Silvia Lindtner is the associate director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC) and an associate professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Information. She is a founding member of Precarity Lab, a research collective focused on the multiple forms of social and cultural exclusion that digital platforms produce and facilitate.
Lindtner is the author of “Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation” (Princeton University Press, 2020), which traces how a growing distrust in Western models of progress, including Silicon Valley and the tech industry after the financial crisis, shaped the vision of China as a “new frontier” of innovation. Prototype Nation examines how this promise of entrepreneurial life has influenced governance, education, policy, investment, and urban redesign in ways that normalize the persistence of sexism and racist forms of violence and colonial logics of othering.
Young China Watchers (YCW): What unique characteristics did Shenzhen offer during your research tenure and how has the city changed since?
Silvia Lindtner (SL): My research began in 2012, right around the time that a loosely constructed network of people working in the tech, entrepreneurship, and design industries suddenly began talking about the city of Shenzhen. I was finishing up my dissertation and wondered what it was about Shenzhen that attracted so much attention. People were saying the promise of a democratized form of tech production had materialized there. There were early initiatives focused on translating a Silicon Valley vernacular of startup culture, venture capitalism, pitching, startup weekends, and manufacturing in and around Shenzhen.
I moved there and began ethnographic research at one of the early hardware incubators that had set up office in Shenzhen at the time. This particular incubator was a program that invested in hardware start-ups that promised to scale the visions of the maker movement into data-driven smart systems and products. It supported mostly male entrepreneurs and was run by mostly white, and mostly male mentors and investors. While the manufacturing industry didn’t really change per se — especially in the years following 2013 and 2014 — Western media such as The Economist and Wired were suddenly portraying Shenzhen as this rising innovation hub, comparable to Silicon Valley.
It was interesting to see that the rearticulation of this “new” Shenzhen had a lot of power; It attracted a lot of investment, and even the attention of the Chinese government — prime minister Li Keqiang declared makerspaces-turned-incubator part of national policy. This rearticulation of Shenzhen as newly innovative made this investment possible. This was a moment where people in the tech industry and in Western media generally were beginning to doubt some of the earlier technological promises that had come out of Silicon Valley, such as the ideal of democratized innovation and self-empowerment, giving way to critiques of the industry’s complicity in labor exploitation, racism, and sexism. Shenzhen was articulated as a place that hadn’t become full-on subsumed and corrupted by the techno-capitalists.
People really began embracing the region’s copycat/shanzhai culture to demonstrate there was a counter-culture ethos in Shenzhen that had not yet been fully appropriated by capital’s reach. [“Prototype Nation” defines shanzhai as “China’s partially illicit and experimental production culture that had long been decried… as fake… and as emblematizing China’s inability to innovate.”] It was a group of powerful men tied to Western institutions of higher education and investment that celebrated Shenzhen and shanzhai culture as a way to feel techno-optimism once more. But there was much contestation in terms of the notion of Shenzhen as just a copy of Silicon Valley. An eclectic group of Chinese advocates of the maker movement were attempting to push back on this notion that all Chinese can do is mindlessly copy what Silicon Valley designs. They intervened in that discourse and they too gravitated toward Shenzhen as an example to show that China has its own maker culture.
YCW: What is “happiness labor” and what role does it play in Chinese entrepreneurialism?
SL: The chapter on “happiness labor” came out of my fieldwork at the incubator — a space I would describe as similar to adjacent spaces in tech innovation, where the promise of entrepreneurial life masked toxic masculinity, sexism, and racism. With the concept of happiness labor, I aim to show that there are various forms of labor exploitation happening in the tech industry and it takes place at these makerspaces, which we often associate with fun, future-making potential. I draw from the work of the philosopher Sara Ahmed, who has written much about the colonial project and the promise of happiness, where historically colonial regions were presented as not only lacking modernity but also lacking happiness. What the female staff at the incubator performed was basically a form of labor that would rebuild that happy-modern promise in that very moment when a lot of people began doubting Western techno-promise.
After the financial crisis 2007–2008, tech wasn’t seen with that same optimistic lens anymore. The two women who worked at the incubator where I was based were hired not only to do translation work and organize factory tours for the startups, but also to produce a feeling of excitement about the idea that if people lead an entrepreneurial life, they can hack capitalism at scale.
I aim to show that certain people are relegated to this labor that is not valued, is invisibilized, and has racist endurances from the colonial periods. While these spaces are celebrated as offering democratized innovation, happiness labor is also showing that there were a lot of people excluded from that project.
YCW: You quote Arif Dirlik: “Orientalism, which earlier articulated a distancing of Asian societies from the Euro-American, now appears in the articulation of differences within a global modernity as Asian societies emerge as dynamic participants in a global capitalism.” Could the Chinese government pursue any productive options to combat the practice of “othering” China from the global present?
SL: In many ways, the Chinese government has historically and strategically used histories of colonialism and racist forms of othering for its own purposes. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used this notion of a “civilized” (文明) culture or “quality” (素质) with the CCP framing citizens as lacking these things and arguing that this explains why China lagged behind the West. When the government began endorsing things like the maker movement and the promise of democratization in 2015, it was framed by the CCP as a mechanism to recuperate China from the humiliating path that has positioned its citizens as “low quality.” But the responsibility was placed on the individuals, people made responsible to transform themselves, people who were no longer labeled manufacturers or engineers, but were now seen as innovators, many of whom had come from rural parts of China. They had succeeded in the sense that they were managers or factory owners but were still struggling with the image that they were deemed “low quality.”
Drawing on China’s history of partial colonization allows the government to position itself as useful on behalf of the people. This is how the government has appropriated the Western story of Chinese people as “other” and backward. With President Xi Jinping, for instance, there is much more of an aggressive pushback against imperialism: He uses histories of Western imperialism or ongoing forms of it to position China differently, for example with the BRI and its infrastructural projects in the so-called Global South. This government is very savvy at doing that.
YCW: You tell the story of one of your sources, Robin, who undergoes a strained attempt to transition from “low quality” shanzhai producer to a “cosmopolitan, globally savvy businessman.” Can this transformation be considered another form of shanzhai? Does the development philosophy present in Shenzhen and other parts of China place an extra burden on individuals to both “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but also bring everyone else up with them, in a conscious process of nation-building?
SL: I was particularly struck by conversations I heard at one of the bigger Maker Faires in 2014, when there was still contestation about whether Shenzhen was becoming a center for “true” innovation or if it was (still) just a copycat. Many of the foreigners there were complaining about how different this particular Maker Faire was from similar events in Silicon Valley. I thought: Isn’t that the whole point? I was so struck by this insistence by these mostly American makers that making had to look just like it did in the Bay Area. Isn’t that the bigger copy?
“I was so struck by this insistence by these mostly American makers that “making” had to look just like it did in the Bay Area.”
An insistence on the Western image of innovation silences other forms of tech culture that don’t fit that model. Robin is an example of someone who is exhausting and overworking himself; who is someone not on the factory floor but still sees himself as not good enough within this paradigm. That’s why he needs to keep fighting. He talked about being responsible for not only his workers, but also China’s image. He described taking on these responsibilities on behalf of the nation-state, and even the party-state, as very hard labor. This mindset is a progression from the eighties and nineties when Chinese citizens were called upon to turn themselves into economic actors on behalf of the nation. It also merges in the tech industry in particular with this normalization of overwork and hyper productivity. It’s interesting to see how people in the tech industry are pushing back against these norms.
YCW: If everyone followed Joi Ito’s idea and acted as “Now-ists” i.e. as “people who recognized that ‘nowadays to innovate you don’t need to plan everything, but you need to stay connected, always learning, and always present,’” would orientalist and colonialist narratives lose ground?
SL: I don’t think so. The “now-ist” approach was a particularly well-articulated story of how to legitimize the idea that even someone as privileged as an MIT Media Lab graduate has to reinvent themselves constantly and turn away from what has worked in the past. It was a very smart way of framing something that is quite exploitative, in this investor-speak way centered on the promise of opportunity. This language was inspired by people like Ito and those in his network to argue there is something broken about Western forms of innovation; that we have lost touch with the world. What they meant was that they, especially men from the global North, had lost control. A now-ist can turn to the next and find something completely unique to re-invest.
When I was embedded in this incubator in 2012 and 2013, I saw for myself that the environment felt just plain exciting to everyone involved. I too felt this excitement to be part of it. That made me tolerate, like other women did, instances of sexism and sexual harassment because there was seemingly a bigger project at stake.
YCW: How has the pandemic upended the West’s assumed monopoly on the contemporary? Does the global uncertainty of the moment help or hurt the project of equalizing innovation? Does today’s “prototype” have a nationality?
SL:The state of China-U.S. relations has made visible how the narrative of China as the threatening and backwards other is so deeply intertwined in American national politics. It’s not new, but the pandemic has perhaps made that fact even more visible. If the West is confronted with the pitfalls of its own exceptionalism, maybe there is some hope for change, but I don’t see it happening right now at least. Even in liberal circles, where people have begun to analyze the role data and algorithms play in surveillance capitalism in the U.S., China is depicted as an oversimplified “other.” The notion that China is only and always necessarily a top-down authoritarian regime and surveillance state, then, is complicit in various forms of racialized violence. It reproduces China as the other. While we have that reckoning in the West as we turn toward our own issues of racism and surveillance here, we are failing to have a more nuanced engagement with China.
Meanwhile, in market-driven processes, the nation is not the important entity. In the kinds of processes I was studying around financialization, competition doesn’t matter in a national sense; Nationality is almost irrelevant to the investor. Shenzhen appears as an archetype that was able to produce these feelings of excitement. Later, we might move on to the next thing to extract newness elsewhere. It is the story of promise, and scale is what matters to the investor.
— Interview by Johanna M. Costigan