Biased Big Brother
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

PARIS — It's been a tumultuous few months for so-called "surveillance tech."

Most recently, following pushback from Black Lives Matter activists, Amazon has suspended police use of its facial recognition software for one year. IBM followed suit, announcing it will stop offering its similar software for "mass surveillance or racial profiling." The moves from the tech giants is a step, small as it may be, in the right direction. Yet this also comes amid calls during the pandemic to turn to such technology to ensure public cooperation to stem the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

Despite the potential medical benefits, the use of geolocation technology to curb the coronavirus has raised concerns over fundamental data protection, especially in countries like China, South Korea and Israel where tracking has been more intrusive: enlisting credit card records for purchase patterns, GPS data for travel patterns, and security-camera footage for verification.

In Russia, the pandemic proved a convenient excuse to test a nascent, China-inspired citizen monitoring system, backed by a Moscow court ruling in early March stating that the city's facial recognition system does not violate the privacy of its citizens. Even places not particularly known for their police state-like tactics are pushing limits: In Paris, cameras were installed at the popular Châtelet metro station to monitor mask use, as it is illegal to take public transportation without a mask.

Photo: Lianhao Qu

Similar (and seemingly well-intentioned) efforts like fast-tracked coronavirus data collection apps have raised suspicions of data protection breaches by both hackers and governments, including in the Netherlands and South Africa. In Germany, a country known for its hard stance on privacy protection, new surveillance tools are being met with a considerable amount of defiance. An article in Die Welt asks: "How can you defend yourself against facial recognition?", questioning not only the reliability of the recognition gear and software, but also its growing availability to private companies.

The increased attention during pandemic times has now multiplied during the social unrest that followed the police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis. If companies and governments rushed to implement face-scanning systems to track the movements of COVID-19 patients, what prevents them from exploiting the same tech to gather data from Black Lives Matter protesters?

Recognition software is significantly more likely to misidentify darker-skinned people than lighter-skinned.

Big Brother, it turns out, has racist tendencies. But in a fight-fire-with-fire sort of way, technology itself may actually help us steer away from the slippery slope of profiling. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Joy Buolamwini, a researcher nicknamed the "poet of code," created the Algorithmic Justice League, aimed at producing more inclusive and ethical technology. Through her research, Buolamwini found that recognition software is significantly more likely to misidentify darker-skinned people than lighter-skinned — conclusions that could drive calls to review the technological bias.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based Data 4 Black Lives, a movement to counter historically racist uses of big data, posits that "Tools like statistical modeling, data visualization, and crowd-sourcing, in the right hands, are powerful instruments for fighting bias, building progressive movements, and promoting civic engagement." Whether it's about the selective collection of data or what happens with the data gathered, surveillance tech companies should know that they're being watched too.

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Society

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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