The Virtual Paradox Of Generosity In The Digital Age

You just walked past a homeless man on the street, but you may try to help him if you see his story on social media.

Virtually helping
Virtually helping
Julie Rambal

PARIS"If you could help this couple who are living in the street. Their number is on the sign …"

This Oct. 28 tweet, accompanied by a snapshot of Robert and Emilia, two homeless 70-somethings, holding each other in their arms on their Parisian bench, with a poodle and a suitcase as their sole possessions, worked miracles: more than 22,000 retweets, hundreds of emotional comments and, most importantly, dozens of offers for accommodation.

On their suitcase, Robert and Emilia had pasted a sign that had their cellphone number and offered "small jobs' in exchange for money. The day after the tweet was posted, Robert, a former locksmith, had his voice mailbox saturated with messages, his phone ringing constantly, and a bunch of keys in his pocket. "We were offered a studio apartment for the winter, rent-free," he says, his voice filled back up with emotion. "Also, my former boss recognized me and wants to hire me back, which is good because I'm in great shape. Somebody else also wants to offer us an entire set of household appliances."

For several months, Robert and Emilia had been sleeping in a makeshift hut on the banks of the river Seine, just outside of Paris. After a life spent working hard — "but not always legally, I messed up," Robert admits — it turned out the two hadn't worked enough on the books to qualify for a pension. So they had to survive out on the street. In one day, Twitter changed their destiny. And after 48 hours, an online collection pot in their name had already brought in some 800 euros.

A few weeks earlier, on Oct. 2, a similar event took place in the northern French city of Lille, after a passerby posted on social media the photo, story and cellphone number of Alexandre, a 40-year-old former warehouseman who'd been living in his car for four months, after going down the spiral of economic layoff, end of unemployment benefits, home eviction. He too was inundated by phone calls the same evening. "People were calling me from all over France, to offer me some place to stay, invite me for a meal," Alexandre recalled. "It's incredible: people avoid looking at you in the street, they don't talk to you, but on social networks there's an incredible generosity."

We often talk about people in generic terms.

Edouard Hermet, who works for the online media Sans A_, whose goal is to make "the invisibles visible" and make it go viral. "Social media is putting human faces and names back on misery," he says. "We often talk about those who have to sleep out in the street in generic terms, by saying ‘the migrants," ‘the homeless," and that dehumanizes them. These people have an individual story, some have even had extraordinary lives until something went wrong. And showing people sparks their awareness."

The platform Sans A_ was created five years ago by a 17-year-old who was moved by cases of extreme poverty in France. Since then, the startup has been publishing video portraits and podcasts about some of these people and their stories. It has close to 20,000 followers on Facebook and their work is seen by about 70,000 people.

The previous year, Sans A_ had published a portrait of Jean-Claude, a 65-year-old homeless man in Paris who told viewers of his life in the street. "What gets on my nerves is when people stop to look at you as if you were a circus freak," he said in the video. "When they look at me that way, I tell them: Why don't you take photos while you're at it and put them on your fridge or your bedroom, that way you'll see me everyday." And after that they'd leave. "I prefer not being talked to, or not being looked at altogether."

Sans A_ had managed to raise 5,000 euros for him to find accommodation for the winter. An association, Emmaüs, then took over and was able to find a long-term solution for him. But traditional channels are increasingly overwhelmed by demand. According to a report from one of France's leading charities, the Abbé Pierre foundation, the number of French people living in the street has gone up by 50% in 10 years, and four million people live in substandard housing, meaning they're either being accommodated by third parties, living in their cars or simply on the sidewalk.

In Paris, this poverty is now visible on almost every street corner. Families with young children lying down on filthy mattresses here, a 65-year-old couple like Robert and Emilia there … According to the Red Cross, some 2,000 elderly people are believed to be sleeping rough. In this context, the digital world becomes an accelerator of spontaneous solidarity. There is, for instance, this new app, Entourage, which offers to "recreate bonds with the homeless in your neighborhood" by showing users their concrete and geolocalized needs: a free hot coffee offer, somewhere to do the laundry, and so on.

"The younger generation is shaking things up by giving solidarity a huge impact through social media, which enables people to pool competences to concretely help the homeless," says Edouard Hermet. "While big associations often offer one-size-fits-all solutions, we can announce on Twitter or Facebook who actually needs what. Jean-Claude's dream, for instance, was to have a fishing rod, and somebody sent him one in a record time."

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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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