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Silvia Lindtner earns two awards for her book “Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation”

Friday, 02/25/2022

Silvia Lindtner has earned two prestigious awards for her book, “Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation.” Lindner is an associate professor at University of Michigan School of Information, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and Director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC). 

Her book draws on her expertise in experimental work spaces — such as makerspaces, coworking spaces, and hackathons — and in key sites of technology and industry like tech incubators, corporate offices, and factories. She examines how the ideals of the maker movement intervened in social and economic structures, and served the technopolitical project of prototyping a “new” optimistic, assertive, and global China. In doing so, Lindtner demonstrates that entrepreneurial living influences governance, education, policy, investment, and urban redesign in ways that normalize the persistence of sexism, racism, colonialism, and labor exploitation.

In fall 2021, Lindtner was awarded the Francis Hsu prize, awarded by the Society for East Asian Anthropology. This award is given to an English-language book published in the previous calendar year judged to have made the most significant contribution to the field. The prize is named for the late Francis L.K. Hsu (1909-2000), renowned cross-cultural anthropologist and former president (1977-78) of the American Anthropological Association.

Most recently, Lindtner was awarded the Joseph Levenson Prize for China scholarship post 1900 by the Association of Asian Studies. This award is given to English-language books on pre- and post-1900 China that make the greatest contribution to increasing understanding of the history, culture, society, politics, or economy of China. In keeping with the broad scholarly interests of Joseph Levenson, special consideration will be given to books that, through comparative insights or groundbreaking research, promote the relevance of scholarship on China to the wider world of intellectual discourse.

Lindtner is currently in China on sabbatical. She spoke to us via email about the inspiration for her book, the maker community in China, and the surprises her research uncovered. 

What does it mean to be awarded the 2021 Francis L. K. Hsu Book Prize by the Society for East Asian Anthropology and the Joseph Levenson post-1900 by the Association of Asian Studies?

I am extremely humbled by the recognition received by these two scholarly communities that I hold in such high esteem. They have centrally shaped my own commitments and sensibilities as a feminist ethnographer of technology and as a researcher who has worked with/in China for 15 years. Both anthropology and the various fields engaged with the study of China and Chinese societies and cultures have provided an important intellectual home for me alongside a background in science and technology studies, computing, and information. 

I received news of the Joseph Levenson award while I am in China for my sabbatical, conducting research that has taken me from the cities and manufacturing towns of the South of China to more remote places of village life where a generation of young people is experimenting with what it means to be cosmopolitan Chinese by going “inward” as well as to large-scale data-driven farm experiments that are nestled around China’s big cities. It is very meaningful to receive this award in this current moment that is marked by geopolitical tensions between the United States and China and an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the two societies. It is not easy to travel to China these days as a researcher, and I was very lucky that the support of my host institution NYU SH and a CUSP (China-US Scholars Program) fellowship from IIE (International Institute of Education) have enabled me to be here. 

Researching and writing about China's shifting place in the world from and within China is both one of the most wonderful and at times also most difficult experiences; there is a sense that much responsibility rests on the shoulders of those few who can currently experience deeply technological change across cultures and nations. The Joseph Levenson prize is such a wonderful reminder and confirmation of how important it is to do this work: to offer alternative interpretations of both China and geopolitics broadly in a moment of often very one-sided media coverage, despite all the challenges this entails, including at times hostility from various commentators on both sides. The Francis L.K. Hsu award is such a wonderful affirmation that my training in and commitments to a feminist anthropology of the global has allowed me to steer such stormy waters before, and to find scholarly depth by foregrounding what is silenced or neglected because it’s too ambiguous, contradictory, or inconvenient.

I very much hope that these two recognitions of “Prototype Nation” can offer another example and a potential path for current and future PhD students and junior colleagues towards the kind of technology research that does not shy away from engaging with aspects about technology that do not “feel so good” (for example, how the very promise of technological progress and advancement reproduces various forms of sexist and racist exclusions). I hope my work can  provide proof that humanistic and social science approaches to technology research are not only intellectually rigorous, but can constitute a scholarly career.

What inspired you to dig into the evolution and development of experimental workspaces in China?

This is best explained by taking a look at the cover of the book. It features an art piece by the Chinese digital media artist Cao Fei. I came across her work in 2008, when I was a PhD student and spent a summer in Beijing for Chinese language training and research. She was working on her project “RMB City” at the time — a virtual world built in Second Life, that engaged critically with the promises and dreams of future making in China. Beijing hosted the Olympics at the time, and so this was a moment where many "China watchers" both inside and outside the country who considered China's seeming embrace of capitalist market development a good thing - a thing that would lead to democratic change and opening. Many researchers of the Chinese Internet at the time, theorized the emergence of a new "netizen" (网民 in Chinese), envisioned as an empowered form of citizenship. 2008 of course was also the year of the global financial crisis, and very few of these public commentators engaged deeply with the darker side of digital technology and its role in processes of capital investment and financialization (the turning of things, places, and people into assets for investors). Cao Fei was a wonderful exception. 

The book cover features a piece by Cao Fei, entitled "Whose Utopia," shot in factories in the South of China around 2008. Cao Fei was already investigating critically when most others were celebrating technology and industrial production as key engines for modern progress and future making. She insisted on looking beyond the quick celebratory embraces of digital technology so common at that time.

Some of my own research questions back then were centered around who actually benefits from the promise of technological experimentation and advancement (and who is continuously excluded). I found these questions taken up in Cao Fei’s art work in ways that conveyed a critical computing agenda to a broader audience. I began exploring the kinds of interdisciplinary spaces between the arts and computer sciences that had begun to pop up in various places across China around 2008. One was a coworking space in Shanghai called XinDanWei, China's first hackerspace that was born out of the eclectic network of people in 2010. I happened to be with XinDanWei at exactly that time for my dissertation fieldwork, and witnessed first hand the spread of ideas of making/hacking in China. 

As is common for ethnographic research, intuition and personal interest guided me in being in the “right” place at the “right” time. I still remember that many people asked me, “Why are you studying coworking spaces or makerspaces, what does this have to do with information science or digital technology?” Others told me this had nothing to do with Chinese culture or society. At the time, a more common subject of study, when it came to digital technology, was what was happening on social media or in “proper” office spaces. Luckily, I didn’t listen. Much of my research over the subsequent years took me from maker/hacker spaces into places of industrial production as well as finance and investment and global supply chains, predominantly in the South of China, but also its entanglements with other regions, such as Silicon Valley, Taiwan, Singapore, and Africa.

 How do maker communities influence communities, societies, and politics?

The fundamental promise of the maker movement was that an open source approach to technology production would democratize technology innovation beyond elite spaces of professional computer science and engineering. In doing so, it would allow ever more people to make their own technologies, and by extension, enable social and even political transformation. As I write in the book, prominent figures of the maker movement (especially in an American-Euro-centric context) began promoting “making” and “hacking” via what I call the “socialist pitch.” Making was pitched as a movement and as enabling revolutionary change. What seemed like an utter contradiction became a pervasive, hopeful message about the future of technology; (often) white (often) male investor types began citing Karl Marx and promised that the maker movement would return control over the means of production to the people. A feeling of exuberant excitement was in the air, a sense of significant societal change brought about by the proliferation and acceleration of technological prototyping. This promise of speed and scale pitched well, and many investors, corporations and even governments began investing in makerspaces, incubator spaces, maker fairs, open source hardware, 3D printing, sensor technology, etc.

 Some people today speculate about the failed project of the maker movement. Others recenter its many success stories of maker projects that turned into successful ventures. This simple story of either success or failure makes us overlook what the promise of making widely proliferated in a moment of increasing uncertainty about the future of modern, technological progress: the “socialist pitch.” We are living in a time that is often described as the tech lash — a growing suspicion of technological promise and advancement, with people attending to issues of digital labor exploitation, racism and sexism reproduced by algorithmic decision making and data-driven governance processes. Yet despite the heightened critique, the belief that technology experimentation and investment is inherently a good thing, leading to societal progress and enabling economic development persists and is still with us today. It still motivates the sponsorship of research grants, legitimizes fields like human-computer interaction and computing broadly, and finances speculation on technology. The socialist pitch of the maker movement is shaping technology investment and decision making in applying data-driven technology experimentation today, in a range of industries from industrial production to farming and future food supply chains — a topic that I am currently investigating.

 

Headshot of Silvia Lindtner.
Silvia Lindtner, associate professor of information at UMSI, is the award-winning author of “Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation.”

What made you want to write a book about the influence of manufacturing in China?

I did not plan to write a book on the influence of manufacturing at first. As is common for ethnographic research, I followed the processes, people, and things that I was studying and eventually ended up researching industrial production and global supply chains, exactly because many of the people I worked with in my research had turned to these sites. One of the most amazing aspects about ethnographic research, and what differentiates it from most other research methods, is that it allows us to unearth questions and processes that we did not even imagine asking in the first place. It is as such different from hypothesis-driven research that sticks to what we already know and what is to an extent familiar. Ethnographic research challenges us to let go of our existing world views. I certainly did not imagine that I would write a book about industrial production in China when I started my doctoral research in China in 2007. But aside from the method itself, studying the shifting relations between data-driven technology (think sensor technology, AI, automation, etc.), capital investment, and manufacturing was not only fascinating, but also allowed me to shed light on how governance processes are shifting in China. I have always been interested in how a study of technology production in China is intertwined with and can give us unique insights into China’s regional, national, and global policy making and political decision making processes. Studying technology practices across multiple sites allows me to provide a take on the state that is different from the often too simplistic take that relies on familiar frames of authoritarianism or  top-down decision making to explain contemporary China rather than showing how it's produced on a daily basis, including its various forms of experimentation.

What surprised you most while researching this book?

 Something that was not “surprising,” but “disappointing” was that while much of my early research had been located in spaces and with projects initiated by Chinese women and men who challenged dominant views of what it meant to be a woman in tech and/or the relationship between China and technology innovation. The further “in” I went and the more the maker movement took shape, the more I found myself in the kinds of masculine, and often white, tech networks that I myself had tried to step out of when I left the tech industry for research and scholarship 15 years ago. You have to understand that the maker movement was so enticing for many — including people who were interested in feminist commitments to technology production and anti-racist activism — because it promised an open and inclusive approach to computing. What was disheartening to witness was that it was this very promise that reproduced gendered and racialized forms of exclusion and violence, exactly because people began seeing “making” as “the” (rather than one possible) alternative. 

I make the case in the book that this is not a reason for despair. We have learned that open source approaches to technology production do not constitute “the” alternative or a radical utopia. Instead, Prototype Nation — in conversation with much other writing in the intersecting worlds of feminist technoscience and the study of culture and politics of technology broadly — shows that it requires much labor and struggle to enable societal and political change. We can’t bring about societal change with a technological fix or with one single alternative model. That’s actually a hopeful message as it points us towards the importance of allowing for multiple even contradictory approaches to how to interpret and build technologies.

The most interesting thing about technology is how it is actually somewhat unremarkable. I find the least interesting stories about technology to be typically those centered on how technology is transgressing humans – from the machinic take-over to the dream of a cyborgian transcendence. Both are masculine tropes of pleasure and control that allow the disposal of humans and other species not considered worthy or ready for said transcendence or transformation. By recognizing that automation or AI are not inevitable or natural outcomes of some inert law of computing or the market we can center the labor, the land, the various species, and the many nonlinear histories that hold the world together, imperfectly and precariously so. If we notice these sites, stories, and histories that challenge a techno-centric view, we also notice that technological transformation of society is not anything that is predetermined, decided by engineers or politicians, or something we can’t escape, as both stories of fear and promise of AI and data-driven futures again have us believe, once again.

— Sarah Derouin, UMSI public relations specialist