BEIJING - Right now I'm in one of the many Internet Cafes in Beijing, trying to get myself back in the swing of blogging. Two things have kept me off the blogroll lately. One is that I've been trying to figure out how to get another Chinese visa in my passport without leaving China (more on this in another post). The second is that I don't really have a computer of my own, nor regular Internet access, not exactly the best situation to be in if I want to be a regular contributor to The Mantle.
When I came to Beijing last February, the monitor of my Mac laptop died about two days after I landed in Beijing. This was particularly disheartening as I had just bought a new battery and keyboard for it before leaving. Granted, at the time it was already about five years old, but I always struggle with the fact that if I "recycle" my computer through some program there is still a very good chance that things are going to end up leeching into the groundwater of China's countryside. So one day I went to the original Apple store in Beijing, in a trendy shopping center near most of the embassies. The Apple geek, nerds, I forgot what they call themselves, said that it could cost a few hundred to close to a thousand U.S. dollars to fix. I started calculating what it cost me to visit the local Internet bar occasionally and figured it would probably require a few years of Internet bar visits to equal the cost of repairing my computer. So for the past year, aside from times when I had an LCD TV that I could plug into my old laptop, or when I had an office for teaching English, I have been without a computer.
Granted, there is a certain degree of inconvenience with not having my own functioning computer, but quite often I have been most struck by how it seems to come across to others. Whether I'm in the Beijing, New York or Dublin airport I'm struck by the reaction that airport scanners give when I say that I don't have a laptop in my backpack. I'm also struck just as much when I talk to friends, teachers, co-workers, etc. They are shocked even though many of them do not know that in high school I took computer programming as an elective, that I have helped to develop websites based on proprietary and open-source content management systems or that I have worked in academic computer labs for nine years. Perhaps then it becomes even more odd that I wouldn't make having my own computer a priority. I also came to China the first time to do research on how mobile phones and the Internet was used for environmentalism.
The problem is that I hold out for a Mac, but the problem is that while I think the software is superior, I don't have the money right now to be buying that shiny grey Mac instead of that dull black netbook. Particularly for someone like me who has been an actively using cloud computing since 2006 or even 2005, the central thing for me is Internet access and it makes me that much more wary of using a PC, the target of 80-90% of all viruses.
Last summer as I went to bed after celebrating my birthday I got a phone call from my mom asking if I was OK. Someone had sent out emails from three different email accounts saying I was in London and needed money (more of this is in an earlier bi-lingual blog on imaginingglobalasia.org. The part of me that wanted to grow up to be a hacker was fascinated by this. Perhaps it was some sort of phishing scheme, where you enter your password to what you think is a legitimate site, only to have that username and password stolen. But I doubt that I did that for three different email accounts. That experience has made me more suspicious of the public computers I use in Internet bars and the various free proxy sites used for accessing blocked sites like facebook, which are rumored to be a vehicle for hackers to access your email accounts, etc.
So where do I stand then, almost a year after my computer died? I think that if I buy another notebook anytime soon I will likely buy a netbook and turn it into a hackintosh, running Mac OS, so that I have the low price and small size of a netbook but the superior Mac OS. Contrary to my visits to China in '08 and '09, computer prices are starting to come down to prices similar in the United States. Like many Chinese I see on the subways every day in Beijing, I use my cellphone and my Ipod, both with Internet access, as means for consuming media from the Internet, television shows, articles, ebooks, etc. In contract to my NY subways riding days, I think in Beijing I've only once seen someone read a paper book here in China, its all e-reading. Yet as many who review the Ipad and other small mobile devices argue, if you want to produce media and not just consume media, a computer is often still necessary. So while I save my money, I keep coming back to the one Internet bar where they don't require my passport and "just type something" into the computer to grant me access.