AAS Annual Conference 2020

Technologies of Everyday Life, Part 1: Insights from a Collaborative Research Project on the Making of Modern East Asia (roundtable discussion)

Organizer and chair: Angela Ki Che Leung (University of Hong Kong)

Participants: Suzanne Gottschang (Smith College); Max Hirsh (University of Hong Kong); Wen-hua Kuo (National Yang-Ming University, Taipei); Izumi Nakayama (University of Hong Kong)

In 2017, an interdisciplinary team of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, STS and urban scholars came together at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Hong Kong to launch a collaborative research project that studies the role of everyday technologies in the making of modern East Asia from the 19th century to the present. Drawing inspiration from the history and anthropology of technology, East Asian STS studies, and urban studies, the team has spent the past two years conducting research on a variety of what we deem everyday technologies—ranging from food and medicine to telephones, automation, and transportation—with two goals in mind:

  • First, we seek to take the perspective of technological change to reframe the notion of East Asia as a region. In so doing, we highlight regional connections by tracing the movements of people, ideas, practices, and materials to eschew a rigid sense of boundedness of the region.
  • Second, our project aims to illuminate the relationship between technology and modernity by foregrounding specific examples of technological innovations that have produced profound and lasting shifts in the everyday lives of people living in East Asia.

To achieve these ends, our interdisciplinary team—made up of scholars based throughout East Asia, as well as in Europe, North America, and Australia—goes beyond the traditional frameworks of national, colonial and post-colonial histories that have been conveniently used to explain West-East technological transfer and Asian aspirations for modernity. Moving beyond conventional geopolitical frameworks, we deploy the concept of infrastructure (Larkin 2013) in order to open up new ways of interpreting the manifold local, transnational and trans-regional technological engagements that have made East Asian societies what they are today.

Five collaborators will discuss the preliminary findings of their respective projects to illustrate the strengths and opportunities of this collaborative undertaking as well as the cross-disciplinary and methodological challenges that they encountered along the way.

Technologies of Everyday Life, Part 2: the techno-politics of the China Model of development

Organizer: Tim Oakes (University of Colorado Boulder)

In the context of an increasingly global China, this panel is premised on the need for a different approach to understanding the underlying basis of the ‘China model’ of infrastructure development currently being exported throughout much of the global south under the ubiquitous catch-all label of the ‘Belt & Road Initiative.’ The presentations collected here suggest three key arguments underlying this need. First, the academic focus on geopolitical strategies and international-relations aspects of the model detracts from an analysis of the infrastructures themselves, and, more specifically, their materialities and techno-political dimensions. We thus explore everyday infrastructural technologies as a nuanced lens for capturing less apparent aspects of state formation and reproduction in and beyond China. Second, when infrastructures have been considered, they are typically large-scale projects that convey state power in highly visible ways. But the China model also produces less visible everyday infrastructures that are still deployed in ways meant to enhance state control and social governability. Third, rather than viewing initiatives like the BRI solely as products of China’s engagement with global capitalism, we approach the infrastructural emphasis of the China model as emerging from a legacy of socialist state-making and distinct institutional formations that continue to shape development in China today.  This panel will demonstrate different approaches to the techno-politics and materialities of Chinese infrastructure development at the scale of everyday technologies, offering a collective case for how an infrastructural lens can help us understanding state formation and politics in the context of global China.

The History of Wireless Communication Infrastructures (1988-2020)

Jianqing Chen (University of California, Berkeley)

This paper studies the wireless communication infrastructures, the immobile, material, and physical networks, that undergird the immaterial, amorphous, and mobile media environment in contemporary China with an attempt to excavate their almost forgotten history. I focus on two wireless communication infrastructures – the cellular network and the optic-fiber network (allowing the access of wireless LAN), investigating their independent developmental trajectories at the beginning and then the gradual convergence with the advent of mobile media. Studying the optical fiber networks, I divide the construction history into three stages: first, 1988 -1998, the construction of the national-wide inter-provincial core network, namely “Eight Vertical and Eight Horizontal”; second, 1998-2010, the deployment of broadband networks in urban areas; third, 2010-2020, the development of FTTH networks and the extension of full broadband coverage to rural areas. I also tease out its topological changes cellular networks, tracing out the launch of 3G networks in 2008 and the “upgrade” to the 4G networks in 2013. Different from American digital infrastructures which originated from the state’s military apparatus of the 1960’s, I argue that Chinese wireless communication infrastructures, built concurrently with transportation networks, grew out of the national strategies of industrialization, informatization, and economic reforms. Presenting the complexity of national plan makings and implementations involving wireless infrastructures in association with the marketization of the telecommunication industry and the rise of private enterprise, this paper demonstrates an imbrication of sovereignty with governmental power and proposes a reconceptualization of digital political power in China.

Mediating private life by regulating post-consumer waste in contemporary China

Adam Liebman (Stanford University)

In 2019, over 20 years after the first recycling bins appeared in China’s city streets, the state has finally begun strictly enforcing post-consumer waste separation in select sites. In Shanghai, the first city of implementation, garbage bins are now inconveniently locked when no one is attending, while those who transgress sorting and disposal guidelines face fines and social credit score impacts. Although this campaign to regulate the waste of individual households may appear unprecedented in China, in many ways it resembles socialist Mao era campaigns to collect scrap. The abstract motivating justification has changed, from helping the nation rapidly industrialize to helping protect the environment; however, the close regulation of post-consumer waste represents one important avenue through which the state is returning as a mediator of people’s intimate private lives. In this paper I draw on ethnographic research in urban China focused on tensions between recent state-entrepreneurial recycling initiatives and existing independent scrap trading networks to highlight these historical continuities and reflect on what the new idealized citizen-government partnership of sorting waste to build an “eco-civilization” tells us about the state in general.

Convenience Police: Infrastructures of Control in Northwest China

Darren Byler (University of Colorado Boulder)

Since 2014 authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have introduced a “seamless” checkpoint, passcard and face surveillance system that tracks and inhibits the movement of targeted minority citizens while providing “green lanes” and greater feelings of security to system-approved citizens. This system draws on the socialist legacy of mass revolution, comparative strategies of urban counter-insurgency war and new developments in surveillance technology to produce a new model for population management. This paper explores the valences of these systems to understand the way this techno-political infrastructure system can be seen simultaneously as an engine of job creation, citizen mobilization and flexible confinement. It shows how tens of thousands of auxiliary police, intelligence workers, volunteers in “neighborhood” watch units and targeted minorities build and maintain this system, and the way this everyday labor produces forms of personal investment in policing the system and policing the self. Through this exploration it makes the central argument that the social position and investment of individuals affects the user experience of these “convenience” police systems. It further argues that these forms of citizen mobilization both complement and stand in tension with the more abstract economic functions of this techno-political system as a basic intelligence growth industry and a form of state-fostered venture capitalism, all of which, it argues, are components of a larger “China Model” of development.

Elevated Tensions: Contested Chinese Influence in the Construction of the Hanoi Metro

Tim Karis (University of Florida)

The growing economic and geopolitical influence of “global China” has generated anxieties and pushback from Vietnamese officials and citizens, with responses ranging from policy debates to journalistic critiques to rare public demonstrations against Chinese companies leasing land and doing business in the country. One ongoing source of tension involves a series of ambitious infrastructure projects currently under construction in Hanoi and spearheaded by Chinese investment and expertise, most prominently an elevated urban railway (Hanoi Metro) meant to ease the city’s chronic congestion and showcase its recent developmental strides. This paper adds to scholarly understandings of global China’s developmental apparatus by moving beyond visions of unchecked ambition and influence to demonstrate the frictions—and their potential consequences—that emerge alongside the changing built environment in strategically targeted locales. Specifically, it examines official and popular reactions to the urban railway’s budget, timetable, and design through the lens of the historically—and currently—fraught relationship between the two countries. Looming visibly over the city in an incomplete state and inviting evaluation, the Hanoi Metro project shows how the promise of delivering modern, sustainable urban infrastructure as a public good runs up against forms of critique and contestation in Vietnam aimed specifically at the perceived threat of economic domination from the north.

Discussant: Tim Oakes (University of Colorado Boulder)

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