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ALINA:  Hi, everybody.  Just to let you know that we've started the Zoom event a few minutes early and we're just going to wait for everybody to log on, but we will be starting promptly at 5 pm.  So please feel free to make yourself a cup of tea and see you all soon.



ALINA:  So hi, everybody.  I think we'll get started.

Welcome to the latest event from the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge.  My name is Alina Utrata, I use she/her pronouns, and I'm an Affiliate here at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy as well as a PhD Candidate in the Politics and International Studies Department at Cambridge.

Before I introduce tonight's guest, I wanted to let you know that this event is being professionally live human-captioned.  If you would like to have captioning, you can select it using the Zoom toolbar at the bottom of your screen.  Additionally, StreamText captioning for this event is also available.  This is a fully adjustable live transcription of the event in your browser, and if you want to open this, the link to the StreamText has been placed in the Chat function, so you should be able to see it.  In addition to all this, a transcript will also be made available online after the event that you can access.

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Tonight we are so pleased to be joined by Xiaowei Wang.  Xiaowei is an artist, writer, organiser, and coder.  They are the author of what is in my opinion and certainly the opinion of many here at MCTD one of the best books on technology out there and certainly one of the best titles out there.  It's called Blockchain Chicken Farm and Other Stories of Tech in China's Countryside.  They are also one of the lead facilitators of Logic School, an organising community for tech workers. 

Their collaborative project FLOAT Beijing created air quality-sensing kites to challenge censorship and was an Index Design Awards finalist, and their other projects have been featured by the New York Times, BBC, CNN, VICE and elsewhere. 

Tonight they will be exploring the political and social entanglements of technology in rural China, and we are so honoured and grateful to have them here with us. 

So without further ado, I am pleased to welcome Xiaowei Wang.

XIAOWEI:  Thank you so much for that generous introduction, Alina, and thank you to the Minderoo Centre for having me.  I'm really excited to be able to join you today from the Bay area, which is situated on the unceded Ohlone territory.

I thought I would start off this evening by actually just reading a very short excerpt from the book for those who haven't read it, just to give you a kind of taste of, you know, the writing and also the subject matter.  Yeah.  And then from there, I will show a few photos of the places that I visited, and that will help ground and contextualise some of the research and the process behind it.

So this is from the introduction:

The dynamics of rural China are not isolated to China itself.  Yet because of this geographic distance from the United States, it remains a kind of periphery.  These rural peripheries, the edges of the world, hidden from view, enable our existence in cities.  These areas produce everything from the cotton and the clothes that we wear to the minerals that create the computers in data centres.  They also produce the food we eat.  As humans, we eat to survive, and our appetite for food has carved new geographies and technologies into the world.  Urbanite appetites have shifted rural economies, ecologies, and societies over the past three decades.

Looking at technology in rural China and places that show how globally entangled we are with one another allows me to confront the scarier question that tech poses: What does it mean to live, to be human right now?  Looking at tech in rural China forced me to examine the ideologies that drive engineers and companies to build everything from AI farming systems and blockchain food projects to shopping sites and payment platforms.  These assumptions about humans and the way that the world should work are more powerful than sheer technical curiosity.  Embedded in these tools are their makers' builders and assumptions about what humans need and how humans should interact.  It is not enough to critique these assumptions because in simply critiquing we remain caught in a long list of binaries, of tech as dehumanising or bringing liberation, creating isolation or connecting.  The difficult work that we face is to live and thrive beyond binaries and to aid and enable others to do so.

So how do we begin this work? 

At the age of 99, five years before her death, the activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote The Next American Revolution.  Published in 2010, the book sounded an alarm bell for our present condition.  Despite all this, she pointed to a source of hope, The Great Turning.  The Great Turning, a term borrowed from Buddhism, refers to a growing tidal wave of people now taking steps towards change.  "These are the times to grow our souls", she writes.  The way to respond to crisis is to not only practice compassion and change the cycle of suffering, but also actively practising compassion in our own way, whether we are doctors, teachers, or businesspeople.  Engineers and makers and builders of this technology have this opportunity.  I hope this book sparks something for you.  After all, code is words made executable.  We must take care in what we say.

So now I will show some images from the research process, and I hope this will also open up avenues of discussion into some of the themes throughout the book.  You know, one of the things as a writer that, having not written a book before, you know, so many of these things are actually constricted by word length and they're really shaped and massaged throughout.  So some of the more, I would say, maybe like theoretical themes got toned down a little bit, but I hope that they still came across.

So really the book started off in a number of directions but also in my own capacity as someone who is working as an engineer in tech, and then also actually seeing a lot of discourse about the US-China tech cold war that was going on at the time.

You know, oftentimes too, especially in China, but I think globally as well, we think of the rural as backward in time, and so when we think of tech, we think of places like Shenzhen, which you see here, the market of Huaqiangbei, where 90% of the world's hardware, electronics, are manufactured and shipped off.  And although we tend to think of the internet and tech as this dematerialised thing and that place somehow matters less and less, I argue that place and materialality actually matter more than ever.

So when you see the genesis of Shenzhen as this high-tech city, it actually has its roots in the town and village enterprises, which were these small villages that were doing these kind of unorthodox economic experiments during China's opening up and reform period, and these experiments were quite successful, and this has been actually termed the rural roots of Chinese capitalism.  So as these towns and villages became more successful economically, the city of Shenzhen really started to take shape.

     In my book I talk about this practice of Shanzhai, which Shenzhen is really known for.  One of the recent books by Silvia Lindtner called Prototype Nation is a great book and also touches upon these practices.  Shanzhai is seen as copycat culture, especially in the West where it's discussed as this infringement of IP, but I think it actually points to this more fascinating aspect, where it's really a lens to describe how certain types of labour within tech are racialised and gendered.  I had the opportunity to talk to Naomi Wu, who on YouTube is known as as Sexy Cyborg.  She is a maker and so she has all these DIY electronics projects that she does.  She was featured on the cover of Make magazine some years ago.  She actually grew up in Shenzhen.  One of the things that she points out to me that was really remarkable is that a lot of the girls that she grew up with, they now actually work in these factories, iPhone factories, hardware factories, and they're seen as kind of the mindless drones or factory labour, whereas she is seen as this innovator.  So just trying to think through the different ways that this labour is made valuable.  And one of the things that I love about Silvia Lindtner's book is that she really kind of dissects how much of Naomi Wu's performance is really quite seen as masculine or kind of hackeresque in nature.

Of course too, you know, really zooming out, the high-tech city of Shenzhen is also made possible through this process of agrarian transition, right?  That farming is kind of -- the land is consolidated, farming is industrialised, and you just have less and less labour that's out in the countryside needed to do the work of farming, and more people moving into cities doing white collar jobs like software engineering.

And so really, throughout my research, as I spent more time in the countryside, coming to see the rural and urban dichotomy as less of one of population density and more as what scholar Ananya Roy describes as forms of governance.

Many of the projects that I look at in my book are under the kind of top-down blanket of rural revitalisation in China.  So rural revitalisation is this kind of very broad top-down policy made by central government, and they really explicitly state that, you know, they hope blockchain technologies, e-payment, all these emerging technologies will go to revitalise or uplift the countryside, right, with the assumption that the countryside is innately backward somehow.

I think this also points to how, especially through the lens of US-China tech cold war discourse, there's something particularly universalising about certain forms of tech and how it's implemented, where these technologies are not seen as adapting to certain contexts but actually trying to reshape the contexts that people live in already.

Many of the projects that I look at, they're more in the inland area, and so going beyond the sort of coastal cities of China, especially into areas like Guizhou, which is this epicentre of this tech boom that's happening, both the building of data centres and also they have multiple kind of big data conferences every year.  It's kind of seen as the central part where the digital Silk Road will run through and actually go into other countries.  And Guizhou itself is this complex province that's both mountainous.  It has this really interesting history as being located outside of empire and also vast diversity in terms of its population.  It has like 35% ethnic minorities, and so also this history in the 1960s of Han settlers actually moving into Guizhou and bringing along a lot of mining industries and extractive industries, and so I think this historical resonance is also something that I felt important to pay attention to.

So this is the blockchain chicken farmer.  In my book I talk about this Chicken Fitbit essentially that is attached to the chicken and is actually shipped as part of the chicken all the way to your doorstep.  So once you scan the QR code that's on the Chicken Fitbit, you can see how many steps it took, how much it weighed, where it travelled to, all these things.  It was really fascinating talking to the blockchain chicken farmer, both to understand and to realise just how opaque this technology really was to him.  The kind of reliance that he had upon this opaque technology that he didn't feel a sense of agency over.  But then also the broader, you know, theme of counting as accountability, and I think it's really this framework of accountability that's been quite fascinating to me because, you know, so many of these technologies, like blockchain, they have really risen in China out of concerns for food safety because, as you undergo the agrarian transition, you kind of, you know, are shifting to an agriculture for profit space, right, because you also have to export a certain amount of agricultural products, according to trade agreements.  You really have farmers that start to become squeezed, both in terms of profits but also how much they have to produce.  You know, these food safety scandals in China are really the result of this.

And so there's so much kind of tensions around not just trust but as an extension of that accountability.  Like, who do we hold accountable for these food safety scandals?  And so it's fascinating that blockchain, you know, used in this chicken context, which is supposed to track provenance, to really ensure that it is a free range chicken that you're receiving, that's become the locus of so much attention.  Providing accountability, whether it's a false sense of accountability, in the face of this ever-increasing accountability vacuum.    

In the book I also describe these pearl parties.  In some ways the process of the book was, I call it, you know, tracking the supply chain, to kind of unfold the stories that happen along the way, but also in some strange way, like shopping, online shopping, as methodology.  I became interested in these pearl parties, actually, around 2016.  I was curious, you know, just, you know, had heard about them from someone who is outside of this kind of Bay area/coastal elite circle, and I stumbled across these pearl parties which were happening all across the Midwest and South of the US.  It was basically a lot of usually women opening these oysters on Facebook Live, and it was kind of this home shopping aspect where you could place a bid on the oyster and, you know, sometime the oyster would have one pearl or two pearls.  It was really this game of chance.  And I was fascinated that there was so much kind of attention and also that these were part of this broader multi-level marketing scheme and kind of entrepreneurial subjectivity that was really happening.

This entrepreneurial spirit, it turns out, isn't just relegated to, you know, Facebook and these pearl parties.  As I started looking into how these pearls were made, it was actually really fascinating.  It turns out that these pearls are kind of this artificial nature.  So what happens is that you have a large oyster that has 50 or so pearls, and one of those pearls is taken out, put into a smaller oyster -- actually put in these cans, preserved in formaldehyde, and shipped all the way to the US for these pearl parties.  So you can find these Wish Oysters, as they're referred to, all across these kind of bulk shipping sites like Alibaba.  So I started messaging these sellers on Alibaba and actually got to visit one of these pearl farms.  It was fascinating to hear that, you know, these pearl farms were actually the result of farming wheat and rice not paying that much.  So as a result the farmers in this region of Guizhou, specifically they just flooded their fields -- they have plenty of water, and so they flooded their fields and actually created these ponds.  This has been taken up by a new generation, a younger set of folks who are around my age, and they are really bent on, you know, like the startup, pearl farm startup lifestyle, is what I would call it.

And just to quickly end with, I also travelled to Taobao villages which related -- are also this hub of, you know, this ethos of really, like, entrepreneurialism.  There were a lot of signs in Chinese villages just generally.  They are kind of like public service announcements, but I often saw signs that were saying, like, "Don't be lazy", Try to uplift yourself out of poverty," kind of ridiculous signs like that.

And so for those who don't know, Taobao or Taobao village, it's really a village that is selling a lot on Taobao, which is this e-commerce platform made by Alibaba, formerly headed by Jack Ma.  On Taobao, it's actually really fascinating how much gets through the cracks.  So even things like banned video games can be bought on Taobao with people actually hand-drawing the covers in order to bypass the image recognition. 

So Taobao villages, they're really these villages that are hubs of commercial activity, but it's kind of almost like a gig economy form.  So Taobao villages, you really see the concentration along the coast, but increasingly they're moving inland.  And as they move inland, they're also bringing the building of new infrastructure and new things like high-speed internet.  It's really part of this two-pronged strategy of rural citizens as consumers, which is rural Taobao.  So Taobao says that they are trying to advance digital literacy in villages, and the way they do that is they set up these service stations where you can buy things online, and there's also like little tutorial videos about how to sell.  But in order to buy things, you need to have a greater income than you would if you were selling soybeans or wheat, and so the other side of the strategy is cultivating rural citizens as sellers and manufacturers.

So some villagers, you know, they're selling their agricultural goods, but the ones that I visited that I found most striking, they had this new economy, particularly one of selling, like, Halloween costumes and dance and stage uniforms.  So this is really the context.  You see the agricultural fields in the back and the workshop in the front, and I was told often by these family manufacturers that, you know, during agricultural high season, they would really work the fields; and then other times they would, you know, be manufacturing costumes, putting them online, and really using a lot of family labour, actually.  You know, many of the entrepreneurs, they had originally borrowed money from other members of their family, oftentimes family that were in cities, in order to start their business, and people who worked as part of the company now were family members.

This is the inside of one of the manufacturing workshops, and so you can see it's a very, like, kind of small-scale endeavour.  This is a husband and wife team, and they live upstairs.  This is their downstairs.  You don't see it, but they also have, like, inventory storage in the same space.  And so, yeah, it's very, like, DIY manufacturing in some sense.

As I mentioned, using family members as employment labour, and so this was the grandmother of the family.  When I talked to her, you know, actually all the family members, they were very excited about the fact that this was a way for the grandmother to still feel incorporated into the family and not feel like she was wasting away.

So I'll end on this image.  This was actually the town hall of the Taobao village where right below the Communist Party flag it says, "Have you Taobao'd today?"  It's just really fascinating, the complex dynamics happening in this village where, you know, it really became in some strange way a company town, but there is still this kind of strong, you know, influence of Communist Party governance in there.  And just to see these side by side, I think it was just a really fascinating evolution.

So I'll leave it there and open it up for discussion.  Thank you so much.

ALINA:  Thank you so much for that presentation.  I was re-reading the book this week and I was thinking about how much I was hoping to see photos, so it was wonderful to actually see them in this presentation.

I'll kick off the Q&A and then we'll go to questions from the audience.  So once again, if anybody in the audience has questions, please submit that to the Q&A function and we'll read them out loud.

My first question is sort of about your research process.  One of the things I really love about the book is that it's so grounded, right?  Like, you often write -- you know, you tell us where you're writing from and you give us that description of the imagery, and you begin by kind of questioning binaries, metronormativity, East-West divide, urban-rural divide.  Even within the writing itself, you can kind of see everywhere you are, it's so connected to each other, and every place relies on the other and is so intertwined. 

I wonder then, during your research project, when you're actually doing the research, you know, going back and forth between places that feel very different even as they rely on each other, did it feel like it was disjointed?  Did it feel like you couldn't see the connections?  Or was it sort of like, oh, everything feels very connected and similar, and this is such a contrived divide, or was that something that came up when you were writing the book?

XIAOWEI:  Yeah.  So I think one of the things that was most striking for me is that to have these contrasts, like definitely doing the research, there were experiences or places that felt incredibly disjointed from one another; but at the same time, when I started to actually sit down and write, I realised that they are kind of different sides of the same coin, if that's the correct analogy.  And what I mean by that is, you know, there would be one rice farming village where they actually started to move away from the kind of official party agricultural bureau line of how they should do their farming, and they did it in a certain way that actually gave them more agency.  And then other places where power was very top-down but at the same time there was this entrepreneurial spirit that was cultivated by local government officials.  And to kind of see this all brought -- all kind of point to the ways that, like, certain technologies can be deployed in a very universal way versus contextually specific way -- I think that was really illuminating.  There was also just such regional variation in China that felt really important to highlight, both to kind of let go of this idea that China is a monolith in any sense.  But then also point to the ways that, like, you know, I think we always think of, like, authoritarianism as this very simplistic story.

ALINA:  Mm-hmm.

XIAOWEI:  And China having so many, like, regional, even just languages and dialects and contexts.  I think that really challenges that notion, and that also complicates the story of tech and how it's being deployed in these such varying contexts.  So, yeah, that also felt very important to highlight.  It was not something that I knew going in, which was also really interesting, right?  Because there was definitely villages where I visited where, you know, I went in because I was interested in a particular project that they had done, like drone mapping in rice fields, for example.  But actually what surfaced was that they have this, like, very different culture where they saw themselves as outside of, you know, the Han majority and, you know, they saw that their use of tech or like the specific way that they were using tech was like also reflective of that.  And so, yeah, I think that regional part and cultural part we felt important to highlight.

ALINA:  Yeah, I guess -- my second question then -- it's kind of a similar theme, but it's about, you know, a lot of these technologies are being mediated through, whether it's the state or a corporation, even when they're like centered in the community, and I think, you know, we often -- it's kind of characterised as there's the East and West, there's American tech companies and then there's like Chinese tech companies.  It's completely, completely different.  And yet one of the things that came up in the book is so many of the tech companies are similar.  Like Alibaba and Amazon feel like kindred corporations in some sense.  And in many ways kind of what you're describing what these technology corporations are doing is stepping in for when the state can or cannot do something, so thinking about the way you talked about technology, the milk scandal, right, in terms of the state does not have the capacity to do this, so tech, corporations, are stepping in, really reminded me in the Bay area where the state didn't have the capacity to do COVID testing so Google stepped in.

I wonder again with that, like similarity and difference or familiarness or separate, did you feel in doing this research that these tech corporations and their relationship with the state are very different or are familiar?  What was your experience kind of comparing them?

XIAOWEI:  Yeah.  So that one is actually -- it's pretty complex because certainly in China the state has a different relationship with tech, and I feel like at least in the US it's like an inability of the state and it can't really rein tech companies in, whereas in China it's like, especially over the past recent months with a lot of the new legislation like, you know, ultimately there's so much governmental power still. 

What was fascinating to me was the fact that, you know, when we think about these tech companies, ultimately they exist because of the people who are building the tech, right, and also the technology itself.  Like, you know, the intricacies of like the white papers on, like, you know, machine learning protocols and different experiments on that.  And so much of that was actually very global, and I think that was really what struck me, as well as the investment as well.  So just tracing through the different investors and a lot of the big Chinese tech companies.  It wasn't just, you know, Chinese investors.  A lot of them were based in the Bay area.  And so that was the fascinating part to me, is to just see these threads where like the talent as well as the funding are global, but then ultimately the Chinese government has this kind of upper hand in regulation.

Yeah.  So I'll just stop there.  Yeah.

ALINA:  I guess my last question before we turn it over to the audience and to our associates.  You hint at it throughout the book, but one of the themes of the book is to question our assumptions of what's motivating tech, whether it's optimisation -- optimising for what?  So it kind of very naturally ends on this question of what you're asking: What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to live?  Which is what we ask when we talk about technology in many ways, even if we don't address it.

So I wonder then as, you know, there's so much writing and discourse, whether it's academic or generalistic or public around technology, but I wonder, both for you personally and what you hope to see from future tech writing, what is either the entryway or what grounds you or what do you hope that people centre when they talk or write about tech?

XIAOWEI:  Right.  I was actually -- I think yesterday morning I was reading the ChinAI Newsletter, which is fantastic and put out by Jeffrey Ding, and there was this really great translation of the, like, philosophy of AI.  And so it actually got me thinking about, you know, so much -- even just like the knowledge infrastructure that we build, right?  Even when we talk about, like, AI being smart or like, you know, AI replacing humans, I find that rhetoric really troubling because it presumes that, like, the category or our sense of, like, what is considered human has been settled, but at the same time historically, like, who is considered human has always been contested.

I think in many ways my goal isn't to, like, revitalise the category of a human and I don't think that, like, tech writing necessarily needs to do that, but I think that it does hopefully surprise and unsettle maybe a lot of the assumptions that we have when we talk about tech.

The reason why I think this is important is because, you know, in recent years too there's been the 'techlash' as well.  And I think for me it's always been really, like, kind of disjointed, and what I mean by this is like there's definitely one segment of, like, writing and people I know in my life, it's like in this world of, like, yes, let's critique it, we shouldn't be using Facebook, all these things.  And then there's another group of people in my life who I'm, like, well, they're just trying to make a living (laughing).  No, they have to buy the Facebook ads, sorry, for their small business.  Or they have to buy the Taobao ad, right?

So I think for tech writing to both see things as they are but also not -- see things as they are in order to provide these pathways for change.  That feels really important to me.  Pathways for change not only in terms of how we view the world but maybe potentials for, you know, technologies that actually might serve and support, like, you know, more conditions of possibility.

ALINA:  We'll turn it over to our first audience Q&A question with Hunter Vaughan, who is an Associate here, MCTD.

Hunter, I'll let you turn on your camera and mic.

HUNTER:  I cannot turn my camera on -- oh, there we go.  Thank you.  Thanks, Alina. 

Thanks so much, Xiaowei, and hi to I guess the people in the invisible shadows of webinar format that we cannot see. 

Xiaowei, just such a wonderful book and contribution to various fields and discourses but also such an inspiring, I think, model for how one can write about these topics in ways that are really, really accessible and compelling despite the complexity of the world that you're mediating for us.  Thank you for that.

I'm very interested in sort of the environmental side of this, both as a sort of foundation but also as an impacted set of ecosystems by this technological growth, but also I'm curious if you experienced the same type of city-country divide because there's usually a big tension in terms of environmental values and perceptions between those different spaces.

I know that, you know, in the West and in English-speaking scholarship, there's this vision of China as this, you know, late to heavily industrialise, heavy greenhouse gas-emitting but also this sort of like almost nefarious monopoly on rare metals and a particular type of metal mining that underpins the entire, like, global growth of ICT and digital culture.  And so I was wondering, you know, part of what I found so valuable about the book is that it does mediate a different understanding of Chinese values and tech and culture which honestly in the West I don't think that we get.  And so I was wondering if, in your experience and your interactions through this research, if you did come to sort of understand a general set of environmental perceptions and values and relationship to this proliferation of digital technology and tech culture, and also if you saw a sort of divide or tension or overlap between the different spaces you were in?

XIAOWEI:  That's a great question.  Yeah, I think the environmental and, like, ecological side was constant through my book and extremely anxiety inducing.  One of the examples in my book is the case of hog farming, which industrial hog farming being, you know, deeply problematic environmentally, period, and also in terms of labour practices.  But then this kind of construction of a narrative by Alibaba and also corporations in China that, like, AI helping scale up this hog farming would actually benefit the environment and benefit the ecology.  And I think a lot of this, what was really interesting is that in cities, you know, I would talk to folks, and the general kind of dream is for China to like pursue modernity in a way that looks like the US, right?  Like, a lot of the kind of -- I talked to a farm machinery seller, and he was like, "Oh, my god, I love the US!  You guys have the best tractors!  It's so cool!"  But it's seen as it's very efficient, it produces a lot of food, which is, you know, high on the list of concerns of feeding China or this mantra of feeding all of China, despite the fact that China has a lot of agricultural exports.  But it is really this vision of modernity that's just accepted.

I think there were some villages that I visited in the countryside, especially the case of Rice Harmony that I talked about, where the local agricultural bureau was also pushing this vision of modernity, with pesticides, with these new farming practices, and the villagers, they really pushed back against that.

There was also a set of actually Greenpeace volunteers, who when they came in, they wanted to also do actually top-down farming but at a different scale.  They're like, "We'll map the land using drones.  We have these beautiful drone maps now.  We'll plan out farming in a certain way every season".  And the farmers were like, "This doesn't work.  You can't plan out anything.  We have to assess the soil year to year".

So I think this just -- I think so many of these environmental and ecological consequences revolve around this vision of modernity.

HUNTER:  Yeah, absolutely.  I love the way you talked, in the section about the drone pilots, how you sort of conclude with this commentary about how the notion of a very efficient and rationalised agriculture relies on a notion of the environment and ecology as something that is fixed and in control and, you know, not chaotic and malleable and in flux.  It was really, really wonderful.

Alina, do we need to go to the audience questions?

ALINA:  I have a couple of Q&As I'll read out.  The first is echoing Hunter's question. 

"Really loved reading the book.  It's brilliantly written".

I can attest to that.

"I really appreciated your questions/notions re scale and pervasive startup/venture capital narratives around it.  But was wondering if you've seen examples where tech has been used to 'scale' social trust effectively?  Or where tech has been adopted widely with great levels of autonomy and agency of users?"

XIAOWEI:  That's a really great question.  So I will say no.  I was listening to a really great lecture by Robin DG Kelley recently that I highly recommend to everyone, and he talks about scale and social movements and how a lot of the times we -- like, him being this amazing historian, you know, we think of scale as this, like, intrinsic thing, and it's like if we want a successful X, Y, Z, it has to happen at this incredible scale.  But he points out how historically a lot of the changes, big societal changes, it hasn't been a mass movement.  It's actually been a group of very small but passionate and ardent group of people working together, right?

So I do think that scale is this really contemporary manufactured concept that we need to really reconsider, right?  Especially, yeah, just seeing, like, how change happens in the world, like you don't necessarily need, like, you know, millions of people on board.  You just really need that kind of sustained effort.  So I actually think that scale has been commoditised into selling the idea of really agency or having ownership, right?  If everyone is part of it, you're going to each have power.  But I think it is actually something that we should be questioning.

HUNTER:  Actually, I had a second question that's very much connected to this, if I can tack that on here.  You were talking about blockchain coding.  I really understood it as sort of the reversal of the printing press and, like, 600 years of communication technology development, in that like what rendered, you know, knowledge and information legible to many is now being pulled back into the hands of very few.  Did I understand that correctly, and do you see that as somehow as perhaps, I don't know, an obstacle to democratic agency or to collective access to discourse and knowledge production?

XIAOWEI:  Yeah.  I mean, I would say that, you know, as an academic, (laughing) I definitely do not diminish the power of the written word and the printing press, but I also think that even then historically, like, looking at, you know, even the history of empire, like the printing press itself and the power that that held, is in some ways circumscribed, right?  And so blockchain, it's like a both/and situation.  I think with blockchain, you know, and this touches upon my remark on accountability, where I think on some, like, weirdly spiritual level, like, you know, 2008 happens and then also Satoshi Nakamoto published this white paper and I think it's also this yearning for accountability of some kind where it's like we can't find it.  We definitely in the US didn't find it from the government when it bailed out the banks, we couldn't find it from the banks in which everyone's houses were foreclosed upon.  And so blockchain is kind of like, well, if only we address this issue of accounting for, then everything will be seamless, right?  And then to look at the actual implementation of it, like, you know, the idea that it's decentralised, like you can run a node -- I mean, that's just materially impossible in so many ways.  But I do think that using that lens of trying to understand that it's really pointing towards this kind of new yearning for accountability, I think that speaks very powerfully to me.

ALINA:  You also -- I think your definition of blockchain is one of the best that I've heard.

HUNTER:  It is, yeah.

ALINA:  I've definitely cited that on a number of occasions.

XIAOWEI:  Thank you.

ALINA:  I wanted to jump in actually with a question about the blockchain.  This is kind of, Hunter, your area, but one of the problems with blockchain is the economic and environmental impact of blockchain technology, that if it actually was adopted, it would cause like global climate meltdown because of the amount of electricity it takes.

So I wonder, do you foresee a future in which blockchain can be useful in any way -- or can be really adopted in such a way without causing kind of climate catastrophe or just contributing to the climate catastrophe?

XIAOWEI:  So I optimistically (laughing), because I have no choice but to be an optimist -- yes.  But I do think it always points to this, like, issue, right, where I feel like, you know, because -- especially with NFT craze recently, it's like, okay, there's actually many people who are using it and they're getting money and it's like -- it's going to stick around, right?  It's not like Tamagotchi digital toy which you can I guess still get on eBay.  I think there will also be another set of companies that try to address the sustainability and environmental impact issue, of course, and probably make money off of it.

I think what I really hope for is to, like, refer folks to see kind of the nesting, kind of the nested nature of it, right, which is like there's NFTs, there's kind of -- you know, there's blockchain as we use it in North America.  But there's also these global layers, right?  You know, there are going to be people who don't have access to blockchain, and that's not incidental.  That's not a technical problem to solve.  It's actually intentional and an effect of like global capitalism.  And so I think that's really, like, where the concern is, yeah.

ALINA:  So we'll go back to another audience submitted question, and please keep submitting your questions to the Q&A if you're in the audience.

This is from Steven Connor:

"To what degree do you think that what you call the 'large lumbering' government in China has control over or understanding of these emerging economic processes?"

XIAOWEI:  Yeah.  So I think that the large lumbering government in China actually has very little understanding of these technical economic processes.  So, you know, it's interesting, like, certainly there's cities that play very -- that are kind of on the priority list or that the central government has very strong oversight over, like the city of Hangzhou and many of these other coastal cities, right?  But when you actually start going down to the county level, which is the kind of day-to-day interaction that folks have with the government, oftentimes county officials, especially if they're of a certain generation, they don't really understand what's going on. 

One example I describe in the book, which is that the county official was, like, went to the Taobao village workshop, and he was like, "This is terrible!  We need to stop this!  You're putting things on the computer?  Like, how do you put things on the computer?"  Like, he literally could not comprehend that.  But this was actually super common throughout many of the villages that I visited, right?  And the ways that the tech arrived was really kind of folks who were doing pilot projects or like people in cities bringing it into these villages.  And there wasn't also a lot of regulatory oversight on the -- or just like regulations at the local county or even village level.  And so I think this is always, of course, you know, an area of concern for a centralised government like China.  But I think it also speaks to the ever-ongoing actually lack of control over, like, at a certain resolution.

ALINA:  We have one more question, and please do keep typing questions if you're in the audience, which kind of goes back to what we were talking about before. 

"You spoke of counting as accountability.  I'd love to hear more about the incorporation of the digital into mechanisms of accountability.  What is the relationship between hopes for what they will do and the limits they encounter in practice?  How do failures of using digital means of accountability transform peoples' understandings of what accountability could look like?"

XIAOWEI:  Yeah, this has been also just something that I've been trying to think through and write about more recently, is our hopes of accountability, right, especially in this -- you know, the multiple overlapping crises we live under but also how we often turn towards tech as a means of resolving that.

So I'll just use the case of food safety in China, right?  It's this idea that not only will you be able to track the origin of where the problem arose but also that you can't falsify records.  And I think this really metrics-driven culture that we live in more broadly, but also, like, using metrics as this way of saying, like, we improved, we didn't improve -- all these things.  This is really in the context of China also tied towards Xi Jinping's own governing style, which is all about cracking down on corruption and him wanting to implement, you know, a more rationale type of governance, like having officials prove they improved year over year.

And so I think, you know, both the cases of blockchain also -- the case of blockchain speaks to this kind of yearning for accountability that I imagined, but I think it also shapes what we see as, you know, accountability to be really dependent on metrics, even though the issue isn't about metrics a lot of the time.  It really surrounds our need to find the origin of the problem and I think also feel like some kind of retribution towards that issue. 

In the case of the milk scandal and food safety in China, you know, they actually -- one of the heads of the milk company who allowed the tainted milk to go through was given the death sentence.  But when you think about the kind of chain of accountability, right, it also creates this atmosphere in which no one ever wants to take accountability and it's creating -- it's actually doing the opposite effect.  Like you don't want to create a culture of accountability because, well, you're just going to be given the death sentence.

ALINA:  We have another submitted audience question:

"What was the biggest problem of the Chinese society that was newly revealed to you during your research?  Also, do you think the rural technology in sectors such as agriculture is advanced and efficient or can be improved more?"

XIAOWEI:  I think one of the biggest issues was the ways that -- like, this kind of entrepreneurial spirit that was being crafted, both in the case of Taobao villages and the ways that it was really -- tech was being used as this economic opportunity incubator.  That actually eroded away people's expectations of the social safety net and it was also a very convenient way for the government to take away the social safety net.

So in the case of Taobao villages, a lot of the sellers complain about it being a race to the bottom and it's a very, like -- this, like, market that is just like, oh, like every person for themselves.  You're always having to cut corners to make a profit.  But that's actually not how I want to say "real" markets work, right?  Like, real markets actually have a safety net from the government.  Like, you know, you get bailouts, you get subsidies, you get, like, you know, little dials on like interest rates and things like that.  But it was a way for county officials oftentimes that over these villages to actually be like, "Oh, well, then, you're making so much money so we don't need to collect as much tax.  You all are doing so well.  I guess you don't need that hospital nearby".  Right?  "You can just figure it out for yourselves".  So I think it was like both sides seeing that erosion of the social safety net that was really problematic.

And then as for rural tech in sectors such as agriculture, I don't think it's actually the technology that's an issue.  You know, in the US there's actually a crisis of overproduction.  In China, it still manages to meet agricultural export quotas a lot of the time.  It's not about output so much as process and, you know, the environmental impacts that Hunter brought up earlier.

ALINA:  This will have to be our last question.  This person has put in:

"You emphasise the strength of entrepreneurial spirit in rural China.  What is your view on whether (or how quickly) China will overtake or supercede the West economically and technologically?"

So going back to those narratives.

XIAOWEI:  I think that this is very not optimist of me.  I think it's unfortunately like we're all just going to drag each other to the bottom.  And what I mean by that is, you know, China, yes, like, there's a lot of stories that we hear about the, you know, advancements economically and technologically that are happening, and I think there's also the anxieties of Western decline that play into this question of superseding.  But within the country itself, I mean, it's run by this authoritarian president who is authoritarian because he's constantly needing to reiterate power, right?  It's not just like you have power and that's there, it's done.  There's like constantly, like, maintenance that he's doing.  And so if you really, like, had, you know -- so I think it's this very contested territory and it's not guaranteed.  And so by that, you know, there's a lot of problems that the country does continue to face.  And if you go to rural China, which is still a large part of the country, there's enormous social inequity and oftentimes problems.  And so I don't think it's really about superseding so much as these complex crises that I think globally we're facing that are connected.

ALINA:  Well, thank you so much for coming here today and sharing your time and expertise with us.  It was such a delight to have you and we and I personally learned so much.

Thank you to everybody who has submitted questions and who attended as well, along with the staff of the MCTD and our live captioner.

Details of future seminars and events can be found at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy.  So you can go to, and of course please do follow us on Twitter and Tweet at us and any other social media platforms, even though we're a tech centre and we're on tech.

So you can Twitter -- our Twitter handle is @MCTDCambridge.  And thank you so, so much.

XIAOWEI:  Thank you so much.

HUNTER:  Thank you.

XIAOWEI:  Take care!