Sophie Google's new blog post, ahem, whoops I mean to say Sophie Schmidt's new blog post on her trip to North Korea is a fantastic study in culture clash. What a great opportunity she had to travel into a country few Americans get to see.
"In the land of the blind, close one eye" — my Mother
As an aside, I don't understand why it's ok for everyone to refer to Sophie as Eric Schmidt's daughter. Must we put her in that shadow?
In comparison, have you noticed that NO ONE one ever mentions that Audax Health's CEO (Grant Verstandig), a 23 yr old given $21 million to socialize healthcare, is the well-heeled son of Republican politician (Lee Verstandig)?
Served in the Administration of President Ronald Reagan as Assistant Secretary for Government Affairs at the Dept. of Transportation; Acting Administrator of the Environment Protection Agency; Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs; Under Secretary at the Dept.of Housing and Urban Development; and Chief of Staff to the First Lady.
That Verstanding power and money connection seems more than just a little bit relevant yet NO ONE ever mentions it. However EVERYONE qualifies poor Sophie as the daughter of Eric.
The only Verstandig reference I have seen is this: "the son of two government employees".
Why the vague "son of two gov't employees" statement? I don't unverstandig.
Does the family have some reason to hide or downplay the rather obvious father-son link related to US national policy? You probably know where I'm going with this…
But back to the Googles…Sophie's perspective is totally fascinating to me. She starts off boldly telling us she is sorry that we may have problems and that she's not doing anything about it:
…blame Google Sites (and this two-column structure idea of mine) for limited functionality…Apologies to folks with f'd up layouts
I could just end my blog post right here. You probably know where I'm going with this…
That's the short version. But I can't just leave it there.
When Sophie apologies for Google I feel better about the "limited functionality" delivered to me. In fact, I feel downright lucky to have anything at all so I guess I will just put up with whatever I can get from them. Hey, after all it's cloud, right? You don't get to be picky…
And here really begins our journey together with her into North Korea.
While top information security professionals in the US rant about how unsafe it is to take anything into China, Sophie says she was advised to not only take her technology to China but to leave it there to keep it safe:
We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.
North Korea gets bashed for being so far behind, back in the dark ages, that Google is worrying about "lord knows what malware" being placed on the most advanced mobile devices? Nah, no way. More like the US would WANT the North Koreans to put some malware on a device so we can bring it home and study it.
There is little you can really do with a mobile device in North Korea, right? No connectivity means it probably wouldn't get pulled out of its bag. Hopefully it doesn't have anything sensitive on it anyway. Other than writing a blog post about how much you hate it there…what would you use it for? So it's not really a risk of infection that leads one to leave behind mobile devices in this scenario. Confiscation and/or loss of IP are the true risk. Don't bring anything you do not want to be forced to leave behind in North Korea or expose to them.
On the flip side do not leave behind in China anything you do not want read by various spies from the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and Asia who float around. After all, China does not exactly protect you from being spied on by agents of foreign countries when you are in China.
I find few people realize the ironic reality-twist that US citizens in foreign countries are spied on by US agents because protection from surveillance is reduced compared to back home; it's something to seriously consider when you're a US citizen out for a non-sanctioned and very public jaunt into North Korea.
Those devices you left in China? Potentially bugged by agents of the US, for your own good of course.
Back to the story, Sophie gives us a quick summary of how things felt…well, in-authentic:
Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.
This, in a nutshell, is the ultimate insult by American standards. To be real, to be authentic is to achieve maximum value in our culture; an in-authentic experience is the opposite of what many of us want. That's why it's so easy to bash the hipster. How can you trust someone walking today in downtown Mountain View who dresses like a 1890s steam train engineer?
When I read Sophie's summary of her trip I see a giant warning shot fired across our bow:
Prepare for fake. Prepare to be disappointed. North Korea trips are full of stuff that is not real. The horror.
It was only due to the instruction/vision/guidance of Our Marshall/the Respected Leader/ Awesome-O wunderkid Kim Jong Un that we were able to successfully __________ (insert achievement here: launch a ballistic rocket, build complicated computer software, negotiate around US sanctions, etc.). Reminded me of the "We're Not Worthy" bit from Wayne's World. Just another example of the reality distortion field we routinely encountered in North Korea, just frequently enough to remind us how irrational the whole system really is.
In other words you have to suspend belief if you are going to follow the story you supposed to be watching. You want rational? Come to America.
Although we Americans are quick to look at others from the outside and criticise their foolish lack of authenticity, we also love to show off with our fake and highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings…
The difference in who can be most inauthentic and get away with it, of course, is relative to power.
Kim Jong-un, like Lance Armstrong, makes use of extraordinary power and direct influence to keep an inauthentic story running even after people stop believing and want to talk openly and express their doubts or challenge his story.
Power to shut down naysayers and disbelievers is a very real problem in political science, which I don't want to minimize here. My point is that if you realize America also has a lot of problems from inauthenticity relative to power, you are one step closer to finding the authenticity even in places that try hard to keep you from seeing it. It's a problem very, very familiar to auditors, let alone anthropologists.
Perhaps I'm being too indirect and this could go on forever, given the material Sophie provides, so let me cut to the chase.
Sophie displays a very strong cultural bias in her perspective but no awareness or caution of that bias.
Why do we need an alarm clock to wake up? Why do we need soft beds and rugs? Why do we need to heat every room of every building? What is wrong with empty spaces? Why do we need street lights? Seriously, street lights are stupid abominations of sailing codes (starboard and port, green and red) never meant for roads that give engines a wasteful and unfair advantage over other forms of transportation. We need a better system. Now tell me again how strange it is to see streets without signals for sailboats.
Here's an example of how things were said in Sophie's perspective:
My father's reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.
And here is how they might be said if she had looked at it from a more North Korean view:
No need to lock your door. Simply leave it open. There's no crime risk.
Incidentally (pun not intended) if you've ever been to the Google campus headquarters you may know that they spent many years and a lot of money to cover the outside and inside with surveillance, and yet they STILL do not leave their doors open. Eric apparently feels safer in North Korea than within his own castle. (Full disclosure: I've been inside the Google SOC several times and it's very impressive. North Korea probably would be jealous.)
If we play her blog post from an outsiders view, in other words, it could be read like this:
America is great because it is crowded, polluted, wasteful, unhealthy, unsafe and people looked stressed/busy all the time.
Doesn't it sound strange when you use an inverse of her criticism of North Korea to describe America? With this different perspective in mind take another look at what she presents us with:
North Korea is empty, clean, efficient and people are fit, safe and have idle time.
Perhaps somewhere in-bewteen is a truly authentic experience and a hint as to why closing one eye in the land of the blind is sound advice.