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Announcement: “Hacked Matter” workshop

In April I am co-organizing together with Anna Greenspan a panel discussion and workshop on “Hacked Matter.” Confirmed Panelists include: our very own David Li from xinchejian 新车间, Amanda Williams from Wyld Collective and currently in Shenzhen for HAXLR8R, and Tom Igoe from ITP New York. More details here:

Hacked Matter: A Workshop on Shanzhai & Maker Culture

Shanghai and Shenzhen: April 6-8 2013
With support from the Shanghai Studies Symposium, NYU Shanghai, ISTC (Intel Science & Technology for Social Computing) UC Irvine, the Rockbund Art Museum and Xinchejian 新车间

This workshop aims to critically explore and examine connections between the informal networks ofshanzhai production and the open innovations of the DIY (do it yourself) maker community in China. It will take place in Shanghai and Shenzhen, hubs of China’s growing Hackerspace and Maker scene as well as critical sites in the global flows of ‘copycat’ or shanzhai technology. The workshop will begin in Shanghai with presentations and a panel discussion by leading researchers and practitioners in the field. It will be followed by a two-day hands-on engagement with the open hardware scene & shanzhai manufacturing markets in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, we will visit the HAXLR8R event, a 15-weeks long workshop designed as a ‘startup accelerator program’ for ‘people who hack hardware and make things.’

Detailed Schedule:

Saturday April 6, 2013:  3pm – 6 pm (Shanghai):
All Tomorrows Parties (episode 6): Shanzhai & Maker Culture. Presentations and Panel Discussion at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

Sunday April 7/ Monday April 8, 2013 (Shenzhen):

A tour of Shenzhen guided by David Li (founder of Xinchejian: Shanghai’s hackerspace). The tour will include visits to Chaihuo hackerspace, the HuaQiangBei shanzhai market, and SeeedStudio. It will also involve curated conversations with Eric Pan of SeeedStudio and DIY makers currently working in Shenzhen. The workshop will end on Monday evening with a roundtable discussion (and some delicious Guangdong food).

Shenzhen’s Electronic World 深圳电子世界

Over the last weeks, I have started to accompany a group of DIY makers in Shenzhen on their journeys through the electronic markets around Huaqiangbei Road (华强北路), manufacturers and factories at the outskirts of the city. Learning from and with them as they navigate this complex makers’ ecology in Shenzhen to turn their start-up ideas into tangible products has been an intriguing experience. I will share stories of our ventures here on this blog for others to follow curious about the inner workings of our contemporary computational worlds.

Tackling Huaqiang Electronic World 华强电子世界

Huaqiang Electronic World 华强电子世界

Huaqiang Electronic World 华强电子世界

Huaqiangbei Road and the streets that surround it in Shenzhen’s Futian district are lined up with 4-8 story buildings that seem from the outset just like any other department store or office building in China. On second glance, however, one notices that the banners advertise products of another kind: MOSFETs, capacitors, buttons, and other electronic parts that together make up the interior of any computational device.  When one enters on the ground floor it is often through an unremarkable door with a spectacular heading like: Huaqiang electronic world. And what opens up in front of our eyes is literally a world of its own – a vast maze of vendor stalls that spans the ground floor seemingly beyond a point the eye can reach and across several interconnected floors. The sheer mass is both overwhelming and truly exciting.

Huaqiang market maze

Huaqiang market maze

There is not much room or time to contemplate where to begin tackling the journey in front of you. When you enter you are often simply pushed along by those entering behind you who bring new packaged items into the market, and you are quickly swallowed up into the maze of narrow rows between the stalls. But giving in and floating through the stalls is also a central experience to anyone who appreciates these electronic markets for what they offer, the DIY makers I am with often tell me. Simply seeing and touching components triggers new ideas of what one could possibly build. For the makers I accompany, a design space is opened up of endless new arrangements and innovations right at your fingertips.

Keeping Track & build trust over time

One day, I tagged along with my friend Yair from the hackerspace in Telaviv on his tour through Huaqiang market. Yair works with a fabulous tactic to remember which vendor he trusts and what kind of components they offer. In a notebook that he carries with him he clips the vendors’ business cards and draws next to it an image of the component, the name, part number and price per piece or per purchase. Upon his next visit, he already knows where to look for a specific part rather than repeating the search all over. A simple and useful way of tackling the maze and over time develop a network of trusted vendors who also offer a good deal.

Yair's vendors notebook

Yair’s vendors notebook

Meet Madame Cai

Many vendors are specialized in selling particular parts. For example, one vendor might sell various types of buttons and MOSFETs, while another one only sells resistors and capacitors and yet another specializes on magnets.  The result is that the search for a specific part can at times be tedious, especially for those relatively new to the markets.

Vendors specializing in parts

Vendors specializing in parts

In such situations where little time is at hand to get a specific part, Madame Cai offers help. Customers come to her with a list of parts containing at least the part number, but often also the amount you need and a photo or drawing of the component.

Madame Cai

Madame Cai

At her stall, Madame Cai sits behind a glass display that shows off samples of parts she might help you with, often in different sizes so customers can easily point and explain their need. When customers stop by, Madame Cai goes through their part list for a quick assessment of what is in her reach to acquire. Then she begins making a series of phone calls to vendors within her network to confirm what she can get that day or what has to wait a day or a week. Most of the time, parts are ready 20 minutes after a visit.

Picking up parts at Madame Cai's

Picking up parts at Madame Cai’s

Madame Cai rarely sells quantities less than 10 of one part and charges more than the other vendors – so, saving time costs money. Generally, the more pieces of one part you purchase the cheaper it gets. For example, 100 pieces of a capacitor might cost 30 RMB versus 10 pieces cost 15 RMB.


“China rises” versus “China lacks”

(image source: Han Yuqi, ImageTunel, Shanghai)

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.

by Silvia Lindtner