On Christina Taylor Green’s first birthday, I spent the day on Vesey Street on the north side of St. Paul’s Chapel. In addition to being Christina’s birthday, it was the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and I was volunteering with the American Red Cross to check in family members attending the memorial service at Ground Zero, assigned to the check-in area
St. Paul’s is a lovely old church a few blocks from Trinity Church, with which it is affiliated, and almost directly across Church Street from the former site of the World Trade Center. After the September 11 attacks it became a respite center, both spiritual and physical, for recovery workers. They stomped into the chapel in their muddy work boots to rest, eat and sometimes to sleep on the pews. After the clean-up of the WTC site was completed, St. Paul’s was cleaned and became the home of a memorial to the rescue and recovery work. Despite the cleaning, a few scuffs remain from those muddy boots, and they are among the Chapel’s most sacred items.
On the wrought iron fence that surrounds St. Paul’s workers and visitors hung tributes to those who died on September 11 and those who worked at the site. On that long anniversary day I found myself going again and again to one t-shirt on the fence. It read: “The bravest thing a firefighter ever does is take the oath. After that it’s all in the line of duty.”
While Google and China were wrestling over issues of free speech, censorship, intellectual property, global communications technology, and e-commerce, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere suffered a terrible blow: a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti near its capital, Port-au-Prince. The city, planned to house about 400,000 to 500,000 people, held approximately 3.5 million prior to the earthquake. Many lived and worked in substandard, often unsafe, buildings. Unreinforced concrete structures crumbled, other buildings collapsed, and over 200,000 people died. (More have died since due to a hurricane and cholera outbreak later in the year.)
With an adult illiteracy rate of close to 40% and inadequate infrastructure, censorship of Google searches is not an issue in Haiti. Text messages are about as much as most people have access to or have a need for. Following the earthquake, those who had a mobile phone had great need for text messaging and voice communication.
One year ago this week, on January 12, 2010, two extraordinarily important things happened. Google announced its intention to close their office in China and shut down Google.cn, their Chinese-language search engine site. Half-way around the world, an earthquake shook Port au Prince, Haiti, to its core, killing over 220,000 people. Aside from happening on the same day, the two events share a deeper theme: they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of information and communications technology (ICT) in the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
The reason Google left China was more complicated than an altruistic support for human rights and free speech. Yes, Sergey Brin’s family had lived in the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States when Brin was six years old, and Brin has spoken out for freedom of speech on other occasions; but as many pointed out, China’s population of over a million is an enormous potential audience. The right to search for terms such as “Dalai Lama,” “Falun Gong,” or “Tienanmen Square” alone is not enough to make a corporation pull out of the world’s most populous nation. That debate had gone on since 2006.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Although most Christians exchange gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, a few traditions celebrate with gift-giving on the Feast of the Three Kings, or Epiphany, which is January 6. According to the Gospel of Matthew, three Magi (wise men or kings) traveled “from the East” following the star of Bethlehem and bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They were hardly practical gifts for an infant born among livestock and have been interpreted symbolically. So I’m going to continue the tradition by considering what the gifts of the Magi can mean for social media, and especially for those of us who blog.