New book by Silvia Lindtner examines the promise of entrepreneurial life and China’s contested place in the global IT industry
Silvia Lindtner, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, is the author of the book Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation, newly published by Princeton University Press.
The book tells the story of China's shifting place in global geopolitics and its contested place in the global tech industry. It is the culmination of nearly a decade of ethnographic research Lindtner conducted in China, Silicon Valley, Singapore, Taiwan, Ghana and Europe.
For decades, Westerners saw China’s role in manufacturing as a place for cheap labor and copycat technology. Today, the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen is often described as the Silicon Valley of hardware. The book unpacks how it happened that China’s mass manufacturing and “copycat” production were portrayed not any longer as what holds the nation back, but as its key asset.
Lindtner spent several years embedded within incubator spaces, factories, maker spaces, and corporate offices in the tech industry, and Prototype Nation gives readers a front row seat to witness China’s pursuits to reposition itself globally, driven both by yearnings to throw off the reputational shackles of China’s colonial era and by the West’s search for a new post-recession home to realize the hopeful promise of technology. She shows how key to this re-articulation of China was the displacement of techno-optimistic ideals onto Shenzhen, seen as a laboratory to scale one of the key promises of the maker movement, i.e. to democratize technology innovation.
“One of the core principles of the maker movement was to democratize the technological promise of empowerment; to democratize tech production itself, and build a more just future,” says Lindtner. “People who were very central to this movement began seeing Shenzhen as an enabler in this process. Shenzhen was so promising and hopeful to them because they saw it as a site where you wouldn't just tinker with a single prototype or in a makerspace, but where you would actually tinker at the scale of industrial production. You would kind of tinker with economies of scale.”
What Lindtner soon observed was that the promise of a “new,” optimistic and global China, freed from its colonial past, normalized the persistence of sexism, sexual harassment, racism and labor exploitation that were already pervasive in the Western tech industry.
Silvia Lindtner’s research centers around the promise of democratized entrepreneurial life, as proliferated by advocates of the maker movement, with a particular focus on its impact on governance, industry development and labor in China. She merges ethnographic methods with critical sensibilities from feminist and postcolonial studies as well as the history and sociology of science and technology. She is the associate director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the research initiative Hacked Matter.
- Jessica Webster, UMSI PR Specialist