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Three Notes in the News: The Sound and Music of Geopolitics

Three Notes in the News: The Sound and Music of Geopolitics

A few weeks ago, we looked at three stories about the geopolitics of springtime. Now that the season is in full bloom, here’s a handful of stories in which music, sound, and technology set the score for three big geopolitical issues today.


Better than a singing telegram — Authoritarian regimes are quick to crack down on social media and messaging apps, but more hesitant to target broadly popular and largely apolitical music streaming apps. So the German branch of Reporters Without Borders came up with a melodious solution to beat censors in five of the world’s most restrictive regimes: they hired musicians to work with local journalists in China, Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam to turn their reporting into songs, which have soared to the top of playlists on Spotify and other streaming apps. Have a listen here.

USB vs DMZ — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be on a charm offensive these days, but his regime is still the most repressive on earth. One small thing that is piercing the veil of his totalitarian state: the lowly USB flash drive. Smuggled across the Chinese and South Korean borders, drives containing hundreds of hours of outlawed K-Pop music and South Korean TV shows are a hot commodity for those willing to take the risk. To put the technological progress of dissidence in perspective: in the Soviet Union, people hungry for the sounds of banned Western pop and jazz once had to rely on “bone music” — homemade 78RPM records fashioned out of discarded x-rays (skeletal images still on them, hence the name).

Sound(less) underwater — We’ve written a lot about the scramble between the US and China to control the heights of technology, but there’s also growing competition to control the depths of the ocean. While the US is still the world’s only naval superpower, China has rapidly increased its naval forces over the past decade, in a bid to challenge that dominance. Submarines are one area where Beijing is making the fastest progress, and so Chinese and American researchers are racing for the holy grail of underwater naval power: a submarine that is undetectable by sonar. Get your three-dimensional underwater acoustic carpet cloaks out of storage, folks…

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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