Sunday, March 27, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

When the biggest earthquake in memory hit Japan at 2:46 PM on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, it took less than ten minutes for the bright, cluttered screens of Tokyo top six stations to be drained of color, commercialism and fun. With a disaster unfolding, TV stations were under intense pressure to change the tone of their broadcasts and offer news and safety advice.

To review broadcasts from that afternoon, is to be transported back to a turning point in which everything suddenly changed. The state of TV, as it existed at that precarious moment, good, bad and banal as it might have been, is now a broadcast relic, the last gasp of normalcy before the earth shook Japan to its core, the sea swept the Northeast with tsunamis and a nuclear crisis broke the easy access to electric power that has been a hallmark of modernity in Japan for decades.

For an illustration about how the 3.11 quake is changing life in Tokyo, with particularly focus on the airwaves and the energy-guzzling lifestyle promoted on TV, please view my latest piece at Read more on this article...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

The world of information made possible by Twitter technology is vast and fascinating, but what really rises above the Twittering noise, random comments and repetitive multiple posts of second, third and fourth hand material is the work of an intrepid individual, sharing, in short installments, an eye-witness view of an evolving situation. It is a take on the news as old as the news itself, first person testimony, offering a degree of coherence and individual fidelity that stands head and shoulders above the random, aggregate posts of a busy Twitter feed.

In a matter of just a few days, one of the most privileged, affluent societies in Asia has been hit and laid prone with multiple disasters, and though the worst may be over, it's far from over yet. Japan, indeed the world as a whole, will feel the influence of the deadly March 11 earthquake, tsunami, related aftershocks, eruptions and subsequent damage to nuclear power plants and more generally the economy for years to come.

The following is the tweet record of an American reporter, now an Asia correspondent for VOA, with 18 years experience in Japan as he covers what could be fairly described as the biggest news story of his career

The reporter is Steve Herman and his twitter tag is W7VOA.

Steve Herman and I worked together in the International Division of NHK in 1990-1, sharing a Tokyo office while working as televison producers on Asia Now and China Now respectively.

Even then, long before he became a radio correspondent for CBS and later President of the FCCJ, I thought him the epitome of a newsman, one who was living and breathing news round the clock. A solid reporter with an excellent understanding not just of international news issues but the minutae of how things work in Japan, Steve is a good guide to a big breaking story.

The veteran reporter happened to be out of Japan when the big quake struck but managed to get back in country, despite disruptions at airports and rail lines, within a day. His posts chronicle a journey across Japan as he seeks access and interviews in the three hardest hit areas, Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

His intial entries in this informal online diary commence with short notes about news he is reading and re-tweets of posts made by other journalists he is following on Twitter, reacting to news rather than reporting it, and appropriately enough, as it takes him the better part of a day to get on the scene. RT is short for re-tweet and sometimes he posts links to published articles that he likes or makes reference to.

Once he’s on his way to the scene of tsunami damage and dysfunctional nuclear power plants, the second-hand news and reactions to the news are gradually replaced by first-person anecdotes, sensations, interviews and reporting. When the earth starts shaking, he describes it. Then he finds out more about the quake or aftershock, and tweets the best information available to him at the time.

Sometimes it's an earthquake warning with no earthquake, sometimes an earthquake without warning.

The constant tickertape flow of tweets by him and other people on the scene start to be incorporated into news updates which are also tagged, retweeted and made reference to on the Internet, TV and radio.

In short, by looking at a series of thoughtful on the scene tweets, one can get a feel for how information travels, how information is culled and selected and how it is then broadcast and repeated until it becomes the received understanding of an event.

This sort of tweet diary is interesting even when second-hand and third hand information is collated and forwarded, but it really is at its best when it shifts to the first person, and the tweeter on the scene is telling us about things he or she sees, hears, wonders about and analyzes in an original way.

Following his twitter reports in real time is to be transported into the urgency of a breaking story in the company of a cool, seasoned guide who does not flinch in the face of obstacles or bad news. Even with the haiku-like discipline of writing in short bursts, there is narrative arc and a building sense of drama as the reporter moves onto the scene and traverses difficult, sometimes outright dangerous territory.

For all their news value and dramatic impact, tweets are also snippets of personal conversations put to print. In Steve’s case, as he makes a dash from a safe part of Japan to an area at risk, his friends on Twitter urged him not to go, to consider the dangers, to which his response was simple and firm.

“It's my job.”

Here, then, a record of informal tweets from veteran Asia correspondent Steve Herman as he does his job. While investigating a tough, multifaceted breaking story, he took the time to tweet updates about things he saw and heard and gleaned from official sources. His short, abbreviated observations were informative enough that within a few days time he had ten thousand “followers” reading and re-tweeting his posts, including fellow journalists, all the while filing formal, in-depth reports for Voice of America.

The posts here have been copied from his twitter history, and thus are in reverse chronological order. To better sense the drama of an unfolding story in which each subsequent development is unknown, one might browse his posts by scrolling from the bottom up.

Steve Herman
@W7VOA √úT: 37.373258,140.371634
Voice of America (VOA) Bureau Chief/Correspondent, based in Seoul, mainly covering NE Asia (Korean peninsula & Japan)

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Saturday, March 12, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

When reveille sounds, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

The US military is now thinking of ways to block and segregate the internet into smaller ‘‘cyber nations’’ which would be easier to monitor and control.

During this era of incessant online babble, blogs, tweets and cacophonous concatenations, the internet has become a virtual Tower of Babel, an ambitious, overloaded unitary structure breaking at the seams. It's only a matter of time before it crumbles.

That, in a nutshell, is the view put forward by a group of US military thinkers in the latest issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, who see the breaking up and "Balkanisation of the Internet" as natural as it is inevitable, and not without public benefit, assuming that the 'Net reorganises along traditional, nationalistic lines.

Theirs is a clarion call to end the utopian, universal stage of internet development and instead to hunker down and build national bunkers.

The internet has been imbued with a feel-good idealism since its inception, despite it having been a quasi-military invention. It was developed by a generation familiar with John Lennon's utopian lullaby Imagine, dreamily invoking the idea of a world with no countries. And some cyber utopians took a cue from that, driven by the concept that "information wants to be free", a formulation first given voice by Stewart Brand and dramatically acted out more recently by Julian Assange.

But even if information wants to be free, there are the vagaries of human nature that have to be taken into account.

Just as a handful of hijackers can burden millions of jet flyers, in the communication commons the bad behaviour of a few can change the rules of the game; trolls lurk in comment sections, spammers clog up your inbox, data-miners violate your privacy, hackers close your system down.

These problems are being addressed on an ad hoc basis, mostly by the private sector, to make the cooperative, interdependent venture known as the internet safe for commerce and communication.

And then there is the US military, which has bigger fish to fry.

Entrusted with the keys to the world's biggest nuclear arsenal, bound by social contract to guard the nation with vigilance, it should come as no surprise that military thinkers are more worried about information control than information freedom.

The US Cyber Command, which works closely with the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, is tapping technology organisations such as Google, Intel and Microsoft for help with cyber-defence, integrating traditional concepts of military preparedness and defence of the state with new borderless technologies.

If military thinkers tend to be more orthodox in their regard for the sanctity of national borders, it is in part a reflection of the role they assign themselves to play as defenders of the nation.

Where a tech geek might revel in faster computation speeds and an advertiser might obsess over ways to get more clicks, and academics might demand unfettered freedom of expression, it is natural that military thinkers should want to consider the same technology with an eye to violations of sovereignty and security, especially with regard to command and control systems and energy infrastructure.

Inspired by the folk wisdom that good fences make good neighbours, there is a school of thought in the US military that posits a not-so-distant future in which the worldwide web will be divided up along national lines.


(as published in the Bangkok Post, March 12, 2011) Read more on this article...