Saturday, March 6, 2010

Google’s Buzz and the culture of invading privacy

LOCATION: Shanghai
TIME: Chinese New Year Day
Details: It was Chinese New Year here in Shanghai this Friday night. Sitting in our apartment on the 22nd floor was like being in a high-tech Star Trek movie. The fireworks started during the day and by 10PM our home in Shanghai was aglow with spectacular fireworks. Whistling skyrockets, massive explosions like gushing waterfalls, gigantic chandeliers or monstrous spiders were erupting in red and green between the endless high-rises and skyscrapers. The noise was truly awesome, intrusive, and if I were a child and not frightened, I would have had such fun running around the apartment — now a spaceship — trying to fight off the marauding Kazon raiders or whatever.

Marion and I sat in our kitchen, staring through the lit-up windows in awe. At times the light was so intense it was almost daylight. From time to time we could even smell the fireworks. I wondered how the little children and pet animals were handling what sounded like a war zone. I went to bed and somehow went to sleep in the noise and woke up at about 2.30am because it was suddenly so eerily silent.

But after a while I could hear in the distance fireworks still going off and felt for those families and their children who could not sleep. The mainland Chinese do not have the Western concept of privacy and consideration for others. I am not saying this to be rude; generally they genuinely do not mind everyone cheerily sharing their "privacy".

Before briefly looking at Google's new Buzz, I'd like to describe some more examples of the local Chinese culture on non-privacy. A stranger, such as a plumber, or a neighbour who wishes to speak to our maid, will think nothing of walking into our apartment smoking a cigarette. It won't occur to them to ask permission. If I am checking out my goods at the counter sometimes local folk will peer into my bags and discuss what I have bought. Once I was looking at purchasing a cellphone at a counter next to a supermarket and a young woman barged in and asked the assistant to look for a particular mobile battery for her. This is very typical intrusive behaviour here. The assistant stopped helping me to help her. I have been here long enough now to just shrug my shoulders at people who could not be bothered to wait their turn … but the interruption lasted much longer than a few seconds. I lost my temper and shouted at the woman in Chinese to wait her turn. You have to shout to get things back into order, that is to say, become most indignant and show it. The attendant sheepishly stopped what he was doing and went back to helping me. The young missy glared at me, making all sorts of simpering tut-tuts and actually just flounced off, indignant herself. That is just one of many examples.

Many times when I am in the office, some teachers, usually men, will come and put their heads virtually between me and my laptop screen to see what I am doing. Especially if I was checking my private email account I would just shove them away and tell them this is private. Nowadays I am more used to it and I suppose the shove is gentler.

What remains one of the most bizarre examples is phoning or SMSing late at night that is to do with business or something routine that could have been handled during the day. One Chinese teacher had asked me to edit some essay he needed to do for a university assignment and SMSed me at half past eleven at night to find out if I had finished it. I was just dozing off in bed and the bleep woke me up. In the morning I emailed him his edited assignment and asked him never to send messages like that after 6pm. The best (worst?) was getting a frantic SMS at nearly 1am from a Chinese English teacher. She had just read an email from me sent several days ago requesting her to download an attachment and print out copies of a lesson for the students. In the SMS she apologised for only reading it now but she would make sure the copies would be printed tomorrow. Um. Today. In the morning I checked the email and saw she had also sent a frantic email at about half past twelve at night but obviously felt a SMS — which sounds like thunder at nearly 1am — to ensure I was up to date. Again, these are just two examples of many. Yeah, put the phone on silent at night, but that for some reason means my alarm goes off on silent.

I really love Google Buzz. It's like Facebook, only it deals with Gmail customers. As Facebook and Twitter are still banned in China it is so cool to make public announcements and interact with groups of friends on issues. It is also useful for me to advertise my new book, now out, Cracking China, and its sister, this blog. In other words, I can tell my "followers" what my latest blog topic is. But there seems to be a serious privacy issue. I have an option to search for people online. I can tap in any name, say John, and every person with that name with a Google or Gmail account's email address comes up, including their picture if they have one. (Some gorgeous girls out there under certain names, I quickly discovered. I could stop my subscription to Bikini Magazine if I had one.)  This is extremely intrusive to the average Westerner. It is one thing to find a person's name on a public forum like Facebook, where the person volunteered his information, another to just have handy the entire list of Gmail clients with a particular name. Presumably they are only people who have joined Buzz on Gmail. But when I joined there was no clear option to preserve my privacy.

It is still early days for Buzz, so let's see how it goes. The point is, that ain't going to be a problem here in China where everyone is already everyone's most intimate friend. Even at 1am, deep under the bedclothes.


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