From NYC To DC, Yonderman’s American Journey Continues

Slovenian-born Andrej Mrevlje has lived all around the world, sharing his stories and ideas. Now, after five years in the Big Apple, it's time for life inside the beltway.

Shadows of power
Shadows of power
Andrej Mrevlje

WASHINGTON â€" There is always something exciting about leaving your comfort zone and moving on to a new place â€" into an unknown situation. I never thought that this would happen with such exhilarating a city as New York. And yet, after more than five years of life in “the city that never sleeps,” the proposal to move came my way, and I said “yes” immediately. The things I have fallen in love with in New York started to fade away.

I wrote a column on New York a few months after I landed in the city. It was dedicated to Tony Judt, who had passed away a few months before, and whose declared love for New York has become my own love for the city. This in spite of the fact that the New York from the times of Woody Allen and other intellectuals no longer exists. But no matter how much it’s been diluted, as Tony Judt wrote from his deathbed, the city still kept its endless charm and liveliness:

The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs â€" or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity. The same, of course, is true of the self-referential squabbles of the cultural elites of Russia or Argentina. But that is one reason neither Moscow nor Buenos Aires matters on the world stage. New York intellectuals once did, but most of them have gone the way of Viennese cafe society: they have become a parody of themselves, their institutions and controversies of predominantly local concern.

And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city â€" that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.

Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.

All this variety of cultures and languages that can be seen in your German butchers, Korean cleaners, Italian restaurants, local bar â€" oh, my local 1020 bar that helped me get to know New York so well â€" becomes your community, the comfort zone that we always build around us. It allows us, as Judt said, to look outward and feel like New Yorkers, but not Americans.

It would be great to re-discuss these notions with Professor Judt, who â€" when still alive â€" was one of the attractions of the city.

Washington is a move in the opposite direction. It is about getting to know America.

Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

In 2010, Judt had already written about the decline of the American age. “But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city?” Judt asked himself, claiming that New York â€" a city more at home in the world than in its own home country â€" would do better than other world metropolises.

This was six years ago. New York, like London, has become a primary target of international real estate capital. Both cities are radically changing, and I would dare to say that this time, London got the better deal.

Yet when you approach Manhattan from Long Island, JFK airport or New Jersey, there is no better skyline in the world. It creates in you an immediate impulse to be part of that landscape, part of that image reproduced in almost every Hollywood movie. Have you ever asked yourself how much of its popularity New York owes to Hollywood? It is not only us non-Americans who are drawn to New York â€" even Californians are attracted to the city for the same reasons as most Europeans. I have Californian friends who moved to the city and became New Yorkers for exactly this reason. It is hard to leave them â€" all of them.

And yet, when I need an intellectual justification for the move, this comes very easily. D.C. is where the nation’s political power lives. No matter whether it will be Trump or Clinton who steps into the Oval Office next year, this city will be changing its face, I was told in the first few days of my stay in Washington. Who would not like to observe this process? I have almost no interest in the domestic political bargaining or the overwhelming presence of lobbies in the city. I still look outward and want to see what will happen with the predicted end of the American age. That is, if it arrives in our lifetime.

Georgetown, Photo Andrej Mrevlje

In the meantime, Washington is here for me. I have not yet found a good spot from which I can see the face of this spread-out city that intentionally leaves its buildings low, giving plenty of space to its historical monuments. The city is a marvelous architectural mix of classicism and conservatism, with the Washington Monument being the highest construction in the city’s otherwise horizontal landscape. You can drive a car around the city, or ride a shared bike. We subscribed to the program the very first day we arrived. You get the feeling that you can ride a bike without worrying that you will get knocked down by an angry driver. It is easy enough to avoid the rush hours when you can find some frantic drivers on the roads â€" otherwise, the city seems to be safe for biking.

Another advantage is that there are few policemen to be seen. That is, if you keep away from the Capitol Building, White House, or Supreme Court â€" the triangle of the power in this city. There is hardly any deafening noise coming from ambulances or fire trucks in the city. Nothing that compares with New York, where the permanent noise of sirens seems to be part of the cultural landscape. And yes, Washington â€" with its average age of a little over 30 â€" is an embarrassingly young city, where employment comes mostly from the federal government. Could the District of Columbia therefore be called socialist territory? I am really looking forward to playing with this idea. Have I landed back in a socialist country?

But even more significantly, this is the first time that I am living in a southern city in America. And I like it so far. It is a good, fertile land for a publication like Yonder. Stay tuned.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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