How the Copy became the Prototype: Happiness Labor, Shenzhen Speed, and the Microworld of Innovation

Thursday, November 14, 2019 4:30pm

Teleconference Room (4th Floor), Alexander Library, College Avenue Campus

Sponsored by Rutgers Center for Chinese Studies and the Center for Global Work and Employment

“There is a thing about Sophie and MeiYun. They are the office managers. They make our lives better. They will make sure shit works around here. If it doesn’t, just remember, it must be their fault. Repeat after me: ‘nothing is Evan’s or Mike’s fault. It must be their fault. When shit is broken, talk to them!” – these were the words of the European director of a Shenzhen incubator, when he kicked off the 3-months program that promised to democratize tech innovation. In this talk, I present findings from my forthcoming book “Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation” to examine the kind of “happiness labor” young Chinese women like Sophie and MeiYun were employed to perform in order to sustain entrepreneurial life. Happiness labor supports a range of new organizational models—incubators, coworking spaces, makerspaces, fablabs—and is crucial to making bearable (and thereby sustaining) the precarious conditions venture capitalism demands.I show that the reproduction of exploitation, gender and racial discrimination at the site of happiness labor is masked by a rhetoric of ethical and moral hacking that frames the neoliberal logic of acceleration as desirable and Shenzhen as an ideal laboratory to do so. This celebratory embrace of Shenzhen (and the forms of happiness labor it normalized) coincided with a growing distrust of modernist ideals of progress in the Western tech imagination following the financial crisis 2007/08. I will zoom in on how a series of influential actors, tangled up with Western networks of investment and hacktivism, turned to Shenzhen to redeem tech’s broken promises. They portrayed Shenzhen (and China writ large) through colonial tropes of othering, framing its associations with fake and copycat as an opportunity for investment, to be celebrated for its speed and lax regulations. The talk provides insights into China’s shifting image in the Western tech imagination, colonial endurance in tech innovation, and into the possibility/impossibility of hacking-as-activism. 

Speaker Bio
Silvia Lindtner is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Information, and the associate director of the new Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC). Lindtner draws from ten years of multi-sited ethnographic research, with a particular focus on China's shifting role in transnational tech production alongside research in the United States, Taiwan, and Africa. Her forthcoming book, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation, unpacks in ethnographic and historical detail the visions of the global maker movement to prototype alternatives to the precarious conditions of neoliberal capitalism by democratizing entrepreneurial life; the book examines how the promise to regain control by hacking things was extended to prototype at scale - the self, the city, the economy, and the nation - and became deeply intertwined with a national project of prototyping the "new" China, a China that was future-oriented and optimistic. Lindtner's work contributes to science and technology studies, China studies, design, cultural anthropology, and technology policy.