NDN Blog

A True Tragedy in Thailand

Having lived in Thailand for three months just before the recent violence broke out, I am deeply saddened by what has transpired there these last few weeks. Every day now, I receive messages from the American Consulate warning me of government-imposed curfews and informing me of the danger of being shot or blown up in what I knew as peaceful, vibrant neighborhoods just a few months ago.

But although I feel deeply for the Thai people, I am also deeply frustrated by American response to the situation there. Perhaps even more so than in Iran, the current struggle in Thailand is one for democracy and social justice. The crackdown has been just as, if not more, brutal as it was in Iran, with dozens of protesters killed within the past week, and close to 100 since protests began in mid-March.

And yet, particularly compared with the American response to Iran's struggle, the lack of opinion pieces condemning the Thai military's actions is striking (just as it was in last year's bloody Honduran coup). In theory, if we really stood by the ideal of democracy, our ideological position would have little bearing on where we chose to support it. Unfortunately, as examinations of our responses to analogous situations show, it clearly does. In Thailand, as in Honduras, there were dozens of Nedas struck down, unarmed, in a struggle for justice and democracy. Yet for some reason, we do not know their names.

When media outlets do proffer opinions on Thailand's plight, rather than simply reporting the facts, they almost invariably get it wrong. One of the most puzzling pieces I've seen in these last few weeks came from the New York Times. Their reporter, Thomas Fuller, was interviewing a rogue Red Shirt Thai general when he was shot in the head and killed. Fuller reports wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, "equipment left over from a spell covering the Iraq war that is probably more useful to me in the streets of Bangkok." One cannot imagine being any closer to the struggle there, and yet in his analysis of the basic problem, Fuller completely misses the mark. He writes that "...if any one idea can sum up the troubles, it is that Thailand's politics have failed to develop as fast as its rising wealth." He wonders at the idea that something like this could happen in a city with as many rich people as Bangkok. He muses, "Is there any other city in the world today that has so many cloth-napkin restaurants, spas - and periodic grenade attacks? How many other world capitals have streets filled with fleets of luxury cars and armies of protesters apparently willing to die for their convictions?"

For Fuller, Bangkok is substituted for the country as a whole. Yet the burgeoning Bankok plutocracy that he alludes to is precisely the problem. Thailand has one of the highest rates of inequality in Asia, and the superb affluence of the Bangkok elite is not in any way indicative of Thailand as a whole. In the North, where many of the Red Shirts hail from, the norm is not the Mercedes sedans Fuller observes in Bangkok's upscale areas, but rather 100cc motorbikes shared by families of 4 or 5, who all pile on at once. What the Red Shirts are protesting, more than anything else, is the military's collusion with Bangkok's elite to ensure that their wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the few. Fuller's flawed underlying assumption is that even extremely concentrated economic development (what he calls the "modernity and grandeur" of Bangkok) should automatically go hand-in-hand with democracy. This is a strangely common, yet empirically untenable, position.

The United States has an unfortunate record of either actively or passively backing repressive but business-friendly military regimes (see the last 50 years of U.S. - Latin American relations). Too often, we have supported democracy only when it aligns with our own economic and/or ideological interests. What is particularly sad about the situation is that the Thai people love the U.S. and President Obama. The first thing almost all of them said upon finding out I was from the U.S. was "Oh, Barack Obama!" usually with a smile and a thumbs-up.  During the campaign, the President seemed to be a man who actually understood and valued the foundational values of America, yet as President his foreign policy has remained distressingly familiar to administrations past. It is my hope that the President and the American media look clearly at the tragedy unfolding in Thailand and decide to do things differently this time. I'm not in any way calling for America to get directly involved in the conflict, but in this instance, some demonstration of support would go a long way.  

The Battle for Bangkok

New Delhi, India - When I left Bangkok for India two weeks ago, this was the scene outside of my hotel. Amid the horns honking and people chanting, the mood was mostly cheerful. Since then, things have gone markedly downhill, with street battles between protesters and security forces rocking the same area of Bangkok I had been staying in a week prior. The Thai government and its supporters, among them most of Bangkok's elite, are desperate to "resolve" the crisis - Thailand's economy, largely dependent on tourism, has taken a serious hit as a result of the recent upheaval. The economic pressure has contributed to an increasingly strong-handed military response to the UDD's calls for immediate elections, which has elicited defensive measures from the otherwise peaceful protesters. 

Things are not entirely black-and-white (or even red and yellow) in Thai politics - Ex-PM Thaksin, whom most of the red shirts support, was (and remains) popular among the rural poor for his populist rhetoric, but he is no progressive hero himself, being a multi-billionaire media mogul who, among other things, implemented Thailand's utterly draconian drug policies. Still, although some might claim that the red shirts lack a clearly articulated political philosophy, they have a good grasp of the general problem: the collusion of the country's military and business elite to exploit the poor and exclude them from the political process. In the words of one UDD supporter, "They are always rich. We are always poor. That is not democracy."

Thailand is known for having a stronger economy than its neighbors (like Cambodia, which I hope to discuss in a forthcoming post), but the country's wealth is largely concentrated in small pockets - it is one of the most unequal countries in Asia. This stratification is one of the main underlying causes of the present political turmoil. Based on my (admittedly very limited) experince in the country and my discussions with Thais, I believe that what is playing out now in Thailand is, primarly, a class conflict. As a larger military crackdown looms, the future of the UDD's popular movement remains uncertain - but if such an all-out confrontation occurs, it is not clear where the sympathies of the soldiers, many of whom come from poor rural districts themselves, will lie.

Political Unrest and New Media in Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand - Today is a day of deep political tension here in Thailand. A ruling by the Thai Supreme Court, expected in just a few minutes, will determine the fate of more than $2 billion of Ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's assets. Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who was popular with many here for his populist policies, was removed from power by a military coup in 2006. He has been accused of corruption and abuse of power, specifically of negotiating business deals favorable to himself and his family while in power. Today's ruling will determine whether $2.3 billion of his family's assets will be seized. Today's ruling is expected to fuel political tensions here.

Since 2006, Thaksin has been living in exile in Dubai. However, he has remained active, and "frequently addresses mass rallies of supporters via video link, statements on pro-red shirt websites, blogs and via Twitter," according to Al Jazeera. Thaksin has over 65,000 followers on Twitter, and frequently uses Twitter to communicate directly with his followers, the red shirts.

In a country where broadband penetration is not especially high, particularly outside of major cities like Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai (where I'm writing from now), Twitter has begun to figure especially prominently. For while computers and internet cafes are far from ubiquitous, internet-capable mobile phones are everywhere (see this picture I snapped of a monk shopping for a phone). During my travels here, I have been many places without wi-fi, but I've always been able to connect using my (jailbroken and unlocked) iPhone. Everywhere I've been, from near-deserted tropical islands to endless rice paddies in the center of the country, I've had wireless data service (for which I pay just $3 a month). Many of Thaksin's supporters are in the rural North-East of Thailand, so mobile-friendly media are particularly important to their political communication and organization.

I'll be writing more as the situation here develops - Thaksin's supporters are planning rallies country-wide in March, largely organized using new media. Given all the red shirts I'm seeing here today, it should be an interesting few weeks.


Friday New Tools Feature: The Future of... Literacy?

Normally, I don't tend to get all that excited about CAD renders and tech specs of hypothetical technology. Today is an exception: a company called Notion Ink has just unveiled a tablet that looks like it could be a real game-changer, and it will supposedly appear in real life at CES in January. The tablet boasts a number of features that made my geek sense go off, like an efficient Tegra chipset that will run Android. However, the biggest thing is undoubtedly the screen, made by a little-heard-of company called Pixel Qi, which may be a household name not so long from now.

Here's why it's such a big deal. The screen combines traditional LCD technology with the readability and great power efficiency of e-ink (the technology used in devices like the Kindle and Nook). According to Pixel Qi (pronounced "Chee," it's also a great Scrabble word), here's what the screen can do:

The readability and legibility of our new screens rival the best epaper available today.  What's new about our screens: fast video rate update (refresh), and fully saturated color at low pricing because we use standard manufacturing materials, processes and factories.  Our screens use 1/2 to 1/4 the power of a regular LCD screen, and when integrated carefully with the device can increase battery life between charges by 5-fold. You can use our screens in laptops outside in bright sunlight.

I think this is a huge next step for the e-book industry, and for e-publications in general. I like my Kindle, but it is still clearly a first-generation device, and while the reading experience is good, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of versatility. The Nook is basically the same thing, with a small color screen used for navigation at the bottom. On the other hand, tablet computers offer color, video and a richer user experience, but their backlit screens are not ideal for reading long chunks of text. Something like the Entourage Edge, which has one e-ink screen and one LCD screen, seemed like an acceptable compromise, but clearly a short-term fix. 

That is why the Pixel Qi screen technology is such a big deal. In addition to greatly expanding battery life and reducing power consumption (Notion Ink claims their tablet will last 40 hours in standby reading mode, which I believe since I've had to charge my Kindle ONCE since owning it), it allows for the good things about both technologies to be combined into one touch-screen. While e-ink effectively reproduces the experience of reading a book, that seems to me to be a rather limited goal. Have a look at this concept, from the publishers of Popular Science, of what reading a periodical on a tablet might look like:

It is my hope that this technology will make reading "cool" again, and potentially make difficult texts more accessible - imagine reading something by Adorno or Habermas or Agamben, something that you might normally need a teacher to help walk you through. But you're reading it on a tablet, so anywhere you get confused, you can tap and get the Wikipedia definition of the concept, or see a video explanation with diagrams. Late consumer capitalism may not yet spell the demise of real literacy - it could, in fact, ultimately usher in its revival. 

Of course, we might also just get People Magazine with moving celebrity body parts, but I'd rather look at the positive potential.

Friday New Tools Feature: A Day of Portentous Products

Today, two important consumer releases mark substantial advances in the widespread adoption of new media. First, Verizon released the Droid and Droid Eris, two smartphones which may be ushering in the age of Android. The Droid has gotten excellent reviews, and though there are still some kinks to work out before any Android device delivers the same shiny, seamless experience as the iPhone, the Droid is actually a superior phone in a number of ways. Furthermore, Android's open-source philosophy means we'll see more and more handset makers producing quality products like the Droid, with next-gen phones on the way from Asus, HTC, and others. Android is flexible enough that it's being used to power everything from netbooks to Barnes and Noble's new e-reader, and as mobile processors increase in power (several 1gHz Snapdragon-powered phones are in the works as we speak), the line between phone and mobile computer will continue to blur further.

The second major release today was Netflix's (free) PlayStation 3 streaming disc, which leverages BD-Live technology to allow anyone with a PlayStation 3 and a Netflix account to stream thousands of movies and TV shows in DVD quality to their TV quickly and easily (a feature which has already been available on the XBox for some time, and should be coming to the Wil soon). This may not seem like such a big deal, but although I will often hook up my computer to the TV to watch streaming movies on Netflix, many people (like my parents) have Netflix but don't take advantage of the excellent streaming feature. Having this ability built in to devices like the PS3 and other BluRay players moves Netflix streaming more squarely into the mainstream, perhaps presaging the impending decline of all physical media.

These products on their may not be game-changers, but they both evince a sea change in the media and communications environment, a change that will have profound consequences for those caught unprepared. Smartphones and streaming media are no longer marginal technologies - as their ecosystems flourish and prices drop, the power and convenience they offer consumers will mean that they quickly become the norm.

Friday New Tools Feature: Smartphones Go Mainstream

They're no longer just for early adopters; as 2009 winds down, a cornucopia of new smartphones are hitting the market, and they're shaping up to be really good. With the Palm Pre (and future phones running its slick WebOS), all of the new Android phones coming out (2 or 3 new ones coming to Verizon alone very soon), and even a few decent Windows Mobile phones, 2009 looks like it will be the year that ushered in the age of the smartphone.

It has taken a few years for retailers to catch up after the iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone; many have continued to focus on featurephones, essentially regular phones with gimmicky selling points, instead of fully taking advantage of the mobile platform. But that is finally changing in a big way. Particularly tantalizing is the new Motorola Droid (left), Verizon's first real competitor for the iPhone (and the first phone on Verizon in a long time that I actually really want). Though I'm lukewarm on their advertising campaign for it, the Droid does indeed look to be a potential iPhone killer, and might be just the comeback that Motorola needs right now. 

Perhaps iPhone killer is not the right way to put it - there's plenty of space for competition in the exploding smartphone market, and the iPhone is still doing just fine. In fact, this quarter AT&T sold more iPhones than ever - a full 74% of AT&T's new activations this quarter were iPhones, which is a pretty incredible statistic. It points to what I believe is a sea change about to take place in the mobile sphere. Within the next year or two, smartphones will no longer be the exception, but the norm. I've written before about why that's a good thing from the perspective of narrowing the digital divide. But it will also have a profound effect on domestic politics - as mobile devices become the primary entry point to the communications network for more and more people, outreach efforts will have to adapt. However, we should not see this just as a challenge but also as an opportunity; mobility and location-awareness have the potential to revolutionize politics (since, as they say, all politics is local). 

Friday New Tools Feature: Parting Reflections on the American Dream

Today, sadly, is my last day as a full-time employee of NDN, though I will continue to blog from Thailand, and hope to remain very involved with the organization. I've had a really great time working here, and learned a great deal. So I thought that today, I could just quickly reflect on why I think the work NDN does is so important. 

When we talk about our proposals to put a laptop in every backpack, or to provide free computer training to every American, we tend to stress the economic reasons for doing so - helping our workforce stay competitive in a 21st century global economy, etc. But I really believe that it is about much more than that. It is about taking steps, however modest, towards realizing the American ideal of equal opportunity, which for so much of our history has existed only nominally. 

Libertarians like to talk a lot about freedom, but they mean it only in the formal sense - a lack of restriction. Usually, one finds that they really only mean unlimited market freedom, the unfettered right to exploit others for the acquisition of wealth, without any convincing philosophical or reality-based reasoning. They reject any effort by the government to confront the deep structural inequalities in our society which make a farce of the ideas of personal responsibility and equal opportunity, and the occasional exception does not diminish this fact. For every Barack Obama or Sonia Sotomayor, there are tens of thousands who fall through the cracks.  

American philosopher John Dewey understood this - he understood the difference between nominal freedom and effective freedom. Here's a brief quote on the difference between freedom as the libertarians understand it, and what it actually means to be free:

Exemption from restraint and from interference with overt action is only a condition, though an absolutely indispensable one, of effective freedom. The latter requires (1) positive control of the resources necessary to carry purposes into effect, possession of the means to satisfy desires; and (2) mental equipment with the trained powers of initiative and reflection requisite for free preference and for circumspect and far-seeing desires. The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty. If he is without resources of personal skill, without control of the tools of achievement, he must inevitably lend himself to carrying out the directions and ideas of others.

Dewey wrote that a century ago, in 1908, but it's just as true today as it was then, in this new gilded age where the richest 10% own 71% (or more) of our wealth, and the bottom 40% own just 0.2%. Today, as computers and the internet become ever-more integral aspects of our society, access to these tools can make a great deal of difference. Of course, I would argue that this is nowhere close to enough. But it's a good step in the right direction, and we need more of those to actually more forward together toward a more just and equitable America. 

New Tools Update: AT&T Gives the OK for 3G VoIP

In a reversal of their previous position, AT&T has declared that they will allow voice-over-IP services such as Skype to operate on their 3G network, essentially "un-crippling" the service, which could only be used over WiFi before now. As an AT&T iPhone user, I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, this will be a useful addition, particularly for making cheap long-distance calls.

However, on the other hand, this move is likely to further strain the capacity of AT&T's 3G network. In this case, their arguments for why they need to be able to manage their network traffic are actually legitimate, as iPhone use has pushed their 3G to the "edge," so to speak, particularly in urban centers, where it often slows to a crawl. So, my desire to be able to do whatever I want on my phone is sort of balanced by my desire to be able to do ANYTHING on my phone. 

We will see how it works out, but kudos to AT&T for embracing openness. 

New Tools Update: More Augmented Reality Apps Hit the App Store

Ever wish you could have Wikipedia all around you? It's not just me that wishes for things like this, is it? Well, if you have an iPhone 3GS, you now have Wikipedia everywhere, thanks to two new apps, Cyclopedia and WikiTude. WikiTude has been on Android for a few months now, but just arrived for the iPhone. Cyclopedia looks to be basically the same thing, but with (in my opinion) a more attractive interface. Either way, the relatively low number of geotagged Wikipedia entries  will prevent this app from totally changing your life, at least for the moment. But, it's still pretty darn cool.

Perhaps the bigger news is that Layar, the most widely-used augmented reality platform, has just submitted its app to the iPhone app store. Rather than being an app designed to layer a specific data set (such as Wikipedia entries) over physical space, Layar is a platform which supports a whole host of different data sets. Again, these still need some work to be truly game-changing, but things are certainly starting to get interesting, and as more AR apps break into the iPhone scene, the technology will quickly become more mainstream.

Friday New Tools Feature: Next Steps for Twitter

The creators of Twitter have admitted that they are still learning about how people use their service. It seems that they have learned some important lessons, because they are in the process of adding several important new features to Twitter that should significantly improve the user experience and expand functionality.

The first big addition is the inclusion of lists into both twitter.com and the Twitter API. This is a simple concept, but will help a lot with trying to manage the often-overwhelming flow of information that results when you begin following more than 50-100 people (depending on how compulsively you check for updates). The basic idea is that you'll be able to organize the people you follow into lists, publically visible by default, allowing you to categorize and prioritize your contacts, and helping other users sift through them to find people they may be interested in following. It's also great news that this will be built into the API, because like many Twitter users, I'd much rather interact with the service through a third-party application like TweetDeck, Twhirl, or Tweetie than through twitter.com.

Another key improvement to the API is the addition of geolocation. Of course, there are several Twitter services that already support geolocation, but with the addition of this feature into the Twitter API, it is likely to take off in a much bigger way. I've written before about location-based services, but the main problem with many of them is that not that many people use them. Not all that many of my friends use Twitter, either, but way more than Loopt or Foursquare, for example. And location awareness seems like a natural for Twitter, which is very often used on mobile devices.

Beyond the obvious boons, like the ability to see where your friends are tweeting from at any given moment, this will also open up some other interesting possibilities. For example, see the new app Buzzd, which just hit the app store recently. As TechCrunch explains, Buzzd

will bring up a list of venues close to you that are currently popular based on people talking about them on Twitter and Buzzd. It also uses some location data pulled from Twitter. Right now, that data is pulled from users’s Twitter profiles, so it is imprecise, but with the Geolocation API... that will soon change.

There are endless other possibilities... for example, you could map chatter about political candidates in certain areas. Once location-tagging becomes more widespread, these kinds of applications will become increasingly useful in reality, and not just as fun tech demos.

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