Friday, December 16, 2011

Feeling Lucky? -- Writer's Poke #350

Google’s Chinese weblink is, and it looks about as boring as the we’re all used to in the U.S.  Just for the fun of it, I googled Pete Rose using the Chinese Google, and at least in Minnesota, I wasn’t blocked from receiving information about the best American baseball player of all time. In fact, the Chinese version of Wikipedia even has an entry on the Tienanmen Square Massacre. I thought that was interesting, but since it’s in Chinese, I have no idea what spin it might have; nor do I know if the average Chinese citizen has access to reading the entry.

I use Google, but it’s not my favorite search engine; I’m a Yahoo! man, and I probably always will be until they go out of business. But what if a Chinese search engine company tried to break into the American search engine market? Would I bite? Doubtful.

The Internet should be borderless, but it does seem rather odd that Google, an American company, would expect to be successful in China. After all, China has its own native search engines, and it’s difficult for me to comprehend what Google brings to the table that’s different or better than what China can home-grow.
Google’s involvement in the Chinese internet market also brings up some hairy issues, such as, is it unethical of Google to block sites because the Chinese government tells it to? In the U.S., basically anything goes as far as the internet is concerned, but why should all countries follow the U.S. model?

Sometimes it seems that the U.S. believes that all countries would be better off if they operated exactly as we do, and while some in the U.S. might support some forms of censorship, most don’t like heavy-handed political censorship. Nevertheless, China is a sovereign nation, and it has its own standards of what it will and won’t allow. It’s somewhat troubling to me that some people in the U.S. criticize Google for simply following the laws of the lands in which they operate. As if Google has any other option.

Should American companies operating in other countries follow the laws of the land? If the U.S. doesn’t condone certain policies or laws that other countries have, should our government forbid American companies from operating in those countries?

“With Google I’m starting to burn out on knowing the answer to everything. People in the year 2020 are going to be nostalgic for the sensation of feeling clueless.” – Doug Coupland

“We want Google to be the third half of your brain.” – Sergey Brin

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Accent on Success -- Writer's Poke #349

Dan Rather hid his, but when he had to spend hours on TV covering an election or some other big news story, it would sometimes come to the surface. He was from Texas, you see, but since the CBS nightly news broadcast to the entire United States, his regional accent had to go.

I’m not sure that there is an “American accent,” as the television age certainly greatly contributed to the weakening of the regional voice. Nevertheless, when I moved to Minnesota, people recognized that I wasn’t a native to the state, but most weren’t very good at guessing where I was from. It made me chorkle when some guessed I was from Texas. Texas? Not bloody likely. 

When we’re calling customer service to help us with our problems, we want to be able to understand the person on the other end of the line; however, I find it humorous that Indians are being trained to speak with an American (or Canadian) accent. According to Thomas Friedman, Indians working at call centers develop “self-confidence.” Now, I think Friedman is suggesting that the job gives the Indian worker self-confidence, but it troubles me to think about the supplemental point he chooses not to focus on: Indians gain self-confidence through a loss of identity. If these customer service agents do their job optimally, then the customer will never know that they are speaking to someone from halfway around the world. In fact, although Friedman doesn’t mention this, Indians not only learn to hide their accents, but they are also provided with suitable names. Thus, Vikram, for purposes of making the customer feel more at ease, becomes Victor – or more probably, something even simpler, like Bob.

It’s the continued generalization of the world at work here. Yes, I can understand why Indians appreciate call center jobs. They pay well for the region, and they give the workers opportunities to continue their education. Friedman even suggests that they give female employees leverage when it comes to deciding who to pick as a mate. 

Is the opportunity to “transform a life” worth transforming, or losing, one’s identity? 

“Accent your positive, and delete your negative.” – Donna Karan

Monday, December 12, 2011

China at Your Doorstep, or The Devil You Know -- Writer's Poke #348

Entering a Walmart is a depressing experience for me and for that reason alone, I choose to shop at Target, or someplace that doesn’t zap my soul when I walk through the door.

Like everyone else, I like low prices, and so the few times that I have entered a Walmart over the past year, I’m always amazed by how cheap the products are. But still, it’s not enough to make me shift my shopping habits. I also wonder why Walmart has received such negative press over the past decade but other companies, such as, have not.

Websites exist that even make fun of the Walmart experience – and the type of customers that Walmart attracts. I’m probably guilty of having had a laugh at a Walmart customer or two, but let’s face it: some people don’t have much choice but to shop there. 

But low prices is a viscous cycle. Walmart keeps lowering the prices, jobs keep getting shipped over seas, and the middle class in America continues to shrink. With the shrinking of the middle class comes the willingness to settle for what’s cheap.

Interestingly, Levis started selling clothes at Walmart. It did so, apparently, for its own survival. But what Levis sells at Walmart isn’t quality. Levis sold its soul – and a product’s soul is its quality. Consumers may be happy enough to have Levis slapped on their butt, even if the product no longer has a soul. To me, though, this is an example of Walmart as the devil in our economy. I hate to label Walmart in such terms, because it’s somewhat unfair, but what good is lower prices if it destroys the American middle class, removes the heart from its consumers and the soul from the businesses that sell their products there?

Do you shop at Walmart? Whether you do or don’t, what should Walmart do, if anything, to change the negative image that has developed around it over the last decade? Is there any way that it can successfully re-brand it?

“Our goal isn't to close Walmart down. It is to make it a better, more humane company toward its employees and the communities it is in.” – Robert Greenwald