Since January 2013, I have been based out of Shenzhen, a city in the southern region of China, bordering Hong Kong, and most widely known as the home to factories such as Foxconn, where firms like Apple and HP manufacture their products. What brought me to Shenzhen was a new project, part of my long-term ethnographic research on maker and hackerspace culture in China: alongside 10 hardware start-ups, I joined as an on-site ethnographer the HAXLR8R program. HAXLR8R is the first of a growing number of hardware focused accelerator and incubator programs that invest in start-ups born out of the open hardware and maker movement.
The 10 start-ups I have been working with over the last months in Shenzhen and programs like HAXLR8R play a central role in what I call an increasing “professionalization of Make.” By this, I refer to a growing number of start-ups and individual makers that are working towards economic models that allow them to make a living off their hardware designs and productions. In this post, I explore what actually goes into this professionalization of maker practice, which is mostly thought of as a hobbyist activity and something that people do in their free time or just for fun. What does it take to professionalize make? I will show that at the center of this transformation lies the establishment of partnerships between people and entities we previously thought of as populating quite distinct or even opposing worlds.
Made with China I: LightUp
LightUp was founded by Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry with the vision to apply maker and open hardware techniques to education and enable hands-on learning. A central aspect that motivated Josh and Tarun is a commitment to open up the black-box of technology. By this, they mean to uncover the inner workings of our technology. For instance, they ask what makes a “closed” device such as an Apple iPhone “tick,” e.g. what materials and components were used, where it was made, what it does in terms of electronics and physical materials, etc. With this, Josh and Tarun speak to a broader vision that motivates many of those who identify as part of a contemporary maker movement: individual and collective empowerment through the building of platforms that allows others to make and understand the inner workings of technology; or in their words:
“… as these devices have shrunk over the decades, they’ve become inaccessible black boxes. We live in a world where we can only use electronics, but not understand, fix, remix, or create. At LightUp, we aim to tear open those black boxes and help create the makers of tomorrow.”
With their LightUp system Josh and Tarun are driven to implement in practice this vision of un-black boxing technology and what it means to do that via an out-of-the-box designed artifact. The goal of LightUp is enable young people to playfully approach the complex workings of physics and electronics via a tangible system. It consists of electronic components (wire, bulb, motor, microcontroller, etc.) mounted on blocks that connect to each other magnetically to form circuits. A central aspect of the LightUp system is not only the design of these electronic components and of the magnetic enclosures, but also the design of a corresponding software system. Josh and Tarun describe this software layer of the LightUp system as an “informational lens” – a mobile application that recognizes the components in the magnetic circuit system a user puts together and then augments the image with visualizations of otherwise invisible circuit behavior. The application visualizes, for instance, if the circuit was put together correctly and current is flowing through.
Over the last years, scholars, educators and politicians alike have paid increasing attention towards “maker” practice as a new form of education that enables innovation and creativity through hands-on learning. For instance, in 2012, DARPA announced to fund an educational program aimed at bringing “the practices of making into education and [to] extend the maker movement into schools” with a target of reaching 1,000 schools by the school year of 2012-13 (the announcement, the controversy). Similarly, in 2011, the Chinese government, announced the funding of 400 hackerspaces in Shanghai to support new forms of learning, creativity and innovation (Lindtner and Li 2012). And also in higher education, many programs – ranging all the way from the MIT Media Lab to Information and Management schools – have opened up hacker and/or maker spaces providing their students with access to a new set of tools and collaborative learning.
The work by Josh and Tarun is indicative of how this vision is being implemented in practice. During their time at HAXLR8R, LightUp visited a series of factories and established close relationships with a selected few that they deemed fitting their quality requirements, specifications, and style of interaction and communication. One of these manufacturing partners produced small enclosures of LightUp prototype. Josh and Tarun were working closely with their production site in Shenzhen. The interaction involved an intricate and effortful interaction between LightUp, the manufacturing site and the service provider that had established the bridge between the foreign start-up and the Chinese manufacturing site. A particularly important aspect to these interactions were on site visits, during which Josh and Tarun met with the Laoban (the factory owner) as well as with workers on the factory floor to test the appropriate materials to be used for their product:
During one such visit I accompanied Josh and Tarun and we met with the workers to test several different materials to be used to stamp on the small scale the LightUp system required. After several hours of trial and error, the manufacturer and LightUp decided to consult with the subcontractor that manufactured the mold for the stamp. A phone call later, the worker who had produced the mold stood in the office and we agreed that modifications had to be made to the mold design itself. The interactions spanned beyond this on-site visit over another 2 weeks.
It is exactly this careful interaction as well as the establishment of trust between the hardware startup and the owner and workers at the factory that turns maker ideas into tangible products. It’s a combination of a deep understanding of materials, the inner workings of technology and social interactions.
Made with China II: Have you seen Clyde?
“Clyde is a bit of a character,” Amanda explains in the Kickstarter video (link to: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/metamanda/clyde-an-expressive-lamp-for-creative-homes?ref=live) that introduces Clyde, the first of a product line of modifiable and open household appliances by Fabule Fabrications (link to: http://fabule.com/). What Amanda and Bruno realize with Clyde is an expressive and personable take on what designers and engineers have envisioned for more than 2 decades as the so-called smart home. This vision of a smart home with interconnected devices that make our lives easier and frees us from household chores dates back to the 90s. Back then, the advent of mobile computing and sensing technologies lead people to envision an invisible computer moving into the background of our lives and connecting seamlessly our lives at home, in the office and while on the go. What we learned over the years is that much of this remained a vision and that in practice most people prefer warm and customizable environments rather than full-on home automation. Recently, we have seen a resurgence of these earlier ideas of the smart and interconnected home with the Internet of Things. A central difference is that much of what was envisioned 10-20 years earlier today has become possible to implement in practice. One reason is simply that electronic components have continued to shrink in size and price. More importantly than the change in technical feasibility is what a growing community of makers like Amanda and Bruno are making in practice.
With Clyde, Fabule Fabrications illustrates that we can implement earlier visions of interconnected devices, but do so with a personable touch, with character and by engaging and working WITH the consumer, rather than designing a sterile and automated home FOR people. With a background in interaction design, Amanda and Bruno are well versed in designing devices that have a delightful and quirky personality. The process was driven by humor and playfulness, for instance what would a household lamp look like that reacts to your plant needing water or that greets you when you come from a long day of work? Or that gets sleepy when you have been working for 2 hours straight at your desk and you really should be taking a break?
This humor that Amanda and Bruno designed into Clyde is central to the maker community. This playfulness and humor also extended in Fabule’s interactions with manufacturers in China. During their time in Shenzhen, they worked closely with the prototype manufacturer Industri-Man. They worked in particular with a young women and recent college graduate Ada Liu from the foreign trade department of Industri-Man. Through a series of interactions through email, phone and on-site visits, Fabule and Industri-Man discussed intricacies to the material requirements of the best plastic to be used as well as how to best engineer the snap-and-twist joining mechanism that Bruno designed for the lamp. Together with Industrial Man, Fabule Fabrications designed a vacuum cast that’s very close to the final injection mold to be used for the finished product. Clyde, then, comes into being not by the tools and materials of one single, but of many different entities and manufacturers with a distinct focus on specific machines, materials, and products. Large corporations such as Intel and Apple often work with contract manufacturers that handle for them the different sub-contract manufacturers and take care of the quality assurance, etc. Start-ups like Fabule Fabrication, especially when in the early stages of prototyping, work directly with smaller scale and specialized manufactures, and then are themselves responsible for quality assurance and putting together the different components into a final put-together product. For instance, in addition to Industri-Man, Fabule Fabrications also worked with Hill Optical to design the heat dissipation from the high-power LEDs that give Clyde parts of his personality. The collaboration with Hill Optical prompted Fabule to change the bottom portion of the lamp to aluminum (from plastic), and add some ridges on the inside to create additional heat dissipating surface area.
What this shows is that makers, manufacturers, and VCs are invested in the “professionalization of make,” while approaching it from very different positionality in terms of resources, power and knowledge. They have a stake in each other’s success and by recognizing each other as collaborators working towards a mutual goal, they alter the very way industrial production, business collaboration as well as design is done. These partnerships in design and ideation between makers, manufacturers and VCs is better characterized as a “made with China” (rather than made in China), a process of mutual learning, investment of resources and trust.
In a previous post, we covered how to tackle the digital vendor worlds of Taobao. Here, I will discuss together with Amanda from Fabule and Tarun and Josh from LightUp, where and how digital PCB (Printed Circuit Board) designs are made tangibly real – just like the PCB coster depicted here, that was designed by LightUp to detect temperature of a cup and display it visually.
Over the last months at HAXLR8R, many of us have begun working with HQPCB, a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of PCBs. What we found was a service that extends way beyond a linear transaction from a digital design into physical board. HQPCB basically functions like a “friendly neighborhood” PCB shop. HQ does not stand for high quality as the name might imply, but literally for the neighborhood of the PCB shop in Shenzhen: HuaQiang.
Working with HQPCB has been a learning experience for us on many levels. While in the United States, for instance, PCB prototyping often feels like a very distant manufacturing process, working with HQPCB takes on a much more personalized note. Even though orders are submitted online, they are verified over the phone or even in person at the HQPCB office. In these conversations, we learned things like “if we order 10.000 boards, can you produce a special shape,” or “can you do two layers of solder masks instead of silk screening” (as described in Bunnie Huang’s post on “Where Arduino’s are born”). So even though the interaction with HQPCB starts off with an online transaction, it quickly turns into a personalized experience.
This becomes more immediately visible, when we introduce you to Kevin Lau from HQPCB, one of their English-speaking customer representatives: On one of our first order’s, Kevin reached out to us over the phone and one of us walked over to the physical shop of HQPCB. This way, the payment could occur in cash (which is great if you don’t have a Chinese bank account). Kevin took care of the payment out of Amanda’s HQPCB customer account. This required us to share our account info with Kevin, which at first created a feeling of unease. Sharing account information can be a quite common practice in China, especially when the relationship is based on mutual trust (check out one of my earlier papers where I have written more extensively bout this). Generally, our interactions with Kevin have been very personable. He has gone out of his way to help us with orders on weekends and even while he was out of town. He always followed up within hours of receiving a delivery to make sure everything is OK. And he ordered batches to be redone, if they were not within the specified tolerance or of there were any issues with the boards.
A central aspect of these interactions was the mutual learning process. We often met with Kevin to talk about particular PCB art techniques. This included, for instance, a conversation about how to accomplish a board design based on two coats of solder mask, in different color, rather than solder mask and silk screen. This technique allows to achieve a better resolution on the PCB’s decorative elements, which is crucial when the boards are a visible part of the consumer end product. For instance, think of the aesthetics of the Arduino board with graphical elements such as the geographical map of Italy, which make the board immediately recognizable. This design also helps to identify “fake” Arduino boards, which mostly rely on low-resolution graphics, i.e. a pixelated or blurry map of Italy.
Double coating of solder masks is a non-standard technique that HQPCB was not familiar with before our work with them. And so, we learned together, as HQPCB experimented with the technique, how it worked in practice. What we found out was that the double coating does not require the use of machines other than those already in use at a standard PCB manufacturers. It does require a slight alteration of the assembly line process.
Some basics for those interested in working with HQPCB:
The standard delivery with HQPCB takes 4-5 days. If you want to have express delivery within 24 hours the costs increase: We had an order, for instance, for 100RMB (Chinese Renminbi) within 48 hours, and 200 RMB within 24 hours. 24 hours means that the PCBs are finished within 24 hours and then delivery occurs the next day. Generally, with HQPCB the price depends on the size of your board and the color of the solder mask (white solder mask is more expensive than the green). So for a small green board is 50RMB and a big one is 100RMB. You submit through a form that updates live. HQPCB then gives you an estimate of the costs, after about 30 minutes of reviewing the files. If a PCB design is more complicated or any other questions come up, they will call and discuss details.
In a previous blog post, I covered some tactics to source electronics in the Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen. Some asked, what if you are not located just around the corner of Huaqiangbei? Or, what if you really really can’t leave your office, because you are in the midst of finishing up that latest hardware prototype of yours? In this post, I teamed up with the brilliant DIY maker minds Amanda Williams from Fabule and Josh Chan & Tarun Pondicherry from LightUp to answer these questions.
Here, we discuss how you can access the same electronic markets remotely, without leaving your office, and how you can do so in less than 24 hours. In a second blog post (soon to come), we will cover how to turn your PCB design (Printed Circuit Board) into an actual board by working with HQPCB (华强PCB), a Shenzhen-based PCB manufacturer.
Taobao is most commonly known as China’s largest online shop, at times compared to eBay or Amazon, that offers anything from standard consumer products such as shoes, bags, home appliances all the way to services such as custom-made designs, finding a temporary boyfriend over Chinese new year, etc. Much less known, however, is that Taobao also functions as the online interface to the Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen. It is based on two built-in features: 1) a search field used to type in the product or service you are looking for and 2) a built-in chat interface from Alibaba that links up a product and its vendor. How this works in practice:
Let’s say you search, for instance, for a 10K ohm SMT 1206 Resistor. It helps to search for such items in Chinese with help from Google Translate and the Chinese Digikey datasheets. Taobao will return a screen that lists several links to different vendors that offer such a resistor, and includes prices next to each listing, in this case ranging all the way from 0.01 RMB to 35 RMB:
Such a wide price range is common and can mean different things: some vendors list the price per piece, others list a ballpark price (especially in cases of such small parts like resistors), and at other times a difference in price could indicate a difference in quality. And so the next step is to figure out more details on the price and/or quality of the product. In the case of such small electronics like the resistor we searched for, many vendors offer more than just the specific piece you searched for. And so the price they list is, for instance, an average for all their products or a starting price. If you click on one of the listings that your search returned, the vendor would then list all the different products they sell as well as the different prices and specs. It is here where the built-in chat interface is the essential tool. Hardly any Taobao order would take place without some sort of – even if minimal – interaction between the shopper and vendor.
Clicking on the little blue bubble will open up a chat interface in your browser window (see screenshot above). Each of these chat interfaces is linked to the vendor of the product, who is often located in one of the tiny stalls that make up the big department stores in China’s industry-heavy cities like Shenzhen (check out previous blog post [link] that covered the stalls in the electronic markets of huaqiangbei in Shenzhen). This is visible also when you go to the markets; many vendors are busy typing away on their computers, and while sometimes this might be for the purposes of leisurely distraction, more often they are interacting with a taobao customer. So rather than going to the markets in person, finding the specific market and the vendor who sells the piece you are looking for (which is often an hour-long intensive search), many make use of Taobao and the access the shopping platform provides to the same vendors.
Those who don’t speak Chinese install the Google Translate plugin, which does a decent job translating basic conversations. By this we mean that it works well for translating technical terms, and less well for translating more nuanced topics, for instance, when there is confusion about some of the product specs or if you order something more custom-made like business cards. Free plugins like the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary help because you can move your cursor over confusing translations and get a character-by-character translation of the original Chinese. This sometimes helps you deduce the meaning of a phrase that Google Translate gets wrong.
The vendors who communicate through Alibaba chat are mostly pretty patient though – in the end, it’s about two individuals (you and the vendor) making a concerted effort to make the order work. If we order more we also negotiate with the vendors to lower or waive the delivery costs. So to sum it up, when we purchase things on Taobao, we first inquire with the vendors about things like: what is the minimum amount of order a vendor accepts, the amount of pieces we want to order, how long the delivery will take, where the vendor is located, if there is the possibility to lower the delivery costs, ask if the part can be picked up in person instead of delivery, ask for clarification on product specs that aren’t in the product description, etc. For instance, once when we ordered a power supply, we needed to double-check with the vendor the “barrel jack” factor (the one that the Arduino uses) – which means we had to know if the center pin is power or ground. In the power supply we found on taobao, this was not part of the description, and so we had to ask the vendor about it. It was a bit tricky to describe this in technical terms in Chinese, so we used the chat interface to send the vendor links to screenshots and drawings of the jack and power supplies that demonstrated what we wanted, like the one here:
Some of the vendors are also available on Taobao during off-working hours after 6pm, when they physically leave the markets, and so people can place an order during times when the actual physical markets are shut down. Before spending a lot of time interacting with a vendor, we make sure that the vendor is rated highly by other users. Every vendor is rated through a series of symbols, whereas one or several diamond shaped symbols next to the vendor’s user name mean he/she is trustworthy – based on user recommendations. When you decide on a product, finalize with the vendor the amount of your order and delivery cost. At this point, the vendor updates the order number and all you have to do is hit the browser refresh button a couple of times until you see the order number and final price. Payment then runs through Alipay, but also many international credit cards are accepted.
This blog post is a collective piece co-written by Amanda, Josh, Tarun, and myself, and would not have been possible without the many hours of their hard work put into uncovering the digital mechanics of Shenzhen’s hardware and electronic worlds. So extra special thanks to Amanda, Josh & Tarun for spending their time and energy to work with me on writing this up for Transfabric!
By: Andrew Schrock
Hackerspaces are place-based collectives where individuals learn through socialization, tinker with technology, develop skills and pool technical resources. But what’s holding them together and moving them forward? Here are a few central themes drawn from my research in a western context that I am exploring, and would be particularly curious to explore internationally:
1. Do-ocracy: Action over Deliberation
Hackerspaces are very noisy spaces, full of improvisation and chatter about projects at various stages of completion. One word came up repeatedly to describe the hackerspace perspective on autonomy and action: do-ocracy. The term is often misunderstood to be a call to anarchism, but it does not mean “do whatever you want.” A more helpful version comes from Chen’s book on the burning man organization titled Enabling Creative Chaos. She defines the term as referring to how “individuals could launch an activity or project that addressed a civic need” (Chen, 2009, p. 55). In other words, a member should act in the best interest of the space itself, and this understanding is propagated through norms. Those who do not act in the best interest of the space or act selfishly set themselves up for reprimand.
I tend to downplay the discursive democratic conventions of these spaces because individual action is the first mover, with group voting and discussion used to shore up perceived offenses. Everyone has a vote, but voting tends to be limited to monthly member meetings, and big decisions such as banning an individual are rare. Members find deliberation frustrating and even a waste of time. As one member put it, “democracy doesn’t lead to something done fast.” This “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” policy is familiar to online knowledge-sharing sites such as Wikipedia, whose slogan “be bold” encourages participants to take action first.
2. Bold Leaders
Hackerspaces are not quite the leaderless organizations that you might imagine. They are composed of strong personalities connected by common space, mutual support and shifting sets of common interests. My claim here is that members require a tacit understanding of group norms (it is easier to show or perform “what it is we do here” than talk about it), but they also desire quick action through bold leadership. This seems contradictory at first glance – do you stay within the norms or stick out? – but it can be reconciled by drawing on Doug Thomas’ distinction between communities and collectives. In collectives, the motivation is participatory, entry/exit costs are nil, and an emphasis is placed on providing tools for increased individual agency. Furthermore,
Collectives… function in support of the expression of multiple, even conflicting identities across a wide range of users. In communities, investment flows toward structure, while in collectives, investment flows towards agency. (Thomas, 2011, p. 3)
A heightened individuation exists within collectives without the same type of friction that arises in communities. It’s important to keep in mind that hackerspaces are volunteeristic, with highly heterogeneous member motivations that are emphasized rather than downplayed, as might be expected in a community where there are specific goals. In contrast, in hackerspaces some are members because they need access to tools, others are the kind of subversive folks you might see at a 2600 meeting who like the social environment, and others see it as a mode of collaborative education. These disparate goals and motivations do not need to be reconciled to have them all participate in a common space and work on individual and group projects.
James Gee’s concept of porous leadership also comes into play here. According to Gee, people take ownership over various areas of an affinity space but “don’t and can’t order people around or create rigid, unchanging, and impregnable hierarchies” (Gee, 2004, p. 79). This is a volunteeristic, non-Weberian organizational strategy that emphasizes individual strengths over structure. This collectivistic orientation, back to Thomas, dictates little to no investment in organizational structure or rules – Noisebridge in San Francisco famously touts their one rule as “be excellent to each other.” Leaders also help define the goals of the space in a different way than most hackerspace members do, by showing up and working.
3. Projects as Material Ideas
Another word related to work that emerged repeatedly in my research was project. What was a project and why are they essential to the hackerspace experience? I am still unpacking the historical angle, but the term had negative connotations centuries ago. In the 17th century “project” had “a distinctly unsavoury connotation, being associated with unscrupulous schemes for getting money” (Novak, 2008, p. 3). To western hobbyists in the 20th century, projects were finite, recreational and semi-structured. To hackerspace members, projects are the motivation for showing up and a way of interfacing with the outside world. But projects hide what might be called a more salient driving force, that true-to-hacker-ethic of sharing information:
I don’t think that [keeping people people motivated is] about projects. I think it’s about interesting ideas. I think that by doing interesting things is how you keep people involved… by giving them the tools and resources they need to do interesting things. For some people that means tools, for some people that means software. For some people, it just means… people who will listen to them. – Interviewee (anonymous)
The above quote captures one member’s belief that projects were merely where ideas were made material and given (in his opinion, often unnecessary) restrictions such as deadlines. Their framing as “projects” is necessary mainly because they made ideas tangible/understandable, and served as recruitment and networking tools. Yet, he also contended that projects should ultimately be disposable and are only as valuable as the idea that drives it. If an idea isn’t noteworthy, the project should be jettisoned in a kind of evolutionary progression towards better projects and knowledge. Perhaps the term project is also preferable simply because it occupies a place between professional and amateur, with a fuzzy boundary of ownership.
Hackerspaces are going through a struggle for legitimacy as they mature, grapple with the stakes of becoming an organization, and network with other local organizations. For example, a hackerspace might wish to seek out funding, collaborate with an arts gallery on a show or provide informal support to local students. This networking forces hackerspaces to articulate themselves in a way that better aligns with expectations of other organizations. For example, negative presentations of “hacking” still pervade the media discourse, despite that it is seen by members more as a learning style similar to tinkering. As one interviewee put it, “we’re starting to network with those people a lot more as they realize that we’re not just guys who read 2600 and try and make free long distance calls.” Sources of funding are also a key debate, as seen in the ongoing discussion between Mitch Altman and Dale Dougherty about whether to accept government funds for hackerspace-like efforts in K-12 education.
Chen, K. (2009). Enabling creative chaos : the organization behind the burning man event. Chicago [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press.
Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning : a critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.
Novak, M. E. (2008). The age of projects. Toronto: Published by the University of Toronto Press in association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Anderson [sic] Clark Memorial Library.
Thomas, D. (2011). From Community to Collective: Institution and Agency in the Age of Social Networks. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1754214
A recent NYT times article by John Markoff and David Barboza on the contemporary IT and innovation landscape in China sparked a series of commentaries (see for example James Landay, Tricia Wang, James Fallow). The article offers a constructive alternative to the usual utopian and dystopian stories that either cast China as the looming power yet to come and soon to take over the (Western) world or as a place that inherently lags behind the West as such warranting foreign intervention. Instead of falling into the trap of adopting either one or the other of these common narratives about China’s change, Markoff and Barboza, tell a different story, one that includes voices from both within China and abroad and challenges our current (often Western-centric) framing of innovation. How, they ask, can we think of innovation and creativity differently, when we do not begin with models, frameworks and tools that are intrinsic to our Western modes of IT corporations, knowledge productions and politics?
Given the quite nuanced approach that Markoff and Barboza took, I was surprised when I encountered James Landay’s quite harsh critique of the article. Landay accuses Markoff and Barboza of providing an account that portrays China as the next rising IT powerhouse, which he proclaims is far from now or anytime soon turning into tangible reality. Landay rejects a “China rises” view by pointing to problems in the educational system, misleading claims in regards to China’s forays in super computing, the lack of significant academic publications coming out of Chinese universities, hierarchical power structures at academic institutions, and an inherent lack of creativity amongst China’s students.
I agree with Landay that the countless publications on the rise of China (and the fall of the West) are counterproductive and often hide actual challenges and opportunities. And I also very much so agree with Tricia Wang that establishing networks of trust could enable new forms of collaborations in China (and I have written about issues of trust also in my own research on online gaming). BUT: What is problematic about “what China lacks” stories – as Landay’s – is that they often feed right into powerful governmental narratives that render their own citizens as the main source for China’s lacking and lagging behind. Anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2011), for example, illustrates in ethnographic depth that the “what China lacks” story has become a powerdul political narrative in China employed by government officials to justify a series of social engineering projects that are aimed at building a “healthy” and globally competitive, technologically savvy workforce for China’s future role in the global knowledge economy.
Not too dissimilar from James Landay’s suggestions for improvement, official documents in China, Greenhalgh illustrates, often cite the following factors as crucial for moving China out of its lagging behind position: a better education that creates flexible individuals, an increase in creativity and new forms of innovation, often seen as enabled by advances in modern science and technology. For example, in 2010, at the biennial conference of China’s two leading science and technology organizations at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, president Hu Jintao stresses the role of science and technology in building an innovative and globally competitive nation.
For me, Markoff and Barboza provide a nice counter narrative to either of these two stories, one about the rise and the other about what China lacks (which is also often about what the West can then contribute). Quoting Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr., president of the Economic Strategy Institute, for example, they propose the idea that there exist many different forms of innovation. What form can innovation take when we move beyond the western-centric and silicon-valley centric ideal of tech creation out of the garage?
As our technologies today travel, so are some of their values that are tied up with their designs. Prior research by scholars such as Gabriella Coleman, Fred Turner and Christopher Kelty, for example, illustrates the mobilization of values and ideological commitments such as Internet freedom, Do It Yourself production and flexible work across different sites and regions. However, these scholars also highlight that the translation of these values never occurs smoothly or in the form of a linear uptake from here to there. Rather, they point to frictions and glitches in the transfer of technologies and ideas of what innovation means in different local sites.
A similar argument is made by Markoff and Barboza. They quote Orville Schell, for example, who emphasizes that “through Chinese eyes it [China’s technological, urban and social transformation] looks tremendously uncertain and provisional. They are not filled with self-confidence.” In my own ethnographic work, I have attempted to account for these practices and views as seen and expressed “through Chinese eyes” and voices. My research allowed me to be part of numerous debates and discussions, where people across different ages and incomes debate exactly those issues that Landay brings up. Rather than a lack of creative ideas about how to tackle the challenges people face in China today, I encountered a collective of people who is very aware of these challenges (see for example Hu Yong’s excellent research on the topic, or Isaac Mao’s writings or the work that is happening at xindanwei and xinchejian). Across these, I found an active reflection on China as a nation that is often rendered as lacking and lagging behind the West.
Engaged in cross-cultural and translocal research and design work, I consider it crucial – especially for people working with students like Landay and myself – to be particularly attuned to political narratives and how we might run risk – even if intentionally – take them up in our own efforts. What kind of existing power systems (in the west, in china and in between) might we support when we position China as a place of inherent lack?
I believe it might be fruitful to begin our conversation not with what Landay suggests to be one of the key questions when it comes to China (“where is China with respect to the US and the West in terms of computing today?”), but with the idea that there exist many different forms innovation and creativity.
Let me illustrate with a brief example. Something that has been heavily debated across the wider IT landscape in China as a new form of innovation is the Chinese copycat phenomenon (shanzhai 山寨). The core idea behind 山寨is that the widespread practice of copying end-consumer products in China, such as the mobile phone or Apple product, has today evolved into something else: into the production of new artifacts enabled by the creative labour of the shanzhai factory workers. Tricia Wang, Eddie Wu & Makiko Taniguchi from IDEO and Lyn Jeffrey, for example, have discussed shanzhai and highlighted how factory workers made use of old thrown-away phones, took their working components and created entirely new products, often tailored towards specific markets and needs such as low-income populations. David Li, one of the co-founders of the Shanghai hackerspace xinchejian, summarizes how this form of shanzhai can be seen as innovation with Chinese characteristics: “We want people to take shanzhai seriously. Underneath the surface of Chinese counterfeits, Shanzhai represents a super efficient micro manufacture system that operate on the principle of open source and open innovations. Instead of spending months and millions of dollars to design the one perfect product with millions of units, the Shanzhai vendors adopt a market driven rapid prototyping approach to the market. For example, upon observing the prayers habits of Muslim in the middle East market, Shanzhai makers produced phones with a digital compass and a reminder system, years before the big brands caught on.”
My goal here is not so much to judge if the shanzhai production (in its material and cultural form) is or will lead to the innovative product that Landay and many others are watching out for. The key is to understand the kinds of work that the idea and existing shanzhai production today together perform for people active in China’s hackerspaces and its IT scene writ large. What shanzhai currently allows are two things. First, through shanzhai people have explored alternate modes of tech creation and collaboration. Many who embrace shanzhai in China today also embrace ideas of creative commons and the open sharing of code and knowledge. Second, shanzhai challenges our very notion of originality, authenticity and innovation. In a recent publication, Byung-Chul Han traces shanzhai production back to artistic creation in both Europe and Asia, where the detailed copy of an artistic masterpiece was treated as deep admiration of the “original” creators work of art. Copy was praise. The original was not seen as a stable unit that suggests unique authenticity, but as a thing that continuously evolves (through its appropriation by many). Every add-on, every copy, every modification was seen as creative process of the original itself. Byung-Chul Han argues that what eventually lead to the quite different take on copy and fakes in the West was in part motivated by tourist travel in the 18th century that lead to the restoration of buildings and art works to communicate their authentic historical and cultural identity.
I believe what Shanzhai, as a vision and material practice, can teach us today is begin with the idea that there can be many different understandings of a copy or a fake, many different possible forms of innovation, none of them having a single authentic source nor remaining stable originals. What it teaches us as well is that instead of falling into the trap of repeating already powerful and often told stories, let’s focus on the sites, people and places that aren’t mentioned, e.g. the factory floor of a shanzhai factory in shenzhen.
One of our transfabric participants, Liu Yan from 新单位 xindanwei.com, comments on her experiences in the workshop and tells us about her take on “hacking:”
如果不接受邀请来布达佩斯参加“Transfabric”工作坊 http://www.transfabric.org/，别名：全球黑客大会，我想我一辈子都不会花三天的时间和几个陌生或者熟悉的人一起制作一扇门。关键之处在于，这不是一扇普通的门，这扇门可以辨别近距离或远程敲门的人并做出不同的反应，这扇门可以记录环境的变化， 可以使人们之间的沟通和互动更加有效，这扇门是人与环境，环境与人，环境与环境和人与人之间进行传播的新的界面与媒介。这是一项黑客项目。
第一个空间是我们进行DIY项目的fablab。有关fablab的概念和模式，在互动百科上有一些比较详尽的中文解释和链接，http://www.hudong.com/wiki/Fab%20Lab ，它的创始人麻省理工學院教授尼爾.格申斐德( Neil Gershenfeld)在TED也有精彩的演讲并附有中文翻译http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/chi_hant/neil_gershenfeld_on_fab_labs.html
“Fab Lab即微观装配实验室（Fabrication Laboratory），是美国MIT比特与原子研究中心发起的一项新颖的实验——一个拥有几乎可以制造任何产品和工具的小型的工厂……它是一个快速建立原型的平台，用户通过Fab Lab提供的硬件设施以及材料，开放源代码软件和由MIT的研究人员开发的程序等电子工具来实现他们想象中产品的设计和制造。”
第二个是kitchen budapest, 简称kibu，说它是黑客空间，不如说它是一家受到电信公司赞助的自主媒体实验室来得确切。他们针对的人群是各个创意与科技领域的优秀专业人员和艺术家。这些经过挑选的优秀年轻人可以免费使用这里的场地和设备，并得到一定的资金支持。kibu 要求来这里工作的人需要有开放共享的工作态度，每个人都要通过与别人的交流与合作共同完成项目。一部分项目偏重艺术或观念，另外一部分项目则偏重于设计和用户体验。
第三个空间是 Hungarian Autonomous Center of Knowledge，简称 H.A.C.K. 这个空间的创始人是当地颇具影响力的Stefan Marsiske。http://p2pfoundation.net/Stefan_Marsiske 做为三个空间中最小的一个，它阴暗，拥挤，破旧，墙上到处是涂鸦和脱落的墙皮 －这个空间简直就是好莱坞电影中最典型的“黑客”聚居地。Stefan 和其他空间的创始人相比，有种离经叛道且先入为主的狂妄气质。这种“不合作”及“挑战权威“气质的空间听说在国际上占有相当比例，在某种程度上，是一种封闭的，针对一小群人的组织形式。