by Xiaowei Wang
read in Sep 2022
book info on goodreads
In its essence, Wang's book is challenging the idea of metronormativity. Metronormativity assumes that rural culture is backward oriented, conservative and intolerant. It is based on the idea that everyone needs to escape the rural countryside to the city to become a metropolitan citizen. Education and, more importantly for this book, technology seem to be the key drivers behind metronormative beliefs.
Wang challenge such beliefs by showing how deeply intertwined the rural and the urban are and how technology exacerbates the inequalities between the two. The dynamic between urban and rural societies is central to globalisation, with rural areas serving as the industrial and agricultural engines of the prosperity of knowledge economies in urban areas. Wang have developed this argument through their journey through rural China and by observing how rural China fuels the technologies that are used in China every day as well as around the world. Many people living in rural areas seem to loose a sense of belonging to places and local communities as the technological, economic, and political system dislocates them. Many see disengaging with the physical world as the only way to reclaim a sense of belonging. But is it really possible to separate the physical and the digital world in that way?
In China, young generations leave rural villages to seek careers and jobs in the cities and even in other countries. In the 1980s, China's economic boom was fuelled by a unique rural entrepreneurial model referred to as Town and Village Enterprises. The rural-urban divide in China is one of the main reasons for a large rate of income inequality. Migrants from rural towns for little pay in the cities, but cannot afford to live in the cities. However, due to land reforms and rural revitalization projects, migrants are slowly starting to return to the countryside. With them, they bring new knowledge and technologies.
Wang discuss the concept of trust and how blockchain as a proxy is doomed to fail. Chinese have shifted their trust from government to private companies. This has resulted in a range of cascading contradictions. For example, China has long been struggling with problems of food safety as regulation is left to the companies themselves. Now, equipped with emerging technologies such as blockchain, new private companies present themselves as the one's that can fix what other private companies have failed to achieve. Wang discusses one such business that equips Chicken with wearable devices that track several qualities of the chicken. The devices are tamper-proof, secured by the blockchain. However, Wang argues, blockchain governance is not neutral or unbiased. Blockchain governance merely shifts governance from bureaucratic roles to technical roles, a form of colonialism.
"A system of record keeping used to be textual, readable, and understandable to everyone. The technical component behind it was as simple as paper and pencil. That system was prone to falsification, but it was widely legible. Under governance by blockchain, records are tamperproof, but the technical systems are legible only to a select few. Even exploring transactions on a blockchain requires some amount of technical knowledge and access. The technology of record keeping has become increasingly more complex. This complexity requires trust and faith in the code—and trust in those who write it. For those of us who don't understand the code, trusting a record written in natural language on a piece of paper seems at the very least a lot clearer."
But blockchain will nevertheless survive as a technology. Wang argue that blockchain cannot prevent falsification, but will certainly make products more expensive. But it will flourish in an authoritarian system that tries to hold expertise within its realm of power (i.e., the developers) and in an economic system that thrives of inequality (i.e., capitalism).
Wang also discuss artificial intelligence and its foundation in a logic of optimisation. Technology is used to optimise products, processes, and life. But optimisation with technology assumes control over the entire process including its outcomes. Developers assume they control for all the variables and are able to predict the outcome of a process. However, in an uncertain and irrational world nothing is guaranteed. We live in an open system, an uncertain world in which the future cannot be predicted. The imperative for tech companies then becomes to create ever tighter controls around all variables that may be have been out of their control so far.
"Until the makers and builders of AI solve the material realities of the technology, AI will be stuck in a downward spiral, as a tool to optimize life, shaping it into a closed system. Without questioning the intrinsic faith held in prediction, or the political economies of building algorithms, the field of AI ethics and algorithmic fairness will remain mere fodder for dinner party conversations among the rich."
To show how AI is still largely dependent on humans, Wang travel to facilities that label the data that is necessary for building the large-scale AI models. There are entire, so called, "digital towns", in China were migrants workers sit in front of a screen all day and label images. There are farmers examining training data of AI controlled pigs and labelling these pigs as healthy or sick. However, data will never be able to represent the richness of life, it is always just a small window into it that brackets other things out. There is always some bias built into data depending on how that window has been designed and what it allows us to see.
"The intractability of life to be rendered captive to simple numbers, lines on a record,reaffirms the powerful act of living against the weight of data used toward predictive ends. To shed the belief that data is predictive and powerful is to push away surveillance as necessity. Shedding our devotion to data gives a depth of meaning to presence, carving out new paths and ways of living beyond categorical drop-down menus, checkboxes, and forms.The data gathered on me is cheap and meaningless, just as the data gathered on you is already meaningless after the moment has passed."
Another emerging digital phenomenon that Wang explore is corporate surveillance. The normalisation of corporate surveillance has been enabled by our fear and the deep desire for safety.
"In order for us to challenge surveillance, we will have to move beyond corporate,profit-driven platforms that track us and monetize our data, but more importantly we will have to combat our own fears and illusions of safety. We must question the culture of surveillance and carceral punishment that condition us to think living with fear is the only way of understanding we are alive. We must rethink what safety means, and what it means to build communities that allow everyone to live an unbounded life, instead of punishing people for being poor."
Wang's book is deeply critical, but not of the economic and political environment in China, but the global political economies of building AI models for control, developing blockchain solutions for trust issues, and collecting data to fuel these economies. It uses China as an exemplary case and shows how many of the problems that are unique to China are actually rooted in much larger, systemic developments.