Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 20/8/2004Microsoft's new-found interest in China may be leading to a spot of Maoist self-criticism. Tom Edwards, a geographer in charge of the company's Department Of Stuff Beyond Even Wyoming, spilled various beans at a conference.

Friday 20/8/2004
Microsoft's new-found interest in China may be leading to a spot of Maoist self-criticism. Tom Edwards, a geographer in charge of the company's Department Of Stuff Beyond Even Wyoming, spilled various beans at a conference. When it comes to treading on cultural toes, Microsoft has demonstrated many of the subtleties and appreciation of important differences that have characterised the American way throughout the century. It might seem somewhat shocking that the company (not lacking in staff from the subcontinent) had managed to mark Kashmir as not being part of India -- but then, the USA didn't notice that Pakistan and India were busy building nukes until they let off a couple of tests.

Then there's the Islamic prayer chanting used as the background for a videogame -- ooops, but then didn't Brian Eno and David Byrne, two impeccably culturally aware geezers, run foul of the same problem when they made My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts back in 1981? Not to mention the footwear company whose sole design just happened to resemble the Arabic for Allah. And let's not revisit the story of the maker of inflatable educational globes who tried to import their goods to the Middle East during a time of particular animosity between certain states. The censors at the border got out their scissors, and when the recipients of the globes tried to inflate them all the air leaked out through Israel.

The truth is that there is endless potential for incomprehension and unwilling insult when you're dealing across cultures, as various TV advertising campaigns have highlighted. I suspect that there's a good correlation with a culture's willingness to take insult and the level of freedom it grants its citizens -- after all, if your own people are free to be scurrilous and off-centre then you're not going to get that wound up if a bunch of Johnny Foreigners does the same. Which is why you can pop over to Washington and burn a US flag (don't try this in Alabama, mind), but the same exercise in the People's Republic Of Kalamitistan will result in board and lodging being supplied by the government for some years (unless you really do burn a US flag, in which case you'll probably get a free clip of ammo for your AK-47).

It's almost an index of enlightenment, and I congratulate Microsoft for bringing more examples to our attention. Attaboy!

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