Archive for the ‘culture’ category


We need to change how we consume and share media as Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns us about privacy and ‘fake news’

18.03.2017


Paul Clarke/CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37435469

Above: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Earlier this month, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote an open letter expressing his concerns about the evolution of his invention, the World Wide Web. (Interestingly, he writes the term all in lowercase.)
   It wasn’t just about ‘fake news’, which is how the media have reported it. His first concern was, in fact, about our losing control over our personal data, and determining when and with whom we share them. It’s something I’ve touched on regularly since 2011, when Google breached its own stated policies over user-preference collection for advertising purposes, something that Facebook appears to be following suit with mid-decade. This was long before Edward Snowden blew the lid on his government’s monitoring, something that’s happening to citizens of other occidental nations, too.
   Sir Tim writes, ‘Through collaboration with—or coercion of—companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused—bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.’
   But the one that struck me as very pertinent to publishing is Sir Tim’s second point. It’s the one that most news outlets seized on, linking it back to ‘fake news’, a term now corrupted by the executive branch of the US Government when attacking coverage that it doesn’t like. However, Sir Tim’s points were far broader than that. And it’s evident how his first point links to his second.
   It’s not hard to see that there is biased coverage on both the right and right wings of US politics (interestingly, they call it left and right), although Sir Tim points to how ‘a handful of social media sites or search engines’ show us the things that appeal to our own biases through their algorithms. ‘Fake news’ then spreads through these algorithms because they play to our prejudices. He writes, ‘those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.’ These sites are able to determine what we see based on the data we’ve given them, willingly or unwillingly.
   It’s so far from the ideals of the World Wide Web that it’s sad that the medium, which was once so expansive and inspirational as we surfed from one site to the next to read and absorb information, has come to this: a tool for becoming more insular, the first path to the idiocracy.
   Google, as I wrote last year, biases itself toward larger sites, no longer rewarding the media outlet that breaks a news item. The incentive to be that maverick medium is, therefore, lessened greatly online, because the web isn’t being ranked on merit by the largest player in the search-engine business. It’s why Duck Duck Go, which doesn’t collect user data, gives search results that are generally fairer. We think it’s important to learn alternative viewpoints, especially in politics, otherwise the division that we already see in some countries will only deepen—and at worst this can lead to war. In peacetime countries, a compatriot with opposing political thoughts is not our enemy.
   Facebook’s continued data collection of user preferences is also dangerous. Even after users opt out, Facebook’s ad preferences’ page demonstrates that it will keep collecting. Whether or not Facebook then uses these preferences is unknown—certainly Facebook itself clams up—but since the site reports journalists who alert them to kiddie porn, kicks off drag queens after saying they wouldn’t, and forces people to download software in the guise of malware detection, who knows if any of Facebook’s positions are real or merely ‘fake news’? Knowing the misdeeds of sites like Facebook—and Google which itself has been found guilty of hacking—do they actually deserve our ongoing support?
   Of course I have an interest in getting people to look beyond the same-again players, because I run one media outlet that isn’t among them. But we have an interest to seek information from the independents, and to support a fair and neutral internet. We may learn an angle we hadn’t explored before, or we may find news and features others aren’t covering. Better yet, we may learn alternative viewpoints that break us out of our prejudices. Surely we can’t be that scared of learning about alternatives (maybe one that is better than what we believe), or having a reasoned debate based on fact rather than emotion or hatred? And if you are sharing on social media, do you want to be one of the sheep who uses the same click-bait as everyone else, or show that you’re someone who’s capable of independent thought?
   It shouldn’t be that difficult to distinguish fake-news sites from legitimate media (even though the line gets blurred) by looking at how well something is subedited and how many spelling mistakes there are. Perhaps the headlines are less emotive. There is a tier of independent media that deserves your support, whether it is this site or many competing ones that we’ve linked ourselves. Going beyond the same-again sources can only benefit us all.

Originally published in Lucire’s online edition.

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Selling Opel: what’s good for China is good for General Motors

15.02.2017


Above: The Opel Astra K: on the roster.

I’m not so sure that GM going into talks to sell Opel and Vauxhall to PSA (Peugeot–Citroën) is that big a surprise.
   We obviously hold a lot of nostalgia for these brands, and it’s only right that we perceive GM as selling its family jewels. Opel has made some great cars over the years, and Buick in China and the US, Vauxhall in the UK, and Holden in Australia rely on this division to provide it with product.
   But it wasn’t long ago that I said I foresaw the next Holden Commodore being a four-door booted model based on a Chinese Buick Regal that’s on the same platform. While I’ve been proved wrong with scoop photos and inside information from journalists in the immediate term, longer-term this doesn’t look so far-fetched, in a future where Peugeot owns Opel–Vauxhall and GM has no choice but to consider Chinese sourcing seriously.
   Therefore, GM isn’t thinking that it’s selling off the family jewels, at least the GM where Chinese partner SAIC is overwhelmingly calling the shots.
   What they are thinking is this: ‘We should be able to develop the whole lot in China.’ They weren’t nostalgic over Holden, and they won’t be thrilled with the losses at Opel. It’s willing to sacrifice it to make its own position stronger. We’ve already seen that SAIC has called it quits when it comes to British assembly at Longbridge—that’s now all done back in China.
   There’s been such a massive technology transfer from the US to China over the last few years that Europe is seen as surplus by the folks in Shanghai. They have all the platforms on which they can make products globally. They may even, rightly or wrongly, think that the remaining brands can get them into Europe, even if GM had pulled its Korean-made Chevrolets out of there.
   Holden can be used to westernize the product and the Australians have shown they can do it well.
   I’m not saying I agree with this, as a long-time Opel fan. I was looking forward to the new Commodores coming out of Rüsselsheim. The car looks the business, it’s roughly the size of the recently deleted Ford Falcon (therefore, I’m not sure why people are so upset about its size), and the majority of buyers don’t even know which set of wheels the power’s going to. I’ve got an Astra K coming in a few months at Lucire.
   What you’re going to see is GM basically being a Shanghai-run firm with China supplying global markets and the US operations kept going for their brand cachet.
   In the meantime, a hypothetical PSA-run Opel will continue with the existing plans till the end of these models’ life cycles, then China will become the manufacturing hub for numerous markets.
   SAIC already makes a load of Cadillacs, Buicks and Chevrolets for the domestic market, and they’ll want to pump them out more widely.
   They’ve also shown that they can take new GM platforms and turn them into Roewes—or old GM platforms and turn them into Baojuns.
   PSA, meanwhile, with 14 per cent controlled by Chinese firm Dongfeng, will pursue a strategy of streamlining platforms and be focused more on Europe. It could pay off as cross-town rival Renault has done well with Nissan, Mitsubishi, Samsung, Dacia and AvtoVAZ, but it won’t nearly be as secure. The two French groups have been obsessed with one another for as long as I can remember, for years spending more time rivalling each other than actually coming up with what customers wanted.
   Dongfeng may have to cough up more lolly and it could become a larger shareholder than the Peugeot family or the French government. But will it have the sort of geographical coverage that Renault has?
   That’ll be what PSA will be asking itself, knowing that it’s reasonably strong in China—but also realizing that it hasn’t been clever at creating models that can be sold globally (the current Citroën C6, DS 5LS and the DS 6 among them, sold exclusively in China). Nevertheless, there are savings to be had, though the most obvious fear is that Opel and Vauxhall will go the way of Panhard and Talbot, brands that fell into either Peugeot or Citroën’s hands over the years and become defunct at the expense of the parent companies’. Is there a desire to extend the group’s brand portfolio beyond Peugeot, Citroën, DS, the various Dongfeng lines, and the ex-Hindustan Ambassador?
   The official statement is non-committal enough and gives nothing away: ‘PSA Group and General Motors confirm they are exploring numerous strategic initiatives aiming at improving profitability and operational efficiency, including a potential acquisition of Opel Vauxhall by PSA.
   ‘There can be no assurance that an agreement will be reached.’
   In any case, we always said that SAIC was playing a long game. MG was a toe in the water. GM is the real deal.
   Controlling GM means they can do as they please, and what’s good for China is good for General Motors.

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Fifty editors at Wikipedia ban Daily Mail based on some anecdotes

12.02.2017

How right Kalev Leetaru is on Wikipedia’s decision to ban The Daily Mail as a source.
   This decision, he concludes, was made by a cabal of 50 editors based on anecdotes.
   I’ve stated before on this blog how Wikipedia is broken, the abusive attitude of one of its editors, and how even luminaries like the late Aaron Swartz and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger chose to depart. It’s just taken three years or more for some of these thoughts to get picked up in a more mainstream fashion.
   I made sure I referred to a single editor as my experience with someone high up in Wikipedia, not all of its editors, but you can’t ignore accusations of certain people gaming the system in light of the ban.
   Leetaru wrote on the Forbes site, ‘Out of the billions of Internet users who come into contact with Wikipedia content in some way shape or form, just 50 people voted to ban an entire news outlet from the platform. No public poll was taken, no public notice was granted, no communications of any kind were made to the outside world until everything was said and done and action was taken …
   ‘What then was the incontrovertible evidence that those 50 Wikipedia editors found so convincing as to apply a “general prohibition” on links to the Daily Mail? Strangely, a review of the comments advocating for a prohibition of the Mail yields not a single data-driven analysis performed in the course of this discussion.’
   I’m not defending the Mail because I see a good deal of the news site as clickbait, but it’s probably no worse than some other news sources out there.
   And it’s great that Wikipedia kept its discussion public, unlike some other top sites on the web.
   However, you can’t escape the irony behind an unreliable website deeming a media outlet unreliable. Here’s a site that even frowns upon print journalism because its cabal cannot find online references to facts made in its articles. Now, I would like to see it trust print stuff more and the Mail less, but that, too, is based on my impressions rather than any data-driven analysis that Leetaru expects from such a big site with so many volunteers.
   I’ve made my arguments elsewhere on why Wikipedia will remain unreliable, and why those of us in the know just won’t bother with it for our specialist subjects.
   By all means, use it, and it is good for a quick, cursory “pub chat” reference (though science ones tend to be better, according to friends in that world). But remember that there is an élite group of editors there and Wikipedia will reflect their biases, just as my sites reflect mine. To believe it is truly objective or, for that matter, accurate, would be foolhardy.

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Getting inspiration from Douglas Rushkoff

03.01.2017


John Nowak/CNN

I’ve had a 52 Insights interview with Douglas Rushkoff open in a Firefox tab for nearly half a year. It’s a fascinating piece, and I consider Douglas to be spot on with a lot of his viewpoints. I’ve revisited it from time to time and enjoyed what Douglas has had to say.
   Here are a few ideas I took from it. The italicized parts were added by me to the Medinge Group version of this post.

  • There are a lot of idealistic ventures out there, but to grow, often founders have to compromise them. It comes back to our thoughts at Medinge over a decade ago about ‘Finance is broken.’ Because of these compromises, we don’t really advance as much as we should, and some brilliant ideas from young people aren’t given the chance they deserve. This needs to change. We already have branding as a tool to help us, and we know that more authentic, socially responsible brands can cut through the clutter. When these ventures start up, brands are an important part of the equation.
  • How are governments going to fund this universal basic income if they themselves aren’t getting a decent tax take? It’s the same question that’s plagued us for decades.
  • Douglas sees ventures like Über to be the same-old: its customer really is its investor, and that’s not a new concept at all. It’s why we can’t even consider Über to be a good brand—and the tense relationships it often has with governments and the public are indications of that. It’s not, as Douglas suggests, even a driver co-op. It’s still all about making money the old-fashioned way, albeit with newer tools.
  • Worrying but true: some of the biggest companies in the world are required to grow because of their shareholders. As a result, they’re not creating sustainable revenue. ‘If you’re one of the top fifty biggest companies in the world and you’re still required to grow, that’s a real problem.’
  • Kids these days aren’t as into all this technology and social networks as we are. Thank goodness. When Facebook reports another billion have joined, you’ll know they’re BSing you and counting all the bots.
  • Many people see things as though they were created by God and accept them. Douglas gives the examples of Facebook and religion. I can add the capitalist and socialist models we have. If people believe them to be God-given, or natural, then they feel helpless about changing them. We need to wake people up and remind them these are human-made constructs—and they can be unmade by humans, and replaced with better ideas that actually work for us all.

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How my Dad called the primary and the election for Donald Trump ages ago

11.11.2016


FJM88NL, licensed under Creative Commons

I’ve had a phone call and a lot of comments on this in the last couple of days: my Dad, who is 81 with early-stage Alzheimer’s, called the US presidential election for Donald Trump months ago. I posted it on my social networks the day he made his definitive call, and friends remembered it. Thank you for all your compliments.
   Go back to 2015, he had called the Republican primary for Trump.
   I wasn’t as confident but I had Tweeted the week before the election that polls were understating Trump’s actual support by at least 6 per cent.
   In 2008, when everyone had dismissed Gov. Sarah Palin, he said that she wasn’t going to go away, and that she’d command an even greater influence in the first Obama term. While he predicted an Obama win, again quite early on, he wasn’t optimistic and didn’t think there would be great change in the US. You may or may not agree with that.
   Going right back to the 1980s, when I was at college, and before China showed any signs of opening up, he made the call about its economic rise, and that I would be assured, by the time I was in my 30s and 40s, that many would want to deal with the country. It would be, I remember him telling me, a career advantage to being Chinese—in contrast to the racism we encountered far more frequently back then.
   During the height of the Muldoon era, Dad, who counted himself as part of Rob’s Mob, made the call that Sir Robert Muldoon would not be able to hold on to his power or reputation in his old age. When a documentary aired condemning Sir Robert after his death, so that he wouldn’t be around to file a defamation suit, he said, ‘I told you so.’
   Even in the elections I contested (and he encouraged me to run), while he refused to be drawn on what he thought my chances were, he was unequivocally clear that my rival, John Morrison, wouldn’t win, in 2013. Dad certainly did better than some so-called political experts I can name.
   And if you want to get really spooky, during the Martin Bashir interview of Princess Diana, he said that by the time she was 37, she’d have a ‘really bad year’. He didn’t say she’d die.
   No, he’s not a Mystic Meg of any sort. He’s a guy who’s been around for a while and kept his eyes open.
   If you want to know his secret, I can tell you that his political projections are based in part around reading. Not mainstream media, but websites that he’s discovered over the years himself. He’s a keen web surfer and loves his news. He doesn’t put that much stock in political “experts”, and after having run myself, I can fully understand why.
   He’d even take in the viewpoints on Russia Today, which gives you an idea of how varied his reading was. Just today I caught him watching an address from Edward Snowden.
   With Palin, it was probably the sudden rise of her fan sites set up by US conservatives. He hadn’t seen such a rapid rise of sites that soon galvanized their support around the former Alaskan governor before. While mainstream media dismissed her and gave the impression that post-2008, she wouldn’t matter, Dad had entirely the opposite reading. Politically centrist, and, like me, a swing voter, he kept following the sites out of interest, and saw how they morphed into the Tea Party movement. He also knew they wouldn’t go away any time soon, and observed that there was a Palin effect, as the likes of Ted Cruz soon found out when contesting their Senate seats.
   And, despite my own criticisms of this practice, Dad would read the comments. Sometimes he would wade through hundreds of them, to get a sense of what people were thinking.
   It was his reading of media from left and right during the latest US presidential election that saw him made his calls very assertively.
   Rather than dismiss certain conservatives as ill-educated, as some media might, Dad treated them as human beings. He knew they would galvanize and get behind Trump.
   When you’ve lived through a world war (including an occupation) and then a civil war, and saw your family start from the bottom again after 1949, you get to be good at knowing what people go through.
   He’s always been politically switched on, and had a keen interest in history and economics, the latter of which he studied at a tertiary level. But he’d always explain to me that it came down to people and their behaviour, and never rational decision-making. I might have only lived just over half his lifetime so far, but I find little fault in that statement. All new movements have plenty of power, till they become the establishment.
   His thoughts on China in the 1980s could well have stemmed from that: I never asked him, and aphasia means he’d now find difficulty telling me anyway.
   Sadly for the US, he finds appeal in the theory that the nation will break up, though he hasn’t quite yet made the call in the same way he made the one for the Trump presidency. But as with his Trump prediction, I’m publishing this one online.
   He’s never stated it as succinctly but he has, in passing in the 1980s and 1990s, said that the British Empire wouldn’t last much longer beyond our current monarch’s reign.
   You never know, we might be coming back to this post in a few years’ time. These are gloomy scenarios but I’d rather put Dad’s ideas out there now, as I did with the Trump presidency, rather than tell you ex post facto how clever he was. The lesson: treat people as people, and it’s amazing how much that will reveal.

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What a great opportunity for New Zealand that lies before us

09.11.2016


Above: When I refer to Hillary in the below blog post, I mean the self-professed ‘ordinary chap’ on our $5 note.

As the results of the US presidential election came in, I didn’t sense a panic. I actually sensed a great opportunity for New Zealand.
   I’ve been critical of the obsession many of our politicians have had with the US, when they were in an excellent position to carve our own, unique path as a country. Aotearoa, with its bicultural roots and multicultural awareness, has the advantage, in theory at least, of appreciating traditional notions of Māori and what had been imported via pākehā; and on an international scale, our country has sought trading partners outside the Anglosphere, having been pushed into it by factors outside our control. The loss of the UK as an export market and the damage to New Zealand–US relations in the 1980s might have seemed anathema at the time, but they pushed this country into new relationships, which now looks prudential.
   New Zealanders are welcomed wherever we go, our passports aren’t looked down upon, and we still largely enjoy a freedom of movement and safe passage without much hindrance. And it’s a reality that the centre of the global economy has been shifting eastward over the last decade.
   We don’t need something like TPPA in order to form trading relationships with China, and when I went to India on two occasions, there was a great acceptance of the potential of a trade deal with another cricketing country. In fact, my audiences, whenever I gave a speech, were rather miffed that we hadn’t gone to them first. But we only make good negotiators when we deal with our own cultural issues successfully, for how else can we claim to understand others and then do a deal? Deal-making, regardless of what certain American politicians might tell you, comes from understanding the other side, and at our best New Zealanders are good at this. It’s why we need to confront our own racism head-on and to say: this shit needs to stop. In fact, this shit needn’t even be an issue. We’re too small a country not to be working together, and we need knowledge of all the cultures that make up Aotearoa now more than ever.
   We are frequently confronted with the need to look at our national character. Perhaps an early sign of it was in the 1970s with the Commonwealth Games in 1974; certainly I’ve noticed New Zealanders begin to find our own identity as a Pacific nation, not a post-colonial Anglosphere satellite. We’re beginning to discover our national brand. And wherever you were on the flag debate, at least that, too, forced us to consider who we are. The sense I got was that we want change, but we didn’t like the design—but certainly there’s no real fondness to be tied to Empah. Anti-Americanism over the years suggests that there’s no real desire, either, to keep importing economic ideas, corrupt governmental practices, and failed health care policies, even if certain political and economic élites seem drawn to them.
   We know where they will lead: greater divisions between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, urban and rural. Those tendencies exist but here is an ideal opportunity to nip them in the bud. History has taught us sensible solutions, more humane solutions, that at least recognize human actors, social responsibility, and kaitiaki. The younger generations have accepted these as they have grown up in a globalized world, and we can see that in their own consumer choices, where they favour responsible companies, those that have a cause. They believe in a form of global citizenship, and want to be treated as such—and those ideas are present in their politics, too. It is right for people like my friend Simon Anholt to run global polls on matters that influence us all, including the US elections, and realistically it will be our technology and the free sharing of ideas that will help with our progress as a planet. If we seek our own destiny, we at least will be able to show some leadership again—and then we’ll really have something to talk about.
   When I was in Reefton last month, the first place in New Zealand to get electricity, I noted that it was up to a bunch of mavericks who brought this newfangled technology in. New Zealand suffragettes won their battle first to secure women the vote. And another person called Hillary succeeded where no other had done so before when ‘We knocked the bastard off.’ Kiwi leadership isn’t new to us, but in recent years I held a great fear that we had lost our mettle. That did indeed spur me to run for office, among other factors, to say to people: stop listening to foreign companies and foreign-owned media who don’t have New Zealand interests at heart. New Zealand has been filled with people who call themselves ordinary but it’s always been those—like Sir Ed—who have shown real leadership, not some political lobbying group in another hemisphere. But you can only be great without following, and it’s high time we stopped following divided nations and recognized that we already have the right stuff—and by that I mean our smarts, our innovation, and our independently minded way of thinking.

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Snapped on Instagram

11.10.2016

This wasn’t taken by me, but by another car enthusiast, who goes by Kiwi_cars on Instagram. They (I don’t know the gender though one shadow in one photo suggests it could be a male) photograph some of the more interesting cars in New Zealand, and I was flattered to have mine spotted and posted on my birthday last month. They knew the car was mine, but the timing was auspicious, in my book, and I like to think that it would have featured anyway. Also nice to see the Mégane photographed and appreciated by another motorhead—Kiwi_cars owns a Fiat 500 (the current variety), nicknamed Luigi.

   It’s an old point, but the prevalence of cellphone cameras means it’s going to be increasingly hard to deny where you were on any given day. In this case, Kiwi_cars asked for permission to feature my number plate, as they usually blank it out. I gave my blessing, since my own rule is: if you can spot something publicly, you don’t need to censor. If you photograph something where the subject expects a level of privacy (e.g. through their home windows, even if you can see them from a public vantage-point; or when something is on private land), then you do.
   And don’t we often buy a car for it to be admired? Since prewar days we’ve been conditioned into thinking how a car is not a durable good, but a fashion item that expresses who we are. It would seem hypocritical if someone does admire yours and you don’t permit it. If we weren’t interested in that, we’d all be driving Nissan Tiidas in a monochrome shade. And even some of those Tiida owners are very, very proud of their motors.

An edited version of this post originally appeared at Blogcozy.

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The big difference with the internet of the ’90s: it served the many, not the few

11.09.2016


Above: Facebook kept deleting Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph each time it was posted, even when Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten did so, preventing its editor-in-chief from responding.

There’s a significant difference between the internet of the 1990s and that of today. As Facebook comes under fire for deleting the “napalm girl” photograph from the Vietnam War shared by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, then by prime minister Erna Solberg and Aftenposten newspaper, it has highlighted to me how the big Silicon Valley players have become exclusionary. In this latest case, it is about how one firm determines what is acceptable and unacceptable without regard to cultural significance or free speech; it even punished people who dared criticize it, and has failed to apologize. Earlier this year, in one of my numerous battles with Facebook, I noted how a major German company falsely claimed videos that did not belong to them, yet there was no penalty. An individual or a small firm would not have been so lucky: when we file copyright claims, we do so ‘under penalty of perjury’ on the form.
   Google, never far from my critical eye, is the same. I’ve watched Google News, for instance, become exclusionary, too, or, rather, a service that prefers big players rather than the independents. When deciding to send traffic for a particular news item, Google News now ranks big media outlets more highly, and to heck with journalistic quality or any regard on who broke the story first. It’s damaging to the independent voice, as Google concentrates power in favour of larger firms today, and it’s rather disturbing when you consider the implications.
   Mainstream media can be homogeneous, and, in some cases, damaging, when bias and prejudice get in to the system. When it comes to politics, this can be detrimental to democracy itself. And why should a search engine prefer a larger name anyway? Many newsrooms have been stripped of resources, ever more reliant on press releases. Many now engage in click-bait. Some have agenda driven by big business and their technocratic view of the world, especially those that have their corporate headquarters outside the country in which they operate. Those who desire to wake people up from their slumber get short shrift. Google is aiding this world, because since it became publicly listed, it has had to adopt its trappings, and one might argue that it is in direct conflict with its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra (one which never held much sway with me).
   This is the world which Google and Facebook, and no doubt others, wish to serve up to users. They may well argue that they’re only delivering what people want: if a lot of people get their news from the Daily Mail or The Huffington Post, then that’s what they’ll show in their results. There’s little freshness online as a result, which is why people aren’t as inclined to share in 2016 as they were in 2010.
   Yet it was not always this way. The hope in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that Google et al would be tools in distributing power equally among all netizens. Started an independent online publication? If the quality is there, if you’re the first to break a story, then Google News will lavish attention upon you. If you have specialized news outside what mainstream media deliver, then you’ll pop up regularly in the search results’ pages. The blogosphere rose because of this, with people seeking opinions and research outside of what the mainstream could deliver. The reason people blog less isn’t just because of social networks making one-sentence opinions de rigueur; it is because people have found it harder to reach new audience members, and their own tribe is the next best thing.
   It makes the ’net a far less interesting place to be. Without fresh, new views, we run the risk of groupthink, or we become particularly influenced by the biases of certain media outlets. We don’t really want to surf casually as we once did because we don’t learn anything new: it’s harder to find novel things that pique our interests.
   There are potential solutions, of course. I tend not to Google, but use Duck Duck Go, so at least I don’t get a filter bubble when I search for particular subjects. However, Duck Duck Go does not have a comprehensive news search, and Google’s index size remains unbeatable.
   What we really need next is something that brings back that sense of equality online. I believe that if you put in the hours into good content and design, you should excel and get your site ranked above the same old sources. Google claims that it does that when it tweaks its algorithms but I’m not seeing this. Facebook merely builds on what people have found—so if you can’t find it, it won’t wind up being shared. Twitter, at least, still has some interesting items, but if you don’t catch it in your feed at a given time, then too bad. It’s not geared to search.
   Duck Duck Go is a start, at least when it comes to general searches. It becomes easier to find views that you might not agree with—and that’s a good thing when it comes to understanding others. Google’s approach lulls you into a sense of security, that your views are sacrosanct—and all that does is give you the notion that the other half is wrong.
   So what of news? Duck Duck Go could well be a starting-point for that, too, ranking news based on who breaks an item first and the quality of the site, rather than how much money is behind it. Or perhaps this is the space for another entrepreneur. Ironically, it might even come out of China; though right now it’s equally likely to emerge from India. What it then needs is a bit of virality for it to be adopted, spread by the very people it is designed to aid.
   We need something that rewards the independent entrepreneur again, the people who drove so many innovations in the 1990s and 2000s. This isn’t nostalgia kicking in, seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses while happily ignoring all those businesses that failed. I completely acknowledge there were sites that vanished at the time of the dot-com bust, triggered in no small part by 9-11, the anniversary of which we celebrate today.
   Society needs those distinctive voices, those independent entrepreneurs, those people who are willing to put themselves forward and be judged fairly. What they don’t need are reactionary media who want to silence them out of fear that the world will change too much for them to bear; and big Silicon Valley firms all too happy to join in these days.
   It’s high time the most influential websites served the many rather than the few again.

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Posted in business, culture, globalization, interests, internet, media, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 2 Comments »


Brexit reminds us that we need to take a lead in making globalization fairer

28.07.2016

Brexit was an interesting campaign to watch, and there’s not too much I can add that hasn’t been stated already. I saw some incredibly fake arguments from Brexit supporters, including one graphic drawing a parallel between the assassinations of Anna Lindh in 2003 and Jo Cox MP, saying how the murder of the former led Sweden to remain in the EU.

   The trouble with the graphic is that the only thing it got right was that two women were killed. Sweden wasn’t having a referendum on whether to leave the EU, it was about whether it should adopt the euro. The closest British parallel would have been when then-PM John Major negotiated the Maastricht opt-out in 1991. It also claimed that the polls were for leaving; notwithstanding that that wasn’t what the Swedes were voting for, the polls for and against adopting the euro were roughly neck in neck, though the wisdom was that the pro-euro camp would win. By the weekend, the result was that Sweden would keep the krona.
   When I argued with some pro-Brexiters about this, they, like most pecksniffians, demanded I check my facts. I didn’t have to: I have a memory that goes back further than one month, and unlike them, I know what went on in their own backyard because, in 2003, I kept my eyes open.
   I should point out that I am not summarizing all Brexiters as dimwitted Britons who wanted Johnny Foreigner to go home. I count among my closest friends someone who voted leave, and for very substantial, well thought-out reasons. He felt that the European Union had become an unwieldy bureaucracy which benefited Britain little, and while I felt the benefits outweighed the detriments, I respect his opinion and his vote. At least it was considered, and at least it wasn’t one that was based on the ramblings and rants of Farage, Johnson, Gove et al.
   Appealing to nationalism, as the likes of Farage did, is a cheap trick in politics: it stirs a wave of nostalgia, and people might love chanting at how great their nation is, but it doesn’t address the core issues that put them into the poo to begin with. Of course the UK has a great deal to be proud of; but like many countries (including ours) the globalist technocratic agenda are what have made things untenable for a growing part of the population. It’s why real wages haven’t risen yet certain corporations profit aplenty; it’s why we work more hours today than we ever did, despite futurists of a generation ago predicting all this leisure time that we would all have thanks to automation.
   But is retreat the right thing to do? The remain camp believes that it wasn’t: to influence Europe you must be in Europe. It wasn’t that long ago that not being in Europe was fatal to British exports—the failure of the British motor industry, for instance, was in part due to its late recognition that the UK needed to be part of the EEC or, at least, produce vehicles there. Globalization’s positives should be the free movement of people and of capital; and economic union to permit that greater freedom seems a sensible thing to pursue, not to run away from. The trick is how to make this work for everyday people, the growing number who are impacted by globalist forces; once there were few, now few escape them. It is, then, the role of government to either protect those who are most vulnerable, to champion (either through private enterprise or on its own accord) real innovation and industry that can create jobs, and to cut through the BS where both public and private enterprise simply reinvent the wheel from time to time, putting lipstick on the bulldog.
   I am ambivalent about it because I’ve seen our own governments, National and Labour, be particularly weak when it comes to dealing with globalization, succumbing to foreign takeovers and allowing the little guy to be run over. The deals haven’t been good for New Zealand in many respects, a small country that believes in its place in the first world but which can be deluded about this very fact. Our economy just isn’t that solid to take it on the chin. Look at our banks, mostly foreign-owned and more unreliable than ever: remember how 40 years ago cheques would take 24 hours to clear? Yet now our computerized systems take three to five working days? Insiders tell me this is the consequence of less reliable Australian systems being foisted upon us; so much so that we have a wire transfer that has been taking weeks, and no one knows where the money has gone. Just how do you misplace tens of thousands of dollars? Why do we assume Australian bankers are smart enough to answer? And those who question such agenda don’t get much truck in a media landscape also dominated by foreigners: I’m looking at one newspaper publishing group at the least. The ways of the big countries are not always the best—yet somehow the powers-that-be in this country have been hoodwinked by this consistently since 1984. I can’t understand it, and my initial reaction when there is such a lack of logic is to follow the money.
   Brexit has made me refine my thinking: I might not like a system where New Zealand’s the little player that doesn’t benefit from a level playing field, but at the same time I believe we need to find ways to influence the globalist game for the better. We love looking at Scandinavian countries because of their comparable size. They may have higher taxes but at the same time they don’t seem to balk at innovation for the greater good; they believe in the freedom of movement of capital and of people, and, despite their general humility, they actually aren’t afraid of creating global companies that take on the rest of the world. Look at Vattenfall or Statoil. We might not like Statoil for what it wants to do to our own environment, but we do have to ask what our equivalent is. We lost our lead in hybrid cars, which we held for most of the 1980s, but it’s an example of what we can do when government and private enterprise cooperate on something that is future-oriented. What’s the next big thing? Is it renewable energy tech that we can export? There are companies here already doing frictionless exports, and more need to be encouraged. Government shouldn’t try to create groups of them or force mergers upon them; that can be left to the market. But there needs to be a vision or a direction that we take to create a new brand for our country where people naturally think: innovation for the greater good = New Zealand. And, maybe, to go with that, a fairer version of globalization can emerge, certainly one that is not coloured by the next quarterly result demanded by Wall Street.
   Yes, there is some national fervour involved here, too, but applied correctly, it won’t be false flag-waving that’s dependent on the past. I’m all for being proud of your country when the victories are real and measurable—like on the sporting field. There it’s real, and it’s often about the next game or the next season: it’s future-oriented, too. With Brexit, I can’t see the vision; and the most visible foreigner among this, the Turkish-American politician, Boris Johnson, hasn’t communicated one that I can discern.
   And maybe this confusion is the opportunity we need for New Zealand.
   After the UK abandoned the Commonwealth markets in favour of one right next door, our country found new export markets, so much so that the UK accounts for 3 per cent today. Even in 1973, when it was 40 per cent, it had been falling consistently for half a decade, if I recall correctly, and the notion that Britain would reach back out toward the Empah for trade is fanciful at best.
   Being someone who has enjoyed looking at world history play out through maps, ever since I discovered a book on the subject as a third former at Rongotai College, it hasn’t escaped my thoughts that this is a further retreat for the UK in terms of its global influence.
   So who’s on the rise? It might be us. The centre of the global economy has been shifting eastward in recent times and we’re well placed to take advantage of it. We’re part of the Anglosphere so we bridge the past, where it was the dominant global culture, with those trading partners who might be on the horizon. But it has to be real. We’re nimble enough, and I can’t see why we’ve been so fascinated with apeing the US and the UK for so long. Once again we need to set our own direction: we have a culture that’s ready for it with a greater sense of identity than we’ve ever had. I just wonder if we have a government, local or national, courageous enough to embark on this.

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Posted in branding, business, China, culture, globalization, marketing, New Zealand, politics, social responsibility, Sweden, UK | No Comments »


Finding the heart on Top Gear again

09.06.2016


Above: Chris Evans and Rory Reid talk about the McLaren F1 in Extra Gear.

Now that the new new Top Gear has aired in New Zealand, I have to say that it isn’t really there yet. But unlike much of the UK, I’m not going to dis Chris Evans, who is a consummate gearhead. The reason: I have a memory that goes back beyond February 2016.
   When Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Wilman brought Top Gear back in its current form in 2002, it was actually disappointing. People seem to forget James May, who originally replaced Clarkson in the original Top Gear, wasn’t even on the show. My memory of the studio audience was that there were about four people hanging around Clarkson as he introduced … wait for it … the Citroën Berlingo. Which he took to France (insert Clarkson pause) to buy cheese.
   The idea of a show with a perfect complement of three hosts who got on well with each other, each playing a caricature of himself, did not exist for the first year, and even after May replaced Jason Dawe, it took a while for those personalities to emerge. It’s rare to get three hosts to play those roles as well from the get-go—Top Gear France (which is actually made by the BBC) is an exception, and every other foreign edition of Top Gear that I’ve seen doesn’t quite have it.
   But Clarkson was a ratings’ winner. When he first quit Top Gear (or ‘old Top Gear’), the series which started with Angela Rippon as its host in the 1970s, ratings fell from six million to three million. The TV environment was different a decade and a half ago. And the BBC persevered because at that time he hadn’t offended Mexicans or Argentinians, or assaulted an Irishman, or Piers Morgan.
   However, importantly, the public was quite happy letting things develop. They could have gone and watched Fifth Gear with its familiar line-up of ex-Top Gear presenters, but they stuck with Clarkson, Hammond, and whomever the third man was.
   Twenty sixteen. Enter Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc (somewhere between the ending of Friends and today, the space seems to have disappeared in his surname), both personalities who love cars. They are disadvantaged by not having been motoring journalists, but they are entertaining. The show doesn’t flow well with the studio segments, the stars introducing each other doesn’t work, and I’m nostalgic for the reasonably priced car—although at least the French have continued la tradition. However, because everyone expects the show to remain on a high, the internet jury has been nasty. No one demanded an overnight success before, but they’re out for blood now. It’s an unfair position to put Evans in.
   The absence of motoring journalism experience could have been filled quite easily. We were originally told of a huge line-up of Top Gear presenters, to which I thought: great, the BBC is going to give a big roster a go again, something that we hadn’t seen since the 1990s. In there we saw names such as Chris Harris. Yet Chris Harris and Rory Reid have been relegated to an internet-only show called Extra Gear, which is meant to serve Top Gear in the way Doctor Who Confidential served Doctor Who, with a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, deleted footage, and some sensible road testing around the test track of models not covered in the main show.
   Here’s the thing, and this has been said in the British press: these two guys have great rapport, and come across better than Evans and Le Blanc. I vote for them to be on the main Top Gear. They are more personable, humorous, and relatable. I wouldn’t be surprised if they found a way to work them both in next season, and why not four hosts?
   One thing Harris and Reid have is that they know their stuff after serving in motoring journalism. They aren’t rich guys who happen to love cars, but guys who have worked that passion into careers. Harris, in particular, put integrity ahead of kissing up to Ferrari and Lamborghini. I have tremendous respect for these two guys, and there’s simply more heart in Extra Gear than Top Gear, which at present feels a bit empty and by-the-numbers.
   I don’t blame Evans at all—the man had a herculean task. The producers probably tried to reduce Top Gear into formulaic chunks and believed that by cooking with those ingredients, they’d have a winner. This is a reminder that you cannot create heart from a formula: you can’t predict where it surfaces. Now that we know it’s there with Reid and Harris, the BBC would be wise to capture it. Let Top Gear evolve—after all, it did between 2002 and 2015—but also let these personalities do their thing.

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Posted in cars, culture, interests, media, TV, UK | 1 Comment »