All posts for the month January, 2013

Michelle Blumenthal, who passed away suddenly last August, was a true Shanghailander. As author Mishi Saran said at her memorial, Michelle treated the city as one would a lover — hungry to uncover every secret curve and line. This weekend, in Michelle’s honor  members of the Royal Asiatic Society Shanghai organized a walking tour of Gaoqiao, an ancient town in a remote part of Pudong, which dates back to the Southern Song.  Gaoqiao, which became a protected heritage site for Expo 2010,  is filled with all the hidden charms of old Shanghai as well as remnants of the richness of Jiangnan culture.  Gaoqiao was one of Michelle’s favorite neighbourhood’s — precisely the type of undiscovered corner she delighted to explore.

To get to Gaoqiao take the line 6 on the subway to North Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, take exit 2 and turn right, then follow the canal to the  Gaoqiao Town History & Culture Museum at 1 Yiwang Lu.  If you go, don’t miss the wonderful incense shop at 46 Xi Jie Lu.

pictures after the jump


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Hacked Matter: A Workshop on Shanzhai & Maker Culture

Shanghai and Shenzhen: April 6-8 2013
Organized by Anna Greenspan (NYU Shanghai)
& Silvia Lindtner (University of California, Irvine & Fudan University, Shanghai)
With support from the Shanghai Studies Symposium, NYU Shanghai, ISTC (Intel Science & Technology for Social Computing) at UC Irvine, the Rockbund Art Museum and Xinchejian

This workshop aims to critically explore and examine connections between the informal networks of shanzhai production and the open innovations of the DIY (do it yourself) maker community in China. It will take place in Shanghai and Shenzhen, hubs of China’s growing Hackerspace and Maker scene as well as critical sites in the global flows of ‘copycat’ or shanzhai technology. The workshop will begin in Shanghai with presentations and a panel discussion by leading researchers and practitioners in the field. It will be followed by a two-day hands-on engagement with the open hardware scene & shanzhai manufacturing markets in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, we will visit the HAXLR8R event, a 15-weeks long workshop designed as a ‘startup accelerator program’ for ‘people who hack hardware and make things.’

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On Jan 13 2013 the air pollution index in Beijing catapulted far ‘beyond index’ peaking (according to a report by Adam Minter) at an astonishing reading of  PM2.5; 933.  This far surpassed a previous headline inducing high, when in 2010 the person at the US Embassy in charge of posting air quality information grew startled that the index was moving above the hazardous line. With no more descriptives left on the chart, the US official in Beijing tweeted that air in the capital was ‘crazy bad’ which sparked a minor diplomatic incident  (and inspired one of the more creative labels for the latest atmospheric event: ‘Beyond Crazy Bad’)

Much has been written about Beijing’s most recent airpocalypse (Louisa Lim of NPR is one of the best people covering the story). Yet, almost all of the commentary on the thick blanket of smog that engulfed Northern China,  (and subsequently spread South) insisted that the heavy pollution is an inevitable consequence of high-speed economic growth. The implication being that if China is to seriously address its environmental problems it must slow down.  While the causes of toxic air that plague China’s cities – industry, cars, and construction  — are all, of course,  tied to economic development, the assumption that environmental disaster is the necessary consequence of a high-growth economy deserves, at the very least, to be questioned.

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The following is an abstract for a presentation I gave in December for a conference on New Media and Cultural Transformation, which was organized by my colleague Shaoyi Sun.

Shanzhai Style: Shadow Markets and Disruptive Technology

It would not be going too far to say that [shanzhai] ‘copycat’ has more of an anarchist spirit than any other word in the contemporary Chinese language.
Yu Hua

The story of development is supposed to follow the narrative of progressive time, in which the unregulated markets of the informal economy are replaced by the more advanced, transparent, and formal institutions of capitalism.

This talk will explore the cyberpunk nature of shanzhai electronics to argue that there is a deep anti-evolutionism (or alternative futurism) at the heart of China’s rise. By operating through the flat networks of the economic underground, moreover, shanzhai thrives outside China’s typically vaunted state led model of growth.

As a culture and method of production, shanzhai, far from disappearing, has the potential to occupy the cutting edge of global high-tech. Fast, flexible, and unafraid to take risks, shanzhai ’s tendrils reach into the most obscure corners of the developing world. Shanzhai is a prime example of ‘disruptive technology;’ the name for low-tech experiments on the periphery that can revolutionize the core.

Shanzhai has extended beyond its origins in the manufacturing of cell phones (shanzhai ji or bandit phones) and has now come to designate a DIY, grass-roots ethos that has spread virally to constitute a creative culture of the street.  The founders of Xinchejian, Shanghai’s first hacker-space, suggest that shanzhai be understood as the shadowy twin of ‘open innovation’, a concept many believe is currently transforming the very nature of innovation itself. Shanzhai, thus constitutes one of the great counter-currents of contemporary technological mutation. Far more than cheap, fake phones, the informal factories and markets of shanzhai production fundamentally unsettle what the ‘world of tomorrow’ might bring.

The manuscript of my book Modernity 2.0: Shanghai’s Reemergence in the 21st Century is now with the publishers, so the time has come to move online.

My intent is that this blog function both as a platform in which to discuss some of the issues I wrote about in the book and also as a zone of consolidation for a number of spin-off topics that are currently in the process of growing and mutating. At the moment my thoughts are spiraling around 4 central themes:

Urbanism:  We first came to Shanghai in 2002 and it didn’t take long for the city to become an obsession. Ten years on China’s biggest, richest and IMHO most fascinating metropolis remains one of the best places on the planet to explore the fastest and most intense wave of urbanization the world has ever seen.

Markets.  Shanghai has a long history as a trade port and commerce is an immersive part of everyday life (for more on this see, especially, the work of Hanchao Lu). The course I teach for NYU, Shanghai: Global Connections has a large section on Marx and also includes, for the first time this term, a trip to Bao Steel one of Shanghai’s biggest SOEs. These classroom sessions will no doubt inspire some posts on “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”. What interests me most, however, are the grey markets of the informal economy.  China’s ‘state capitalism’ is continuously offset and disrupted by the all-pervasive economic underground (evident in everything from street food to back street banking). In China and beyond, the ongoing power and ubiquity of global shadow markets is deeply unsettling to all familiar narratives of economic advance.

Cyberculture. The most intriguing and potentially revolutionary zone of China’s informal economy is occurring in the realm of technology. Shanzhai ji (or bandit phones) have spread to even the remotest corners of the developing world (the black market in shanzhai goods flourishing in the border towns of North Korea is particularly gripping). Through the spread of cheap high-tech, China is fundamentally transforming the cutting edge of the global technium (to use Kevin Kelly’s phrase). I am planning a workshop in the spring on shanzhai and maker culture, which will include a trip to Shenzhen to visit the hacker space there and check out the haxlr8r event. My hope is that this research into shanzhai will enable an engagement with abstract questions in the philosophy of digital technology and of Chinese cyberculture more generally.  Since, as all China watchers know, cyberspace is the zone in which the country’s most convulsive contradictions are being played out with the greatest intensity.

Time.  What ties these themes together is an interest in the future, which, ultimately, is what my new book is about. Shanghai’s ‘neomodernity’ – its stubborn insistence on a future orientation, which so many in the West see as inherently passé, cannot simply be explained through ideas of repetition and nostalgia. The industrialization, urbanization and globalization of contemporary Shanghai is not merely repeating a past from elsewhere but involves, instead, the production of a futurism that is unfamiliar and  unknown. The reemergence of Shanghai in the 21st century thus compels us to rethink not only what will happen in the future, but also the time within which the future is conceived.  Pushing this idea further involves an exploration of China’s own temporal traditions and anomalies including of course, the Yijing, China’s great treatise on time, as well as the temporal complexities of Buddhism, Taoist time rituals , and the time spirals embedded in Shanghai’s own modernity (for more on this see Nick Land’s A Time Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai here, here and here).