Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Consider this image: a snazzy, gleaming, Taipei skyscraper adorned with two young hipsters with spiky hair photoshopped at the top like flags, their bodies defying gravity.
But there is more to Asian global cities than the space-age ultramodern architectural wonders and young information technology (IT) professionals whirling in a device-driven cosmopolitanism on endless overseas flights ornamented with their iPods, iPhones, Blackberrys and purple netbooks. They live both somewhere and nowhere.
The IT revolution in Asia is now over two decades old.
Researchers Dr. Alan Chong (S. Rajaratnam School of International Stgudies at Nanyang Technological University) and Dr. Faizal Yahya (South Asian Studies Program at National University of Singapore) have mounted a very large, multi-authored book project to “probe beneath the surface of the grandiose image of IT (information technology) in Asia.”
Asia’s networked formations differ from those described by theorists like Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells. Diasporic cultural networks, remittance cultures from white and blue collar expats, propagandizing globalized information cities, hacker and techno-elites form a new technology landscape that differs from what scholars based in the US and Europe have theorized and analyzed. The distinctions are significant.
Chong’s most recent book is Foreign Policy in Global Information Space: Actualizing Soft Power (Palgrave, 2008). Yahya just published Economic Cooperation between Singapore and India: An Alliance in the Making (Routledge, 2008).
I've just plopped myself into the weekly research seminar here at in the School of Commucation and Information. I note that the assembled faculty address the speakers as Alan and Faizal. Their project maps the little understood and often obscured interactive relationships between IT, politics, and society in very specific formations, such as Taipei, Bangalore, Malaysia, China. India might market itself as an ultramodern, new technology wonderland, but it still confronts severe, continuing, on the ground problems like illiteracy, poverty, and lack of clean water.
I’m sitting in the fourth floor conference room at the research seminars for the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI )organized by my new colleague Marko Skoric, an intensely engaged scholar originally from Belgrade who also studied in London and Michigan. Marko researches new media and social and political change from a social science psychology perspective.
Before the session starts and the power point gets powered up, Alan and Faizal cruise around the large oblong oval table and introduce themselves individually to the 20 or so professors and graduate students assembled. I’m struck by the collegiality and sense of comaraderie in the room, how social interaction and connection on a human level generate a shared feeling of openness and exchange.
My experience in the US is that most speakers (including myself) would be obsessively checking power point slides, media clips, and notes, focused on ourselves and our arguments, inward directed. Here in Singapore, I notice that the speakers immerse themselves in the people in the room, shaking hands, chatting, extending themselves. Immediately, I feel part of the group. I ask Alan and Faizal if they would be comfortable with me blogging their session. They say okay.
“There is an image of Asia as a technofrontier,” begins Alan. “But this technofrontier contrasts with old politics and perennial problems that coexist with cutting edge communications, where technologies are embedded with society.”
Alan points out that cities like Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Bangalore, and Singapore have instituted international marketing campaigns to promote themselves as globalizing information technology cities.
The Singapore government was an early adopter: it pushed to match the leading trends of international capital and advocated computerization in the early 1980s. It is now 30 years into this initiative, a successful strategy for a small island nation with limited land mass and a small population of about 4 million people. Malaysia, under Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, instituted the multimedia supercorridor in 1996. In defiance of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Malaysia continued building.
“Did global cities in Asia develop out of IT, or these propaganda campaigns? “ queries Alan. “The development of every new technology is almost always financially supported by some wealthy interests that would in turn seek the cover of political patronage,” he continues.
Faizal and Alan deploy the term alterity to describe the strategy of privileging the hitherto marginal or subterranean aspects of the capitalist world order through a multiple dimensions approach. Their book project is divided into four sections: psychological politics and cultural ownership of technology, governmental interventions, internet communities, and virtual cultures as political subcultures.
Subcultures, contend Alan and Faizal, are extremely varied in Asia. Adapting the theories of Manual Castells, they suggest that IT subcultures in Asia might not be so straightforward, where some function as appendages of the mainstream, others as circles of political autonomy. For example, remittance cultures among expatriate workers like the Tamil speaking Indian day laborers in Singapore suggest how IT’s global flows are not all located in frictionless cybercapital.
Faizal offers another compelling example. India has branded itself with IT. Yet, in the 2004 elections in Inida, the IT ministers were booted out. These reverse global flows defy globalization as emanating from countries of the global north. The Indian diaspora is returning, but living in self-contained “gated communities” where power and water are supplied. “It is like a bubble, one of the paradoxes of India” continues Faizal.
Across Asia, the networked global economy sequesters techno-elites. Global cities in Asia fashion high-end, Disney-world like environments attractive to cosmopolitan professionals to attract human capital. Boasting expensive condos with marble floors, grocery stores with expat foods, the arts, new airports with good connections, the city itself transforms from the complex, messy layers of life located in a specific locale and interaction across difference into a magnet for transnational development.
In the very interactive, engaging post talk discussion, another new colleague, Cherian George, a well-known journalist formerly with the Straits Times as well as a scholar of internet based alternative press in Southeast Asia, joins in. Cherian wrote one of my favorite, must-read books on the region, Singapore: The Air Conditioned Nation , so I’m eager to hear what he has to say. He points out that new technologies are often ripe for insurgence and then become recolonized.
Insurgency, he pointed out, can also simply be escape. The globalizing flows of economic power and the dislocations of new media also create a situation where elites—highly educated locals as well as expatriates relocated to Asian global cities by their transnational companies—can escape social and political obligations, leaving those dependent on the local behind.
Of course, being in Asia right now, the case of the Chinese hackers who infiltrated Google is a big story in the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times) and the Straits Times, the Singapore daily newspaper. Arul Indrasen Chib, a colleague who studies information and communication technologies for development and mobile phones in relation to health care in places like China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Thailand, Singapore and the USA, offers an intriguing twist on the case: Who is hacking who? Arul inquires. Who is being insurgent? Who is dominating? The old oppositions don’t necessarily apply, he points out.
Rather than vertical oppositions heldover from old school ways of considering social and political relations, I am wondering if we need to consider layers of more fluid horizontality that endlessly interact, blend, mingle and circumvent.
I realize at Alan and Faizal's seminar how much I really don’t know about Southeast Asia. There is so much to learn beyond the hawker stalls selling roti prata and the cheap, clean taxis delivering me to an elaborate production of Puccini’s La Boheme at the extraordinary Esplanade Theater with red silk covering the walls .
I’m thinking about how much I like sitting at the oval table in open space exchange with a small group, rather than in the audience where intellectuals from the so-called “global north” perform at the podium as gladiators with large shields, hurling concepts and theories like spears.
To inoculate myself against the culture shock of reintegration into northeast US academic life in September, I think I’ll plan on sitting at that oval table every Wednesday afternoon.