Laptopistan, China Hacking, Haiti Mobile Money, Cyberbullying, and Steve Martin - all in the Sunday New York (Technology) Times
As anyone who has had the misfortune to hear me rant about this topic knows, one of my pet peeves is when people use terms like "technology literacy." In today's technology-infused world, if you aren't "technology literate," you aren't literate. Period.
So it was with great satisfaction that I read yesterday's edition of the Sunday New York Times. It wasn't so long ago that the Times still used phrases like, "Scientists used a computer model to show..." or "The author, who wrote her novel on her personal computer...", as if the fact that mere mortals were able to utilize technology was somehow noteworthy and newsworthy in and of itself. And perhaps, in the Times' defense, at that time it WAS.
Well, a new day has dawned. Turn the page. This isn't your father's Oldsmobile. Welcome to 2010...er, 2011. (Feel free to insert any other tired, overused cliche that you choose here.) Yesterday's Times was a testament to how much technology now permeates every facet of our lives. And to the new social, economic, legal, and artistic challenges and opportunities which technology forces us to embrace.
On the front page alone, the above-the-fold banner headline proclaimed, "Vast Hacking by a China Fearful of the Web," and was accompanied by a large photograph showing internet users at a cybercafe in Taiyuan, China. The story itself was a complex portrayal of the Chinese government's multi-faceted approach towards internet censorship and cyberhacking - and not once did the author assume that readers might not understand terms like, "proprietary source code." Hooray, New York Times. You've come a long way, baby (reference overused cliche comment above).
Also on the front page was the lead-in to an in-depth, two-page article on cyberbullying. The article expertly captured the ease with which adolescents can engage in devastatingly cruel cyberbullying - via social media, mobile phones, etc. - and how difficult it is for parents, school officials, and law enforcement personnel to curb its spread. One vignette talked about how 3 students created a false Facebook profile in the name of a fellow student - and then proceeded to launch increasingly vitriolic attacks against their classmates, posing as the student. Law enforcement officials had to issue subpeonas against Facebook, and then against Comcast as the internet service provider, in order to learn the perpetrators' identities. In addition to being a fascinating expose about the topic of cyberbullying, the article again assumed a baseline knowledge of social media applications and mobile phone usage that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
In the Opinion section, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote of his experimentation with "mobile money"; using a cell phone account to transfer money to individuals or institutions of his choice. Kristof detailed how organizations like Mercy Corps and Fonkoze are using Mobile Money to enable Haitians living in the United States to send money to family and friends in Haiti - and how this vitrual currency has supplanted the real thing in daily comerce: "I took one of these phones and walked into a humble little grocery shop with no electricity - Rosie Boutique (in St. Marc, Haiti), named for the owner's little daughter - and became the first person to make a cellphone purchase there. I typed the codes into my phone, and then both my phone and the store's phone received instantaneous text messages saying that the transfer was complete. The food was now mine."
Kristof went on to talk about how "mobile money" is now being perceived in developing countries as the logical and much-needed counterpart to microfinance: microsaving. Cell phone monetary accounts enable poor people (low-income communities have very high cell phone penetration rates) to safely and securely save money, away from the influence of usurious money lenders and predatory banks.
Right beneath Kristof's piece, comedian and author Steve Martin shared his disappointment with a recent appearance at the New York City 92nd Street YMCA. Martin was there to speak about his new novel. Unknown to Martin, the Y had arranged for the appearance to be broadcast nationwide, together with viewers being encouraged to send in email comments during the discussion. Apparently many of the viewers, expecting Steve Martin the Comedian, were less than enthused with seeing Steve Martin the Author, and started an email deluge demanding that Martin change his talk in mid-stream to satisfy their expectations. The resultant brouhaha was so large that the Y ended up offering to refund the cost of admission to anyone who asked for it. Had anyone even envisioned, let alone written about, a hostile coup by email activism prior to this? Hmmm....
My favorite article covered the entire 39th page of the Times first section, and was entitled, "Destination: Laptopistan." Author David Sax described his indoctrination to the still-evolving world of telecommuting and online working in coffee shops and cafes. He described the native rules of engagement (no loud conversations, only one laptop per table, no cell phone usage, mandatory sharing of power cables and extension cords) amongst Laptopistanis. And shared how, when a tree fell onto car outside the Atlas Cafe in Brooklyn where he was practicising Laptopistanism, no one even moved their eyes from their computer screens, even as police cars and emergency disaster vehicles converged on the area.
These were just a few of the technology tidbits embedded (had to use the term) in the Sunday edition of the Times - and to the average reader, this probably seemed unremarkable and natural. Technology literacy - and literacy about technology - has become the norm. As it should be.
Although, I have to wonder how many people reading the paper were somewhat perplexed by the vast array of techie terms and modalities on display in Sunday's paper. And how many of them breathed a sigh of relief and recognition when they came across the followiing passage in the cyberbullying piece, which described psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Englander speaking to a group of parents about how to act if they discovered cyberbullying in their childrens' social network: "'This is not a phone,' Dr. Englander told the parents who looked, collectively, shellshocked. 'What you have given your child is a mobile computer.' If their children get caught in a crisis, she said, parents should preserve the evidence by taking a screenshot of the offending material. A mother timidly raised her hand and asked, 'How do I make a screenshot?'"