Culture War Memorial

28 05 2014


names project

This Memorial Day in the US brought memories of 1989, when I first viewed the Names Project quilt in Washington, DC. I was not thinking at that time of the big picture—that 636,000 Americans have given their lives in the American Culture War. I did not fully appreciate that a US president could be an accessory to ignoring the plight of the dying. All I thought about on that solemn day were the front lines of this war—the torn faces of survivors, and the faces of brave friends lost. Not all warriors wear uniforms. Not all our troops fight on foreign soil.

You are not forgotten, my brothers and sisters. Your sacrifice will be forever kindled in our hearts.

As always, I welcome all comments.

Jason Berman

Venezuelan Democracy Is a Failure of Inclusion

19 06 2012


In contemporary Venezuelan politics, vitriol spills more than petroleum. Yesterday, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez dismissed calls for holding a pre-election debate with his presidential opponent, former state governor Henrique Capriles, exclaiming that he would be “ashamed to measure himself against such a non-entity.” Meanwhile, Mr. Chávez’s detractors hope for the cancer-striken president “to die soon” and/or “rot in hell forever.”

The polarization is so emotionally charged that Venezuelan media rarely report the facts—only pronouncements. That is why a policy debate is so vital for the country to re-embrace the democratic covenant and honor the judgement of the people. Are conditions for the majority of Venezuelans better or worse under the current regime? Certainly the poor and political loyalists have benefited with free medical care, free housing, and even government gifts of household appliances. One is reminded of the free toaster once promoted by U.S. banks to new customers who opened a checking account.

But as for the economy overall, it’s hard to tell—due to discontinuance of government statistics and a lack of objectivity by the analysts. Whether he wins or loses on October 7th, one observer predicts, “it will take a long time to dismantle the social political structure that Chávez has put in place during his time in government and this will create a lot of social tensions.”

The same kind of polarization over President Chávez exists outside Venezuela. It’s a shame that many people can’t seem to have a rational conversation about post-Punto Fijo developments in Venezuela’s democracy. The Pact of Punto Fijo in 1958 conceived the longest lasting multiparty democracy in Latin America, but it established a system of representation that excluded women, indigenous peoples and the poor.

I always had a sense of reservation whether—in defying puntofijoism—President Chávez could create a more inclusive and consolidated democracy in Venezuela. Opinions may differ on whether he has succeeded on that score. But the same old cronyism persists that has plagued Venezuela going back to the days of dictatorship pre-1958. I know “red shirts” who have become millionaires flaunting couture clothing under Chávez. Overt corruption brought down President Carlos Andrés Pérez (who was also a gifted orator). Curious that it has not brought down Mr. Chávez.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman

Are Public Postal Services Obsolete?

2 06 2012

Leapfrogging is wonderful thing. When Venezuela’s government-run telephone company CANTV was privatized in 1991, rather than focus on upgrading the country’s neglected landline infrastructure, cell towers went up. In a very short time, the wireless user base grew exponentially and just as fast, the long lines at public pay phones disappeared.

Likewise, after decades without a functioning postal service, Venezuelans embraced social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn like a spreading wildfire. So I tend to view the current debate in the U.S. over the proposed downsizing of the postal service with a sense of irony.

Although I was present during the privatization of Venezuela’s Ipostel, I am not a subject matter expert on the USPS. So I decided to draw on my past experience in operational readiness testing and usability analysis to write a test script for the USPS. For those unfamiliar with operational readiness testing, my job was to envision the worst case scenario and see what happens when run through the processes as documented and the front lines are trained.

So here is the test script I came up with. Don’t laugh. First I mailed a letter from myself to myself. Then I marked it “Return to Sender.” Dutifully, the letter arrived at my address both times, as directed. Thus, the USPS passed the readiness test, but failed the usability test. They did what the customer requested, even though it made no sense.

USPS workers generally come across as the most patriotic people you could ever meet. They come from a very long line of tradition in service to their country–just not in a pushy, obnoxious way. Moreover, waiting in line on April 15th in the post office is a shared cultural experience that defines an aspect of the American way of life: we tend to procrastinate about certain things, even when it makes no economic sense to do so.

I also praise the USPS for making international parcel shipping accessible to the citizenry. Without a steep discount offered to corporate customers, a one pound package to Spain via FedEx or UPS costs about $150 vs. the $45 charged by the USPS. So yes, go ahead and close a few post office locations for the sake of efficiency: I am more than willing to drive an extra five miles to save $105. A gift package in the mail still beats a “happy birthday” online post in Facebook.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman

The Small Project

9 02 2012

I have a tip that is too good to sell. I have to give it away for free.

Does your organization have a small budget for Corporate Social Responsibility? No problem. A small investment can save a community. One billion citizens of the world have no clean water. The tragically common problem: many lack access to a drinking well.

Digging a well may seem like a small investment. Small, but not unimportant. I have made a small investment in the future. I have made a small investment in life. Please join me in supporting with a small campaign of your own. It can be promoted on Facebook, Google+, Orkut, Mixi and Twitter.

The Small Project. It starts small. By the way, snowballs start small.

Throw a snowball. It’s fun.

As always, I welcome all comments.

Jason Berman

Globalism Is Just a Phone Call Away

12 01 2012

I love globalism. I love that I can learn Chinese for free and have customers in China. I love that our planet’s communications infrastructure can reach anywhere because it is Standardized. But it’s the small things—ones that add up to personal style—that most touch my heart. I love that Alaskans make phone booths of ice. I love that I can have customers send me their photos of Iguaçu Falls with a rainbow connecting Brazil to Argentina. I love very strong coffee that I can make from Guatemalan beans. I love my Australian male accented Garmin nüvi GPS. What a great co-pilot he is! Let’s face it, globalism is to style what exponents are to numbers.

As we know from biology, difference is a prerequisite for evolution. We must be fruitful and diversify. Explore every corner. Think sustainably. That is why I identify as a citizen of Planet Earth. Our species has a common mission. We have pursued it intently for some 35,000 years, since the time of the first cave paintings. Humanity’s primary purpose is to create difference—to sprawl with our creativity. And to share with others. So when I discover an icon of earthliness I am grateful to share with my fellow Earthies.

Why, one may ask, do I help create Standards if diversity is so vital? First, they make leapfrogging easier for less industrialized societies. Second, they bring the entire world to our doorstep. I champion strategies to deliver difference, and Standards serve as a Rosetta Stone. They allow us to wire up, stand up and speak up. Standards for linking up technologies empower us all, and technology transfer is a wonderful calling for diversity professionals like myself. Instead of teaching a village to fish—I can teach it to teleconference with solar power and wireless. They already know how to fish.

As always, I welcome all comments.

Jason Berman

Participating in the News: Global Journalism in the Digital Age

21 09 2011


Journalism has been called the Fourth Estate because it viewed its role as an independent voice, and as a bulwark against corruption and abuse by unchecked government and corporatist control. Edgar R. Murrow stood up against McCarthyism, Woodward and Bernstein reported the Watergate break-in that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the White House, and Katie Couric exposed Sarah Palin as apparently unprepared for the presidency.

Within this context, big city newspapers competed ideologically with each other in disparate editorial voices. For decades in Boston, for example, the Boston Globe catered to the educated and professional classes and was openly left-leaning in its reporting. The Boston Herald billed itself as a blue-collar tabloid with a somewhat anti-intellectual and socially conservative approach to news reporting. The bias of the Boston Business Journal was fiscally conservative and pro-business. When media consolidation occurs, as it did in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondatori or in Australia under the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, the pluralism of editorial voices in the marketplace tends to disappear. In its place, consolidated news media have claimed to provide “fair and balanced” reporting. This invites criticism in that bias in journalism is never completely absent. The approach of openly professing an ideologically based editorial voice seems more honest.

While consolidation has tended to reduce the number of differing perspectives in the mainstream news media, the emergence of digital news distribution via the internet has made independent and even individual contributions to news coverage as affordable as a laptop computer and as easy to publish as making a phone call. This process has taken may forms. The best known are blogs, video blogs, podcasts and wikis. Newer forms are emerging as well, from the bare-bones blurbs on Twitter to full-fledged citizen reporting websites such as NowPublic, AllVoices and GroundReport.

Citizen journalism, also known by various names such as “user-generated content,” “consumer-generated media,” and “user-created content,” was first used by mainstream media in 2005, when the BBC received over 5000 photographs of the Buncefield Depot fire from audience members, and used some of them in its coverage of the explosion. In that same year, YouTube launched on the internet as a means for users to post their own video content. The next year, CNN began to incorporate content from its audience. Along with the increase of public participation in news gathering and reporting, three major trends have emerged, reshaping the news media and the role of its audience at the same time.

The first major trend is that of audience feedback. Since blogging and video blogging venues are so democratic—essentially open to anyone—there is no orchestrated editorial voice. One may elect to “subscribe” to a single author, but the venue overall is generally devoid of any unifying perspective. It is thus more difficult to identify the bias of the contributor. Instead, various forms of user feedback serve the purpose of providing context and evaluation of a posting’s newsworthiness. What makes a story newsworthy is what makes a world religion great—namely, headcount.

The initial form of feedback was so-called pull technology, whereby the user had the means to determine what types of news stories they wanted to receive. The metaphor for this approach was that each user could create a personalized “front page of the newspaper” from all the articles that were published that day. The next development in the process was the comment trail that became a signature feature of user-generated content sites.

Comments to news stories can add clarification, but very often they express highly judgmental views that can be summed up as being either “for” or “against.” This was recognized by YouTube, which allows users to further polarize comments by voting for or against them, absent of absent of nuance and pluralism. YouTube also added the additional option to reply directly and “comment on the comment.” In contrast to this elaborate form of discussion, a more simplified approach was subsequently introduced by mainstream content providers such as CNN and Yahoo, the latter receiving much of its news content from traditional sources such as the wire services Associated Press and Reuters. This newest approach is called the buzz meter, which bases how prominently a news story is featured on how many times it is viewed. In this case, newsworthiness is decided by a popularity contest.

Jóhanna WHO? Sigurdardóttir on the campaign trail.

Newspapers, radio and television networks have always found that celebrity sells, but now it is quantifiable. A story about the 1980’s sitcom actress Meredith Baxter coming out as a lesbian generated 690,000 hits on a Google search that week, while the more historically significant coverage about the taking office of the first openly gay lesbian world leader in modern times, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir of Iceland, generated only 7% as much interest. When one opens the Yahoo homepage, these numbers determine the news stories you will see. Audience feedback even shapes what is covered, making the process of deciding what is newsworthy distinctively populist. Such polarized feedback can turn into digital warfare, with shill commentators trying to win the race of “thumbs up” versus “thumbs down.”

The second significant trend is the ease with which one may compare different versions of the same story. For example, in 2007, ABC news in the U.S. reported a security breach into the White House off-switchboard telephone system, when an Icelandic boy called a classified number that was reportedly a direct line to then president George W. Bush. ABC had a direct source to confirm the breach. The BBC in Britain reported a whitewashed version of the story dictated by the White House press secretary that described the call as having been made to the main switchboard’s public number for the West Wing, thus denying any failure in security. Likewise, electronic translation technology, when combined with digital publication of news media, allows the user to compare how a news story about Palestinians is covered by Islamic media, in contrast to Western journalism.

Third, journalism now features a non-linear news cycle. A story from a year previous may be just as newsworthy as one from the current week. For example, the Salahi gate-crashing at the November 2009 State dinner for India renewed interest in White House security breaches under the previous administration, such as the four such breaches made by Rev. Richard “Rich” Weaver, who on two occasions shook hands with President Bush whom he was not cleared to meet. One can now search for news not only based on how recent it is, but also alternatively sorted by popularity, or relevance to a search term. The news cycle is also non-linear when is comes to feedback. An event as far back as the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales still generates comments in September of 2011, and the tenor of those comments changes with the hindsight of history. The comments posted in 1997 were mostly expressions of sympathy and admiration for Diana. In the post 9/11 context of 2011 however, a great number of recent comments are overtly racist anti-Arab remarks centered on Diana’s romance with the Egyptian millionaire Dodi Al-Fayed.

The Andalusian poet, Federico García Lorca, once wrote that the dead in his country were more alive than the dead in any other nation, implying an overlap between the present and the past. Now that news can be read weeks or months after that fact as easily as the date of publication, people are capable of reading older news stories when current ones peak their curiosity about related events of the recent past. This would seem to blur the lines between news content and archives. The participatory nature of digital journalism, together with its shift toward non-linear cycles, may do more than redefine what is news—it may also redefine what is history.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman

Angle and Authenticity: Cultural Images on the Web

27 08 2011

The humble northeast region of Brazil and tiny Suriname are neighbors that share nearly identical geography and demographic composition. Yet the Brazilian image that dominates the internet comes from the distant south, in the megapoles of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The imagery of Brazil has an angle. In images, videos and news content, the whole of Brazil is presented with professional artistry and a slant toward exuberance, with a lens of magnification and vibrancy, as if everything in Brazil were larger than life. The objective of these images is to convey a sense of spectacle.

The more humble online image of Suriname, by contrast, is raw and direct rather than manipulated—in a word, it is more authentic.

No fashion models

No computer graphics

No creative consultants

Having seen how a media shoot can be choreographed to control every detail—how easily a skin blemish or bead of perspiration is eliminated in post-production— and having seen entire vistas created on computers, I am taken aback at how real the images of Suriname are. They are scenes from the every day life of everyday people, and could have been photographed by anyone. They resonate in their simplicity because we can identify with the humble person who captured them, as opposed to crafting them.

Brazil (above) and Suriname (below) tourism photographs

We are all inherently capable of this kind of capture: to take a simple picture, or to beat out a rhythm on a drum. The essence of what is captured by such an exercise is authenticity.

The first aspect to consider on how the country decides to portray itself is to look at the attractions promoted by the tourism sector. My content analysis of Brazil’s and Suriname’s online self-promotion indicates the following:

The tourism promotion of Brazil features five types of attractions: sun and beach, culture, ecotourism, sport, and business/events. Most of the images are either outdoors with a vista looking upward to the sky or downward to the sea. Indoor pictures of architectural attractions often look up to the ceiling. Relative few have a “head-on” perspective. Thematically, it features bright colors of the entire spectrum, not just the familiar green, yellow and blue of the national flag that dominate most products with the ‘Brazil brand.” Several of the images are intentionally over saturated with color. The words “exuberant” and “beauty” appears over and over, as do hyperbole. Virtually all locales are described with superlatives, and comparisons with the rest of the world such as “largest in the world,” “most modern in the world,” “attacks visitors from all over the world,” or “Here, the entire world feels at home.”

Suriname’s attractions by comparison appear primitive and even frightening. For example, a nature preserve is described thus: “hear the unearthly cry of howler monkeys echoing through the trees, see giant tarantula spider webs and huge termite nests.” An image of a run-down old bus on a dusty dirt road appears under the heading “things to do and see.” The images are stark, undersaturated and reflect poor composition. A photograph representing a national park for example, merely shows the naked branch of a tree against an empty sky. A cathedral in Paramaribo seems tilted on a slant. Another image show a microscopic view of an island from so far away as to make it appear more a picture of the sea.

Brazil in the news is sports, and sport in Brazil is spectacle. The vast majority of news stories about Brazil relates to soccer—perhaps because it is in soccer that Brazil is consistently world class. Whether it is the World Cup, or the Olympic Games in Beijing, the America Cup or the Confederations Cup, Brazilian teams are indeed worthy of note. “As the saying about soccer goes, ‘the English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.’”[1] The connection between Brazil and soccer is reinforced by the following photograph, combining the national flag with a penta, the Portuguese nickname for a soccer ball.

Brazil officially promotes is its business environment, and the country does manage to get some limited news coverage for its role in co-founding the Mercosur hemispheric free trade zone, opposition to a U.S.-led Free Trade Zone of the Americas, as well as for offshore energy development and its efforts to sell ethanol biofuel to the United States. An explosion that killed or injured 41 technicians and engineers of Brazil’s space program made the news, but massive death tolls are always likely to reap a headline.

Political coverage likewise receives limited attention; featuring Brazil’s leadership role in the region to help find a diplomatic solution to the Honduras presidential crisis, or the alliance between president “Lula” da Silva and other left-of-center leaders in Latin America such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Political news just as likely to break international headlines was the “diplomatic visit” to Brazil by the former U.S. president George W. Bush, despite that being merely an exercise in public relations.

For Suriname, the image it bears in the news is more diverse. If there is a dominant theme, it is that the print media coverage about Suriname addresses ongoing issues or trends rather than a scheduled event such as a soccer game or public relations phenomenon. For example, territorial disputes with neighboring Guyana that began in the mid-1960s found mention when a Surinamese gunboat confronted a Guyanese offshore oil rig. As one of the first nations to recognize “One China,” reports of diplomatic overtures from Beijing occasionally appear. Yet another example is any new development relating the fall of the military dictatorship in 1988. Ongoing business developments in the extractive industries are also part of the online image of Suriname.

Feature stories about Suriname enable readers to identify with the country’s remoteness and perhaps envision themselves off the beaten path. Certainly, the discovery by scientists of 24 new species, including a fluorescent purple frog, adds a sense of distant exoticism. Another story that conveys remoteness is one about the 7,000-mile sea journey to Cornwall—and back—of a leatherback turtle.

Sport does not feature prominently in the news about Suriname, and then only when something truly tragic or unique occurs, such as when a gold medal sprinter was stripped of her title after failing a drug test. One is far less likely to see a simple soccer score compared to Brazil, or a promotional announcement of an upcoming match. Rather, the pattern of coverage is more akin to that which exists with natural disasters, detonations and plane crashes.

Online photographs of Brazil and Suriname graphically illustrate the promotional angle common to Brazilian images, compared to the down-to-earth, honest portrayal typical of images about Suriname. Each perspective, both the angled image of Brazil and the authentic image of Suriname, conveys what the source regards as a reflection of truth. The Brazilian image focuses on what the targeted tourist or investor wants to hear and wants to see, which is a finished and polished “product.” The Suriname image is based on raw, unfiltered information, which some consumers actually prefer because it is more “authentic.”

The contrast of the more polished Brazilian image and the more raw Surinamese portrayal relates to what has been described to me as differing concepts of transparency between American and British philosophies in the business world. To the American mindset, information is “transparent” when it has been “netted out,” presumably to shave off any bias. To the British, however, information is only transparent if presented exactly as received, without any filtering. It is of interest because of its unfiltered purity, rather than being socially engineered.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman

[1] Arroyave, Luis. “Brazil vs. Argentina in the Copa America final.” Chicago Tribune, July 14, 2007.


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