What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #8

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

22 december

I have just spent a long time on Facebook, over an hour maybe. Instead of reading a Chinese book and learning new characters, I followed the progress and recent posts of old friends or classmates.

Have I just lost an hour of my time? Many people talk about Facebook in that way – time drain, waste of time. I’ve never really thought of time as something you could ‘waste’ – maybe there’s something wrong with me? I enjoy memories. I enjoy looking back at the past, remembering what happened, recollecting. I have looked at the photos of H, and it brought back my life in Dublin, in their penthouse, with M, and C and A, and D.. I looked of pictures of A.M. and C. H. which brought me back to the lycee Kleber and my teenage years in Strasbourg. And a video with X., his video installations.

Doing this, I can trace trajectories from my own long past: X., not a top student, but personable and anarchic, has become an architect of ephemeral light structures in Paris, for concerts and night-clubs – hype, uncertain substance? Y. married – stunningly beautiful as before, her husband looks friendly, both look wealthy, and that seems to matter to them.  Z. lost hair, grew a beard, and stands in a photograph with his Turkish boyfriend. J. is now working with a feminist band. W. is now HR manager for Hewlett Packard in Vienna, looking prim and efficient.

I have been listening to ‘Tonight we are young’, over and over – seizing the last strands of my own youth, empathizing with young people. Am I refusing to grow,  still a student in my mid-thirties, desperately retaining youth, or acting like a responsible adult in a complex, fast-evolving world? I have, in certain areas, acted very responsibly. I own a house, I am in a stable and happy relationship. I founded an organization. I have recognized diplomas. I don’t have debt. I work in an area that I enjoy – though I hardly make money yet. People that I respect are encouraging me.

After Facebook, I looked at other websites: the Shanghaiist and their sensationalist news from China. ‘Tattoos you regret’. The appeal of the gruesome, the grotesque, the terrifying, the freakish, is old news: Plato wrote about it. A man with a hand grafted on his ankle. The woman whose husband gouged our her eye with his hand, or the woman who snapped off her husband’s penis with a pair of scissors. Who doesn’t want to see this?

In part, I take this as research. For some reason, possibly the way my father brought me up, I have grown to believe that ‘the best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’. I have played video games, sometimes to addictive levels, as a teenager – yet, I read extensively, passed exams, achieved things. Maybe not as much as if I hadn’t, maybe more. Who knows what bizarre unbalance might have come from me not playing Civ-Evo during my Wheeler Centre residency, or minesweeper when I was working from the Hub, or watched fewer random Facebook posts during my time in Nanjing.

So dwelling in the delights of remembering, and looking at gruesome news on the internet – is this a privilege I will later regret, time available by not having children and not trying to make money, time wasted now I will regret in my old age? Or is it my way of letting off some steam, in the culture and society that I live in, a way of not getting more deeply addicted to whatever I could get addicted to?  For I have not had a television since I was 18, and how many hours have I saved by not watching stupid shows on TV?

 

On the desire to share

What would the French moralists have to say about this bizarre desire to share everything – and rather than keep our unwanted manuscripts in the back of boxes inside drawers, publish them online. Some absurd hope that someone will stumble upon them, and find some gold in them?

Corona thoughts: whose voices are being heard?

“In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?’ A few years ago, I posted a question on my Facebook wall, asking friends for advice on good historical writing about the Australian pre-federation period. One of the comments was from a cousin, who wrote – in French – ‘bon, tu arrêtes ton charabia, et tu parles français comme les gens civilisés’.

As a French migrant to Australia, the multilingual internet is a fact I remember every time I post on Twitter or Facebook. My friends and family do not speak English well. My Australian friends do not speak French.

It’s happened that I’ve read good articles in Le Monde or French blogs and wanted to share them, but they wouldn’t make sense to my Australia friends who do not speak French. And China – well, it’s a different beast yet. I have WeChat on my phone, and check Facebook on my computer. One device and platform per country. Sharing from one to the other is very unwieldy.

The internet offers a strange meeting of local and global. When Marco Polo Project was running its digital magazine, we had readers in over 1000 cities around the world. I have multiple blogs in multiple languages, and their audience is international. As Australia becomes increasingly multicultural and multilingual, how will we listen in to these non-English language conversations? How will we explore the new forms that evolve in certain countries?

Much of the internet is real time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to the Emerging Writers Festival. A literary reviewer from the UK, she had issues sleeping  in Australia – she felt obliged to take part in Twitter conversations, and listen in for urgent emails or calls for work on UK time. Others follow conversations in New York, 14 hours difference. Meanwhile, who knows what’s being discussed up north, in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia.

In Covid-19 times, this becomes an issue. What do we know, us non-Chinese readers, about the Wuhan experience. And I’m not even talking of censorship, but direct testimonies of the people there, or medical reports, even research from China? What do we know of the deep conversations in Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan? Only what correspondents will share, in English. How can we develop a deep, global sense of the present crisis, in a linguistically fragmented Internet?

There is no clear solution – and this piece isn’t offering one. Only that we probably need to reflect more on language, writing and ideas. Language is the medium of any writing – well, of any articulated thoughts – and if we do not go beyond English, we will remain unaware of our own enormous blindspots. In times like these, a terrible missed opportunity.

Why baby animals help – when you bump a few too many walls

Today, I wrote on my facebook wall: “Could anyone send me a baby animal pic? I think Bubble tea’s not gonna do the trick. Bumped on the same-shape wall a few too many times.”

The last bump was with someone I work with, repeatedly saying: ‘I’ll do X,’ but actually just putting X on a list.  For some reason, I’ve been affected by the delays, slackness, slow responses, or just plain committing and never doing, which I’ve experienced recently. I guess, running a non-profit on passion and conviction that long-term benefits are significant, as I do, makes me vulnerable to disappointment – many people just do the job they get immediate money for, and not very well at that. I always forget.

Beside, this comes in a context of battling for funds among multiple bodies – never quite fitting their criteria – and encountering the self-centredness of constituted grant givers when allocating public money. Working in a small structure where I’m accountable for everything, I have become sensitive to bureaucratic slack and disengagement. And indeed, I have taken on some of it myself – if they don’t do their job, why should I do mine – and neglected things I should be doing. Add a layer of guilt and meta-guilt to the mix. Slack may be structural. Am I any better? Who am I to blame?

Three days ago, I bumped. I was tired, and at some level I wanted to give up the whole shebang – Marco Polo Project, the Festival I’m trying to organise, even life in Australia. But at some level, I knew there may be milder solutions. And so – wisely? – I just put everything down for a couple of hours, and got myself a cup of bubble tea, taro with pearl. Sometimes, all you need is a moment off, giving the brain time to find its balance. It worked in that instance.

Another problem today, another encounter with ‘I haven’t yet but it’s on my list’, and I found myself in a daze. So, I thought appealing to a sense of communal support – and watching pictures of baby animals – would help. And it did. Within seconds, I got a smiling cat, a puppy wearing a dinosaur suit, and a youtube video of an armadillo playing with a pink plastic bear. It made me laugh, it lifted my mood, and got me drafting this piece, which is better than the daze.

10471165_10152155830746816_6176680948228131589_nWhy do baby animals help? Why do we find them ‘cute’, and why does it lift up our mood to look at them? Some of it has to do simply with youth – any baby represents a future potentially different, better than the frustrating present. Although that baby cat is likely to turn into the usual grumpy adult – it still has the potential to be that perfect being, which will exactly match my expectations. Some of it has to do with animals – we forget about the human world, its anxieties, duties, pressures, and complex web of politeness. The baby animal expresses unrepressed emotions, joy, surprise, love – or at least we can project those on them.

And maybe, there is a meta-reason. When you’re frustrated at the narrowness of the world, how nobody will go that extra mile, not even that extra centimetre, how everybody’s busy, grumpy, depressed: well, someone had enough energy to take a baby animal pic, and enough generosity to share it on the web, making it available to others. And so, the sheer existence of baby animal pictures, their availability, testifies that the world has more to it, that we do have an extra little bit of energy to share, that we can go beyond. And I guess, that’s why I’m feeling better now.

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Chinese lowlights – internet and hardware

Internet has been the lowlight of my time in China. Unreliable, slow, and expensive. At home, I used a 3G stick from China Unicom: 300 yuan for nine gigabytes, three nationally, six locally. The first one went quickly – I bought a second from a small shop, which turned out to be registered in another province, and so ran out after three gigabytes of usage only. Neither anger nor diplomacy got any result from the shop ladies, so I bought a third stick, which has lasted me till now. Overall, the connection was highly unstable and slow, with or without VPN. As for cafes (or even youth hostels), WIFI quality was a regular source of frustration – it varied from place to place and from day to day, without any clear explanation. Bad internet connection affected my mood and productivity considerably. I run online projects, I have collaborators in Australia: if I can’t get online, I can’t work. As time passed, my patience wore off, and in the last month, I have seen myself give up a few times before midday, after spending long periods of time re-loading pages in between timeouts.

Hardware issues made the matter worse. I bought a MacBook Air in October 2012 – it came highly recommended, and indeed, I found it amazingly practical to use. Then in October 2013, while I was visiting a friend in Tianjin, just before a week of back-to-back meetings in Beijing, my computer crashed: a flashing folder with a question mark appeared on the screen when I tried turning it on. The SanLiTun store delivered harsh news, my flash-drive needed changing – all data was lost. More annoying, they didn’t have a spare part. After much insistence, I got them to order the piece in a Shanghai store, and set up an external boot-disk, so I could use my computer in the mean time. Planning an appointment in Shanghai was another ordeal – their complicated and all-in-Mandarin online appointment system didn’t work, and the phone assistant refused to help. But in the end, I got my computer fixed, and an apology from the manager for the bad experience over the phone. All important data was on dropbox and google docs, and I got over the annoyance.

Then four days ago, as I was browsing the net at a friend’s house, my screen froze. The flashing folder was back. I went to the Shanghai Apple store this morning, and got the same harsh news: my flash-drive died.  They were decent enough to recognise that after three months, this was an embarrassment. ‘SSD drives never break’, said the guy from the Genius Bar. But they didn’t have a spare part for me, so I’ll have to get the thing fixed in Melbourne. Fortunately, I bought a warranty extension in October – so won’t have to pay extra. And fortunately, I did regular back ups on time-machine, so won’t lose much data. But the Shanghai people weren’t able to properly order the piece for me in Australia – though they did say they would try to send an email – which means possibly more back and forth trips to the Apple store in Chadstone.

These IT issues have been a constant drain of energy throughout my stay in China. It’s hard enough to deal with everyday interactions in Mandarin, get used to a new country, make a new set of social contacts, all this while preparing two collaborative international projects and studying the language at an advanced level. Now imagine the same thing with your tech cyclically breaking down, and no reliable service to fix it. I guess Apple was alright, in the context of China. Their phone service is a nightmare, their repair did last for only three months, and they’ve got a short stock of crucial spare parts. More generally, multiple details in attitude and expression, which could be summed up as ‘cultural differences’, added to the sense of frustration. But I did manage to get a temporary boot disk, and the technicians in store were polite, understanding, and helpful to an extent.

More importantly, though these IT issues were a great drain on my usual productivity, they were a great learning lesson on three fronts:

* I learnt to let stuff go. In general, I’m a reliable planner: I give myself a list of things to do, and then I do it all. For the last month, I slowed down, both socially and professionally. There’s emails I may never send, blog posts I’ll never write, New Year’s greetings I’ve missed, articles I will not translate. That’s OK, when I get back to Melbourne, ‘where things work and people smile’, I’ll take stock of my losses, and start afresh.

* The frustration of unreliable tech gave me direct emotional insight into the multiple frustrations that people in China live through every day. It explains the tired faces and the cynical words, both among locals and expats. The frustration extends beyond tech – it’s everywhere in a society where service and infrastructure is unreliable. I’ve come back to my reflections on trust – as I learnt, you can’t even trust an Apple computer to work here, or a repair from a genuine Apple store to last over three months. Gradually, you trust everything and everyone less.

* Finally, my interactions with Apple were a great opportunity to reflect on culturally hybrid spaces, and the particular challenges they pose to globalising economies. At every step, my relationship with technicians and customer service people was distorted through a number of lenses – my attempt at adopting a ‘Chinese’ mode, their attempt at servicing a ‘Westerner’, and our common struggle to fit these cross-cultural efforts within the framework of Apple’s generic service processes.

I came here to learn the language and the culture. These tech issues were very painful, and they did harm projects I was trying to set up from here. But they might have made my learning better – so that ultimately, I’m not unhappy that I had to face them. A four month stay abroad will have highlights and lowlights. And I believe the wisdom of a true cross-cultural learner is to take both of them in. Learning is not always pleasant in the moment it happens. Sometimes, what you learn is even slightly grim. But you’re still that little bit wiser, and better ready to face the future.

Honey Pot – how a project came to life.

Four years ago, I wrote the script of a short gay film that would show two men dancing in a public toilet. My friend Nghi, whom I’d met by chance at a screenwriters meetup, was interested in the storyline, and offered to produce it. We gathered a small team, found a location, negotiated hard for a permit, and shot the whole thing three and a half years ago. The film screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was later selected for the Verona and Mumbai Queer Film Festivals.

Two years ago, Nghi decided to put Honey Pot on youtube. We were not going to sell it, and had exhausted the festival circuit. A month later, our film had received over 10,000 views – and we were exhilarated! That was more viewers than fifty festivals. And then the number grew. 50,000. 100,000. Last I saw, we were over 2 million. More people have seen this film than live in South Australia, Stockholm or Dublin – and with 2000 to 3000 views a day, we’ll soon overtake Manchester, Budapest or Vienna.

This is the power of the net. What was just an idea four years ago, with very minimal budget – 3000 dollars, which we’ve since covered through youtube ads – we’ve reached out over 2 million people, generated hundreds of comments, and become part of debates and discussions about male desire, police abuse, and the perception of Asian gay men. We spent no money marketing or promoting the piece – it resonated enough with people that they sent a link or told their friends about it.

This little video, and the story of its online success, is one of my great pleasures. When I doubt about the success of my current projects – I think back on Honey Pot, and how, within four years, a few words on a page became images seen by over 2 million people over the world. It’s happened, it could happen again. It’s taken time, other things will. And if all fails, at least, I’ve made this little film, which people have enjoyed. It’s also taught me something else: many viewers were in countries I never thought of – Indonesia, Philippines, even Saudi Arabia. There’s an audience beyond the North Atlantic – and maybe we should think of them when we shoot, write, paint, or edit. At least, from now on, I do!

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet – here’s the video. If you like it – send a link to your friends!

Second-tier languages on the web.

I just finished reading the ‘Net Lang‘ UNESCO report on ‘the multilingual cyberspace’. I didn’t find the report overall earth shattering, but did note a few points of interest, which I’d like to share here.

The first thing I’d like to note is that nobody really seems to know what’s happening on the web, or be able to measure it. I posted charts from wikipedia in a previous post, and commented on the discrepancy between English language contents vs English speakers online. All authors agree that English content is disproportionately high. But the exact measure is unclear. In spite of various projects, there seems to be no clear figures about  language on the web. Given the abundance of contents, including huge quantities of dynamic contents (blogs, facebook pages, twitter…), it is, at present, impossible to give any clear calculations: lack of proportion does not help generate percentage points. This initial remark serves as a caveat for what follows.

The second point is something I already noted when reflecting on language policy within Australia: there is remarkably little talk of ‘second-tier’ languages, and how to strategically engage with them. In rough terms, the situation is as follows: there are about 6000 to 7000 languages spoken on the planet, but a small number of them dominate the offline world – and even more so the online world. Roughly speaking, on the internet, 1 language (English) accounts for about 50% of all contents, and about 60 to 70 account for over 90% of all contents. Many author defend ‘minority languages’ – those within the under-represented 10%. But no-one seems to really focus on the ‘second-tier’ dominant languages – Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, etc – which alternatively fall in with the rest of under-represented languages, or – more frequently – are bundled together with English among ‘privileged’ languages which do benefit from an established set of standards, and are recognised by multilingual browsers and translators.

These  ‘second-tier languages’ are precisely those I am most interested in. They represent about one third of all contents, and two thirds of all users. What will happen to that proportion in the close future? Are they going to challenge the dominance of English? Chinese, particularly, but also Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic… Is the web gearing towards an equal proportion of English and Chinese? Or is English going to remain the dominant form, a necessary koine for web communication?

While I prepare further reflections about machine-assisted language learning vs automatic translation, and scenarios for the future of digital multilingualism, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – and link to any material on that question!

First and second languages on the net

What language is the net written in? A wikipedia page on the question proposes the following charts. These charts are based on estimates as of May 2011, themselves not fully representative of the full net content – but let’s have a look at them all the same.

This one represents the languages used for the contents of the web:

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This one represents the language spoken by web users

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Did you notice the discrepancy? English accounts for 57% of all contents – but only 27% of users. And in parallel, Chinese (I suppose this is Mandarin) accounts for 25% of users, but only 5% of contents.

Traditionally, English has been the web’s lingua franca. But non-English contents has grown at a rate much higher than English contents. And it looks like the future of the web will be multilingual. Also, let’s not forget – if 55% of the web is written in English, 45% isn’t, and that 45% represents a considerable amount of contents.

I think the early days of the internet brought with them some utopian vision of a unified world – where everyone would communicate with everyone in the ‘global village’. For non-native speakers of English – like myself – this meant an added burden of study: the doors to the global village were opened only to fluent English speakers. Others remained at the margin.

Now, it looks like more diverse communities are blossoming. But how do these ‘web-linguistic-subcultures’ communicate? Are they equivalent in shape to the ‘global’ English-speaking community, simply different in size? Or is there a qualitative difference between them? Are they radically fragmented, provincial, each individually relating to the core ‘English’ web, but not to each other?

In particular, what is the situation for ‘second-tier’ web languages – German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, French? Debates about multilingualism often seem to jump directly to forgotten rare dialects, omitting to think – more cynically perhaps – about these second tier languages big enough to not be just lumped in an ‘other’ cloud, but not yet big enough to compete with dominant English. Partly, the Marco Polo Project was born of a felt need to create bridges between the Chinese and English webs – the first two languages by users, if not contents. But is there such a need?

And finally, what does it mean that – still – a significant part of internet users are communicating in their second language – while others use their first? Does that create an implicit hierarchy – some sort of post-colonial position of dominance to native English speakers, who can put aside the burden of learning a foreign language, and still access the world? Or does it create a risk for ‘English’, which sees itself more and more invaded by non-native speakers, to the risk of possible depletion – reducing to some watered down ‘globish’?

At the start of this Education and Digital Culture MOOC, these are the questions I’m asking myself – and which I’d like to reflect on further over the next few weeks. I’ve just downloaded a big report by ‘Net.Lang: “Towards the multilingual Cyberspace“, and will post further reflections here. Meanwhile, all comments are very welcome!

Reflections on translation – an interview with James Friesen

Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to  ‘http://marcopoloproject.org’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (http://marcopoloproject.org/online/the-tears-of-animals/)

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something? 

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have? 

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.