructure.

VisionSpring also launched a five-year, $5 million initiative to build a fully sustainable enterprise, dramatically reducing its ongoing fundraising burdens. (Incidentally, this strategy is becoming increasingly popular among rapidly scaling social enterprises such as College Summit.)

In retrospect, it all seems so obvious and elegantly simple. If one man armed only with eyeglasses and an innovative plan can change so many lives, what other exciting opportunities are out there -- and who's next?

Worksheet: Assessing Your IT Capability

Worksheet: Assessing Your IT Capability

At one time or another, all leadership roles involve some type of IT responsibility, such as serving as an IT liaison, subject matter expert, project or program manager, system or process owner, project sponsor, or participant in IT governance.

Leaders who have worked in these roles do so with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. On the positive side, the prospect of charting new territories is incredibly stimulating. On the negative, it's also frustrating - navigating IT can be like traveling in a foreign country without an interpreter or a guidebook.

It doesn't have to feel this way. IT is just like any other business function - challenged with developing and delivering products and services to demanding "customers" in the context of constrained resources and changing competitive, organizational and technological landscapes.

As a business, the key to success is to understand the lay of the land in order to make smart decisions about how to get the right people working collaboratively on meaningful objectives in a way that delivers against short and long term needs.

Of course, to get the lay of the IT land, you need to ask the right questions. The following is a short assessment worksheet that's useful in understanding current IT capabilities and identifying opportunities for improvement.

The assessment is organized by "the four key IT imperatives", each with a set of questions about the supporting behaviors that contribute to stronger performance. You can download a copy of the worksheet here: IT Assessment Worksheet.doc

IT Assessment Worksheet.JPG

Don't try to answer these questions on your own. Cozy up with your IT counterparts and benefit from their expertise. For each question, collectively make a best guess as to performance and impact. Then brainstorm how to address the low performing/high impact behaviors.

By getting the lay of the land as a first step in tackling an IT role, you will be able to work smarter, not harder, and in the process improve IT relationships and contribute to the greater good by making progress against the four key IT imperatives.

How Olympics Branding Is Shaping China

How Olympics Branding Is Shaping China

The Olympics have long been seen as China's global coming out party. But the event is more than that: The Olympic Games will change China forever.

In preparing for the Games, the Chinese have had to embrace Western standards to meet the promises made to the International Olympic Committee. Many factories have now been shuttered to reduce pollution and improve air quality in the run-up to the Opening Ceremony. Legions of Chinese soldiers have been enlisted to clear algae infestations from coastal waters where yachting races are to be held. Beijing taxi drivers have been ordered not to spit in deference to visiting tourists.

The deadline of the Games gave government officials an event to forcibly accelerate the modernization of Chinese society. World class architectural design and construction standards have guided the building of Olympic venues. Airports, highways and other infrastructure have been upgraded not only in Beijing but in all the cities where Olympic events will be held. Chinese pride and ambition demand that they be the best ever, no matter what the cost, and that Chinese athletes win more medals than any other country.
But when the athletes have gone home, and the polluting power plants come back on line, what will remain beyond the memories and good impressions? The answer is brands. 2008 will not merely be the year of the Olympics. It will be the year of brands. Not only brand China being promoted on the world stage, but also the commercial brands of Olympic sponsors driving home their brand advantage in the domestic Chinese market.

The Chinese are already in love with brands. How can you stand out in a nation of 1.3 billion with high population mobility? Young Chinese are known by the brands they can afford and the brands they display. Via fashion accessories, cell phones and now cars, brand choices are stratifying a hitherto unified communist society. The billions of daily purchases of trusted brand names are an increasing part of the social glue that holds Chinese society together.

From Coca-Cola to McDonalds, from Visa to Samsung, a record 63 brands have paid the IOC more money than ever for their category exclusive sponsorship rights. And, given the size and growth of the Chinese economy plus the undercurrent of concern about China in the West, these sponsors have allocated more of their global Olympics budgets than ever before to marketing their brands in the host nation.

The Chinese are being subjected to a deluge of brand advertising by Western multinational brands seeking to expand their geographic reach beyond the major cities to the outlying provinces. Olympics-related advertising by these brands could exceed $6 billion. Most of this advertising is not directly promoting brand features and attributes. Rather, it aims to wrap the Western brand in the cloak of Chinese nationalism. From Volkswagen's "honk for China" campaign to Pepsi's limited edition of red colored cans accompanying the slogan "Go red for China", Western brands are taking the "act local" mantra to a new extreme. Few brands are implementing a unified global campaign for this Olympics. Instead, they are typically running two campaigns, one for China, another for the rest of the world.

The same applies to Chinese brands such as Lenovo and Haier that are seeking to leverage Olympics sponsorships to enhance their global stature. Lenovo, which acquired IBM's PC business three years ago, has invested around $100 million as the first Chinese company to become a global sponsor of the Olympics. Through doing so, Lenovo expects to increase its brand reputation and market share in China as much as in the rest of the world.

But where will this vast consumption of brands lead? Choice is good. Engaging with brands is fun. Media diversity, fueled by brand advertising, is welcome. But one can't help wondering whether too many Chinese are consumers first, and citizens second. Perhaps more economic freedom will lead, as many hope, to increased demand for political freedom. Or will the fruits of a growing economy and the passion for consumption be the distraction, the narcotic that postpones the day of political reckoning for the still dominant Communist party?

Read more on the Olympics:

This post is based on Professor Quelch's August 11, 2008 article in the Financial Times entitled "Brands Act Local To Woo A Billion Chinese Consumers"