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Knocking China with shocking phones and mocking tones

Snake in, snake out

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? This week began with a story that has become a stalwart of lightweight modern journalism: someone was killed by a computer.

It’s a provocative and, let’s face it, often entertaining concept that has inspired many sci-fi writers and filmmakers from the 1950s through to the late 1970s. Of course, in fiction, the solution is for a man wearing a white onesie to slip into the system a punched card bearing the question “Why?” - at which point the world-dominating computer is sent into such apoplexy that it shuts itself down.

Colossus computer from The Forbin Project

Coincidentally, when I read the news story on Monday, I also thought to myself, “Why?” As in “Why bother?” Those of you commuting into British cities are likely to have seen the story in your local edition of Metro, the free daily newspaper that seems to be developing a niche for running frothy knock-off stories of death and destruction in China.

The story just doesn’t stack up, either in terms of IT or journalism.

We’re told the woman - an ex-flight attendant, it’s really important to know this apparently - had just come out of the bathroom and that the phone was plugged into the mains. Given such cryptic clues, the police are certainly going to have a tough time working this one out, that’s for sure.

Not that we’ll ever hear what really happened. This is because the story is good enough as it is without requiring the expense of journalistic investigation: it took a swipe at Apple, produced another minor scare about smartphones and had a few people tutting about the quality of cheap battery chargers. Even El Reg wrote that the family “want answers from Apple” but I suggest that the family should also demand answers from Wikipedia and specifically that they look up "electrical conductivity".

I anticipate the culprits - Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta and Michael Faraday - will eventually be rounded up. Hey, perhaps they’ll get sent to the chair; I’m sure they’d love that.

Speaking of which, it was a relief that none of the news services, nor indeed Apple itself, expressed their “shock” at the death, so at least we can be assured that all these organisations still have literate copy editors, if no investigative reporters whatsoever, on their retainers.

More disappointing was the possibility that we’d lapped up a story with a notionally racist subtext that you’d be forgiven for thinking had been written deliberately to make Westerners stroke their long, hairy noses in response to another tale of manufacturing misadventure in the Far East. Subliminally, the story targets the middle-aged reader for whom China will forever be associated with appalling plastic tat that broke as it was pulled out of Christmas stockings.

Ho ho, look Dougal, I’m Chinese if you please.

But are we really racist or, like Father Ted, just victims of our own idiocy? And even if it is racist in principle, is it harmful in actuality?

San Francisco news broadcaster KTVU gave us all plenty to chew on with its reporting of what it believed to be the pilots’ names of the crashed Asiana Flight 214. This was another story about death and destruction involving citizens of the Far East but this time with the unexpectedly added ingredient of old-school punning.

You would imagine that by the time the anchorwoman reached "Ho Lee Fuk", she might have suspected something wasn’t quite right.

Several people died in this accident so I’m ashamed to admit that the reporting of the joke names made me titter. I would love to say that I’m laughing at KTVU’s gullibility but I probably just find puns on foreign names funny. Whenever someone invites me to a Thai restaurant, I am convinced it’s merely a ruse, my hosts sniggering behind my back as I struggle to ask the waiter for a "Gai Kok Suk" or "Wel Hong Man".

It doesn’t help my case that I have just mixed up China, South Korea and Thailand, but I am talking about Western attitudes to the Far East in general.

My first ever paid assignment as a freelancer was to spend 10 days in Beijing, and at the time I thought I would read up a bit on Anglo-Chinese history. As a result, I spent the 10 days ashamed and constantly apologising to everyone I met, although I can report that they managed to serve their revenge on the English nation for generations of vicious imperialism simply by inviting me to lunch every day. I shall reserve my ungrateful but thoroughly gory details of this unpalatable experience for another time, save for the moral of the story which I learnt with such self-sacrifice: "Snake in, snake out".

One thing that struck me on this trip was that the systems installation engineers, a pair of Cantonese dudes who had been flown over from Hong Kong by their employers for the 10 days, were constantly bitching about how crap everything was on the mainland.

In fact, ask anyone from Hong Kong to qualify the use of Cantonese in business and they’ll explain to you in no uncertain terms that Mandarin is a modern bastardisation of something or other and generally shit in every respect.

If I learned anything from this experience, it was that everyone holds a stereotyped view of everyone else. You can be knowingly ironic about it, as in Private Eye’s "Never Too Old" serial that imagines ludicrously that Wendi Deng refers to her estranged husband Rupert Murdoch as “Lupert” and goes around kung-fu-kicking doors open. Or you can be a bit thick - as opposed to wilfully racist - and do the Fu Manchu and coolie business like Father Ted.

But it is particularly galling that popular journalism likes to play on outdated childhood conceptions about China’s manufacturing past while completely ignoring the fact that practically all the sexiest, highest quality and most expensive computing devices we use here are manufactured there. And they do it because we can’t. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. When the conscripts returned home at the end of World War II, they booted women back out of the factories and ditched the effeminate manufacturing concepts that had been invented in their absence, such as "Just In Time". Offended, JIT’s inventor took his ideas to the Japanese and together they produced an economic miracle.

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