Friday, 7 October 2011

Technology a double-edged sword in a rapidly developing Asia

Greg Adamson

Patent filings in China this year may surpass both the US and Japan. For India, IT and business process outsourcing is now a $50b industry. Asia is racing ahead in the technology stakes. But it isn’t all smooth sailing.

The Australian Financial Review on 10 January this year carried an article by Yu Yongding, former director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which stated that “China has become one of the most polluted countries in the world. Dust and smog choke its cities. All major rivers are contaminated. Although progress has been made, deforestation and desertification are serious.”

There are many reports of quality problems with Chinese goods: criminal adulteration of milk with melamine, an industrial material used to increase the apparent protein content; use of lead paint in exported children’s toys; and the collapse of a newly constructed 13-storey apartment building in Shanghai in 2009, to name a few.

When I read these reports I feel as though history is repeating itself. I remember reading of the adulteration of bread with alum and of milk with water and chalk in 19th century England; of the thousands of deaths caused by London's “Great Smog” of 1952; and of the fact that in the early 20th century the River Thames was devoid of aquatic life due to manufacturing and other pollution.

Those historical cases had various causes: uncontrolled industrialisation; unanticipated consequences of technology; profiteering; criminal behaviour. The impact is still felt today. In some US cities, for example, modern traffic chaos can be viewed as the outcome of car companies buying up and closing down public transport (a serious subject humorously described in Who Framed Roger Rabbit).

The same causes are evident across modern-day Asia. Many of the problems have local causes – economic, technical, business, regulatory or otherwise. For other problems, responsibility seems to lie outside the country. The 1984 Union Carbide disaster in India’s Bhopal, which left thousands dead, created the impression that global corporations may apply lower safety standards in developing countries.

Some of my friends roll their eyes when I talk about addressing technology quality or environmental issues in Asia. But the 19th and 20th century problems in Europe and North America didn’t just fix themselves. In the 1870s, physician and scientist Dr AH Hassall led a campaign to overcome food adulteration in Victorian England. Scientists and engineers were among environmentalists who changed the way we think about water quality and cleaned up London and the Thames. Consumer legislation has allowed us to expect that the food we eat won’t poison us. Social awareness around these problems was informed by science and addressed by technical activities and legal and industry standards.

In Asia today we see progress at the infrastructure level. We may argue about the timing and extent of the progress, but it at least demonstrates awareness. China is a major investor in renewable energy technology. India has developed a sophisticated IT industry, including its prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Notable is the early approach of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who invited the advice of Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics and a pioneer in industrial automation, regarding options for industrial development in India. Asia’s most economically developed country, Japan, led the world in the adoption of what became known as “quality systems” in manufacturing, building quality into a product rather than rejecting defects at the end. This approach was based on the work of statistician W.E. Deming, who was invited to contribute his ideas by the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers.

I also see this commitment to awareness of the impact of technology at the individual level: a December 2011 IEEE conference in Hyderabad, India, focussing on sustainable technologies, has received more than a thousand papers. An Indian engineer recently explained that all the world’s IT waste ends up in India and other underdeveloped countries, causing significant problems. If controls to manage the handling of poisonous old car batteries can be set up, why not poisonous old mobile batteries? I spoke to a Chinese engineer in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics who expressed his concerns about materials substitution in building construction, and the growing importance of quality control in China.

These are just individual examples which illustrate a larger picture: many engineers across Asia understand the societal challenges created by technology.

For me, this is a source of hope for the future.

These and other issues will be discussed at the IEEE conference on Technology and Society in Asia, to be held in Singapore 28-29 October 2012.  Further information on the conference can be found here.

Photograph by Sandruz, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Planet ebook: from virtual graveyard to literary lift-off

Julie Koh

The world of the self-published ebook is quickly shedding its image as a virtual planet where failed authors go to die.

Increasingly, fiction writers are considering the ebook as an avenue through which they can bypass established publishers to get their work out there and to connect with new readers.


One of the stars of the ebook revolution is Amanda Hocking.

The 26-year-old author from Minnesota, U.S.A., has received a great deal of media attention over the last year, having grossed approximately $2 million in ebook sales. Her ebooks include the young adult vampire romance series, My Blood Approves.

What stuns most commentators is how swiftly Hocking’s star has risen. She began self-publishing ebooks in April 2010. By early March 2011, she had sold over 900,000 copies of 9 of her ebooks. Her series of novels about trolls, the Trylle Trilogy, was optioned for a film in early 2011, with Terri Tatchell, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for District 9, attached to adapt the screenplay.

Self-publishing phenomenons like Amanda Hocking demonstrate that the ebook is allowing indie authors to extend their readership significantly on a global scale.

That said, ebook self-publishing seems to be more lucrative for those sections of the indie fiction writing population who publish genre fiction, such as thrillers, romance, paranormal romance, mystery and fantasy. As Hocking’s sales figures suggest, the most successful of these writers are those whose work taps into the young adult zeitgeist, which at present favours — among other things — female fantasies about pallid men with sharp teeth who fall in love with us but simultaneously must resist draining us of blood.

What about literary fiction?

For emerging non-genre writers like myself, the question remains whether taking the self-published ebook route is advisable for developing a literary reputation. After all, success in literary fiction is often tied to where, and by whom, an author has had work published. Furthermore, readers may not trust a self-published ebook to be of the same quality as ‘p-books’ (a trendy new word for paper books) put out by reputable publishing houses.

Until mainstream readers and critics genuinely come around to this new electronic format, one option is for emerging literary fiction writers to self-publish short stories in ebook format after the publication of those stories in well-regarded print and online literary journals. This widens the availability of the stories to potential readers without requiring the author to pass up the opportunity to keep building a literary career that follows a traditional trajectory.

At the same time, an emerging writer may decide to publish other short stories direct to ebook, simply because those stories are experimental and unlikely to be accepted by major literary publications due to their niche market appeal.

Take, for instance, The Fantastic Breasts, a feminist satire I’ve published through Smashwords. Without a doubt, this story would have had trouble finding a publisher. Its style is an obscure and experimental mix of magic realism and hyperrealism. To add to this, the story has the potential to alienate those who take its lack of political correctness literally and feel that the language used denigrates women. The story may also alienate those who struggle to reconcile its extreme satirical humour with the serious issues it addresses relating to the objectification of women.

Ultimately, not all stories a writer produces are destined to be popular. In circumstances where an author isn’t willing to compromise to make a story more palatable for a mainstream audience, the ebook is a powerful new publishing option. It lowers the barriers to publication for experimental literary work and vastly improves the author's chance of reaching that work’s niche global readership.


Ebook technology can benefit a wide variety of fiction writers, particularly those who can handle the hurdles involved in self-publishing and who want to connect with a global readership without having to woo an established publisher willing to aid them in this quest.

I once heard of a writer who said that having an unpublished story is like having a grown-up child who won’t leave home. The ebook has become an avenue through which such a story can make a life away from the worried clutches of its author: a life that begins in an aesthetically pleasing and widely available electronic format on an increasingly prosperous virtual planet.

Image by goXunuReviews, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.