We arrived into the city at 2am. It was completely dark, not even a little light on in the street. Not even a street light. As we walked all the way down the alley, we could make out the dark words, 网吧 - the sign wasn't flashing in red or even lit - we could just see the outlines of the letters in the dark.
But the metal gate in front of the cafe was closed. There wasn't a single person in the alley-way. But this was the only internet cafe that we could see so we just said, well let's see if anyone answers. We quietly knocked on the metal gate. And within 2 seconds, we heard footsteps. The silence was broken as the gate clammered to let night air in to the store, florescent light from inside poured onto our toes. As we were breathing a sigh of relief to have found an open internet cafe, two fingers magically showed itself to push the gate up high enough to usher us in. We ducked our heads under the low gate and when we adjusted our eyes to the light, we opened them to find a kingdom of humans all hooked up to machines in silence with headphones on.
Seven hours later, we were woken up by the noise of people getting their stuff together. Half the cafe was empty. Our computers stopped working. No one had to ask anyone to leave. Like robots, everyone knew exactly what to do when the machines turned off. Like everyone else, we picked up our stuff and looked around at who else was left as we made our way out onto the street. The night humans disappeared into the sunlight in search for food.
Coins are falling out of the slots. There is a loud play-a-long drumming game with Hotel California blasting. Three people are hitting the congos. We are surrounded by people driving, and yet still these three men in a row are able to fall asleep at a game arcade during the middle of the day. This is on a week day when the arcade is not as busy. They found the most comfortable seats in the place - the driving car games. The workers here do not seem to mind at all. There are still plenty of seats left.
Setting: low-income slum neighborhood, participant just moved into her first floor one-room apartment for herself (most people live 3-5 per room), there is a tiny bathroom inside her room, costs 400RMB/month ($62)
She takes me to her apartment for the first time.
Me: oh wow, you have a Lebron James poster hung up?
Me: do you like basketball?
Participant: No, it was already here when I moved in.
Me: oh wow, that's pretty generous of the previous renter to leave it here.
Participant: it is more generous that the person left a working ethernet cable.
Me: what do you mean? The cable isn't included in the rent?
Participant: it should be included, but sometimes people cut a piece of it off when they move. But this person left the cable and the poster! I'm sure some basketball fan would be happy to see Lebron, but it doesn't matter to me. I guess I could sell it for a couple of bucks, but that's not worth my time.
For 60yuan/month ($10), she could get online and pay 20RMB/month ($3). for a US IP address. She does not reply on internet cafes because she now has her own laptop, given to her by a lover who had much more money than her. She now can experience what she calls the "pure pleasure of private browsing."
The entire city is being torn up to make new buildings and a subway system. When construction sites weave their way into the earth, we imprint ourselves into the city just from walking by the site everyday, stepping onto the broken sidewalk, covering our ears from the loud drill, watching the cranes raise each piece of steel, and walking past the dusty workers. As the city changes, so do we.
I'm hanging out at a local rock show with university students. 3-4 bands have already played and 90% of the songs are covers of songs from the states sung in English. There are around 50 people in the small bar. Most people are just tapping to the beat and drinking beers. Some males are smoking. None of the females are smoking.
The space in front of the band is empty with the crowd forming a half circle. Two girls go into the circle and start to jump around and collide into each other. They are trying to recreate a moshpit - probably something they see in music videos. They giggle as they do it. Then one of their friends joins in (a male) and starts to jump and collide into them. With three people it looks more like a genuine attempt to create a mosh-pit effect. The rest of the crowd is eyeing them as if it was a new kind of behavior they had never seen before.
profile: young, male, migrant worker, travels by car between two cities 8 -10 hours apart, owns two feature phones (motorola, anycall)
me: why don't you carry a dual sim card phone?
participant: Because then if my one phones are not charged then I'm phoneless. iith two phones one of them will always be charged. I travel a lot and even when I'm in one city, I don't always have access to an electric outlet. I like having two separate phones. It makes me comfortable knowing that one of those phones will always work. If I'm not reachable, then I will lose a lot of business. I don't want to just reply on one phone.
Tracing prices of second-hand computers through wall postings: seller lowered the price for her/his computer
This is a wall where in a local slum where people post advertisements for services that they are offering from lock experts, to laundry washing, moving, and computers. People walk past these walls and if s/he sees a service that they are looking for, they will call the phone number.
These kind of walls can be found in any community across China from middle-class to slum apartments. But in luxury apartments or more controlled high-rises, you don't see these kind of walls anymore.
In many places, you can see layers of papers pasted on throughout the years. Some places try to keep their walls clean, but they are unable to keep up with the pasters. Some pasters now stencil their number and services onto walls and stairs with paint.
What are the politics of wall phone numbers? Who posts these and how important are these to local community life? What will happen to these wall numbers when more people start using the internet for local services?
Three friends are sitting and smoking together on an overnight train. Most people standing around them have standing seats only. The boy on the left is playing with his shanzai cellphone.
If the term shanzai could mean "affordably hacked together outside of the dominant" then that means we can group shanzai as part of any disruptive technologies, movements, and cultures. Punk, rock'n roll, & hip-hop are all shanzai. Linux, ubuntu, android, & apache are all shanzai.
I think most disruptive cultures are born out of a context where you have a lots of restrictions, an environment where there is inconsistent regulation (free for all), & tons of dreamers who want to make something work. This to me is the recipe for innovation. (for more on this formula you can look at this recent talk that I gave about the future of the internet in China)
RESTRICTIONS + FREE FOR ALL + DREAMERS = UNIQUE SET OF CONDITIONS FOR INNOVATION
Shanzai phones emerged from a restrictive regulatory environment. Cellphone producers wanted to avoid the tightly government controlled market of cellphone hardware manufacturing that requires handset producers to pay taxes. The taxes made it hard for any newcomer to compete against the large established companies like Nokia, HTC, Samsung, Motorola and etc.
So cellphone producers worked with a Taiwan company that stands outside of Chinese governance, MediaTek, to quickly produce affordable and customizable cellphones that could flood markets within and outside of China. Essentially, cellphone producers dreamed of a way to operate outside of market regulations for cellphones and in the end shanzai phones now are estimated to makeup 20% of all cellphone sales within China. Millions of migrants can now have their dreams come true of connecting in real-time with friends and family, playing lots of games, going online, reading books, and taking photos - these non-elite users can finally afford cellphones just like anyone else in China. Shanzai culture is about equalizing the playing field for the most economically disadvantaged consumers. Now that is what I call a disruptive innvoation.
Now companies like Nokia and Microsoft are panicking because they are unable to compete in the crowded smartphone market. Longtime buyers of Nokia feature phones (symbian) have defected to Shanzai smart phones in masses. But Nokia still has an odd split in their company - they've set their company up in China (and India, Africa) to be split into two parts: emerging markets and smartphones. And now Nokia smartphones are switching to Microsoft platform (good-bye Meego!). But this means that Nokia has segmented their market into two groups and made two assumptions - that emerging markets still want to buy feature phones and elite-users want to buy expensive smart phones. Sorry, but this isn't going to work because both non-elite users AND elite users want access to really cool smart-phones.
People in emerging markets are going to want to have access to the same features that expensive smartphones offer. They see the iphone ads and they want the lifestyle that comes with it. So even if they can't buy it from Nokia/Microsoft, iphone, or some Android phone - they're going to get it a smartphone with the SAME features from a shanzai smartphone. Sure shanzai smartphones are cheaply made and it may fall apart in 1 year, but guess what - that's more of an excuse to buy a new one. At such an affordable place, migrants can afford to get a new phone every year or so.
My suggestion for any hardware manufacturer in emerging markets - learn more about your consumers.
UPDATE May 8, 2011: I just found out that designer and adventurer Jiashan Wu is going to be researching shanzai cellphone culture! Congrats girlfriend! This is such an fun area of research and I'm happy that you're going to be tackling it! I can't wait to see the kind of work that you're going to be doing and let's find a way to play together while we're both in China!
My entry into China this time couldn't have been more seamless. No lines in customs. Luggage came right out. Walked into the arrival area without even having to go through a suitcase scan. But I shouldn't speak too soon. I have to remember that Shanghai is like New York City - whatever happens here - good or bad - cannot be representative of an entire country.
I hopped on an overnight train to they city that I will be based in for the next year.
The minute I arrived in Wuhan, I am thrown into the China that I have been more familiar with - loud, pushy, and dusty.
The sun is barely able to find its way through the smog during morning traffic.
I jump into a taxi and tell the driver my address. He answers back in the local Wuhan dialect. Damn it. I'm now reminded of why it's so much easier to live in Beijing where everyone speaks PutongHua. I try to confirm with him that he understands me, but I think he was trying to do the same thing with me. We don't get too far, but after a few head nods and loud reiterations we get far enough for him to pull away from the station.
Peaking through the dusty windows, I can see half-built highways propped up like lego toys with little costruction workers with plastic hard hats drilling into the foundation. Pink signs for abortion hospitals with friendly females nurses freckle the stream of advertising going by along with the occasional ads of white guys promoting English language schools. A mix of older and newer buses crowd around bus stops with people chasing them down before the driver turns away.
I lean back on my seat and completely give my body's weight to the taxi, allowing myself to bounce at every brake and to sway at every turn. I breathe in deeply, imagining all the dust and particulates being absorbed into my nasal passages and blood stream. I lay my had back knowing that my hair is now touching the head rest that thousands of heads have touched. The taxi driver opens his window all the way down to spit and leaves it open. I breathe in the fast air coming in even more deeply and become hypnotized by the amount of construction that we are still driving past.
The air was thick of change. This all seemed too familiar. And then I realized why - this was exactly what it was like to live in Beijing pre-Olympics - before the world discovered China and before the Chinese put on the largest campaign to accommodate an international audience from anti-spitting campaigns to toilet paper availability mandates and gastronomic censorship of dog fare where any Westerner would be visiting. The Beijing that I have known since the mid-nineties that was always under construction has disappeared into wide, clean, and orderly streets. But I have found a version of it in the middle of China - my dear home for the next year.
Here, no one tries to make the city work for an international community - they make it work for them. You'll get your toes spit on the street if you don't step aside quickly enough. You'll also see pictures of whole barbequed dogs on restaurant signs even with a lightly charred upright tail as if it were alive still and waiting for you to pet its fur. And you'll be surprised to even find a place with toilet paper.
The taxi driver sees a few meters of empty space so he shifts the gear and lurches forward, bringing a handful of air into our car. I close my eyes and breathe in the fresh dusty air. Breathing out, I say to myself that this where I will be for the next year. And then I start sneezing and coughing. My eyes are stinging from the air. My nose is itchy in places I can't reach. You may think that it's my body rejecting all the crap that I just breathed in, but I see it as my body adjusting to the city. Soon I will be able to breathe all this dust in and my eyes will no longer sting.
I feel so happy to be here - to witness a city growing in front of my eyes is an honor. It's a chance to peer into the sieve and to see what happens below the surface. When a city is being torn apart and rebuilt, that's the best time to step inside. Soon this bubble will close up, and soon order will reign like it does in other completed cities. Soon, people will be more self-aware and more suspicious of any attempts to be understood. Soon the construction sites will be zipped up and you won't remember that thousands of little human fingers operated machinery to put up the walls, to hammer in each nail, and to lay down each tile. Soon that image will just be the cover of a lego construction set.
Welcome to my primary blogging home for the next year! I'll be sharing insights from my next year of research on how non-elite youth are using digital tools and interacting with the physical city through these tools. Instead of waiting to read my book or hearing a talk, I'll be giving you small bytes of my fieldwork several times a week for the next year from pictures of my daily travels to quotes from interviews and previews from my field notes.
I believe in practicing holistic ethnography so when I document digital practices, I document as many aspects of life as possible even if there is no obvious connection to the digital. Sometimes, a participant's pencil that they carry in their purse can tell you more about their communication practices than their cellphone.
Some themes that I will be blogging about:
Digital computing is changing the way people interact with physical spaces and the city. This in turns changes the way people maintain social connections. In my work, I argue that private spaces of information access, such as Internet cafes, are the new third places for non-elite users. They point to a new kind of hybrid geography of the physical and virtual worlds, where emerging practices are constantly in flux. I am fundamentally interested in how the convergence and mixed use of digital tools from cellphones to the Internet is transforming communication practices and how it is introducing new opportunities and constraints for youth and migrants in the cities.
The emerging middle-class
Serving the social needs of migrants becomes more important as they secure a position in the middle-class. For China to sustain its urban growth and its entire population, it has to bring millions of migrants into the cities and into the middle class, ensuring that the urban household income continues to grow. Essentially, to accomplish this, China is digitally networking the consumption desires of millions of migrants who are aspiring to live the lifestyle of the middle class. People are using cellphones and Internet cafes to create the middle class/elite identity they desire. They achieve this through the digital content that they consume, the online games that they play, the clothes that they buy, and the choices they make in their online identities. This is a process that I call Digital Urbanism, on the margins where millions of rural-urban migrants are becoming urbanized through low-cost digital tools.
Migrant hopes and dreams
Understanding the hopes and dreams of migrants living on the margins of the city are central to my work. It is their hopes and dreams that are driving the Chinese economy, and a significant portion of the global economy. Their dreams for upward class mobility inform the kind of consumption activities they decide to engage in, from playing online games to downloading music and buying clothes. Migrants are becoming urbanized through a culture of consumption that is mediated and intensified through digital tools.
New digitally mediated inequalities?
My passion is to understand the new kinds of inequalities that arrive with a mobile lifestyle that increasingly relies on digital tools. I am fundamentally interested in how this question applies for non-elite users. One of the stories of the digital revolution is that some of the most marginalized and poorest people are now actively incorporating digital tools into their lives. As this becomes a more familiar story around the world, new forms of inequality will arise. How do we rethink what inequality means in era where everyone has basic access to digital tools? How are marginalized users creating coherence with digital tools? What are the consequences when an entire stratum of society realizes connections through digital tools to many other stratums that were once impossible to reach? We need to become attentive to these new forms, so that content producers, designers, and programmers can meaningfully interact with non-Western and nontraditional ways of thinking and practices.
In addition to these broad topics, I will be looking closely at games, virtual economy, the relationship between mobile devices and internet cafes, instant message across multiple devices, youth's relationship to their hometown, construction of identity, use of social networks sites, media consumption (particularly tv, movies, dvds), and youth culture.
I was going to name this China Bytes, a la my other site Cultural Bytes, but then I realized that people could interpret it as China Bites as if it means China sucks. So that's how I arrived at Bytes of China!
You know you've landed in China when you see people holding signs for "FOXCONN" at international arrivals.
You know you've landed in China when you see people holding signs for "FOXCONN" at international arrivals.
Out of 18 attempted suicides, only 1 person has survived so far. And now Foxconn's employees are supposed to sign no-suicide contract forms.
This makes me think of recent articles that blame our tech-centric society's obsession with mobile phone - as if us, the users, should not be such mobile phone addicts because it's creating problems like Foxconns. I find that to be an unacceptable explanation for the suicides. Companies, like Apple, need to be held accountable for working with compliant and humane producers. Users need to tell Apple that they want to keep buying Apple products and to feel good about doing it.
Hi! I'm moving to China towards the end of March. I'll start posting in April. In the meantime, subscribe to the Bytes of China RSS feed.
I'll still be blogging on Cultural Bytes, but just not as often.