In “City on the Fill,” I have been tracking the transformation of the Houhai coastline. Houhai means “backwater” and Qianhai means “front water.” These are terms from over 1,700 years ago, referring to the bays behind and in front of the former yamen at Nantou. Both Houhai and Qianhai have been repurposed in Shenzhen 3.0. Houhai has transformed from being a literal backwater at the edges of Shenzhen 1.0 and upscale suburbs in Shenzhen 2.0 to the new location of the city’s upgraded electronics industry. Qianhai, of course, is the site of the Qianhai-Shekou Free Trade Zone, which has defined development in Shenzhen for about a decade and is itself proposed as the new center of 3.0. (Inquiring minds want to know: will it happen?)
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.
In order to talk about the ways in which urban villages are both the form and content of the emergence of Shenzhen, the mind searches for a narrative arc in the earnest hyperbole of a Sci-Fi universe where the good is still mostly good and the bad drags its slimy tale through fetid waste streams. However recycled and repurposed, we’re still talking about the contradictions that made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so compelling. Above ground, the Metropolis boasts spires and towers for scientifically enhanced bodies that play in an Olympian stadium and pleasure gardens. These beautiful bodies can only be achieved through exploitation and guided mutation; evil is attractive. Underground, human workers endlessly labor. Unappealing and gaunt, shriveled and inert, these low-end bodies are fashioned through usefulness to the machine and dreary tenement lives.
My recent turn to Sci-Fi is (as were Mary Shelley’s and Fritz Lang’s respective turns) informed not so much by a fear of mad science, but by distress over how technology is produced, distributed and used in neoliberal cities. Technology has been central to the form and content of social polarization in Shenzhen. Urban villages are not substandard living spaces. In fact, when compared to low-income neighborhoods in other Chinese cities and abroad, Shenzhen’s villages are almost middle middle class quality. But here’s the rub. Shenzhen’s urban villages are substandard with respect to the city’s gated communities, shopping malls, and office towers–and the gap is growing.
Those who have followed Shenzhen Noted for the past twelve years know that the reclamation of Houhai Bay has been one of my ongoing obsessions. Today, I walked again and found myself momentarily confused by the current grid; previously I used Binhe Road and its constructions to locate myself. I’m trying to think through what it means that sand has become glass. It is not the case that “all that is solid melts into air,” but rather all that was liquid solidifies and congeals. Mummies and amber. Dinosaurs and fossil fuels. Anyway, photos, below:
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
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.