#AsiaNow Speaks with Silvia M. Lindtner

Cover of Silvia M. Lindtner, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation

Silvia Lindtner is Associate Professor in the School of Information and Director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan and author of Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation, published by Princeton University Press and winner of the 2022 AAS Joseph Levenson Prize (Post-1900).

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Prototype Nation is about China’s shifting place in the global political economy of technology production. It is a multi-sited ethnography grounded in deep, long-term engagements in specific sites of technology production from experimental labs such as hackerspaces to venture capital and incubator spaces to manufacturing, electronics supply chains, and global trade. It traces the visions and practices of the so-called maker movement—a vision of democratized innovation and entrepreneurial life that was taken up widely in the years following the 2007-08 financial crisis—for what it can tell us about the role computing plays in governance in China today. It shows how this promise of entrepreneurial life became a technopolitical instrument of affect that served the party state’s broader interests to reposition China as a forward-looking nation. The visions of the maker movement mobilized feelings of positivity and happiness in the very moment that China’s Communist Party feared social instability. The book situates these displacements of technological promise in relation to both a growing distrust in Western-centric models of progress, including Silicon Valley after the financial crisis, and the contested vision of China as a “new frontier” of technology innovation, paying close attention to the slow violence that it reproduces.

What inspired you to research this topic?

This is best explained by taking a look at the book’s cover art. It features a piece by the Chinese digital media artist Cao Fei. I came across her work in 2008, when I was a PhD student and spent a summer in Beijing for Chinese language training and research. She was working on her project RMB City at the time—a virtual world built in Second Life, that engaged critically with the promises and dreams of future making in China. Beijing hosted the Olympics at the time, and so this was a moment where many “China watchers” both inside and outside the country considered China’s seeming embrace of capitalist market development a good thing—a thing that would lead to democratic change and opening. Many researchers of the Chinese Internet at the time, for instance, theorized the emergence of a new “netizen” (网民 wangmin), envisioned as an empowered form of citizenship. 2008 of course was also the year of the global financial crisis, and very few of these public commentators engaged deeply with the role digital technology already played in processes of capital investment and financialization (the turning of things, places, and people into assets for investors). Cao Fei was an exception. The book cover features a still from her video piece “Whose Utopia,” shot in factories in the south of China around 2008. What many only began contemplating much later with the rise of digital/tech labor, Cao Fei was already thinking through when most others were celebrating technology as key engine for modern progress and future making. She insisted on looking beyond the quick celebratory embraces of digital technology so common at that time.

Some of my own research questions back then were centered around who benefits from the promise of technological experimentation and advancement and who is continuously excluded. I found these questions taken up in Cao Fei’s artwork in ways that conveyed a critical computing agenda to a broader audience. I began exploring the kinds of interdisciplinary spaces between the arts, technology, and the creative industries that were forming in various places across China around 2008. One such space was a coworking space in Shanghai called XinDanWei; out of the eclectic network of people that had formed around this coworking space China’s first hackerspace XinCheJian was born in 2010. I happened to be with XinDanWei at exactly that time for my dissertation research, and witnessed first hand the spread of ideas of making/hacking in China (see Chapter 2 of the book for details). As is common for ethnographic research, intuition and personal interest guided me along my research path. Much of my research over the subsequent years took me from maker/hackerspaces into places of industrial production as well as finance and investment and global supply chains, predominantly in the south of China, but also its entanglements with other regions, e.g., Silicon Valley, Taiwan, Singapore, and Africa.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I remember vividly how early on in my research, many people asked me: why are you studying hackerspaces and manufacturing, what does this have to do with information or digital technology? Others told me that my multi-sited research that took me from China to Silicon Valley, New York, Taiwan, Africa, and Singapore wasn’t really a China project. A more common subject of study, when it came to digital technology, at the time was what was happening on social media or in “proper” office spaces. And a more common approach to the study of digital technology and China what was happening “in the country” or on the “Chinese internet.” Luckily, I didn’t listen. So, oddly the biggest obstacle came from some frustrating tendencies that we find in academia and well beyond that prescribe and in many ways limit what counts as good research and knowledge production.

What made me persist were a series of collaborations with scholars and practitioners I encountered along the way—be that my work via the China-based research collective Hacked Matter I helped found with Anna Greenspan and David Li in 2010 or via projects such as Precarity Lab or my long-term collaboration with Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell or broadly a strong network of support and intellectual exchange with allies who share various feminist and other critical commitments and a collective stubborn insistence that sociotechnical worlds can be otherwise.

What is the funniest or most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

A story that didn’t make it into the book that was kind of personally hilarious: several years ago while I was in Shenzhen for field research, I met a fellow Austrian citizen—let’s call him Hans here for the sake of anonymity—who had worked the machineries of Huaqiangbei and shanzhai to his own advantage; for more than two decades, he was running a fairly small-scale but not insignificant business that specialized in the production of micro tools and machine components for the European market, essentially bridging German-speaking machine makers with Chinese factories. I had met Hans in what was the place to meet the who’s who of Shenzhen’s electronics trade and hacker networks: a Starbucks located on the ground floor of the infamous Huaqiang Plaza Hotel. Who expects to hear a deep Upper Austrian dialect while waiting in line for a Starbucks coffee at the heart of the Huaqiangbei electronics markets? We ended up meeting up regularly when I was in town, and I would get the latest intel on international trade and local shifts in the manufacturing scene. I also got to know his Chinese partner, a savvy woman in her late 40s who often pushed back on Hans’ interpretation of Shenzhen and the market. She jokingly said to me every time we met that she hoped Hans would never retire… Hans did eventually retire and now spends much of his time, pandemic permitting, on an island in Thailand, occasionally sending me enticing photos of the beach.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Two scholars who have deeply shaped my thinking for many years and who I return to often for intellectual companionship are Anna Tsing and Sara Ahmed. Jie Yang’s work on affective governance in China has been crucial for my own theorizations of the enrollment of technological promise in the production of a forward looking and strong China. Fan Yang and Guobin Yang have been key interlocutors for me to think with around the promise of collective empowerment attached to media and technology in China’s past and presence. And Juno Salazar Parreñas’ excellent work on environmental extraction and slow violence has shaped my thinking about adjacent processes in the worlds of entrepreneurship, data mining, and smart systems.

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Parreñas, Juno Salazar. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Yang, Fan. Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Yang, Guobin. The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China. New York:Columbia University Press, 2017.

Yang, Jie. (ed) The Political Economy of Affect and Emotion in East Asia. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I am based in China right now for a new project focused on how data science and machine learning systems are applied to restructure agricultural production and farm labor for what it can tell us about data-driven governance tied to promises of national food security and what is often now referred to as China’s inward turn. I spend half my time in large-scale industrial settings at the outskirts of big cities, many of which are state-driven projects with international partners, and the other half in very rural parts of China, where I look at how younger generations (late 20s to late 30s/early 40s) are experimenting with ideas of the self, spirituality, and a “return” to land and Chinese history. Many of their projects are in the process of being enrolled in the nation-wide policy on rural revitalization (乡村振兴) that features centrally in the recent and important “No. 1 Document” (一号文件) policy and in some of Xi Jinping’s key speeches and writings. I am most fascinated by how these young people’s ideas around cosmopolitan and global identity has meant to give up or not even entertain lucrative jobs in the big cities or abroad, but instead by turning “in land.” They are fundamentally grappling with what it means to be globally Chinese in this current geopolitical moment of turmoil and closed borders.