Thursday, October 21, 2010

A China Primer

I once published a Chinese Primer for my students - I came across it the other day while cleaning stuff out. It was a simple student-friendly compilation of all the Chinese written characters we would come across during the first year course. It was a useful gift to them. It went along with flash cards. I wondered why the textbook publisher hadn't provided something similar, or maybe they had and I was just too cheap. Or having fun with computers.

I generally find metaphor to be more literally useful than analysis, and I finally came across one today which might be more near-to-hand for many Westerners in your struggle to understand China. More near-to-hand than the abstruse arguments out there. As I do, I was reading Information Week on my not-even-in-the-game Windows Mobile smartphone while getting ready to leave the house. This time I'm leaving for good, but otherwise, same old same old.

It reminded me of a famous essay by Umberto Eco, which used to circulate back in the early days of the PC vs. Mac wars. Eco, a seriously brilliant fellow who also writes fun novels, compared the Mac to Catholic and the PC to Protestant. Well, I want to update the metaphor now. Mac is China, and Google is the West. Simple!

China seems increasingly on peoples' minds these days. They make us nervous. The economy is the first thing on peoples' minds this election season, and the first thing people think of regarding the economy is China. We know they hold lots of our debt. Some might also know that Google and China have been involved in a long-standing conflict about censorship of the Internet. Some may be upset about China bowling over Tibetan culture and damming up the Yangtze River, and some may get downright self-righteous about how the Chinese complain that the West, via the Nobel committee as our proxy, awards its Peace Prize to a jailed dissident within China.

No real coincidence that the Church also has a complaint about the prize awarded to the guy who developed and enabled in-vitro fertilization of embryos. These are deep and ingrained cultural conflicts. Some days the evangelicals seem to agree with the Church about things like abortion, and other days they are at odds. Some days Israel lines up with them too, and sometimes they seem like enemies. Sometimes a fellow like Steve Jobs, whose instincts are almost entirely on the side of single party rule, excites the counter-culturalists among us. It's a strange strange mixed up world.

The Mac world is a tightly controlled world. They promise the user a fluid and nearly flawless experience, and neatly hide away all the guts beneath a smooth exterior. Just about half the world is angered by this, since they also hide away lots of flaws and contradictions. They do really arrogant things like taking away the reset button (and then they put it back, and take it away and put it back). They replace transparent menu choices with arcane keystroke combinations, which helps to distinguish the normal users from the elite afficionadi-literati and to sidestep their absence of a command line.

The price wars always favor the Protestants. So naturally the counter-culture types find a friend in Mac. But the irony is just delicious. Opening up the guts to developers - hardware and software - just naturally pushes the pricing down, and businesses require a more rapid and innovative development cycle than can be had inside of some proprietary sandbox. So the PC side of things feels a lot like the establishment, since it gets used by globocorp. Naturally.

Well, now there's open source, which is neither fish nor fowl yet. China embraces it just to tweak the monopolistic masters of technology in the West. It suits their once and only party line against imperialism. Google is an open-source wanna-be, except that they don't seem to be able to help themselves regarding that whole monopoly thing. And then there's the blatant fact that no-one - not a single soul - inside a patriarchal command and control political environment like the one at Apple or the one we think of when we think of China, or lots of those politically explosive places in South America - no one, or maybe only a fool, would search on anything sensitive using the Googles, since we all know the Googles stores everything they possibly can about our behaviors.

We know Google is a bit inhibited about taking full advantage of this, as well they should be. Backlash these days is pretty easily calculable as a risk, and it's a big one. But most of us have absolutely no question that they'll kowtow instantly to whatever government authority tells them that they must. And there's the rub, folks, there's the rub.

Well, so this is a placeholder as I head out the door. I'm going to share it instead of parking it among my drafts, since I won't be able to get back to it for a few more days. Let me know what you think, hey?

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