Mike Daisey vs Gonzo journalism

Maybe you’ve heard about this but in case you didn’t here’s the gist of it. Mike Daisey, a writer slash theatrical performer did a story on Foxconn, the factory where a lot of Apple products are being made. He made up a few (important) parts in his story to up the ante on the drama factor. Traditional media took over parts of his story as fact and now of course feel betrayed…or stupid. So this made us think because we at POSTRmagazine walk this line ourselves every time we write a story. How do we get away with what we do? Here’s how. The first thing we do after deciding on a subject is thoroughly research it to find out every little fact about it. Why? Because in order to tackle a subject from another angle than traditional media you simply have to know al the angles of a subject first. Another way of avoiding being called liars is letting your readers know in advance that what they are about to read is not objective journalism. We do this by for instance having a byline saying “CounterCulture Chronicle” not Newspaper or Daily or Post. In our colophon we dedicate our magazine to Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson and another way is just by stating that we don’t believe in objective journalism every chance we get. You find this in the about section on our website and in the editorial of the first issue we published.
The point of POSTRmagazine is making our readers think for themselves and finding their own truth out of the tons of “facts” they read and see everyday in traditional mass media. If we can trigger their intrest to go to a library or on the web and search for more information and background on a subject we bring up then our goal is reached.

In light of the Mike Daisey vs. This American Life/New York Times discussion we’d like to publish our Google story again. We ran this little field report in our first issue. The subject was Media so we wanted to visit the brand new Google data center located in our very own Belgium. This report is what people might consider Gonzo journalism. If they do, we consider that a compliment but more importantly, would you consider this a journalistic article? We’d like to know. Try to find the parts we exaggerated or made up and leave a comment below. You’ll be surprised how factual fiction can be.

We would like to point out that we are not saying that our Google story is in any way as important as a story on a corporation abusing it’s employees in China or that we are investigative journalists.

GOOGLED, APPROVED AND GOOGLED AGAIN: LE BORINAGE
When revolutions collide, you can find us playing golf in Digital Innovation Valley

Digital Innovation Valley truly exists, we can say so because we were there. But contrary to popular belief, the hills of convenience, information and progression are actually an unimaginitive, industrial landscape situated in a run-down area of Belgium called the Borinage. While still being considered as one of our nation’s most impoverished regions, it’s a place where the very last scraps of the Industrial Revolution absurdly collide with the freshly arrived and by many cordially hailed technological era. And where helicopters make daily fly-overs to surveil the area, according to one of its blurred inhabitants. We paid the “economically promising” valley a visit, suspiciously investigating the arrival of one of the largest internet data centers on the Old Continent. We got tailed by arduous security guards, walked knee-deep in the mud and eventually ended up playing ‘le golf du pauvre’ in the shadows of the valley of information technology, where rhum is served abundantly in large soda glasses.

This fine piece of what we would like to call corporate madness meets beautiful simplicity has its origin in 2005, when a representative of an American company called Zenzu registered at the reception desk of a distinguished castle in Garfield Street (Washington DC), currently giving shelter to the Embassy of Belgium. The mysterious company had a strenuous wishlist, mainly consisting of three essential elements: water, space and electricity. To be searched and found on Belgian territory by the local government and preferably in large amounts. The eager, ‘unknown’ bidder —that later on turned out to be none less than the giant internet company Google— specifically demanded a domain counting at least 220 acres, the proximity of water and the possibility to consume 150 megawatt a year, a ridiculous amount that even dazzled Belgium’s main energy companies Electrabel and Elia.

After the Belgian diplomacy forwarded Google’s proposal to the three regions in the country, only the southern part was really taking the bait. The Walloon representatives of the OFI, the Office for Foreign Investors, soon set up a meeting with the people of Zenzu. Undoubtedly unlike what they were expecting, three young men around their thirties showed up, carrying nothing but a backpack. But as relaxed as they looked, the more determined they came through, considering other areas in France and Sweden and juggling with mind-boggling amounts of cash. The private money to be invested would run up to 250 million euro, the amount of tax payer’s money was initially set at 5 million euro. However, the factory that was going to be built, would do something in return, creating about 150 temporary jobs and later on employing about 120 people permanently, mostly vacancies for highly educated people. The negotiations were difficult but the agreement could soon become the symbolic saviour of an economically faltering region.

Saint-Ghislain, January 2009. As the data center was set to open at the end of 2008 in the industrial zone Ghlin-Baudour, we decided a bit of field research on how Google had affected the Borinage couldn’t cause any harm. After all, this is Google we’re talking about, the company with one of the strongest brand names of this spanking new century. And it’s making a triumphal entry in a region where generations after, people are still suffering from the closing of the coalmines such as the Grand Hornu that once employed about 1,500 people. The perfect spot for a brand that has established itself as the most prominent name on the information highway; gathering the world’s information through a search engine. What can go economically wrong with a company that even makes it possible for you to explore the bottom of the ocean on your computer or to virtually visit almost every location in the world? Oddly enough, Google Maps, the ingenious online tool that recently enabled the Palestinian political party Fatah to find Hamas’ target locations, somehow couldn’t help us on our search for a data center of almost one square kilometre. Google is literally publishing the entire world and facilitating freedom of information, but when it comes to sharing information about themselves, the company seems to be veiled in silence and secrecy.

“Like all our data centres, the St-Ghislain centre will process and store information that enables us to power a range of our services”

Nevertheless our intuition and a GPS-system carrying the little information we could find, lead us to what we thought of as a good base to start our search, close to the industrial zone Ghlin Baudour. After we did a bit of wandering around, a gigantic and completely fenced off, domain alongside the river attracted our attention. It was accessible only through two small, supervised gates, and our attempts to find out whether this bulking buidling was or was not the infamous data center were swiftly extinguished by a very grumpy and very silent security guard, who kindly obliged us to change tactics when we arrived at the second gate. When asked if we were at the right location for our appointment at the Google data center, the guard confirmed our presumption by answering “Maybe”. But he wouldn’t enlighten us any further, nor would the security car that tailed us when we were defying the natural barriers surrounding the center. It almost made it impossible to take some decent photographs. Digital Innovation Valley didn’t seem very hospitable to us, untill we got charmed by Google’s neighbours: a little farmhouse called Pic & Plat, almost looking fairy-like in the hillock landscape.

“In these modern times, privacy no longer exists”

What initially looked like a prestigious hideout for bored Google moguls playin golf, appeared to be one of the authentic diamonds of the area. Inside the rural tavern, the elderly people present didn’t seem to have any clue of the activity going on in their backyard. They hardly paid attention. “What is the exact purpose of this Google building?”, a middle aged man would ask us when we informed about the data center. More important were the first served beers of a bleak day, after which a significant number of economically ignorable, local elderly started to collect their equipment, went on to the playground and played their favorite game, La Crosse en Plein. A traditional sport, deviated from golf, that barely turns up any search results when Googled and clarifies the mistery of this data center even less.

“Like all our data centres, the St-Ghislain centre will process and store information that enables us to power a range of our services”, Google spokesman Al Verney answered later on. “But we’re currently still constructing the facility. It’s a big project and although we’ll be in construction for some time to come, we expect to be operational as scheduled. The final scope of the project —both in terms of scale and economic impact— will be determined over time, but we’re providing employment for a significant number of people during the construction phase, and expect to continue investing in people for a range of positions as the facility develops.”

A lot of questions remained. What kind of information are we specifically talking about? Will these humongous servers even be used to carry any information and if so, will it make us any smarter? Maybe these weird constructions are predestined to store incriminating nude pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Boring, an American couple that recently sued Google for invasion of privacy after a Google Street View spycar illegally drove down their private driveway and took a bunch of 360-degree, both pan-and-zoomable pictures of their home and swimming pool? “In these modern times, privacy no longer exists”, Google would argue after the Borings lost their battle against the internet giant that seems to be attempting to spy on the entire planet. Will they state the same comment when Pic & Plat has to make room for digital innovation as well?



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