an archeology of shenzhen’s digital daze…

A ten-year retrospective of Sui Jianguo (隋建国)’s work, System is currently on display at the OCAT Art Terminal. Across the street, Hua Museum, has showcased Miao Xiaochun (缪晓春)’s work in the solo exhibition, Simulations. Both artists have played with scale and method, calling attention to the material practice of creating in an era of digitalized mass production. However, where Sui Jianguo has interrogated the relationship between the human body, clay and its digitalized transformations, Miao Xiaochun has turned his attention to the relationships between digital simulations, imagined futures, and the resulting landscapes.

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who “i” have become in an iPhone / WeChat world

My cellphone has changed me or rather it has changed how I experience myself, and this other me (the one that steps back and reflects on this experience) is coming to terms with someone I never imagined I would meet, let alone become.  Continue reading

click this

The internet confuses us into thinking that everything we need to know can be found in one place, such as the Shenzhen Life Net (深圳生活王), where all sorts of information and experiences are just a click away. Questions about public welfare? Click 社保. Want to watch whatever is currently being broadcast on Shenzhen’s television 16 television channels? Click 电视. You can also find out about traffic conditions, confirm important dates on the lunar calendar almanac, and figure out how much tax you owe: click, click, and click!

In fact, Shenzhen’s ongoing efforts to modernize by becoming one of the most inter-connected cities on the planet continue to fill virtual space with all sorts of information. The government is online. The library is online. The museum is online. And the historical archives are online. Moreover, Tencent, one of the key Chinese companies inter-connecting us through qq and we chat is a Shenzhen company.

At the same time that Shenzhen builds its virtual world, China’s great firewall continues to make it difficult to click to the New York Times, or Facebook, or Youtube without a tunnel. Ineed, just the other day, China banned its media from quoting foreign news articles without permission. In this sense, Shenzhen’s vast internet culture is itself the form of a pervasive inequality and the ideological expression of this inequality. The point as Global Voices co-founder and author of Consent of the Networked, Rebecca McKinnon has argued:

A substantial body of previous work has been produced over the past two decades on human rights risks in sectors such as extractives or labor services. Much less work has been done on business and human rights in the ICT sector – particularly on free expression and privacy rights. The novelty of the technology requires a translation exercise of existing human rights principles, policy, and law to ICT platforms and services.

In practical terms, however, surfing the internet often seems less about human connection and building more just worlds (as in the human writes discussion) as it does a question of our tendency to mental addictions. On the bus and subway, in meetings and movie theaters, we click, click, click through life. There is a compelling distraction to click culture. At times, I find myself simply clicking to visit sites that I have just left. I click away not because I think I may discover another post, but because the repetive action distracts me from the fact that all I’m doing is procastinating. I have have found myself fascinated by the number of visitors and clicks that Noted receives; confirmation that I have an audience. So pernicious is my click addiction that sometimes I even confuse the number of clicks with the value of my research.

I also am wondering how much of my online dependency is an expression of other forms of alienation in everyday life. My friends, for example, work long hours across town. It is difficult to arrange time together simply to hang out and chat without internet access. Likewise, the extent of urbanization in Shenzhen means that I can’t simply walk outside and enjoy fresh air and mountains. Instead, I have to navigate a six-lane road to jump on a bus, which then trundles off toward a central hub. In other words, I’m not sure how much of my online life is an attempt to heal virtually problems that can only be solved through realworld communities and life changes.

So today, I’m thinking about questions of scale and what manageable communities might look like, on the ground, here in Shenzhen, where popoulation density is over 5,500 per square kilometer and we still haven’t figured out how to plan and manage integrated communities.

gentle reminder from the folks at tencent

Like many population questions in China, the actual population of We Chat users is guestimated but unconfirmed. According to its app page, We Chat boasts over 300 million users or the population of the United States and growing. In news reports, the population has been posted at 200 million users.

Throughout this trip to the US, I have maintained my links with Shenzhen friends via We Chat. This makes me one of a fast growing — what? — group? Community? Chinese speaking chatty Kathies? If it were a country, the We Chat app population would be the 6th most populous country in the world (population clock). The app would have 2/3 the population of the United States, 1/6 the population of India, and 1/7 the population of China. And here’s the rub: the We Chat population is mediated by one company in Shenzhen.

All this information came to a head because yesterday the We Chat Product Team at Tencent gently reminded me and over  that:

Recently, the message that “We Chat will charge its users” has circulated on weibo. This is malicious gossip. We ask everyone not to believe these rumors. The We Chat Product Team states that it will not charge users, more we are currently developing new functions, hoping that We Chat will be more user-friendly and more fun.

近期在微博上流传的“微信要对用户收费”,纯属有人恶意造谣,请大家不要相信谣言。微信产品团队表示,微信绝不会对用户收费,并称正在开发下一版本的新功能,希望可以让微信更好用,也更好玩。

The team sent the message to me via the We Chat app. I also receive news casts via We Chat. Each message includes a main article with a large image, and three small articles with a thumbnail. Headlines du moment are:

  1. A Bali Plane with 101 passengers sinks into the sea;
  2. Xi Jinping will see American Secretary of State, John Kerry, the Americans call the North Korean question the key issue;
  3. The husband of a Shanghai woman with Avian flu catches it, however its still not clear if people can transmit the disease to each other;
  4. Geng Yanbo was selected Mayor of Taiyuan City, Shandong, he was once known unofficially as “the Mayor who builds cities”.

Now We Chat has a smaller population than Microsoftlandia, which has boasted 750 million users worldwide. However, unlike Mircrosoft, We Chat as actual access to every user through their phones. Mine chimes and I know I have received a message. Moreover, this app is being used to feed me information and news. Thus, today, I’m wondering what it means that (a) I received this message while traveling in the States — indeed, these few weeks We Chat has my primary form of communication with Chinese friends, and (b) given the number of users, the message is itself news — in other words, We Chat has a “private” line to its 300 million users that sidesteps Government oversight.

mama troll

The Mandarin expression for internet trolling — visiting sites, but not actually participating — is scuba diving or 潜水. Last night, I heard it used in the context of parental supervision. Apparently, there are mothers who have requested that their children give them their qq, we chat, and other social networking account passwords so that they can supervise them. The person describing the mother in question joked she was as “mama troll (潜水妈妈)”.

When I mentioned that I found this behavior highly disturbing, my friends responded that yes, it was a bit excessive, but what could you do? Children are an extension of their mothers, and if I didn’t understand this cultural root, I couldn’t understand Chinese mothers.

What’s more, another friend added, many of these mothers have nothing to do. They sit around and worry about who their husbands may or may not be seeing. They chat with friends and imagine all sorts of situations that their daughters might encounter. The most worrisome problem would be young love, especially because young love adversely affected grade point averages.

I then did another of my highly selective surveys, where I told this story to friends and cab drivers and the odd waitress to get their take. I asked if they thought it possible that a mother would go to such extremes? The 100% answer: yes. Most agreed that this kind of supervision was excessive. However, they pointed out that many mothers worry about their children, especially their daughters and so the concern was natural. Others remembered that when they were younger, their friends’ mothers might read their diaries for similar reasons.

I then asked why didn’t the children just sign up for another email or we chat account? Here the responses varied — maybe the children lived at home and their mothers paid for their cell phone and internet access; maybe the children always did what their mother asked them to do, and; maybe it was just easier to put up with the intrusive supervision than it was to set up independent accounts.

After all, another friend pointed out, as long as a child is living with her mother, her options are limited because sometimes teachers will request parents to increase supervision over a child. “It’s a conspiracy,” she then said half jokingly, “Teachers and mothers work together to make sure that children do what they should.”

the u.s. election and the 18th npc

I have recently hooked into “we chat (微信)”, Tencent’s latest social networking app. Point du jour is simple: Tencent regularly bleeps me news updates, so I can follow world headlines at a glance. These past few days, the juxtaposition of the US election and the 18th National People’s Congress has offered lessons in misreading and irony.

For example: On the eve of the US election, I received the following three headlines:

  1. Today’s topic: does the election divide or unite Americans? to be followed by
  2. The 38 delegations arrived for the 18th NPC and first in line were the farmer-workers (meaning farmers who are migrant workers) delegation, and then, just so you don’t forget that the US and China are not two sides of the same coin
  3. Microsoft will use Skype instead of MSN everywhere but the Mainland.

Now, I’m not sure how direct the comparison between the US election and the 18th NPC were to be. Clearly, while both are domestic rituals, they will impact people through out the world. After all, international chains of production and consumption (of say computers and software) have made the US and PRC not only important trade partners, but also jointly influential over the global distribution of production and consumption in disturbing ways. However, that direction of thought was not picked up by the news editors at Tencent. Instead, the implicit comparison was between the “divisiveness” of the US election system and the “harmony” of the NPC.

Here’s the telling moment: this series of headlines could as easily fit into a Fox Network summary as an explicit (and self-congratulatory) comparison between the “democratic” structure of American politics in contrast to the “homogenized” politics of China.

As any structural anthropologist could tell you, when symbolic systems are this easily converted, there’s a good chance we’re talking about moieties, a form of unilineal descent that involves the occurrence of descent groups in linked pairs which assume complementary positions and functions. In more traditional moieties, marriage is exogamous and involves women and men marrying exclusively from the matching group. However, moieties also engage in trade and other activities, providing the larger social context of extra- and intra-moiety relations.

This is me thinking about the growing interdependence, not simply material, but also ideological between the US and PRC. Our co-dependence is deep and worrisome because we’ve yet to see any evidence that we do anything but reinforce our own and each other’s blind spots.

Sigh.