Monday, July 27, 2009

Social media is like...

Speaking of metaphors (now that I've just been reading Sylvia Scribner's "Literacy in Three Metaphors" article in ED140 recently, I was struck by the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education's recent Wired Campus blog, "Professor Challenges Students to Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In". Apparently, Trinity Western University professor Robert P. Doede, who teaches philosophy, challenged students in his "Issues and Ethics" class to stay off traditional and new media, including TV and of course social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The article goes on to talk about students' reactions to this challenge, and of course while I wondered (while writing this blog post) whether I'd be able to do such a thing, I was struck by the metaphors that were used to illustrate the giving up of media in one's life. Is checking e-mail like eating that frozen yogurt, you know, the kind that you just have to have? Yogurt Park, anyone? Is using Facebook like taking a drug?

Or, to put it more directly, is media a drug that we take, or a food that we eat? Do we taste, consume, ingest, and digest the networked media in our lives?

This passage, quoting professor Doede, is interesting to me in how it uses the language of "fasting" and "addiction", suggesting these organic metaphors may be right on:
“Most who do take on the fast begin their journals confessing that, though they have invested more time in these technologies than they feel good about, they doubt that they will find it all that difficult to complete the fast,” he says. And nearly all the students who keep up the fast until the course ends conclude that they used to be addicted. “It's interesting to identify in their journals some of the tell-tale symptoms of addiction withdrawal,” he says.
So maybe social media really is like...a chocolate cake donut with colored sprinkles dipped in Peet's coffee? Man, I'm getting hungry.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cutting along the bias

It’s funny how translation can bring to light meanings in familiar words that you never knew were there. The last few days, I’ve been working on a document in Japanese—or, I guess “document” might be too formal a term. It’s an advertisement for a thermal blanket with different layers that are supposed to retain the heat, while being light and compact.

Not having much experience with sewing and fabrics and clothing and the like (yet another area where modern people depend on the collective achievements of humanity for the fundamentals of daily life), I came to a halt when I got to the line that described what color the blanket is:


I could read “white” and “orange”—both of these are used as-is in Japanese, phonetic transliterations of the English color words, most often (in my experience at least) used to describe the colors of non-Japanese objects, things, etc.: Howaito. Orenji.

But what was the term in the middle? Written in the katakana syllabary, which is commonly employed to represent borrowed words from English and other non-Chinese languages, “baiyasu” had an English ring to it. Bayas? Byeas? Not really knowing how to read the slash separating it from the color word orenji, I assumed baiyasu must be some kind of color word too.

But no. A quick search in the dictionary revealed the word “bias”, whose first definition in the dictionary was not the familiar “tendency toward a particular ideology or world-view”. The “bias” is, in woven fabrics, the direction at a 45-degree angle to the fibers of the cloth, the “cross-grain”. Fabrics tend to stretch more easily along the bias, Wikipedia told me, and clothing designers used this property to their advantage in designing more form-fitting clothes with the “bias-cut”.

なるほど。Although the origins of this word might not have anything to do with the more familiar (to me) meaning, the two couldn’t help but play off each other in my mind; the fabric bias suddenly becomes the source domain of a metaphor for understanding one person’s bias about, what else, other people.

Why should the bias be a different color, I wondered? Is the bias the dividing line between white and orange in this layered thermal blanket? How could it divide two colors from each other, when the fabric’s bias is just a direction that exists everywhere fibers intersect at a 90-degree angle? It shouldn’t be a visible line in itself, should it?

Somehow, though, it started to make sense. The social fabric we make together might be like the fabric we wear after all: easier to stretch, and more easily manipulable along the bias that exists in every place that two threads intersect, the place where two trajectories cross.

And somehow it’s comforting to know that anyone who wears clothes is covered in biases most of the time. I just wish they were a little easier to see.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Wordcamp 2009...the backend

So I'm sitting in the Mission Bay Convention Center right now, listening to Matt Mullenburg, leader of Wordpress in his Q&A session at the massively-attended WordCamp in San Francisco. And there are whole lot of bloggers here, doing their blogging thing, and more knowledgeable about all things blogry that I'll have little hope of ever comprehending. So instead of trying to address the 'technical' side of the conference, here are some of the lighter highlights from the 'backend' (backside):
  • Hey, I finally learned how to pronounced "Akismet"!! (a-KIZ-met, the anti-spam plugin that's standard on Wordpress blogs)
  • There was this cool moment when everyone squeaked their chairs at once. Even the people checking their email and updating their twitter and not really listening to Matt.
And some key quotes of the day:
  • "Passion beats polling and focus groups"
  • "Every single byte counts"

Sunday, November 09, 2008

In the zone

From last week's election campaign...why does it seem so long ago already? I wrote this for the blog Found in Translation and my class in Education 140 at UC Berkeley, where we talk about Vygotsky and others...

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is talked about so much in language and literacy classes around here that it’s easy to forget what it means from the first-person perspective: an experience of learning with the help of more capable others, becoming able to use language and other signs in ways that you didn’t know you could. Even in the space of an hour or two.

The scene: the Oakland office for the Obama campaign, three days before what is no doubt one of the biggest presidential elections in the history of this country. A room packed with volunteers calling people up to share information, to urge them to vote, to ask them to talk about the election with others. “Hi, is so-and-so there?” The room is filled with the voices of men, women, older and younger, sitting around the table with their cell phones in one hand and a pen in the other. “My name’s so-and-so calling from Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change and I’m calling to see if you’ll be able to get out and vote early this weekend…”

I dislike getting phone calls like this, and I really dislike making them. It makes me nervous and self-conscious, and I know many friends who talk about being annoyed with the cause after getting the calls. No small congratulations to my good friend Ree for twisting my arm long enough to finally get me out there!

But beyond the question of my discomfort in principle with the task of “getting out the vote” among folks in Florida, Ohio, and other battleground states, there was the question in practice of knowing how to talk to accomplish this goal: How can you so quickly assume the identity required for making these calls? The energetic, knowledgeable, confident (yet not overly assertive) campaign worker whose skin isn’t too thin to get really annoyed after being hung up on repeatedly? How can you have this tricky conversation on the phone, without gesture or expression to help in making the connection? And how can you do it in front of so many other people, sitting at that table, hearing the sound of your own voice—novice, accented, loud—echoing among the more experienced voices of others?

The turning point for me happened when I learned how to listen. The other volunteers were only sometimes, and only partially, reading from their scripts; they were all improvising too, speaking in fragments of Spanish when they needed (why were there no Spanish language scripts??), asking how people’s day was going, giving their own twist on why it’s so important to participate in this election. I tried imitating first the contours, the accents, the rhythm and pacing that the guy next to me was using, to communicate immediately that, at the very least, this was a real human being, and not some automated robo-caller interrupting people’s day.

Gradually, though, it got easier. I needed a reason to tell people why they should go out and vote early, and immediately what someone else had told me 10 minutes before popped into my head: “The lines are probably gonna be long on Tuesday, so if you have a chance, try to get out and vote this weekend…” And though nobody had written it down, the fact that the 877 phone number for the Obama campaign headquarters is toll-free seemed important: “and if you’d like to find out where your early polling place is, you can call this toll-free number: 877-….”

I heard myself saying these things and was surprised. I had thought I’d just stay through the first list of 25 names. But after the first 15 or 20 I thought, this wasn’t so hard at all. I got another list and kept at it, and soon an amazing thing happened: after I had just hung up on another call, I heard someone else in the room say, “and to find out where your early polling place is, you can call this number toll-free: …”.

Within those 90 minutes, I wasn’t the only one learning how to talk. Everyone was making someone else’s script their own, and bringing their own accents to it in the process. While they could have practiced at home, I thought, this must only be possible in the zone, with the help of others. It’s subtle, how the ZPD works. Learning seems so natural when it’s about doing something meaningful with others. But it’s still amazing when you sit back and think about it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Multilingual Congress ... on the train

Thinking about my recent trip to Essen, Germany to participate in an applied linguistics conference, I realize that one of my most lasting memories is also one of the most mundane. That’s not to say that I’ll soon forget gazing into the sunset in the reflecting pool by the Zollverein coal mine, or having late night discussions in the open creative spaces of Essen’s Unperfekthaus, or even admiring the gothic spires of neighboring Cologne’s famous cathedral. But these brief tastes of Germany, postcard-perfect as they are, nonetheless didn’t strike home as much as the short metro ride across town that showed me what I might have been.

Of course, I went to Germany expecting nothing less than intellectual inspiration. The event at which my American colleague and I were scheduled to present is actually called a “congress”, and not ‘just’ a “conference”. This highly touted gathering takes place only once every three years, and was to bring together people from across Europe and around the world to discuss “aspects of multilingual matters and the linguistic richness of [the European] continent,” as the website says. For our part, my colleague and I were ready: we had theorized and debated about the meanings of multilingualism and multiculturalism in classes, at universities and other academic gatherings across the U.S., and in a variety of other countries. On that cool and overcast day in Essen, I was looking forward to learning how the changing linguistic tapestry of Europe related to that of my home state of California, where over 40% of the population uses a language other than English at home.

However, sitting on that train as we wound through the city streets, I was struck by a fact of life more basic than any theory I have learned. I, and my friend from the multilingual state of New York, live in a country where monolingualism is the norm.

Both of us, of course, had learned another language as we grew up and moved through our respective school systems. He had studied several years of German, a fact that made our navigation of local trains and restaurant menus in Essen much easier (just like the high school textbooks promised!). And I had taken Spanish classes for four years in middle school and high school. Not much help in Germany, to be sure, but, as many of us who grew up in monolingual California homes argue, an ability that is valuable nonetheless.

Yet, as I sat on that metro and listened, I realized that my years of Spanish instruction had left me with only one tongue: the world I lived in after high school was still written in English.

Well, I protested to myself, if German or Spanish was not my respective strong suit, then surely Japanese was. I had studied it for 3 years in the university and, through odd twists of fate, both my colleague and I had ended up living there for several years. Each of us had used the Japanese language to take classes, to negotiate apartment contracts, and to build friendships and working relationships alike. And perhaps because they were aware of the fate of non-English languages in the U.S., nobody we met in our many cross-cultural encounters had given us anything but praise for our linguistic accomplishments.

Yet, as the metro train approached the city center, and as I continued to sit, watch, and listen, I wondered: have either of us ever learned to be like...that?

The two women who sat across from us gestured and smiled as they moved smoothly between two languages. The woman facing me asked a question in one language, and her friend leaned forward without a blink, answering in the other. A moment of silence followed. Both looked out the window. Perhaps they were considering what had just been said. Then the first made a quick assertion in German, only to qualify it in English as her friend shook her head in disagreement. She glanced over at me (was I staring?) while her friend leaned back in her seat, agreeing (I think) in German. All this before using English to quickly change the topic yet again!

Did they realize that I sat enraptured by the movement of their conversation? These two languages could not have been reduced to one—why would the two friends switch so often and so strategically if words in either language ‘meant’ the same thing? And did they realize that this conversation was also a performance, hiding, revealing, and then hiding its details again to its ‘linguistically challenged’ audience, all the while helping to build their own bonds of camaraderie?

This was not, of course, the first time I had heard fluent bilinguals speaking—far from it! But hearing the prestigious academic congress’ theme of multilingualism alive in the words of everyday people in such an everyday setting, I found myself thinking, how ironic that I—a hopeful scholar of language—am bound to my variety of English for the vast majority of my linguistic life. I found myself wondering what that life would have been like if I had followed my father when he was sent to work in Cologne in the 1980s, when I was still a child. If I had lived in Germany, would I now be able to intuitively see the layers of meaning between German and English? Would my eyes have been opened to other possibilities of being if other languages had been prized in the schools I attended? And if more people in the U.S. had experiences like that, would we as a society be able to realize that multilingualism cannot, in fact, be captured on a postcard?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting these words online

I’ve finally sat in the lair of the enemy in order to write these words to you, one step from surrender. When did the solitude of simply being with one’s voice and thoughts become oppressive? We used to be able to recite our words in our minds without necessarily giving voice to them. And there was a time when we could type them out without sending. Have these two things become the same?

I’m drinking the wine of the enemy as I write these words to you. It’s not for lack of trying, you see. I’ve been looking for hours now. Or is it weeks? It feels like so long since I could rest assured that my words would find their way, far away from all of the...the easy connections of home. Is that what home has become?

I’ve walked the streets here with my compass in hand, not wanting to give in so easily. I checked at every street corner and every public place of gathering, monitoring for signs of openness, availability, potential. I need to get these words online but...things work differently here.

I must have seen two hundred names flash past my eyes. They all turned out to be mirages, fading quickly or remaining behind locked doors. And though I’ve tried to ignore her, the princess in her dark green circle beckons at almost every turn, promising a quick end to my suffering, offering me refuge in her cozy web of connectivity. I never would have thought that forest green and hot pink were so natural together. Have they always been?

Codes, codes, codes...human faces glance this way and that on the street corner, but they offer no help. It’s the shop signs and apartment names that might point the way, though sometimes the least secure-looking structures are the most impermeable. And why? Codes nowadays reveal no treasures in themselves; having the right key only enables you to walk through their portal, to the same place you always go. How is that even possible? In what kind of world does that make sense? One where businesses can claim proprietorship and charge for the privilege of using ‘doors’, doors that apartment owners name and protect, and doors that individuals covet and spend hours upon hours searching for, when they all lead to the same place?

This coffee is turning lukewarm. My ‘compass’ sits in my pocket, powered down now after leading me into this T-Mobile network. My feet hurt after covering miles in downtown Düsseldorf. And now I’ve been at this table for almost an hour. It’s been fifteen since the nice gentleman in the green apron, same princess emblazoned on front (surely you know the one!), cleared my tray. My power adapter is still plugged into the wall, bulbous universal adapter bringing down the 220 volts for my old G4 PowerBook. Battery’s back at 96%, the only consolation I have for placing myself in this establishment. It’s time to give in or head out.

How bad do I need to send those emails, to check my profile, to post on this blog? After powering my laptop up, I had taken my wallet out, even pulled out my credit card, the ultimate act of submission in the world of online access. I was ready. How much would it be? 4.95 for an hour? 9.95 for 6? Expensive but fine, I need to get online.

But 8 € for 60 minutes? That’s $12. That’s twice as much per hour as it costs to watch a movie. That’s four times as much as the cost of this coffee. That’s the same as it’ll cost me to take the train back to Essen tonight, my last night in Europe before resuming life in Berkeley, a place of easy connectivity, where I spend more time on the other side of the door, where everything is the same.

Sorry, Starbucks. I went as far as buying a drink, sitting down, and opening my internet browser, but you can have your network. By next year I might not be able to stand being disconnected. And the price will have surely gone up by then. But for now, I’ll hold on to these words a little longer and keep on walking.


* Uploaded 1 day later from O’Hare Int’l
** Thanks to Woyton for the free WiFi in Düsseldorf!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Speak English or be suspended?

Several golf and sporting-news sources have reported over the last few weeks on what is being called a first-of-its-kind language policy for professional athletes in the U.S.: “Speak English or be suspended.”

The new policy, if it remains in force, would require that all of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA)’s 121 international players from 26 countries, including 45 players from South Korea, would have to pass an oral English proficiency examination after 2 years of membership. Explaining the LPGA’s reasons for initiating the rule—first announced by commissioner Carolyn Bivens before the Safeway Classic in mid-August to an audience of only South Korean players—deputy commissioner Libba Galloway explained,

We live in a sports-entertainment environment. For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this. Being a U.S.-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English. (quote from the International Herald Tribute article linked above)

Such policies have not been considered by other pro sports organizations in the United States, the IHT article noted—this includes the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League (based in Canada), each of which has significant numbers of international players. And, after growing opposition from players and civil rights organizations, it appears that the LPGA has started to rethink this rule: Golfweek magazine, which first broke the story about the rule, reported that the organization has proposed a revised approach to its so-called “effective communication policy”, stating, “there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every tour player.”

This issue appears far from resolved, and it raises more questions than can probably be addressed. What moved me to write about it here was not only the probably discriminatory nature of the rule itself in linking performance in sport with oral linguistic expression (“an absolute slap in the face of women, minorities, immigrants,” said California State Senator Leland Lee), nor only the draconian idea of imposing mandatory English testing on its players as a way to enforce the policy, but also the money-making logic of professional sports that has even many international golfers nodding their heads, saying the English testing idea makes sense.

The imperative to inject broadcast sports with sound bites and interviews with media outlets and corporate sponsors before, after, and, increasingly, during sports events is something that gets my ire as a spectator of baseball (mid-inning interviews with the manager? When did these start?), football, and even the recent Summer Olympics (who ever thought of interviewing a sprinter 20 seconds after the race?). What it seems to mean is that professional athleticism is growingly contingent on a form of self-marketing, or even self-packaging, that takes place largely through language. And the idea that English should form the currency by which sports and other ostensibly non-linguistic activities are commodified, seems alarming.

Or…am I just off base here?