That Double Menace Of Uberization And Globalization

Disruptive tech firms offer convenience and competitive prices. But they also push ordinary people out of jobs, neighborhoods and even public spaces.

A morning Uber ride
Héctor Zajac


BUENOS AIRES — A pair of apparently unrelated anomalies that are partly relevant to the rest of the European Union took place this past winter in Barcelona. One was a two-week standoff between taxis and ride-sharing companies like Uber and Cabify that paralyzed the city and ended with authorities deciding to give traditional taxis a 15-minute head-start. Paradoxical given that it coincided with the Mobile World Congress? Or smart urban management?

Private ride-sharing services like Uber bring vehicles and passengers closer, minimizing car circulation in the city. They make travel cheaper. And they are an answer to unemployment, especially for the worst affected sectors. But at the same time, the spike in the number of "uber-entrepreneurs' puts more cars on the road, adding to traffic congestion and slowing public buses that are used by the majority. It's the least efficient way, in fact, of using the public space, and the benefits of ride-sharing services don't, ultimately, make up for the regressive redistribution of mobility.

An Uber customer in Washington D.C. – Photo: Mark Warner

The other anomaly was the sudden drop in Barcelona's traditional, seasonal rush on stores. It appears that people are instead going online for their shopping needs — to save money, and for the sake of convenience. That, alongside the increasing numbers of people working at home thanks to IT solutions, is another factor reducing traffic and pollution in cities. Both illustrate how new technologies are changing the configuration of cities.

Globalized capitalism ... favors an unprecedented accumulation of power.

These negative and positive influences are not inherent to communication and information technologies. They are a result of globalized capitalism, which favors an unprecedented accumulation of power by sectors that exploit the dynamics of technological change ahead of legal frameworks and controls. And that is where local and national governments have a role in minimizing the negative effects of this new economy.

The globalization of finance and the presence of specialized websites are in turn fueling real estate and rental demand, widening the rift between rising prices and local earnings. This is proportionately and directly displacing local residents from neighborhoods. Across the EU, there is an ongoing battle against property speculation, even as firms are effectively subsidized to create "virtual", if not precarious, employment.

In Buenos Aires, the stadium planned for Agronomía — a district that is one of the city's vital green and leisure spaces — is just one of many examples of public space being sold to benefit of the few. In a city with a dismal ratio of green spaces to residents and a chronic shortage of affordable housing, this type of speculative decision-making will exacerbate existing inequalities and segregation.

The spirit of the 21st century should not revolve around more sophisticated gadgets and applications that provide personal comfort while creating precarious work and living conditions across the system. This is like leaving a few trees after razing the park. Our protective canopy should be better territorial organization, and livable and inclusive cities for all.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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