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Month: November 2018

Hung jaak – paying a prime for your belief

One thing often commented about Hong Kong is how the modern and the traditional coexist harmoniously. Walking around there, between steel and glass skyscrapers you will inevitably come across at least one colorful and fragrant temple, and it will not seem out of place. That same grace manifests itself in many ways, and for this post I want to focus on the mix of traditional beliefs with digital technologies and the reproduction of inequalities.

Hong Kong-made tech are usually created for financial purposes, which is unsurprising given the region’s location and History. Fintech can seem very acultural in a sense that, being fundamental for globalized markets, it tends to be somewhat homogeneous around the world. But a much more local character shows up in real estate uses of technology.

A bit of background info here: Hong Kong is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. While that is often attributed to a chronic shortage of land (a very disputed and evergreen subject), you cannot ignore the fact that this is also one of the most unequal societies in the world. While a mansion at The Peak has been sold for £338 million earlier this year, thousands of people remain homeless, spend their nights in 24-hours McDonald’s restaurants or live in awful conditions in cage/coffin apartments (although Beijing representatives may mock that). In such a competitive market, even the most precarious spaces come with high price tags, and people are always looking for opportunities for bargaining.

Another important contextual information is that the people of Hong Kong are very superstitious. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianism and other religions and philosophies all melt together and inform spiritual and mundane practices in Hong Kong. How seriously? Feng Shui shapes the very skyline of the city.

Superstitious people looking for a place to live in HK, then, have to take auspiciousness into consideration. At the top of the list of concerns is avoiding hung jaak – Cantonese for ghost apartment: homes inside which people have died, especially in cases of untimely deaths, carry a lot of bad energy. Before the internet, potential residents would have to trust on a real estate agent’s knowledge and honesty, because there is no official listing of that kind of data. But clever technologists saw a business opportunity in manually gathering and providing such information.

For at least six years, Squarefoot, an international “property portal”, has kept a page dedicated to the listing of indoors deaths since 1977, with varying levels of detail. A most widely publicised tool came from another company, inspired by augmented reality game Pokémon GO: made the headlines in 2016 by timely creating and marketing a new feature in its mobile app, which allowed users to check for haunted properties by aiming the camera at a building. If there was any such occurrences there, a ghost should appear on the screen. Even before that tool was developed, the site of the company already had a layer on its map for checking that.

But the main reason why those services are good business is not that they help believers to avoid the haunted properties, but the exact opposite. Because those beliefs are so ingrained in Hong Kong (and other Chinese) society, prices of those homes can plunge around 10 to 50%, thus attracting non-believers.

In practice, that means any superstitious person would have to consider how much they can pay to live in accordance with their values. While neither company knows who actually gets those places, they seem to believe their services cater to millennials and expats, as those are the segments of population least prone to holding traditional Chinese beliefs. Because of that, this form of house hunting ends up reproducing inequalities present in the society, notedly the privilege of expats: usually already richer then locals (and immigrants), they get to save handsomely with hung jaak.

e-cidadania, is it worth it?

Just a few days after the election of Jair Bolsonaro a couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link suggesting that we voted, in a poll, in favor of maintaining the current gun control legislation in Brazil. That had been a very common and divisive subject during the election cycle and will likely remain so, at least until the new leader passes the desired changes.

Some examples of Bolsonaro showing his appreciation for guns.

The link took me to a page called e-cidadania, a portal launched in 2012 by the Brazilian federal Senate to allow and incentivise citizens to take part in legislative activities, budget planning, accountability and representation. The platform consists of three tools:

Legislative ideas: citizens can suggest and support changes in legislation and the creation of laws. If a suggestion reaches 20 thousand supporters in at most 4 months, it is then discussed by the Senate.

Interactive event: users can watch and comment on events open to the public.

Public consultation: all law projects and other propositions being discussed by the Senate are described to users, who can then vote for or against them.

The main concern I have about this platform is online safety. There have been many instances of data breach worldwide, and Brazil is believed to be an easy target. Here we have a national participatory technology that requests its users to create an account with full name, password, state of residence and e-mail: all sensitive information that could be used for gaining access to other services. Looking closely at its terms of use and privacy policy, things don’t get more reassuring: the only information about personal data storage is that it is held in the Senate’s database, with no mention of expiration period. It is stated that the Senate retains the copyrights and prerogative to divulge users’ names and other input information whenever they consider it necessary for the portal’s mission.

Such is the case when a user’s legislative idea gets more than 20,000 favorable votes and is sent forward to be discussed by senators. Not only the author’s full name is divulged to the representatives and anyone who accesses the site, but also those of all people that supported it, along with their e-mails.

That may seem like fair use, but right now in Brazil, any discussion topics are clearly divided ideologically. That political divide has reached e-Cidadania: the two most voted proposition of 2018 so far suggests “criminalising MST and other social movements that occupy private lands” and “turning into a crime the teaching of gender ideology in Brazilian schools“. Those propositions (which were both supported and will be discussed by the Senate) are a reaction to what is perceived to be the greatest harms caused by leftist politics. By looking at the list of supporters names, you can identify people who are at least in part aligned with the incoming government. I wonder where are held the names of the people who voted against those values, and who can/will be able to access them: maybe a government that has promised to end any forms of activism and to eliminate opposition?

Criminalising “gender ideology” at schools: yes

Criminalising land justice activism: yes

Reviewing gun legislation: no

How do senators handle those results? A research by Raianne Liberal Coutinho in 2017 using data from the previous year shows that although representatives say they check the votings and take the results into consideration, they vote against popular opinion in the most relevant cases.

If e-cidadania is becoming more partisan by reflecting the current political climate, it does not seem to be overly protective of user’s personal information, doesn’t seem to influence political outcomes and could be a tool for an authoritarian government, I have to ask: is it worth participating?

My vote is no.

#running in China

Runners taking part in the Great Wall Marathon 2017. Image: Albatros Adventure Marathons.

There are so many interesting topics to discuss about the uses Chinese people and companies are making of the expanding Internet structure and technological innovations, but for this post I want to focus on something very close to my heart: running.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association, last year 5 million people took part in 1,102 running events in China, almost 20 times as in 2014. In one single day in April there were 40 races! And yet, a lot of people are left out of events: 100,000 runners applied for the 2017 edition of the Beijing Marathon, for which there were only  30,000 slots available – although that did not stop all rejected runners.

Why have so many people in China suddenly caught the running bug? There seem to be three main reasons: the expansion of the Chinese middle class, government encouragement and a desire for status on social media platforms.

For the government, this running boom is positive in many ways: it improves overall population health, stimulates domestic tourism and keeps the money flowing: despite the fact that running doesn’t cost much, the Chinese are very willing to put their RMB to use in gear and events.

That joyous spending has been made possible by the economic boom China has experienced in the last years and the expansion of its middle class. More people have some disposable income, time for leisure and a desire for a healthier life, both physical and mental. Running is perceived to be a pastime of the wealthy, so many people feel that it is something they have to take part in.

And how do you join the marathoner status if not through social media? Neil Connor, a writer for The Telegraph, reported finding “100 million-plus views of photos and posts bearing the hash tag #Wuxi #Marathon on Weibo on the day of this year’s race [2018]”. That desire to impress on social media dispate one’s actual fitness level can have undesirable consequences: although more than 1.2 million people took part in full and half-marathons in China in 2017, half a million of them didn’t make it to the end of the race. That same year, in a marathon in Qingyuan, more than 12,000 out of 20,000 runners received mid-race medical treatment.

Not only thousands of people are putting their health at risk, but a smaller group is actively cheating the system by using other runner’s bibs or taking shortcuts to run shorter distances.  Last year’s Shenzen half marathon made the headlines for shameful numbers: 258 runners were caught by traffic cameras and photographers taking shortcuts or otherwise breaking the rules, and at least 18 were identified wearing fake bibs. As we can see, the technology that allows for a carefully curated athletic self also allows for the surveillance that can destroy it. Now the organizers of the Shenzen half and the Beijing Marathon have announced plans to use facial recognition to identify cheaters and ban them permanently. Those measures are seen as ways to not only eliminate cheaters from future events but, more profoundly, a way to  “respect the marathon and respect sporting spirit”.

I finish this post with a humble homage to my very own personal cheater, whom I met during this year’s Hong Kong Marathon. She showed up in the racecourse less than half a kilometre to the finish line, wearing casual clothing, with her hair down and not a memory of sweat on her body. She crossed the finish line, got a medal and left laughing. I hope tech will someday avenge me.


Digital identity crisis

Youtube and Spotify know when I am missing Hong Kong (although that is a Chinese music video in Shanghai, but you can’t control emotional associations)

For the last two and a half years, I lived in a country that was not my own. I moved to Hong Kong in a short notice and did not know much about the place before arriving. As so many people do, I started using technologies to find my way around. Af first I relied on the usual “neutral” apps: wouldn’t step out of my apartment without Google Maps and would only know where to eat if Foursquare directed me to a vegetarian-friendly shop.

With the passing of the months, I had to also move my digital presence to my new physical place. To my surprise, it was very cumbersome to change my Google, Apple and Spotify accounts from Brazil to Hong Kong. But it was necessary, both to allow for adding my new local forms of payment and for getting access to local apps. Netflix did not require such a maneuver, but my options for consumption in the platform were automatically changed. Of course, in due time, I forgot what I lost and started to enjoy the Asian content that was new to me.

In order to keep up with local news, I started following Hong Kong media on Twitter, then Chinese and Asian media more broadly, as traveling took me to those places and made me more invested in their realities. Around the same time, local social scientists started creeping up in my feed, as did local photographers on Instagram, both because the platform suggested them to me and because I was getting more and more attached to images of specific roads, neons, bamboo scaffolding and all sorts of daily mundane details that make a place dear to us. Slowly but surely, as I became accustomed to those sights and because I recognised them, they started becoming part of my identity.

My support systems for living in the in 852* had by them changed almost completely: I checked the weather using the Hong Kong Observatory‘s app; the Hong Kong Public Libraries‘ app was something I couldn’t live without; Foodpanda and Deliveroo fed me, HSBC Hong Kong‘s app made me anxious. Not to sound offensive, but was I not, at least digitally, a bit of a Hongkonger?

Thousands of tiny (mostly) perfectly rational and practical decisions ended up amounting to some sort of (quite emotional) identity shift. Which was reinforced by locals interpreting my ethnically ambiguous face as Chinese, only to be corrected by my reaction, that was usually just looking very surprised and confused.

Now I am a Brazilian who lives in Edinburgh and has to decide what to do with this digital Hongkonger self. There is no playbook for that. Some things are not a matter of choice, so I find myself once again suffering with Google, Apple and Spotify. But what about the Facebook page of my former running community; the Instagram account from the vegan restaurant in my neighbourhood that was pretty much my dining room; the local charity from which I adopted my two lovely cats? If I keep all of these, am I maintaining my Hongkonger digital self alive? Would that stop me from moving on and developing a more current digital identity? Killing her feels like killing a part of myself that I actually kinda like. But honestly, can I even move on, when different social media platforms still recommend me HK content and Google Photos keeps bringing up memories? Is it up to me?

I just don’t know what to do with my(digital)self.

*852 is HK’s area code and how locals sometimes refer to here there. You know, just something we locals do.

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