Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Technology Make Us Blind To News?

On my way home yesterday, I caught the tail end of a radio piece on the demise of the physical newspaper: online news was to eclipse the traditional format.  An interesting comment was made: online news providers have begun customizing their news towards what they think their audience wants to read.  At first blush one might think "well, that's great!  More of what interests me and less of what doesn't!".  The interviewee in the radio piece, who worked for a physical newspaper, pointed out how this can lead to an under-informed public.  I thought that was a very good point!  Think about it: if you're just interested in sports and technology and your online news provider knows that about you (either directly via forms you filled out or indirectly via your click-through pattern on previous visits to the site), then the news provider might begin to show you just those types of stories - since it leads to you spending more time at the site...which leads to more advertising dollars.  The downside is that you may begin to miss out on other important news or cultural events.  In a physical paper, being totally "uncustomized", you get to see everything - even if it doesn't interest you: so even if you're just interested in the sports section, you might still catch a glimpse of the latest political wrangling or invasion or....

This problem isn't unique to the Web.  It's not just the evil corporations who are withholding news from us in order to maximize their profits - we, ourselves are using technology to isolate ourselves from the 'unpleasantness' of the real world.  On cable we have hundreds of channels to choose from - we usually surf to the ones that entertain us the most; on the web most of us have customized home pages on yahoo or google - what do we customize them with?  Maybe a sports section, a technology section, the weather?  How many of us include multiple sections on world or US news?  The arts, etc.?

In essence, technology is making us all into something akin to idiot savants: our depth of knowledge in the areas that interest us is becoming ever greater - while our knowledge of other areas is becoming ever more shallow.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Super Heroes - East and West

As a kid, I was a big comic book fan.  Although I read Superman, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and The Fantastic Four, my favorite was always Batman.  I guess I could identify better with this "normal" guy who made himself a super hero through wit and hard work rather than via a gift from nature or accident.

In adulthood, I didn't continue this hobby.  Taking their place were science fiction & fantasy movies,super hero films...and Kung Fu flicks.  Aside from Batman, the martial arts movies became - and still are - some of my favorites.  Recently I wondered why.  I came to the conclusion that I liked to watch Kung Fu movies for the same reason I enjoyed Batman: the heroes in all cases were men (or women) who, through years of training and hard work, became masters - heroes.  They achieved great things entirely on their own.

As far as I know, in the West (e.g. the US) there is far more interest in super heroes of the "accidental/environmental" kind than there is in the "hard working but human" kind - at least judging by the available movie and TV shows.  In Asia  (e.g. China), there appears to be far more interest in the "hard working but human" kind - at least judging by the movies that come from there, the few I've seen on TV while visiting China, and my wife's disinterest in movies involving the other kind of heroes.

Does this difference in preference say something about the two cultures?  Does the idea that Westerners prefer super heroes who got their powers through accident (e.g. "Hulk", "Spiderman", etc.) or by nature ("Superman", "Heroes", etc.) suggest that Westerners believe that everything is possible (a good quality) or that they expect/hope things to happen "for free" (not needing to work for things - a bad quality).  Conversely, do Chinese believe that everything is possible with enough hard work (a great attitude) or do they lack the confidence to say "everything is possible"?  I don't have an answer - but I think it's a neat lens through which to view the two cultures.

Another difference between east and west is the depiction of the super heroes' personality.  Whereas the Eastern kung fu master is almost always serene and wise, western super heroes are often just like you or I - they have complex lives that they cannot always cope with.  Having to constantly hide their identities (another difference with heroes from the east) definitely causes them stress.