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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for May, 2008

Neglected Infrastructure: On the Wrong Side of the Broadband Gap and Four Humorous Takes on Why Broadband is Important and How

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 31, 2008

In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:

“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.

The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.

Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.

It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.

The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “

As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.

My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.

Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOceE7j–Oc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNzesOW2QG8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT0T4N-Hagk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaCNvONAlzs

Posted in Cities, Communications, Digitization, Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Value Where No Value Exists: Links to a “Brands Diary” and Nostalgia for a World Without Brands

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 30, 2008

Just as much of our economy is based on the sale and resale of dubious financial paper ala the recent US mortgage fiasco, another part is based on the sale and marketing of redundant products that have little or no meaningful or useful differences other than “brand” identities. Brands obscure not only what products are but also what they are used for. In Jane’s Brand Time-Line Portrait the absurdity of elevating contrived brand identities to objective reality is conveyed by listing the tasks and pleasures of a full day as practitioners of marketing would have us see them, i.e. as a progression of brands. The day ends with the most absurd extreme in a life as mirrored in brands, with sex becoming Durex.

Several minutes into Big Wide World, a recent broadcast of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, Valentina, a new immigrant to the US from the Ukraine, describes her first trip to a mammoth American drugstore just two weeks after her arrival in the country. Searching for tampons, Valentina encounters shelves upon shelves of tampons, in every conceivable (and inconceivable) shape, size, and touted level of absorbency. The redundancy and irrelevant distinctions between tampon brands first caused Valentina to laugh and then to become sad and homesick … for a world without brands. Choice is ballyhooed as a core value of so-called market economies — but choice between what, and determined by whom? And why waste a moment of one’s time or a drop of one’s concentration chosing amongst products the distinctions between which fit the schemes of hucksters rather than the shapes, interests, and needs of our individual lives let alone the wise allocation of natural and economic resources?

Posted in Commentary, Communications, Markets, Media | Leave a Comment »

Friendship and Borders: Facebook, Turkish Etymology, a Virtual Kurdistan, and a Moment of Remembrance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 28, 2008

Facebook, the Banality of Friendship, and the Wisdom of Turkish Etymology

Late last year I opened a facebook account. In part, I was compelled to. Several work-related acquaintances in the US and UK had told me that they were so overwhelmed by regular email that they were restricting their correspondence to those listed as “friends” on their facebook accounts. I was also curious. Having devoted much time these last years to researching the origins and consequences of 19th- and 20th-century national identities, I am intrigued by mechanisms claiming to offer individuals possibilities to shape their own identities and allegiances at will and to transcend the simple congruent assemblages of geographic borders, officially-sanctioned languages and religions, and artificially contrived histories and heritages that are at the core of most if not all national identities.

For a time, I gave facebook a chance. I let it troll my address book and I began to collect a community of facebook ‘friends’ of my own. My list of ‘friends’ soon grew to contain several dozen names. Most of my facebook “friends,” however, turned out to be little more than acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, or people with whom I had had one-off conversations at meetings or conferences. Others were unfortunates who either had mistaken me for someone else or imagined me to have far more influence or connections than I will ever amass. Few were what I would call friends and only a few more were people with whom I would care to be friends. Friendship as defined by facebook was not what I would call friendship. It appeared to conflate every from of acquaintanceship, no matter how slight, and to ascribe value to relationships in terms of their numbers and not than their substance.

I then set out to purge my list and separate facebook “friends” from real friends. In search of a filter, I turned to Turkish, a language in which I can do little more that travel and shop and exchange basic pleasantries and in which have a vocabulary of only a hundred or so words, many of them archaic survivals of Ottoman Turkish still embedded in Balkan Slavic languages, as in colloquial Bulgarian, a language that I do speak quite well.

Turkish has two words for friend. One, dost, is Persian in origin; the other, arkadas, has Turkish roots. Dost, according to Hanneke van der Heyden, a translator from Turkish to Dutch of writers including Nobel Prıze winner Orhan Pamuk, implies sentiment and emotional connection. The more commonly used arkadaş, which can refer to colleagues and co-workers as well as friends, invokes inter-reliance, trust, risk-taking, and self-sacrifice. Ottomanıst and archıtectural historıan Machıel Kıel points out that arkadaş is comprised of two shorter root words and can be literally translated as “companion of the back.” Kiel surmises that the word is of martial origin, referring to fighting back-to-back against foes and relying on one another to guard each other’s vulnerabilities, not unlike the hackneyed phrase “watch my back” used by police officers under fire in American crime cinema and “police procedurals.”

Thus, with two Turkish words as criteria, I eliminated from my facebook list all those with whom I did not share or admire sentiments or passions or for whom I would not put myself on the line to defend or trust to do the same for me. The number of names on my list plummeted from scores to an even half dozen.

(A correlate phenomenon: A glance at my facebook home page shows me that those on my list whose passions and work and relationships are conducted face to face, who produce rather than watch and who see the internet as a tool or conduit rather than an end in itself show far less activity on facebook.)

Linked-In, Geopolitical Boundaries, and a Virtual Kurdistan

Linked In is even more puzzling to me than facebook is. I regularly receive requests — mostly from contacts and ex-colleagues in the Netherlands and occasionally from hustling would-be entrepreneurs in the Balkans — to “link” to me on Linked In, but why and what for I’ve yet to figure out. A bit of clicking around on Linked-In suggests that like facebook-ers in search of friends, Linked In-ers thrive on numbers, confusing numbers of contacts for qualitative measures of worth or self worth. Some of my more active Linked In connections have hundreds of contacts but, absurdly, those with the largest collections keep their lists confidential, closed to the prying eyes and linking obsessions of others.

This said, a look at the Linded-In contact list of one ex-coleague led me to the name of another, a veteran telecommunications consultant who had set up fixed-line and mobile systems throughout the world, quite often under harsh physical conditions and even harsher regimes. Back in the late 1990s he told me that he had been approached sometime before by Kurdish “separatists” dedicated to carving an independent Kurdistan out of contiguous regions of present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey asking him to conceive a pan-national mobile phone network that would be a first step toward creating out of infrastructure what had been denied them in terms of internationally recognized physical boundaries and political self-rule, i.e. a functional actualization of Kurdish identity.

I have no idea what happened to this project or even whether it was feasible technically but, coincidentally, it fits within the concerns of my present work in the study of the history of national identity and of current issues in telecommunications and the internet. Projects and visions based on overlapping patterns of allegiance and infrastructure are potential alternatives to the limitations and divisiveness of outmoded models of ethnically and geographically defined national states with arbitrary physical and cultural boundaries.

The Meaningfulness of Friendship and the Transcendance of Worlds: A Moment of Remembrance

Consideration of issues of friendship and boundaries leads me to reflect on a remarkable woman whose life was a study in friendship and community and in uniting and transcending seemingly disparate worlds and peoples.

This coming Saturday at the Meeting House of the Society of Friends on East Fifteenth Street in Manhattan a memorial service will be held for Rachel M. Yoder. Rachel was born almost 72 years ago into the Amish and Mennonite world of rural Maryland. She came to New York in the mid-1960s with her husband Monroe. Together, they built a family and helped build a church — Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem — that ignored divisions of race and class. Rachel’s home and heart were open to blacks, whites, hispanics and all others, rich and poor, educated and not, Christians and non-Christians (this writer among them), whether in times of joy, sorrow, or need. By transcending the superficial distinctions that divide most people, Rachel enabled others to transcend themselves. Rachel had a soft voice, a youthful laugh, and compassion, understanding, and a warm smile for all. She lives on in the hearts and thoughts of all those whose lives and souls she touched and united.

Posted in Commentary, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media | 1 Comment »

More Links: Value Where No Value Exists … Service Economy, Information Economy, Dot-Com Economy, and the US Housing and Mortgage Fiasco

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 26, 2008

In “Far from Normal,” Jim Kunstler takes this reference by the chairman of the US Fed to the state of financial markets as a starting point for an analysis of the waves of economic flim-flam and self-deception that fillede the last three decades. In The Giant Pool of Money the team of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life presents the housing and mortgage disaster in a way we laymen can understand it, in an entertaining and poignant set of interviews with those who created the “toxic waste” sub-prime-mortgage-based instruments that nearly brought down the world’s economy and those who bought homes with mortgages they had no chances of ever paying off.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, Media | Leave a Comment »

Some Links: Bill Moyers and Rev. Wright, Bob Herbert on the Clintons, Full-Time Writers and the Free Distribution of Ideas, a Greek Filmmaker, and the Internets Celebrities, Checking Cashing, and a Debt-Based Economy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 25, 2008

Beyond Hysteria — Moyers and Wright

To go beyond the hysteria of American news reporting and presidential campaign rhetoric watch or read Bill Moyers‘s long and calm interview with a soft-spoken and candid Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Moyers’s follow-up reflections on his audience’s reactions to the program. The interview broadcast, by the way, contains a recording of the entirety of Wright’s now-infamous “God damn America” sermon. Listen to it. While the over-publicized, out-of-context YouTube clip of Wright shouting “God damn America” gave grist to journalists and license to the mealy-mouthed to show moral indignation, the full sermon, with its passion, historical insights, and unassailable morality will have many of us — Christians and non-Christians both — up on our feet and shouting “Amen.” For a sample from another of America’s best journalists, click here for Bob Herbert on Hillary’s cynical playing of the race card and the unwillingness or inability of both Bill and Hillary to exit the stage gracefully. (For Jim Kunstler on Hillary in DC and NY see Monster of Ambition.)

In Defense of Writers, Books, and Publishing

For uncommon wisdom on the downsides of the so-called free distribution of ideas over the internet and the upsides and economics of full-time writing, full-size books, and the essential aspects of editing and publishing read this post by writer Steven Poole. The paradox: Only the rich and the subsidized have the resources to devote a life to full-time writing; the rest of us must be able to make a living from what we do. In a follow-up post, Poole continues to make a compelling case for the superiority of ideas as developed and presented in book-length rather than blog-form. He closes with the chilling thought that books may prove to have been a mere half-millenium-long, archaic-technology-linked abberation in the history of communication.

In Greek

Video-maker Lucia Rikaki has brought her visual style to blogging on these two sites: Lucia and Alwaysthesea. Her still photography is kinetic and cinema-like and creates an aesthtic caleidoscope across postings. Knowledge of Greek is not required.

The Internets Celebrities Take On the US “Fed” and Teach the Poor How to Put Their Shoulders to the Wheel

Internets Celebrities Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam recently announced their new video Checkmate, a cinematic step into the netherworld of Brooklyn’s check-cashing stores and a plea to the poor to help America out of its economic doldrums by “keeping your income low and your debt high.” Checkmate is a kind of Das Kapital follow-up to the Internet Celebrities’s classic Manifesto, Bronx Bodega, a Marx Brothers meets Karl Marx meets Hip Hop take on the feeding and exploitation of the poor. For a bit of Marx Brothers meet Freud meets Walter Benjamin meets Walter Winchell meets Hip Hop see Sidewalk Pimping which I remember most for its powerful existential pronouncement that all is okay providing “… it gets you out of your momma’s basement.” For Freud meets Social Realism meets Havelock Ellis see the Internets Celebrities’s director Casimir Nozkowski‘s own Every 7 Seconds. (Note: If Bronx Bodega and Every 7 Seconds prove too slow to download via YouTube they can be viewed in QuickTime format on Nozkowski’s homepage.)

A closing thought, a zoomed-out memory of V. Popov

A zoom-out in Checkmate shows Dallas Penn to be attired in watch-cap, winter jacket, and … shorts! The only other year-round shorts wearer I’ve ever known was Bulgaria’s former international chess correspondent — and inimitably skilled preparer of homemade gourmet-class salt-cured Black Sea bonita tuna (palamud) — the late Vladilen (short for Vladimir Illych Lenin) Popov. Vladilen covered chess championship matches with his characteristic long hair combed to near-shoulder-length and attired in suit jacket, shirt and tie, and … shorts! It was a stock joke amongst Eastern European news cameramen recording Vladilen’s on-camera commentaries to momentarily zoom-out to include glimpses of his bare legs. Rest in peace, Vladilen.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Internet, Media, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

The Infrastructure of Repression: Repression of Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 3, 2008

In my last post, I mentioned the planned May Day marches in Istanbul and the order given by the governor of Istanbul and surroundings at the behest of the country’s ruling pro-Islamic AK party to ban both the marches and the traditional May Day rally of labor unions and leftist parties at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the city’s traditional rallying point and largest open space and an iconic symbol of the Turkish republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk some 85 years ago.

The governor’s stated ratonale for the ban was the supposed threat of infiltration of the march by members of the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish national organization branded as terrorist by Turkey and other countries. The real issue, however, was the growing tension between Turkey’s secular and Islamic parties, most recently brought to a head by the government’s order to allow the wearing of women’s head-scarves symbolic of Islamic orthodoxy at the country’s universities and by the countermove by secularists to obtain a court order to disband the AK party and bar its leaders from politics on the grounds that they are committed to undermining the secularism that is the foundation of the Turkish constitution and state. To add fuel to the fire, the country’s prime minister, AK party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, condescendingly quipped last week that May Day should not be declared an official holiday because Turkish workers get enough time off as is. In fact, Turkish workers work far more hours each year for far less pay than their western counterparts.

The Infrastructure of Repression

To enforce the ban and prevent mass protests, the Turkish government bussed an army of police to Istanbul from throughout the country, stationing dozens of riot geared policemen at every street and alleyway leading to Taksim and to Istiqlal Caddesi, the main pedestrian artery that feeds into the square. Policemen carried truncheons, shields, automatic weapons, gas masks, and tear gas cannisters. Larger arteries were blocked by tank-mounted water cannons manned by police. In many neighborhoods, scores of policemen lounged on curbs and against walls, some dozing, seemingly tired from all-night bus rides into Istanbul from provincial towns. To nip the marches in the bud and to squelch anti-government protests, the police launched an early morning attack on union headquarters buildings in the neighborhood of Sisli, only a few kilometers from Taksim, assaulting union members with water-cannons and tear-gas barrages and beating with truncheons those who tried to flee. At least one union member was killed in the process. In their zeal, the police also gassed neighboring hospitals, forcing bewidered patients and staff to flee. Fortunately, there was no gunfire.

The Repression of Infrastructure

The transportation infrastructure that moves people and goods in and out and through Istanbul is as monumental as the great mosques that dot the hilled skyline of this 1,600-year-old city. Somewhere between 15 and 20 million people live and work in Istanbul and its suburbs and their daily movements to and from offices, factories, workshops, stores, and markets, both traditional and modern, is the medium that keeps the city alive. In Istanbul, the sound of movement is continuous and throbbing. Modern high-speed metros and trams, far less modern busses and jitneys, endless car and truck traffic, and the human muscle-power of load-bearing porters keep Istanbul moving.

Most characteristic of Istanbul’s transportation infrastructure are its ferries. Istanbul owes its might, prosperity, and attractiveness to its setting at the point where Europe meets Asia and where the waters of the Black Sea mingle with those of the Aegean and the Mediterranean. From the heights of the hills that constitute Istanbul, one looks down on vistas of water — the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the Marmara. From early morning until midnight, these waterways are crisscrossed by smoke-spouting white ferries leaving white foam in their wakes, and crossing each others’ bows with breathtaking confidence.

On the morning of May 1, Istanbul was strangely quiet. In neighborhoods near Taksim and Istiqlal, the streets were empty of pedestrians and moving autos both. On larger roadways, small clusters of passengers waited for trams and busses that never arrived. A glance seaward showed the Marmara and the Bosporus blue and silvery in the sunlight and uncharacteristically peaceful. A second glance revealed that something was amiss — not a single ferry nor moving ship was to be seen. Without warning, the core of Istanbul ‘s entire transportation infrastructure had come to a halt and all sea traffic had ended. The only sound to be heard was an occasional unfamiliar mechanical drone overhead, the sound of police helicopters circling in search of crowds and marchers.

The quickness and effectiveness of this shutdown of the infrastructure of urban movement of one of the world’s largest cities was alarmingly effective. By knowing exactly where the pressure points of urban movement are and how to pinch them, the government and police succeeded in isolating neighborhoods  from neighborhoods, halting the movement of people, and putting a pulsing, hyper-alive city into a state of near sleep.  Even the communications infrastructure of the present age — internet and mobile voice and sms — could not compensate for the atmosphere of isolation and the breakdown of information flows and of the ability to exercise the basic rights of citizenship that ensued when the infrastructure and freedom of physical movement, the most elementary components of cities and civilizations, were frozen.

For more on recent events in Istanbul see the website of the Turkish Daily News as well these specific articles chronicling outrage and media reactions in the wake of the events of May 1.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Infrastructure, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »