Posts Tagged 'technology'

A phone that’s not satisfied just with being smart

By Harry van Versendaal

“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.

From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.

“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.

Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.

Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.

“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.

Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.

The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.

“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.

Storytelling device

From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.

“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.

“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”

Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.

“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.

Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?

“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.

“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.

The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.

“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.

“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.

“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”

Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.

“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.

If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.

http://www.fairphone.com
#WeAreFairphone

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Local innovators try to navigate their way out of Greek mess

By Harry van Versendaal

AthensBook made a name for itself in 2009 as a free mobile phone application that served busy urbanites lost in the asphalt jungle of the Greek capital with easy-to-use, real-time location-based data: open pharmacies in the neighborhood, the cheapest gas stations and nearest on-duty hospitals — all at the tap of a touchscreen.

Three years and 145,000 downloads later, the two friends and business partners behind the project, 30-somethings Dimosthenis Kaponis and Yorgos Panzaris, are hoping to make fresh ripples in the local app ecosystem by unveiling an update that provides users with better, richer and more “social” content.

But the overall aim has not changed.

“Our goal is to provide the information people actually need while on the go,” said Kaponis from the team’s brand-new offices in Halandri, a leafy suburb in northeastern Athens. “This does not mean stuffing hundreds of mostly unused and irrelevant bits of information inside a database and serving those. Our vision lies in evaluating and providing exactly what every single one of our users needs, without them worrying too much about it,” he added.

AthensBook is available on iOS and Android, and it will soon be available in Windows 8 for tablet devices, after being selected as one of the very few companies that partnered with Microsoft in order to provide locally valuable applications for its new operating system.

Using one of those gadgets, you can now find your closest watering hole, order home delivery from the most popular pizza parlors, see what museums and archaeological sites are open, avoid traffic and even watch movie trailers with a few swipes of your finger.

Beyond the valley

AthensBook is one of an estimated 2 million apps worldwide that will be available for download by the end of 2012. A stunning 15,000 apps are released every year, far more than any other type of media — a factor that makes its success all the more remarkable.

Greece, of course, is another.

In spite of repeated pledges by politicians here to improve the notoriously hostile business environment, the country remains riddled with disincentives. Start-ups have to grapple with eye-popping bureaucracy, complex legislation and an erratic tax system. A recent report by McKinsey & Company described the Greek economy as “chronically suffering from unfavorable conditions for business.”

Kaponis puts it more mildly. “There are significant obstacles to the creation of a powerful, capable, world-class high-tech community,” he said. With the economy in its fifth year of recession, youth unemployment has skyrocketed above 50 percent.

Like many of their tech-savvy peers, the creators of AthensBook have both spent considerable quality time outside Greece. Kaponis got his M.Eng in information systems engineering from Imperial College and started a doctorate on distributed artificial intelligence at the London-based institution. He soon left his doctorate program and returned to Greece to start Cosmical Technology, providing consulting and development services to businesses. Panzaris studied electrical and computer engineering at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) and later turned to the humanities, getting a master’s in education from Harvard and a PhD on the history of technology from Stanford.

Add it up

The two friends, who met in the local blogosphere, came up with the idea for AthensBook in 2008. A few months later, the app was launched on an experimental basis. At the time, location-based products and services were no more than coffeehouse fodder. Similarly, location-based advertising, which relies on global positioning satellites and the triangulation of cell base stations by mobile operators to pinpoint location, was still in the offing.

“In 2008 extremely few companies were aware of mobile marketing that did not include your standard run-of-the mill SMS-based campaigns, or primitive — by smartphone standards — WAP sites,” Kaponis explained. Even advertising agencies specializing in digital media, largely Internet and mobile advertising, were just exploring the possibilities at that time, he says.

Convincing admen to take a risk on an unknown entity was an early challenge, but the two developers were fortunate to have created a pioneering service that was affordable enough for large businesses to try.

“The fact that we were bootstrapped made expanding our company harder, which in turn affected the product development rate,” Kaponis said. That probably wouldn’t have been much of an issue, he added, had they started their company in a more developed market with a better understanding of the high-tech sector.

To make matters worse, Greece was soon to be rocked by a severe debt crisis that also hit their sole source of revenue: ads. Total advertising spend has over the past three years shrunk to a small fraction of what it was in the late 2000s.

Nevertheless, “it wasn’t all bad,” Kaponis said, as web and mobile have lured a considerable chunk of ad money away from traditional media such as print, radio and television.

Personal touch

The latest edition of AthensBook features a smooth interface that connects to tens of thousands of venues including a full-featured cinema guide, restaurant guide, lists of nightlife venues, public services, museums and attractions, public transport information, taxi services, and live traffic information for the broader Athens area. To this end, the creators have made partnerships for premium, quality content like, for example, Infotrip for traffic data and ask4food.gr for restaurant reviews.

A Thessaloniki version, ThessBook, is also available.

Apart from upgrading content, the two developers have also tweaked the nature of the app to keep up with the web’s gradual shift to more user-generated, social content. The app now offers more social and lifestyle functionality, including user reviews, tips, and ratings. “The aim is to provide a more personal, smart and useful experience, rather than the more generic, utilitarian function it originally served,” Kaponis said.

Like most young Greek entrepreneurs, the two work with an eye fixed on what is going on outside the country. Despite the growing interest, the local market is uncomfortably small, or simply unwelcoming, for Greek start-ups that have never quite produced a blockbuster hit of Pinterest or Tumblr proportions. A very small number have managed to raise capital beyond seed level. “The human capital in Greece is a mixed bag: There are many people that are talented, ambitious and willing to work hard but who are tainted by a subpar education system and the nonexistence of an industry capable and willing to absorb them,” Kaponis said.

He and Panzaris have held discussions with a number of investors and potential partners, also from abroad, with the aim of creating useful, personal guides for cities around the world. They hope to release their first non-Greek guide in the near future.

They know that success in the digital media can be uncomfortably short-lived. Much bigger companies have risen and fallen in a very short time span. Kaponis and Panzaris say they make sure they keep their feet on the ground, but still try to mix pragmatism with a healthy dose of idealism. “AthensBook is a commercial product, so commercial success is always an important part of the equation,” Kaponis said. Their passion, however, he added, has always been to provide the best possible service and product, braving the very limited resources and difficulties of doing it here. “There is a rush associated with working on a product that is innovative, and, above all, truly useful to thousands or millions of people.”

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

Fortune cookies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Google “democracy” and “China” and you get Google. Following a series of highly sophisticated, government-guided attacks on its network, the world’s largest search engine has indicated that it might pull out of the world’s fastest-growing market. The Chinese may not quite have succeeded in nailing jello to a wall, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, but a shutdown of Google.cn would nevertheless be a setback for cyber-optimists who think that digital technology can increase the power of individuals fighting against authoritative regimes.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 on the condition it would accept official censorship. Google, of course, is a corporation; and corporations do not behave philanthropically. Nevertheless, the company’s decision was seen as being, at least partially, driven by its “don’t be evil” motto – an overriding belief in the liberalizing effect of information. Some evil, its owners suggested at the time, was unavoidable – or at least necessary if Google were to become the west’s Trojan horse behind China’s so-called Great Fire Wall.

The assumption was typical enlightenment optimism fanned by a faith in universal human progress powered by science and reason. More sober observers have denounced such dreamy optimism as an illusion – what British philosopher John Gray calls “the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Modernity has made us more effective, but it has not made us better humans.

The fact is technology is neutral. History is full of applications that have been used for benign as well as evil purposes – nuclear power, biotechnology, drugs and, now, the Web. The Internet carries in it neither despotism nor freedom. The unprecedented expressive capability and subversive potential of self-documenting bloggers and free-rights activists has come hand-in-hand with unprecedented state power to document, filter and identify dissidents as they leave their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace.

But even pessimists should agree that although the experience of Iran, Burma and China has exposed the weaknesses of twitter revolutionaries in the face of a ruthless regime, the mere crushing of these cyber-driven protests and enhanced reporting across the globe has exposed the cracks in official depictions of reality. Iran’s mullahs are feeling the heat.

Google’s purportedly ethical concerns in the China standoff have prompted praise as well as skepticism. “Google’s motives may be mixed, but it has, at last, done the right thing,” an editorial in UK’s Guardian noted, while John Gapper, a business writer for the Financial Times, said that “it takes some guts to walk away from the world’s largest potential market.”

With only some 17 percent of search queries and 33 percent of revenue, Google’s share was dwarfed by that of home-grown rival Baidu. Doing business in China, some analysts insist, was simply not worth it.

Like Sarah Lacy, a columnist for TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley site. “I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business,” she said. For Bill Thompson of the BBC, Google’s decision is inconsequential. “Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale,” he said.

What many commentators seem to miss is that, in a capitalist world, economic and moral arguments often coincide. Even if Google is not interested in democratization per se, it still has a stake in the free flow of information. Google’s objective – providing easy and fast access to comprehensive and unbiased information – is best served in an open, uncensored environment. “Openness for China is a means to an end – prosperity and development – but not a value,” wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s pretty much the same for Google.

Another point lost in the haze of China-bashing is that, again much like China, Google is itself a greedy, monopolistic behemoth, an egregious privacy-violator. For every term or phrase fired into its search box, the company will keep track of time, date, cookie ID, Internet IP address, and search terms (hence the rise of so-called “interest-based advertising”). Benevolent as the current owners of Google are, or claim to be, no one can be certain what the future holds – and not just for the simple reason that the company, like any company, may change hands. Technology is by nature unpredictable. The Industrial Revolution destroyed Britain’s social fabric but also provided the tools of Empire.

The unprecedented level of interaction makes the Internet the most powerful of media. Gloomy futurists have often warned against an Orwellian-type digital dystopia. What they, and Orwell, probably never imagined is that we would one day voluntarily feed Big Brother with our private information. As one of the Party slogans flashing on the walls of 1984’s Ministry of Truth noted, “Ignorance is strength.”


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