A fantastic short video titled “A Short History of Marketing”. If you have not seen this yet, click to watch right now. Special thanks to @AlvinFoo and MOBIZ for leading me to this vid.
I and about 1.5 billion people around the world are in the midst of the 2009 Chinese New Year celebration. Yesterday evening ushered in the Year of the Ox in all its fanfare: fireworks, a big family feast, and for those in Mainland China, the watching of the annual Chinese New Years National Evening Variety Show, also known as the CCTV New Year’s Gala.
Wikipedia describes the TV event as such: “The CCTV New Year’s Gala is currently the most watched annual Arts and Performance event anywhere in the world, and as such, its importance has reached over to political, economic, and ethical territory. As the Eve of Chinese New Year is a time where the family gathers, the typical situation involves a large 3-generation family gathered in front of their TV set while making dumplings for the first New Year’s meal. The Gala adds a mood of celebration in the house as people laugh, discuss and enjoy the performance. It has become an ingrained tradition on Mainland China to watch the New Year’s Gala on New Year’s Eve, and the audience numbers over 700 million people (est.).”
My gracious hosts for the New Years festivities this year said they remember the first annual gala televised in 1984, but Wiki says it started in 1982. Most likely the difference is a result of my hosts not owning a television set until 1984.
Which brings me to my first conclusion about China’s most important national cultural program: It’s rise in popularity and entrenchment in contemporary Chinese culture is in large part connected to the spread and rise of mass-media technology (namely television).
As Chinese families celebrated their rising disposable incomes with the purchase of their first televisions, they proudly displayed their new expression of wealth to all their neighbours and family members during the most important holiday of the year. (Very much like what Chinese families do now with new homes, or new cars. And as an interesting side-note, the majority of Chinese’ first television set was already a colour TV, as their entrants as buyers in this category was comparably late.)
And so showing the New Year’s Gala each year on their ever-expanding screen size was and is a must. China’s National Cultural Program became ingrained in China’s culture at the most rapid rate. A census conducted in 2007 said that about 93.6% of Chinese families watched the annual television spectacle.
Yesterday while I was watching the 2009 show, one specific part of the show caught my attention. One of the emcees of the evening came up at one point and spoke into the camera, telling the audience (the entire population of China) to find their parents wherever they were and hug them, thank them for their lives, show some kind of gratitude. And then he went on to ask the viewers to find their friends and show them gratitude, and then finally that we should all thank ourselves and love ourselves.
I found it odd, and the Chinese people around me listened intently. Later I asked more friends and each had their own reactions to the national ‘call to love one another’. Some thought it was ridiculous, some found it very moving. I am sure there will be more chatter in the China blogosphere in the next few days about it.
But what that moment and the entire show got me to thinking was how China has a national cultural program, and how, to my knowledge, America and other nations do not. Last night’s little blurb and annual production in general has the effect of mobilizing China’s populace into a unifying, uniting and common mode of thought, perspective and heritage.
I know many people, especially from the West, will call such a program Nationalist Propaganda, but what I want to ask here is not whether this should be classified as propoganda, and I do not want to ask whether it is good or bad. Instead I want to ask and understand why this type of National Cultural Program can become so popular and prevalent in a culture such as China and not be found in Western cultures like America.
I was searching for an equivalent National Cultural Program in North America and found none. Sure, America has the Fourth of July and even the Santa Claus parade, and even the New Years countdown in Times Square. And all are American cultural programs. But they are nowhere near as National or as engaging as China’s New Year’s Gala.
While a portion of the American population might make it a tradition to watch the Santa Claus Parade, or watch the Count Down in Times Square, the viewership is nowhere near the 94% of the entire nation as it is in China. As well, none is as engaging.
The day, week and month after the annual Chinese New Year show airs, there is talk around many preverbial watercoolers in China about what transpired during that 3 hour show. Often, a new word or slang is invented during one of the comedy skits that inevitably makes it into popular Chinese vernacular. Everyone replays, recites or reminices about some joke or witty remark made in the program. My friends have already fully reinacted the final comedy skit to the T in less than 24 hours of seeing it for the first time.
I never hear anyone reciting lines from Dick Clark’s New Year’s Program, and I never hear anyone reinacting scenes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Scrooged. America does not have a central place that enjoys upwards to 100% mass populace appeal where the American government, or the American people, can enunciate a singular message for all to conceptualize. So where is America’s national cultural program? Where is any country’s?
A lot of the explanation for China’s ability to have such a national cultural program easily comes from The Chinese’ culture of accepting and respecting national initiatives/propaganda. That comes from the familial, collegial, collaborative characteristics rooted in a Confucian past. Another part of the equation may be how today’s China has a state religion of Atheism. Whereas in America where big holidays like Christmas and Easter are still primarily Christian holidays that result in local religious communities gathering to find meaning and celebration, China has none of that. With the state religion as atheism, many people mockingly say China’s actual official religion is the worship of the state itself. If that is the case, then the New Years Gala can see as the largest televised worship service in the world.
But the main questions remain: 1) Does America need a national cultural program? And 2) What does a national cultural program mean for China’s influence in the world moving forward?
For Question 1), America has been ingenius in the past century in nationalistic and cultural agenda through decentralized programs, such as the numerous products that come out of Hollywood and Broadway. And I think that America is too critical of any ‘nationalized’ program for it to ever gain traction. Additionally, with the media environment as fractured as it is, and with the attention of Americans so fractionalized, I think it will be near impossible for America to have a national cultural program as China has it.
There is one American program in recent history that I think comes close to being a national cultural program — the Inauguration of Barack Obama.
For Question 2), A national cultural program will continue to shape China’s own contemporary culture for the foreseeable future. And depending on how quickly China rises in political and economic leadership on the global stage, perhaps other nations will need to start paying more attention to this Chinese New Year Gala. Or perhaps China will start exporting it, or a version of it, translated into other languages, to neighbouring or partner countries it hopes to influence.
The other way to look at it is if we look at American broadcast history and remember that America did actually have national cultural programs, only they reached their apex on radio before the invention of the television. At that time America also had famous variety shows that each family would turn into and listen each evening. National messages motivating and unifying the nation was disseminated using this method to great success. Sounds awful familiar to China’s experience with the New Years Gala today. If this is the case, then perhaps we will see the decline of the national cultural program in China as well. As the nation grows in media sophistication and its population becomes even-more culturally fragmented with each generation, will we see China follow America’s path of decentralizing its cultural programs?
What I know for sure is that come February 14 2010, I’ll likely be sitting in front of another television screen, with another Chinese family, watching another Chinese New Year Gala and watching intently for the subtle, or not-so-subtle nationalistic messages that come through.
(Caveat: I am not American, I am Canadian. But I use America just because it is most approachable to a larger group of readers. This particular blog post is applicable to all nations, not only America.)
In the last post, Part I, the idea of digital ecosystems was explored with a closing question about where we are headed with these three ever-growing empires.
I believe the answer lies in analyzing the issue of screensize.
In the past year and particularly during the last few months, there has been great attention spent on Netbooks. This new sub-category of computing devices fills the gap inbetween the cellular phone and the laptop. Being larger than a cellphone with a fully functional keyboard, it allows a user experience much nearer to the laptop. However being on average 50% – 75% smaller than a standard laptop means it offers even more mobility and is a better fit for those that demand constant computing capabilities that can keep up with their active lifestyles.
Indeed, some have begun to openly wonder whether the Netbook will eventually replace the Laptop. The reason for the rise of the netbook now can be attributed to two primary developments: 1) Better microprocessors made specifically for mobile computing and 2) The coming of age for Solid State Memory. With microprocessors such as Intel’s Atom, the priority is continued reduction in size, while maximizing energy efficiency while still offering a competent processing speed. The major reason for the viability of the Netbook is the rapid price reductions of Solid State Memory. It has been falling in dollars/GB for several years now, but in the past 2 years has only just begun to break the thresholds of being affordable enough to be used in mass commercial products. Apple’s MacBook Air was one of the first major mainstream computer products to set a vision for what SSDs can do, even if the price tag was (and still is) reserved for the rich and famous. Netbooks are only the next iteration of SSD usage in mass computing. While still more expensive than original Hard Disk Drives, SSD are far more durable to drops, extreme temperature, make no sound, and are more lightweight and compact. A perfect combination for mobile computing.
The netbooks also have a much lower price tag than laptops and desktops too. The reason is not because its significantly slower than the other two computing options, but because it has less memory capacity. There are two drives for having less memory: 1) To lower price of the product to an attractive level that will make it a competing alternative to the laptop and 2) Because people are increasingly needing less and less memory on their computing devices. Price is obvious, but people using less memory may be intriguing to some.
With Facebook, YouTube, Google Docs, iWork.com, Picasa, Flickr, LastFM and SalesForce.com to name a few, it is plain to see that storing things online is becoming the norm and not an anomaly. When a person finds that their life is increasingly online and all their content is stored online, the computing device’s priorities shift to processing speed and connectivity. In-device memory merely facilitates the uploading of information onto the net.
With this in mind, and the commercial success of the netbook this year, it isn’t surprising to see Apple planning a large, 7 – 9 inch screen iPod touch. And there you have it. The emergence of the mini tablet PC. Each new generation of computer strives to be lighter, faster, more connectivity, thinner, convenient, and offers a superior user interface more efficiently translate your requests.
Essentially, the computer will evolve into a simple, light-weight access panel to the internet with primarily upload capabilities.
We’re already starting to see it happen with iPhone/iPod Touch, the mini tablet PC, the regular tablet PC, the new iMacs that have done away with computer towers, and large LCD and Plasma flat-screen TVs.
As more and more functionality and our lives moves online, the need for varied formats of the computer will decrease. Eventually the only choice consumers will have to make is what size screen they’ll like.
It is a question of screensize.
Large screens for home, mid-sized screens for mobile work and when carrying a bag, small screens for ultra mobility when carrying a bag is not desired.
Going back to the three present digital ecosystems being offered by Microsoft, Google and Apple, which one will prevail if computers evolve the way its been described above? Microsoft’s present business model of selling installation-based software isn’t going to be compatible with an online, browser-based world that is more concerned with upload than download. Google’s model of offering completely free access to its online products and charging advertisers for revenue seems to fit better with a world with thinner, lightweight computers. We just witnessed an extraordinary event where two developers grafted Google’s Android platform onto one of the new Netbooks. This could be the first steps of many Google may take in securing its leadership in the next generation of computers. Apple’s closed-system software-hardware bundle still has a fair chance of succeeding if Apple can guarantee it continues to introduce the next must-have computing device that takes everyone one step closer to a thinner, more light-weight computing world. I hear iWork.com, Apple’s answer to Google Docs will be subscription-based. If Apple can keep its momentum it just might be able to lure enough people and lock them into Apple’s ecosystem to charge them all subscription fees.
It seems that if computers continue to get thinner and lighter, then for the longevity of this development (say the next 5-10 years), Google and Apple have very bright futures while Microsoft has a tough battle ahead.
But if we review the question of screensize again, an astute entrepreneur may take the idea of screensize one step further and ask: “why would we need to continue requiring consumers to carry a screen with them wherever they go? Why can’t we provide screens for them wherever they are. so they don’t have to carry screens anymore?”
Then the question no longer is about screensize, but about moving screens from 2D to 3D. Enter surface computing. All the surfaces, wherever you are, are screens for you to access your information, upload your information, and communicate. The tables, walls, clothes, all surfaces will become computing access points for the digital ecosystem.
If thinner, more lightweight 2D computers/screens is the 5-10 year mid-term horizon, then surface computing is the 15-20 year long-term horizon.
And guess who’s been leading the way for surface computing? Bill Gates and Microsoft.