Voluntary simplicity?

Black Friday shoppers: Fewer this year

It’s Black Friday in the US, and surprisingly, in European countries as well, despite not celebrating US Thanksgiving. I guess retailers are quick to find an excuse to hawk their goods, no matter the cultural significance. I’m wondering if Canadians also observe Black Friday today, given that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Although today is a celebration of buying stuff, it appears that overall we are becoming less materialistic. That is according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an economic geographer at the University of Southern California, who recently published The Sum of Small Things. In the book, according to the Princeton University Press advert, Currid-Halkett argues, that “the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge.” Members of this new class, which she labels the aspirational class, have moved away from conspicuous consumption: “Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast.”

In a recent interview on NPR (wow, I must be a member of the aspirational class), Currid-Halkett asserts that in fact US Americans are becoming less interested in owning more and more: “As a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity.” She backs up her assertion with data she has been collecting on spending patterns. In fact, one of those patterns is less interest in spending the Thanksgiving break shopping. Fewer stores opened this year on Thanksgiving. That contrasts with recent years in which retailers were opening on Wednesday at midnight and all day Thanksgiving. It appears as well, that the violence that occurred in the past, as shoppers battled one another over the few extra cheap TVs, has not happened this year. Maybe we are moving in the direction of voluntary simplicity – giving up the pursuit of happiness through material goods, to focus on living with less and growing spiritually. Or maybe we just have now accumulated all we can fit in our homes/apartments – or that we can afford.

Dirt Woman passes

Dirt Woman (Donnie Corker)

The PR folks of my home institution are happy when the university’s name comes up in the national news. However, the story recently on NPR, in which Virginia Commonwealth University was mentioned, may not be the publicity they seek. The story was about the death of a local character who hung out near the university. This was Donnie Corker, better known as Dirt Woman, a well-known transvestite who engaged in a wide variety of public activities, from selling flowers on Grace Street to crashing the Inaugural of Governor Doug Wilder. He was notably involved in a variety of charity endeavors. He was out as a transvestite at a time when that was not an easy thing to do, and his popularity encouraged others to come out. In the NPR story, transgender Ellen Shaver talked about how important Dirt Woman had been for her:

Here it was. He was already 200-and-something pounds, and he was out there dressing the part and getting away with it. As far as I could go was probably the perimeters of my house. And Donnie was down there parading up and down Grace Street acting like, who cares?

I remember Dirt Woman well, as he appeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sitting on a stool selling flowers, an unusual figure, but harmless, friendly, and always upbeat. His haunt, Grace Street, has changed a lot since then, as the university has transformed a porno theater into a fine arts venue and bought out former sketchy bars, stripjoints, and nightclubs. Our original German conversation group, the Richmond Stammtisch (now meeting Thursday evenings at Mojos) started with a small group meeting at McClean’s at the corner of Grace and Shafer Sts. (where VCU GLOBE is now). In fact, in the very first Stammtisch in 1980, I met for the first (and only) time, the colleague in the Foreign Language Department whom I was hired to replace, Gerhard Kallienke. He had been sitting at a table nearby and overheard us speaking German and came over afterwards to introduce himself (and trash all his former colleagues). Soon afterwards, he moved to Oklahoma, where, according to The Oklohoman, he was murdered in the early 1990’s in a gruesome case which involved teenage girls having “taunted Kallienke by pouring coffee, sugar, flour and shaving cream on his body as he lay naked in a drunken stupor” and then dousing him and his room with gasoline before setting fire to the building. The girls allegedly had “traded sexual favors for money after he hired them to clean his house” and then forged and cashed his checks.

Now that’s a situation which I’m sure VCU was happy to have happened after Kallienke was far away from Richmond and no longer associated with the university. Dirt Woman may not have been an academic, or had a conventional lifestyle, but he was nonetheless someone who had an inspiring influence and not a person we should regret having had a close connection to the university.

Banging pots for independence

Catalan students advocating independence

Catalonia votes today on independence from Spain, that is to say, many Catalans will try to do so, although it appears there will be many roadblocks to voting created by the federal government, which has declared the vote illegal. It’s not clear what the outcome of the vote will be, but it’s likely it will not settle the question of Catalonian independence, just as the vote in Scotland in 2014 has not prevented a movement for a new vote for independence.

A recent story on NPR points to how vital the Catalan language is in the Catalan identity as being distinct from Spanish. Catalan is, in fact, not a dialect of Spanish, but a separate language derived from Vulgar Latin. It was suppressed in Franco’s time, but since then has seen a dramatic resurgence. In the NPR piece, Catalan specialist, Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, describes how Catalan identity differs from that of the Basques, another group which has sought independent status: “Basque nationalism is ethnicity…But this, it’s basically a language movement. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.”

Young Catalans largely support secession. In fact, at the University of Barcelona students have occupied buildings in support of non-interference from Madrid. One student commented on NPR: “I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan,” says Marta Rosique, 21. ” I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan…And then there is a government that tries to do as much as possible so that Catalan doesn’t exist anymore! There is something that tells me to fight for my own identity, for my own language.” For that student, at least, identity and language are interchangeable.

An interesting aspect of the movement has been the non-verbal demonstration of support for independence through the nightly 10 p.m. banging of pots and pans on Barcelonan terraces and balconies. This began last month, after the Spanish government started sending in army troops to prevent the referendum. This is a form of social protest familiar in South America (known as cacerolazocacerolazo, or casserole). The pot banging may be low-tech, but it’s loud and coming at a time when Barcelonans are starting their evening eating and socializing, which gets going later in all of Spain than in other European countries.

Take a knee

Colin Kaepernick

In the last two days, US President Trump has tweeted 15 times about professional (American) football players either dropping to one knee or linking arms during the playing of the US National Anthem before games. While the players (and in some cases, coaches and team owners) were expressing solidarity with those players (starting with Colin Kaepernick last year) who dropped to a knee to protest social injustice and police brutality, the President interpreted those actions differently, as expressing disrespect of the anthem and the US flag.  The US professional football players’ action is quite different from the non-verbal behavior often associated with sports teams, which typically involves intimidating the opponents, rather than expressing social or political stances. A well-known example is the war dance of the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team, based on the indigenous Māori “Haka” tradition.

As pointed out in a blog post on “Mashed Radish”, the action of dropping to one knee has a long history outside of sports:

The gesture of taking a knee is a dynamic and complex one, and one that many soldiers…do to show respect for their fallen fellows or to take a rest while on a mission. Catholics also traditionally take knees—or genuflect—before the altar, as did subjects before rulers in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Marriage-proposers also traditionally take knees when asking for their partner’s hand in marriage. Kneeling, here, is at once submissive and reverential, showing humility and adoration.

The use of the expression to “take a knee” (now appearing in hashtagged form as either #TakeAKnee or #TakeTheKnee) is examined in a post yesterday on Language Log.

The action of dropping to one’s knees unexpectedly can have a dramatic effect. This was the case in Willy Brandt’s “Kniefall von Warchau” (the Warsaw genuflection) in 1970. As German Chancellor, he was on a visit to the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1943), when, after laying a wreath, he suddenly dropped to his knees in a gesture of humility and repentance for Nazi Germany’s atrocities.

“Too much technology”

The disabled USS John S. McCain being tugged to shore

That’s the quote from an article in the Navy Times, expressing the author’s take on the root cause for the surprising series of incidents recently involving the U.S. Navy. There were two fatal collisions of Navy warships with commercial vessels, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. The culprit, according to the article, and other reports, is the transition from face-to-face training in ship navigation from SWOS (the Surface Warfare Officers School Command) to the use of computer-based training. The article describes the process:

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

The article asserts that those navigating the ships which suffered the collisions were trained under this system and concludes that “the Navy’s growing reliance on technology has eroded basic seamanship skills”. A story on National Public Radio last week echoes this view, with the commentator describing the change in the approach to training in this way: “They’ve been given a load of CDs. That’s right – online learning”.

The dismissive tone used here is something one hears often in connection with online learning, with the implication being that of course it cannot be as effective as face-to-face instruction. The problem here, as is often the case, is that this assessment does not consider the nature of the computer-based learning environment. It’s entirely possible to have such instruction be ineffective. Self-paced learning materials which center around static content presentation through presentations and documents are not likely to foster effective learning. But a slew of studies have shown that computer-based learning can be effective – if done right, with dynamic, media-rich, and interactive content. It’s particularly effective if incorporated into a socially connected and collaborative online learning environment. I have no idea how well the Navy’s training materials were designed, but neither did the commentators cited above. This kind of undifferentiated assessment of the use of technology in education and training gives a distorted picture of the reality of online learning.

Charlottesville: Lots of symbols

Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA

Today, there was a memorial service for Heather Heyer, the young woman killed last Friday in Charlottesville, after a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters to the white nationalist rally. Living as I do in Richmond, the events in Charlottesville has really hit home. The white nationalists were in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In Richmond, we have a series of statues of Confederate figures on Monument Avenue. The Mayor of Richmond today announced that he had changed his mind on the statues, and now is supporting their removal. The controversy over Confederate statues follows that over the Confederate flag. For many, these Confederate symbols stand for racism, as they relate to a cause which centered on the maintenance of slavery. Others claim the symbols are part of their identity as Southerners, representing their Southern heritage. The problem with that perspective is that honoring these symbols is deeply offensive to many people, particularly African-Americans, as the symbols – no matter their original meaning or intent – now, in most peoples’ eyes, stand for white supremacy. The Swastika was originally (and still is) a spiritual symbol in India, but no one would accept anyone today wearing a swastika as being anything other than a symbol of Nazism, and therefore of hatred, intolerance, and violence.

Speaking of Nazis, for those of us familiar with German history, the torch march of white nationalists was chilling, as it had so many echoes of similar marches of Nazis in the years before Hitler came to after, and thereafter. Other symbols on view in Charlottesville were also taken from Nazis, the Othala, a pre-Roman rune and the “black sun”. An article in the Deutsche Welle discusses the links of US white nationalist to Nazi Germany. Some of the slogans used in Charlottesville were also creepingly familiar – “Blood and Soil” is a word for word translation of “Blut und Boden”, which as the Deutsche Welle articles states, “expressed the idea dear to Nazis that ethnic purity is based on blood descent and land.”

Slogans and symbols carry deep meanings and often can be integral to a person’s identity – one might think of the what the cross means, for example, for devout Christians. That’s why it’s so important for our leaders to denounce those groups who use symbols like white sheets and hoods or swastikas that divide people and strive to spread their message of hatred. Young people can be easily misled by the facile and false slogans used by hate groups – they need to be contradicted strongly. Heather Heyer posted in social media: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. Let’s hope that many Americans, especially those in power, will express their outrage over the views and actions of the extremists marching in Charlottesville.

An example of that reaction is what has now become the most liked tweet ever, by President Obama, citing Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…”

Gastronomic racism?

Kebab food truck in Besançon, France

That term, “gastronomic racism” was used by Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher at the University of Toulouse, to describe a crackdown on street vendors of kebabs in the city of Marseille. In France, a kebab is a sandwich in pita or flatbread filled with meat, usually mutton, with salad and sauces. The city is making it harder for owners of kebab shops to be licensed to operate in the central business district. According to the story on PRI’s The World: “Although kebab shops are not singled out, the owners of the establishments fear the initiatives will effectively force the entrepreneurs to shutter.” The owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslims.

This is not the first time that kebabs have been involved in issues around immigration and discrimination. According to the story, “A stall at the 2013 annual convention of the far-right Front National called for ‘Ni kebab ni burger, vive le jambon-beurre.’  That means, ‘Neither kebab nor burger, long live the ham and butter sandwich,’ the classic French fast food — a baguette with ham and butter.” In the recent presidential election campaign, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, tweeted the following:

The tweet, “J’ai craqué”, literally, “I creacked”, means I gave in, namely to the guilty pleasure of eating a less than healthy snack, namely the kebab and fries shown.

France is not the only country where kebabs have entered the political arena. Chancellor Merkel has been pictured repeatedly with the popular German version, Döner Kebab. Her love of the Turkish street food has sometimes been seen ironically, in the context of her famous statement in 2010 that “Multikulti ist tot” (multiculturalism is dead). On the other hand, she has been celebrated with being out front in welcoming refugees into Germany. Given the large number of newly arrived Syrians in Germany, maybe in the future she will be pictured enjoying the Syrian version of the kebab, Kufta Kabab.

Story in The World:

No more strangers

Max Hawkins

A story recently through NPR’s Invisibilia team provided an intriguing look into the filter bubble we all tend to be in these days – that is encountering online or in person only those who are similar to us in views, socio-economic status, or general preferences for everyday living. The story was about a method for breaking out of the bubble through random encounters, or “bubble hoping”.

A software engineer, Max Hawkins, living in San Francisco felt that his life had gotten stale:

I just started thinking about these loops that we get into. And about how the structure of your life…completely determines what happens in it…There was something that just made me feel trapped. Like I was reading a story that I’d read before or I was playing out someone else’s script.

So, he created an app which randomly selected local events, activities, or group meetings listed as public events in Facebook for him to attend. The story recounts the variety of experiences resulting from following the randomizing algorithm in the app, ranging from drinking vodka with a small contingent of Russian expats to celebrating Christmas with a group of total strangers. The encounters were, by his account, initially disturbing and frightening, but in the end liberating and expanding.

In essence, following this method of living means that for Hawkins there were no longer strangers – only those people he had not yet encountered. It’s unlikely that many of us would want to go this far in stepping out of our “preferences prison”, as the NPR story puts it, but it may provide encouragement for us to try to find different people to encounter.

Smartphones & language learning

The Apple Developer Conference is coming up next week and there is a lot of speculation about what Apple will announce, especially in the area of hardware. Most likely there will be new iPad models and new laptops, but probably not the new iPhone model, which is said to be coming later this year. This is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, which represented a radical re-invention of the mobile phone, soon followed by similar Android phones. I just published a piece in Language Learning & Technology on what the smartphone has meant for literacy training and language learning.

Here are some quotes from the column, slightly edited (references removed):

The most successful mobile apps and services feature contextualized learning through an ecological approach. Apps can place language and culture learning into a localized setting, while also leveraging the resources of the global network. That makes available both social connectivity and worldwide information sources. In the process, learning content is customized and personalized, allowing the user to integrate new knowledge and skills into a real-world setting. This approach brings into play three major affordances of the mobile complex, which will be discussed here: situated learning, local and global integration, and personal empowerment.

Situated learning
One of the most powerful affordances of smartphones is situated learning.  Embedding activities and language in real-world environments holds the potential to make learning more meaningful and memorable. The built-in GPS, mapping, and touch control graphics of smartphones allow mobile apps and services to be location-aware and to provide continuous updates as a user moves from place to place.

[Many examples provided, such as a mobile app helping immigrants to Great Britain and mobile games for language learning]

Incidental language learning [is] more easily implemented through the smartphone environment. As users go about their daily lives, a learning companion is always available—a kind of personal tutor, available for consultations on demand, somewhat like the companion in Rousseau’s Émile (1762). Rousseau postulated that Emile’s curiosity would not only prompt the child to ask questions, but that information provided in response, since given in a particular context and location, would be retained longer. A series of contextualized learning experiences is the kind of “cognitive apprenticeship” smartphones may help develop.  Learning through concrete, lived experiences, integrated into everyday life, can provide a powerful instrument for more effective language acquisition

Local Agency and Global Reach
Smartphones are uniquely equipped to support localized use, while making available all the resources of a global network. One of the seemingly minor but, for linguistic purposes, highly useful innovations of the iPhone was the elimination of the physical keyboard, using instead an on-screen keyboard. While there were initial complaints over the difficulty of typing accurately with fingers, now that screen sizes have grown, and auto-correct algorithms have improved, users have gotten used to this form of text entry. The major benefit has been to make it much easier to support different writing systems.

Having mobile devices support a local language makes them into powerful tools for teaching literacy. In many developing economies, where there is not a fully developed landline phone and Internet system, mobile phones provide voice telephony, text messaging, and Internet access. This is particularly the case in isolated and rural areas, where solar and other alternative power sources can be used. In such environments, or among scattered urban groups, there may be limited access to schools or libraries, so that mobile devices offer a unique opportunity for the delivery of education.

[Examples discussed include support for endangered languages and for literacy projects worldwide]

Smartphone users, from virtually any connected location, have the power to connect interactively to a wide array of educational opportunities. This is an invaluable tool for enabling educational services in far-flung locations and supporting distance learning, but it also offers face-to-face instruction a means for students to learn on the go wherever they may be.

Personal Empowerment
Every smartphone is configured differently, customized as to language and locale, and loaded with apps of the user’s choosing. One of the difficulties in being able to measure the efficacy of MALL projects [mobile assisted language learning] is that the typical student will have access to and be using daily a variety of online tools and services. Some may be in the target language (foreign newspapers or TV stations) or be designed for language study, ranging from basic tools such as dual-language dictionaries to sophisticated services such as Babbel or Duolingo. The extent to which language learners take advantage of such resources will vary with the individual and the context of learning.

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population: migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations.

[Examples given of NGO’s and government agencies which have created apps to help immigrants with areas such as language learning and enculturation into the new country]

The column concludes:
Smartphones do not seem likely to be going away anytime in the foreseeable future. While the pace of innovation has slowed, new features will continue to be added as the devices become thinner but more powerful. As inexpensive smartphone models proliferate, feature phones have been forced to add features formally found only on expensive smartphones. This should enable the spread of smartphone-like capabilities to more communities. This, in turn, will encourage further development of mobile-enabled literacy projects and language learning applications. Language learners will continue to use regular commercial apps for socially based or incidental language learning, while taking advantage of utility apps for translation and dictionary look-ups.

While smartphones have clearly moved from the category of fun toys to that of powerful pocket computers, it is no easy task to harness the computing, communication, and collaboration capabilities for the purpose of serious learning. For instructed language learning, the mobile complex, developed around the smartphone, provides both challenges and opportunities. The main challenge is to provide to students the skills and knowledge to be informed and engaged online learners. Important in that process is presenting persuasive illustrations of learning connected to students’ lives (present and future) and to bring those experiences into the classroom. The most effective way to do that may be through the smartphone they likely all own. The opportunity is to leverage those digital devices and online experiences to enable and encourage in our students life-long learning, learner autonomy, and critical digital literacy.

Handshakes: not always innocent

Handshakes have been in the news lately. On his overseas trip, President Trump greeted a number of world leaders, usually with a handshake. The President, according to CNN, “seems to view the handshake as a sort of battle of wills and a battle for power all wrapped into one”. The CNN article discusses a number of examples. Most recently, there was a lengthy, combative handshake with France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. According to a Washington Post reporter, “They shook hands for an extended period of time. Each president gripped the other’s hand with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening”. Handshakes most often are a simple component of a greeting or departure ritual. But sometimes they have more significance. In an interview yesterday in France Dimanche, Macron said this about the handshake: “Ma poignée de main avec lui, ce n’est pas innocent…Il faut montrer qu’on ne fera pas de petites concessions, même symboliques” (My handshake with him was not without significance…It’s important to demonstrate that there will be no small concessions, even those of a symbolic nature). Macon was using the handshake as a gesture of defiance and independence, resisting the alpha male persona of the US President.

In the US a “firm” handshake, along with the pulling and tugging often used by Trump, is seen as normal male behavior in the business community. It’s not the same in the rest of the world; a handshake is seen as a friendly gesture, not an opportunity to be aggressive and show dominance. As commentator Joe Navarro remarks, that is particularly the case in diplomatic circles: “Diplomacy is about getting along. One of the things we do with our handshakes is we establish comfort. We’re saying, ‘I’m your friend. I’m the person you’re going to be working with.’ That’s what the handshake is supposed to be for, not some sort of sophomoric challenge between two alpha males.” In some parts of the world, business transactions, including negotiating over prices, occurs while men continue to hold hands. In that case, it is less a contest of wills, than it is a symbol of working together to reach consensus. Not a bad model for diplomacy.

Why Americans Smile

I was in Russia last year, my third visit, and noticed again how solemn everyone seemed to be. In public transportation and on the street, there was not a lot of chit-chat, or smiling. Of course, that’s not surprising in Moscow – similar to New York City in that regard. But I was in Pyatigorsk, a resort town in the Caucuses, and it was summer. In terms of not seeing a lot of smiling faces on the street (or especially, in my experience, in service encounters), Russia is no different than many other countries. Germany, for one, comes to mind. But one country that is different is the United States. We tend to smile a lot. Smiling for no good reason is likely to make Russians think you’re a bit off. Walmart was not successful in Germany in part because managers insisted that cashiers smiled at customers. That irritated many Germans, after all, the customer didn’t know the cashier, so why act as if they are friends? That behavior would be akin to the cashier using the informal you, “du”, in addressing the customer, rather than the formal “Sie”. Some German men thought the cashiers were flirting with them.

So, why do Americans smile so much. That was a question addressed this week in the Atlantic. The answer, according to the article is surprising: “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication. Thus, people there might smile more.” The authors of a study published in 2015 compared countries in terms of the number of source countries that make up their population: “Canada and the United States are very diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, while countries like China and Zimbabwe are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.” The researches polled people from 32 countries about expressing feelings openly. They found that “emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.” So citizens of countries with more diversity smile in order to bond socially. On the other hand, “countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures.”

The article points out that not only do US inhabitants smile more, their smiles are also wider, with higher levels of “facial muscle movement.” The article doesn’t discuss whether all the smiles in the US are genuine, that seems especially doubtful in the section of the article discussing how extensively politicians in the US smile.

Germany has been experiencing in recent years a large influx of immigrants, from a variety of countries – who knows, maybe next time you’re in Berlin, you’ll see more smiles.

Apps for refugees

The “Ankommen” app from the Goethe Institute

A newly created app, “Finding Home”, created by the advertising firm Grey Malaysia, together with the United Nations, gives some insight into what refugees experience, allowing users, according to the AP, to “walk a mile in a refugee’s shoes” by simulating the daily struggles of a fictional Rohingya Muslim, 16-year old “Kathijah,” forced to flee her home in Myanmar and striving to set up a new life in Malaysia. Through the app, users simulate her experience by peeking in on Kathijah’s phone conversations.

For real-life refugees, using phones for communication and for cultural integration can be a real lifeline. I’m currently writing a piece for Language Learning & Technology on smartphones (given the 10th anniversary this year of the iPhone) in which I discuss this topic:

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population – migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations, as reported by the European Union Institute for Security Studies:

Migrants are linking up online to cross borders and meet their basic needs. They are using smartphones to share tips and geo-positional data as they cross North Africa. They rank and rate Afghan people-smugglers, trying to hold the criminals accountable for the safe transport of family members. On Google they share tips, such as to avoid exploitative Istanbul taxi drivers or evade new EU border controls.

The kind of device migrants use will vary with the individual and place of origin. One account has shown that among young Syrian refugees, 86% owned a smartphone. A number of mobile apps have been developed by NGOs and government agencies to help migrants in a variety of areas, including language learning, cultural integration, and practical day-to-day living. Some apps aid in the process of migrants making their way through intermediate countries to their final destination. InfoAid helps refugees in Hungary, while Gherbtna is aimed at Syrians newly arrived in Turkey. The Mobile Legal Info Source helps navigate Turkey’s legal system. The Crisis Info Hub offers support for new arrivals in Greece.

In Germany, the hoped-for destination of many refugees, a number of apps have been created targeting the immigrant population. The Goethe Institute, along with federal agencies dealing with immigration and employment, have created “Ankommen” (Arrival), available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, and German. As do other such apps, it is designed with minimal technical requirements, so as to be usable on older phones. It features three branched areas: German language study, German asylum procedures, and tips on living in Germany. Integreate offers a similar service for refugees in Germany. It’s available in five languages and features information specific to one of the 80 German cities targeted. Daheim (At Home) offers a meeting platform for new arrivals and German natives, designed for language learning and intercultural exchange. The ReDi School of Digital Integration in Berlin is developing “Bureaucrazy” to help refugees make their way through German bureaucracy, featuring language help and practical information on filling out forms in German. The school also has started a program teaching refugees how to code and create mobile apps.

Of course, not all refugees have smartphones, but we are seeing costs coming down dramatically for Android phones. At the same time, feature phones are becoming “smarter”, with features that used to be reserved for expensive smartphones. As those developments continue, it is likely that phones will represent an ever greater lifeline for those finding their way to a new home and for those seeking resources to help them establish a footing linguistically and culturally in their new homes. Vice news has a recent story on this topic.

Bursting the filter bubble

image by Jordi Boixareu (Flickr)

A recent article in the NY Times addressed the issue of the notorious filter bubble in social media, namely the phenomenon that we tend to be served up by Facebook and other services the stories that contain the same points of views as items we have liked in the past, thus reinforcing the views and beliefs we already hold. In that way, we tend not to be exposed to opposing points of view or alterative takes on issues. This has been much in the news since the US presidential election, with many stories about the viral spread of fake news stories within Facebook and other online communities. Given the media coverage about the filter bubble, interest has developed, at least in some folks, about how one might break out of it, in order to gain some insight into the other side. The Times articles points to tools and sites which let users see to what extent they might be trapped in a filter bubble. The Chrome browser extension, PolitEcho, for example, lets you “find out how polarizing the content on your news feed is”:

PolitEcho shows you the political biases of your Facebook friends and news feed. The app assigns each of your friends a score based on our prediction of their political leanings then displays a graph of your friend list. Then it calculates the political bias in the content of your news feed and compares it with the bias of your friends list to highlight possible differences between the two.

Similarly, NPR has made available a quiz, which purports to show if “you live in a bubble”. The first question is “Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your 50 nearest neighbors did not have college degrees?”. The article also discusses “other tech products invite us to reach out and understand other people without the hassle of actually talking to the”, such as a Twitter plug-in that replaces your regular Twitter feed with “that of a random, anonymous user of a different political persuasion” or an iPhone app which makes a game out of changing color (red or blue) depending on the political bent of the news source you are reading.

A number of other sites and tools are listed in the article. The author points to the irony of many of the suggestions coming from the very sources that are responsible for the filter bubble: “A cynical impulse lies behind many of these kumbaya vibes. The same social media networks that helped build the bubbles are now being framed as the solution, with just a few surface tweaks.” That is especially the case with Faceboook. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, famously claimed after the election that it was a “crazy idea” that the fake news stories on Facebook could have influenced the election. That, despite the fact that a Pew study has shown that 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media, with of course the big player being Facebook. Facebook did subsequently take some measures, using third-party fact-checkers and giving users the ability to manually report fake news. More recently, Zuckerberg has significantly changed his tune, releasing a manifesto, Building Global Community, in which he claims for Facebook a central role in making the world better by exposing us to new ideas and different perspectives. It remains to be seen to what extent that means a change in how Facebook news is delivered.

Rejecting likeability

By Slowking - Own work, GFDL 1.2

Chimamanda Adichie by Slowking

The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, has published a new novel, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. The book was written after a friend asked for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist. In an interview on NPR, Adichie talked about some of the 15 suggestions in the book.

On “feminism lite”, the idea of conditional female equality:

“It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man but that the man is expected to be good to her, that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.”

On teaching difference:

“I think it’s important to just say to kids, look; the norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We’re not all the same, and it’s OK.”

On girls rejecting likeability:

“I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likable. And likable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear. And I think instead, we should teach girls to just be themselves and that idea that you don’t have to be liked by everyone.”

That last point is an interesting take on a communication style associated by Adichie with women, but often seen as part and parcel of an indirect or implicit The idea is that in high context communications, often seen as characteristic of Asian cultures, one tends to use means beyond explicit language to guide what one says, using knowledge about the interlocutor’s social status, for example. Part of that process is taking into consideration the possible reception of what you say on your conversation partner, gauging that reception by observing body language and other indicators. In Western cultures generally, that kind of communication style is indeed more associated with women than men. Women are seen as being more observant and better listeners, making them more adept at sensing what the other person is feeling. The danger Adichie sees here for women is that using this approach to conversing leads women to adopt a persona which hides their real selves.

Adichie is not alone in this view, encouraging women not to see being “nice” as a guide to their behavior. The reaction to the “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump led both to a call for solidarity among women, but also to a celebration of the right of women to assert their own personalities.

Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.