Good Reads: China's 'cyber cage,' millennium goals update, toddlers and tech, space diving

The round-up of Good Reads this week includes how the Internet could erode China's authoritarianism, the status of the UN millennium development goals, how parents introduce technology to children, and space-diver Felix Baumgartner's superhero suit.

Red Bull Stratos/AP/File
Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a space capsule 130,000 feet above Earth.

Freedom is the ethos of the Internet, allowing people to express opinions and organize in the digital sphere. That is, unless you live in a country that manipulates users’ online experiences with a “cyber cage.”

China, at the top of this list, has allowed its citizens to benefit from the Internet’s economic mobility while still controlling its political and social impact. As some dissidents have said, “freedom is knowing how big your cage is,” reports The Economist.

It’s a method of governing the Internet that is antithetical to the Western model of free speech. Further, China’s “adaptive authoritarianism” is serving as a model for other countries (such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ethiopia) looking to profit from the Internet even as they control it. But even with this paternalistic approach, The Economist argues that the Internet may still have a destabilizing impact on the foundation of China’s authoritarianism. As online access spreads – especially via mobile phones – the democratic nature of the Internet may eventually bring political change to China.

“When, many years from now, history books about this period come to be written, the internet may well turn out to have been an agent not of political upheaval in China but of authoritarian adaptation before the upheaval, building up expectations for better government while delaying the kind of political transformation needed to deliver it,” states the report. “That may seem paradoxical, but it makes sense for a party intent on staying in power for as long as it can.”

Planning for progress

The number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day) dropped from 43 percent in 1990 to about 21 percent in 2010, one indicator that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have had some measure of success. Reducing extreme poverty by half was achieved five years before its 2015 deadline.

Before governments, multilateral institutions, and nongovernmental organizations set new international development agendas, the accomplishments and shortcomings of MDGs need to be closely examined, writes John W. McArthur in Foreign Affairs.

“The MDGs have helped mobilize and guide development efforts by emphasizing outcomes. They have encouraged world leaders to tackle multiple dimensions of poverty at the same time and have provided a standard that advocates on the ground can hold their governments to,” writes Mr. McArthur. “Even in countries where politicians might not directly credit the MDGs, the global effort has informed local perspectives and priorities. The goals have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. They have shown how much can be achieved when ambitious and specific targets are matched with rigorous thinking, serious resources, and a collaborative global spirit.”

Looking forward to the next generation of development, McArthur said that low-income countries must have a greater voice in outlining the goals, and government accountability must be a priority.

Too young for a tablet?

To some parents these days, it may seem as if their toddlers – or in some cases, infants – are increasingly tech savvy, especially when it comes to tablets. With more than 40,000 kids’ games and applications in iTunes and Google Play, it’s no surprise that such young children have mastered technology, writes Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic.

“It did not seem beyond the range of possibility that if Norman Rockwell were alive, he would paint the two curly-haired boys bent over the screen, one small finger guiding a smaller one across, down, and across again to make, in their triumphant finale, the small z,” Ms. Rosin writes.

On the downside, however, is the extra worry that parents have about what impact technology is having on their children’s development.

“Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition – but only if they are used just so,” she writes. “Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.”

A superhero fall from space

What does it take to jump out of a space capsule 130,000 feet above Earth? Lots of coaching, according to Felix Baumgartner, the man who set the record for highest human free-fall last October, while also breaking the speed of sound.

In a Vanity Fair profile, William Langewiesche describes how Mr. Baumgartner spent five years preparing for the feat with a team of veteran aerospace engineers, test pilots, and a sports psychologist. Baumgartner struggled with the idea of wearing his spacesuit, so his psychologist told him to think of it as a superhero outfit.

“If you put it on and look in a mirror, you look like a hero, you know? There aren’t many people in the world who have their own suit,” Baumgartner said. “Even astronauts, they don’t have custom-made suits.... It protects me. It gives me the right to be there at 130,000 feet.”

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