My time off: amazing. Beyond words. Every since: a disaster.

It seems that my computer just couldn’t deal with such a lack of attention. And so, mysteriously, while it wasn’t being used at all, the logic board gave out. I spent about three days troubleshooting everything it could possibly be, sure that by now I know how my computer works as well as anyone working at an Apple store.

That was a humbling experience. Finally, with my head hung low, I made my way through Mexico City’s labyrinthine arteries and one-way alleys to find one of three official Apple stores here. (Mexico and Brazil are the only two other countries in the western hemisphere with official Apple stores.) They’re taking care of business, but it means that I’m without my laptop or my data for the rest of the month.

I’m often bothered by my dependence on Google’s server farms, and the fact that they control so much of my data. But, on the other hand, when something like this happens I am grateful beyond words for Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, and everything else that has kept me functional this past week. The tension between personal and corporate ownership of our data is something I think will keep playing out for the next few decades at least.

Venezuela

Tomorrow morning I am headed to Venezuela, this time without my laptop. And, given my last experience in Caracas, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Venezuela has changed in the past three and a half years since I was last there. It seems that there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. President Hugo Chavez surprised many observers by more or less accepting defeat in a referendum that would have enabled his indefinite re-election. On the other hand, freedom of speech in the country has taken a big hit. On Friday the government issued an arrest warrant for Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of Globovision, the last remaining television station that is openly critical of the Chavez administration.

On Global Voices Advocacy, Laura Vidal and Marianne Diaz have done an excellent job covering the rise of official online censorship in Venezuela. This has taken the form of legal threats, such as Chavez’s condemnation of NoticieroDigital.com; the somewhat-controversial blocking of access to some websites; and a government-led initiative of allegedly 30,000 youth meant as a counter-offensive to “imperialist messages” spread on social networks and blogs. (Though these 30,000 youth haven’t published a single blog post since April.)

However, compared to the Venezuelan government’s repression of opposition print and broadcast media, information can still flow relatively free online, and hopefully across the country’s debilitating partisan divide. I will be in Venezuela to give a presentation and workshop about digital media to effect social change. They are both part of Espacio Público’s second annual “Web 2.0: Ideas that Connect” conference.

Chicago

From Caracas I head to Chicago for British Council’s Transatlantic Network 2020 meeting. Many thanks to Zadi for getting me involved. I’m looking forward to hanging out with old friends like Noel and meeting new ones like Trisha Wang and Raúl Ramírez.

The British Council was founded in 1934, between the two World Wars, and has been spreading the United Kingdom’s soft power ever since. It receives funding from the UK government, but most of its income actually comes from the English teaching classes and certification exams that it coordinates around the world. It’s mission, according to Wikipedia, is to “build mutually beneficial cultural and educational relationships between the United Kingdom and other countries, and increase appreciation of the United Kingdom’s creative ideas and achievements.” The UK is hardly alone in investing in cultural centers to spread its influence, culture, and language abroad. Germany has the Goethe-Institut. France has its Alliance Française. Spain has the Instituto Cervantes. And Italy has its Società Dante Alighieri.

But there are two new, interesting players in the field: China and India. Over the past five years China has nearly 300 Confucius Institutes in 88 countries to teach Chinese language and promote Chinese culture. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations has similarly established new cultural centers abroad and plans to launch many more. In fact, a center is planned to launch soon here in Mexico City. I highly recommend a two-part radio documentary from the BBC on how both countries plan to use these centers to increase their soft power around the world.

But back to the British Council. The Transatlantic Network 2020 grew out of a research study the British Council commissioned in early 2008 to better understand how Europeans and North Americans perceive one another. As far as research studies go, this one is a a pretty entertaining read.

  • “46% of Europeans seeing the US as having a negative influence in the world today. This compares with just 20% of Americans seeing the EU’s influence as negative and 57% seeing it as positive.”
  • “Europeans were also more likely to have strong negative stereotypes of Americans with 55% seeing Americans as being manipulative, 47% seeing them as selfish and 45% seeing them as aggressive. The most positive character trait Europeans saw in Americans was bold and daring (48%). American views of Europeans were rather more positive with 36% seeing Europeans as respectful; however 34% of Americans viewed all Europeans as snobbish.”
  • “Despite the intervening ocean, Canadians and Americans tend to feel closer to most European countries than the latter do to each other.”
  • “Several nationalities, including Americans, British, French, Germans and Europeans generally, are considered “keen consumers.” However, both the French and British are also seen to be particularly “snobbish,” while the Americans are considered “manipulative,” “bold” and “aggressive.” Of all the characteristics discussed, respondents around the world were least likely to think that Americans are “sensible,” “respectful” or “reliable.”

Acknowledging the cultural and perceptive rift between North America and Europe, the British Council created the Transatlantic Network 2020, with an inaugural summit in Ireland last year. Every year a new class of young leaders from North America and Europe is added to the network, and each year another summit is convened, its location alternating between Europe and North America. The hope is that these young leaders will discuss mutual problems, collaborate on projects, and help spread more transatlantic understanding.

The over-arching theme of the week-long meeting in Chicago is “Using Technology to Create Social Change,” a topic I just can’t seem to get away from. I will be part of the “immigration and integration” track. I’m curious to see how Chicago’s government and non-profits address its immigration and integration challenges. I think there will also be some fascinating conversations with the European members about the differences between American and European integration. The media has been covering the topic a lot over the past couple years, and the general rhetoric is that America is successful in its assimilation of immigrants while Europe has failed in its multicultural segregation. That idea was echoed over and over again in a recent New York Times profile of former Amsterdam Mayor, Job Cohen, “The Integrationist“:

Marcouch represents an interesting possibility for the European future — one that might mirror the American immigrant story in some ways — in which newcomers internalize the ways of their adopted land and apply them with an intensity that natives may have lost.

It’s true that many first-generation immigrants are the most patriotic of American citizens. And it’s an idea that appeals to me, but I have a feeling that our explorations through Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods will reveal a city that is much more segregated and divided than a New York Times journalist living in Europe would like to admit.

Mexico

I’m getting settled in Mexico City, but it’s been more of a challenge than I had anticipated. It’s been six years since I last lived in Mexico. I had forgotten about its Kafkaesque bureaucracy, about my strong distaste for anyone who wields power from a rubber stamp. If all goes well then later today I will sign the contract for my new apartment in Condesa, a trendy Art Deco neighborhood that was once a racetrack and is now filled with old money and young expats. It’s a rather predictable neighborhood for someone like me to settle in. All the cool kids are moving west to Roma, but I don’t think I’m ready for the transnational-hipster-ethnic-class-gentrification conversations that are so central to living in places like Roma, Williamsburg, and downtown LA. For now I’ll enjoy Condesa’s leafy avenues, even if its means paying $2 for a morning coffee.

I haven’t had a chance to connect with old friends here yet or meet many new ones. And I have missed out on what seem like some pretty cool events. Really wanted to make it to Postopolis, but neither time nor energy were on my side. Saturday’s naked bike ride looks like it was a blast too.

So I’ll be back in two weeks to start my new job, watch the last six games of the World Cup, and do some photo-walking with De La who will be in town. Word.

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