Archive for the ‘21st Century’ Category

Slowly giving in on the right to privacy

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Facebook, the social networking company

Facebook, the social networking company

So, what is the password on your Blackberry?
What is it? I know my mom’s. You want to know it, it is…
No, I don’t want to know your mom’s cellphone access code.
The eight-year old is a bit upset that I will only let her play with the Blackberry, but won’t share the password, a concept of which she obviously does not understand the meaning.

This episode brought back the memory of yet another little girl in Cambodia, the daughter of new acquaintances. Based on an afternoon spent together for the first time ever the day before, she was willing to share all of her family secrets during a chance encounter the following Monday at the Phnom Penh market. When her mother returned from whatever errand she was running, she half-joked that the only thing her daughter had not shared with us was the safe combination. It is likely that on the way home the little girl was reminded that some things are private and not to be shared with what boiled down to almost perfect strangers.

Then it is the next seat neighbour who, on the flight back from my last week’s mission, is keeping tabs on the number of drinks I order (and drink). He also is noticeably unimpressed at the fact that I am keeping away from salad and raw fish, in acknowledgement of the more than six colleagues who suffered from food poisoning during our stay at the fancy establishment we stayed at during the trip. The thought crosses my mind that maybe I should explain I normally love my greens, but… Of course not, no need to explain anything. He can think whatever he wants, he is just a temporary witness of my semi-private semi-public behaviour, and I will never see him again. And I have a right to keep to myself, even on a flight.

The magazine I am reading on the flight reminds me that Facebook is soon about to welcome its 500 millionth user. The May 31, 2010 issue of Time is marking the event with a cover story on Facebook and the issue of privacy. In a connected world that has become smaller, a Nairobi newspaper was expressing similar privacy concerns about Facebook just a week earlier, as were a number of media around the globe. Unfortunately, the article I had saved and placed on my bedside table for later reading was trashed by the hotel maid before I was able to get around to it. There is no real privacy in an hotel room: a friend of mine always leaves the Do not disturb sign on the door knob for the duration of her stay as she (maybe rightfully) views hotel staff re-arranging the room as an intrusion. 

Very recently, I gave in to convenience and reluctantly started using Fandango to reserve tickets in advance for just opening movies that were sure to be sold out by the time we would get to the theater. Having been the victim of identity theft, I tend to err on the side of caution. But using the service twice in the same week convinced me that registering was the way to go. I gave in and signed up to save time on each of my upcoming movie ticket purchase. As I reluctantly entered my personal information, I was concerned that nothing is truly private in the online world. And sure enough, I started getting my fair share of unwelcome Fandango emails.

YouTube, Broadcast Yourself

YouTube, Broadcast Yourself

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Fandango and other new media are slowly redefining the way we look at the right to privacy. While early adopters quickly embraced new media, a number of people looked at the phenomenon quite cautiously. Gradually, however, people around me who, for the longest time resisted signing on to Facebook for fear of exposing their privacy, started giving in, as I am sure hundreds of others have.  

What are the new boundaries between the private and the public arenas?

This blog is both public and private. Public in the sense that it can be accessed publically over the internet by anyone who chances upon it. Private because, I will only tell that I am the author to people with whom I feel comfortable sharing this information. Recently, someone I had told about this site mentioned my blog during a luncheon. This person not only mentioned it but, without even checking with me, sent the address to our lunch companions. I felt my permission should have been asked first, not that it is a secret, but whether or not to share should be my decision. Did this oversharing constitute an intrusion on my right to privacy, however?

Protecting my password in a one on one exchange with a pressing little girl seems OK, although I am not sure what risk I would seriously have incurred by giving her my password. The conversation with the little girl at the Phnom Penh market seemed pretty innocuous, until her mother took exception at her oversharing with people who after all were mostly strangers.

Being aware of my next seat neighbour’s silent judgement on my choice of meal is OK. What do I really care? I usually prefer to keep to myself on a flight and not speak to the next seat neighbour, apart from the polite Hello, as we sit down.

Twitter, the micro-blogging site

Twitter, the micro-blogging site

In a companion piece to the Time cover article, a commentary introduced the concept of intimate strangers. Friends once or twice removed will check Facebook or Twitter status updates for people they actually don’t know. At a time when oversharing is becoming the norm, we are all becoming voyeurs to others’ supposed exhibitionism. If we only want to share with people we trust, it becomes our responsibility to carefully understand how to use the privacy settings that Facebook provides.   

In our new interconnected age, we need to redefine what we see as our right to privacy and set up the guidelines – at the individual, family, or community level - that will ensure proper respect for a private life.

The right to rites

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Or rather the right to celebrating rites.

Marking what initially were religious holidays can sometimes be the occasion of celebrations that bear little - if any - connection to the reason for the origin of the holiday.

St-Patrick's celebration, Beacon, NY

St-Patrick's celebration, Beacon, NY

An early celebration of St Patrick’s day recently in Beacon, NY, turned what had been an afternoon parade of strangely clad celebrants into an evening of police activity.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, the first one after a long period of sustained cold weather. People were ready to party. And party they did.

In true Irish tradition, the beer kept flowing throughout the afternoon, and flowed… a little bit too much. What had started as a day of enjoyment ended up with a confrontation between overly stimulated St Patrickers and a few police officers trying to bring law and order back to what is  otherwise usually a peaceful town.

Racing to celebrate, St Patrick's Day Celebration, Beacon, NY, 14 March 2009

Racing to the party, St Patrick's Day Celebration, Beacon, NY, 14 March 2009

Browsing through a guidebook of England evoked another modern day interpretation of ancient religious rites: the neo-druidic cult that has developed around Stonehenge. Reading up the guide entry reminded me that I had been fortunate enough to visit Stonehenge at a time when one could still walk right to the middle of the stone alignment. I remember imagining  what the place would have been like when the druids were worshiping there, and thinking of a more recent Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The very physicality of ancient sites serves as a reminder that something happened there. The frequent mystery that surrounds the origins of these sites is usually an added incentive for researchers to find an explanation of what that something was. It may also encourage a modern day usage in a way that is thought to replicate the purpose for which the site was initially designed.

A few years following my visit, Stonehenge became enclosed to protect it from overly eager tourists, but maybe more importantly from the crowds of a revived druidic cult followers who, once a year, come to celebrate the summer solstice. According to these neo-druids, they should be granted full access to their place of worship. The English Heritage has obviously judged otherwise.

Whether it is about celebrating a religious in the manner one cares to mark it, or using a site according to the initial purpose for which it was designed, a question for consideration is the extent to which protecting the right to hold the celebration should be of concern at all, or whether such a right should be exercised in the manner the celebrant would chose.

Io voto, Io conto

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

IO VOTO IO CONTO, Rome, March 2009

IO VOTO IO CONTO, Rome, March 2009

Io voto, Io conto: literally I vote, I count, probably translates better as My vote counts.

This Italian poster advocating for the exercise of the right to vote in a labour contract consultation uses a slogan that can be interpreted as a variation of Descartes’ famous Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

My voice counts, by expressing my opinion (voting), I come into existence: I vote, therefore I am. Another message insists: Per tutelare tuoi diritti, usa il modo piu semplice: Vota (To protect your rights, use the easiest way: Vote!)

Also on display this week in Rome was another election-related poster, 400 Millioni per la Porcata (400 Millions for the pigsty), two copies of which had been posted next to the Io Voto poster. This second poster campaigns for a joint electoral consultation, which would regroup in one election day an internal referendum and a regional election, allowing to not spend 400 millions Euro for the birds.

It is quite remarkable for the right to vote to be so ingrained in 21st century Italian society - used to the benefit of universal suffrage - that voters have to be reminded to use (and protect) this right, and that consideration is given to saving on electoral spending. 

The reality conveyed by these posters struck home even more strongly as the Io Voto poster was displayed on an official municipal board, recognizable by the SPQR motto. The phrase, the Senate and the People of Rome, was a direct throwback to Ancient Rome, a vivid reminder that voting rights then, during the time of the Republic, were a privilege reserved to patricians, while a number of members of society, such as plebeians, and slaves, were disenfranchised, and excluded from participation in political life.

The history of the fight to obtain voting rights by various groups in various parts of the world is a long one: indeed, it is only in the 20th Century that women have been recognized as being able to vote and granted this right in the Western world.

Although the right to vote is a human right, and identified as such by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is still a right over which people have to fight to be able to exercise it.

Only 10 years ago, a women rights campaign in New York warned that rights should never be taken for granted, and therefore should be exercised (and protected) if individuals wanted to exist and be counted as part of society.

All a question of perspective

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Getting places in Nairobi

Getting places in Nairobi

When this artist friend of mine was in Nairobi about a year ago, he was told: you need to be careful. You can’t just walk here, it is way too dangerous. Watch out. Take a cab, ask a friend to drive you.

Being the brave and adventurous artist my friend is, he decided to ignore such warnings. What did he have that people would want? No car to be robbed, a fairly empty wallet, and the paint spotted clothes he was wearing.

And off he went, carrying his sketch book, setting up his temporary observation/sketching post for the 30 minutes to an hour it takes to complete a watercolour.

By the end of the day, the sketchbook boasted quite a few more attractive watercolours.

And then was the time to go back.

These two young girls started following him. A seasoned traveller, he readied himself for the likely approach.

But they followed him, and did not say anything. After a while, his questioning looks finally caused them to warn: You know it is dangerous to walk like this. The Mzungu cars will run you over.

And they escorted him back to the main road. They were concerned that he could reach a means of transportation that would take him back to the safe heaven where he belonged, the land of the 4×4 and other sport utility vehicles that just brush past the risk-taking pedestrians.

This reminded me of a time when I was walking with a friend in a Flushing neighbourhood, in a place where everyone travels by car. We were stopped by a car, the owner of which asked for us to explain why we had elected to walk. This was just not done… And we had become the other.

On race as a cultural determinant, “So say we all!”

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Battlestar Galactica event at the UN, Tuesday 17 March, 2009

Battlestar Galactica event at the United Nations, 17 March 2009

Edward James Olmos, star of the Battlestar Galactica television mini-series, registered a huge success at the UN on Tuesday night. He literally took over the Economic and Social Council Chamber by addressing the racial issue. There is only one race, said he, the human race. So say we all!, he shouted, once, and again, and again, until a large number of people in the audience responded by shouting back in unison.

Olmos was reacting to a statement made by a UN official who had said something along the lines of human rights having to be applied without any discrimination based on religion, race, color…

An outraged Olmos immediately took him on, explaining that race was a 600 year old invention of the Caucasian race. By inventing races, and the other, Caucasian had invented racism.

As the crowd chanted, the triumphant Olmos turned to the UN official: when a bug tells you I don’t like you, then this is racism.

The UN official did manage to respond that by using the word race, he had only been quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…

“In just minutes, he pounded Rihanna’s face to a pulp”: on violence against women

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

In just minutes, he pounded Rihanna’s face to a pulp. Such was the appalling title of a Friday 6 March cover page article of the New York Daily News.

To make the story even more compelling, before and after colour photographs illustrate the gory reality described by the title.

Violence against women, detail from a 17th Century painting

Violence against women, detail from a 17th Century painting

The publication of this piece of news was perfectly timed, just as a worldwide campaign on violence against women is being promoted, to coincide with International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

In just minutes, he pounded Rihanna’s face to a pulp.

What is the intention of the article and why use such a title? Are we supposed to be appalled, horrified, indignant, or indulge in our potential voyeurism and read on?

Why such gory details? To sell the issue of the newspaper obviously. Which means that the reader is expected to want to read such news written in such terms.

What is it then: “If it bleeds, it leads”? Well, this bleeds alright.

A wealth of lurid details will make the news all the more worth reading. Way back, when I was studying linguistics, I remember having picked up a title which read something like: Gorgeous Rita is raped by 8 Legionnaires in Paris, Place de la Concorde (the French title was La belle Rita se fait violer par 8 légionnaires, Place de la Concorde à Paris). The article had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged news, the title was just a way - a horrible one, tapping into the voyeurism of readers - to draw attention to a minor piece of news.

Being a bit out of the loop on pop music, at the time I saw the headline, I was totally unaware that Rihanna was a pop star. All the more reason for the newspaper to publish this story. If it bleeds, it definitely leads.

There are different ways of speaking about violence against women. In an op-ed published the same day in the International Herald Tribune, and issued for International Women’s Day, the Secretary-General of the United Nations writes: Sexual violence against women is a crime against humanity.

From slavery to trafficking in persons

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Blue Hearts against human trafficking

Blue Hearts against human trafficking

Alright, so it had been decided practically universally that slavery was a no-no. Practically universally. Meaning that in most parts of the world, the act of selling a person for a sum of money, on a public market, had become a thing of the past.

Toussaint Louverture had won. William Wilberforce had won. Victor Schoelcher had won. Harriet Beecher-Stowe had won. Abraham Lincoln had won.

Slaves being freed, Jose Maria Sert

Slaves being freed, Jose Maria Sert, detail

As proof of their victory, places and objects have been preserved, a testimony to what once happened. In various parts of the world the old slave quarters, the old slave markets can still be visited.

Fragments of chains that held them, parts of ships that transported them, tools they used, baskets they weaved, pots in which they cooked, bowls in which they ate, all are kept and displayed as evidence of this crime of a not so distant past.

The fact that evidence is collected should be proof enough that slavery is gone, that the slave trade has been abolished and declared illegal, that slaves have been emancipated. A not so distant past, but still the past. The 19th century is the determining moment in history when little by little abolition happened, costing a nation a civil war.

And then… And then came new, contemporary forms of slavery. Then came the sweat shops, and the forced labour, and the sexual exploitation, then came new ways for human beings to exploit the bodies of other human beings. Then came what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls the crime that shames us all: human trafficking, or trafficking in persons.

Trafficking may include the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. The goal of trafficking is exploitation, and the exploitation can include prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery - an indication that it has then not been totally abolished -, and the removal of organs.

Women and men who are smuggled across borders to get a job as house servants, in houses from which they cannot escape, are the victims of human trafficking. Young girls and women who are offered a plane ticket to take a well-paying job in another country to find out upon arrival that the job is nothing better than prostitution, and who cannot escape until they have reimbursed the investment that was made in them, are the victims of human trafficking.

Join the Blue Heart Campaign against human trafficking!

Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking

UNODC Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking