By Qiaoyu Cai, English Department, UC Santa Barbara Published 8 Dec 2020
Once a trick play by an individual chess master pulling strings of a Turkish-dressing puppet front under a glass domed table is now restaged as a multibillion dollar platform where a million Amazon Turk workers from thousands of miles afar striking keyboards to perform on-demand pay-per-piecemeal tasks at a minimal cost and maximum efficiency. The arrival of a new labor system built on global cyberinfrastructure and a complete array of user-friendly interfaces computing spontaneous interactions in nanoseconds spawn new totalities and mega-utopias, a contemporary back-facing Angelus Novus called not “historical materialism,” but equally needing to be warned of a dangerous political theology.1 What might be the implications of such renewed utopian/dystopian horizons enabled by the global technical infrastructure and planetary-scale computation that follow an alternative logic of territorial inscription than Westphalian statism, a different model of sovereignty, on our geopolitical present and future? How might we understand the high-stake bilateral relationship between the United States and China, the world’s two foremost cyberinfrastructure providers and implementors, with their forefront battlefield in AI, 5g infrastructure share, and the Internet of Things, from the perspective of the transpacific circulation, coevolution, and convergence of the cyberpolitical thinking in the last four decades? How might we explain the escalating political, ideational, military tensions in tandem with the deepened socioeconomic and cultural integration between the two countries, the “Pacific Paradox” as Biao Xiang calls it, from the perspective of a “neostatism” that is essentially a Cloud-cum-state thinking, which transforms the representational content of the state? This starter-kit aims at two-fold explications: to offer a historical exegesis of the early circulation of information futurism and cyberlibertarian corporate culture, the establishment of the Cloud nomos under different historical conditions, the turn of the big data and deep learning that reorients the nature of cyberinfrastructure competition, and to provide a cyberpolitical perspective to understand the converging political utopia between China and the United States in a warning of a potential new “Cold War.”
1. See Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History.”
- Alan Liu. “Toward Critical infrastructure Studies.” Adapted version of paper last presented in full at University of Connecticut, Storrs, February 23, 2017. http://cistudies.org/wp-content/uploads/Toward-Critical-Infrastructure-Studies.pdf
- Brian Larkin. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 42:327-343 (Volume publication date October 2013). First published online as a Review in Advance on August 21, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522
- Biao Xiang. “The Pacific Paradox: The Chinese State in Transpacific Interactions.” Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field. Germany, University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
A kernel bibliography ranging their engagement with a historical exegesis of the emergence and circulation of cyberlibertarian discourses between the United States and China, the establishment of the cyberinfrastructure and the Cloud Polis in their respective sociopolitical and cultural contexts, and relevant analysis and projections of the implications of such coevolution and convergence of the cyberpolitical thinking on the transpacific geopolitics of the present and future.
Science Technology Studies (STS) and Cyberinfrastructure Approaches
- Benjamin H. Bratton. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. United States, MIT Press, 2016.
- Thomas P. Hughes. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1983. (Read only the introduction.)
- Paul N. Edwards. “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems.” Modernity and Technology. United Kingdom, MIT Press, 2003.
- Jackson, S. J., P. N. Edwards, G. C. Bowker, and C. P. Knobel. “Understanding Infrastructure: History, Heuristics and Cyberinfrastructure Policy.” First Monday, Vol. 12, no. 6, June 2007, doi:10.5210/fm.v12i6.1904.
Information Cultural Studies Approaches
- Alan Liu. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. (Read the introduction, Part I, II, III.)
- Xiao Liu. Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China. United States, University of Minnesota Press, 2019. (Read the introduction, chapter 1, 2 and the epilogue.)
- Kai-Fu Lee. AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. United States, HMH Books, 2018.
- Julian Gewirtz. “The Futurists of Beijing: Alvin Toffler, Zhao Ziyang, and China’s ‘New Technological Revolution,’ 1979–1991.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 78(1), 115-140. doi:10.1017/S0021911818002619.
- Jeffrey Nealon. Post-Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism. United States, Stanford University Press, 2012. (Read only the preface.)
- Xudong Zhang. Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century. United States, Duke University Press, 2008. (Read the introduction and Part I.)
Transpacific Studies Perspectives
- Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janet Hoskins. “Introduction: Transpacific Studies: Critical Perspectives on an Emerging Field.” Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field. Germany, University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
- Matt Sheehan. The Transpacific Experiment: How China and California Collaborate and Compete for Our Future. United States, Counterpoint, 2019. (Read chapter 2 and 3.)
- Nazli Choucri. Cyberpolitics in International Relations. United Kingdom, MIT Press, 2012. (Read the introduction, chapter 3 and 4.)
- Rogier Creemers. “Cyber-Leninism: History, Political Culture and the Internet in China“ (March 1, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2589884 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2589884
Case Studies Gallery
Cyberlibertarian Flow and Information Mania (1979-2001)
The early phase (1979-2001) is characterized by the unilateral influence of the US cyberlibertarian and corporate culture and the third wave information mania on China’s then orthodox socialist ethos. In this part my starter kits include one of the most preeminent American futurists, Alvin Toffler’s two visits to China in 1983 and 1988 and his enthusiastic reception by the then Chinese Premier, Zhao Ziyang, and many senior officials in the State Council. The wide circulation of The Third Wave that had been translated into two Chinese editions within three years and sold a million copies within five years.
Toffler’s speech and the Third Wave soon became the foundational visions of the 863 program, a monolithic program aimed to steer China’s new technology revolution, and the program all the way led to 2016 when China was transformed from an agrarian economy into a technological powerhouse in three decades.
Fishbone antennas and satellite pots, representative early wireless communication devices marking the emergence of a new set of technocultural imagination and practices in the immediate post-Mao China. The picture of fishbone was taken in a small town in Guangdong Province in the late 1980s. It was installed privately, not officially, to steal television signals from Hong Kong, which is adjacent to Guangdong.
The satellite pot was borrowed as a source of inspiration for a wave of popular, posthuman imagination of the human body as a part of the information loop.
This picture was taken in 1993 in a qigong gathering in the suburban Beijing. when they put upon this pot on their heads, which they called it information pot, they thought they could receive signals from heaven so they could achieve resonance between heaven and their body that can cure all physical diseases and achieve inner harmony.
The nomos of Networking and the Copycat Era (2001-2013)
A catchphrase for this era’s Chinese cyberinfrastructure development is the copycat era. In this picture all those Chinese networking apps below are basically copies of the American brands above. These copying activities were of course disgusting in the eyes of the Silicon Valley’s geeky-hippie entrepreneurial spirit, but they nonetheless paved the foundation for a coherent and self-sufficient Chinese internet ecosystem, a semi-automated sovereignty that developed a much more robust and deeply interactive relationship with the imposing state sovereignty than its counterpart in the US.
A typical scenario of the knowledge worker working space in the early 2000s China. The postmodern teamworking culture and a post-representational identity began to take shape in a such a tightly-knitted space arrangement and this whole new work routine began to feature prominently in the cultural representation in print media, televisions, and pedagogical focus that marginalized and even stigmatized the classical socialist subject, factory workers and peasants, as lowbred, unskilled and uneducated, despite the vast majority of working force in China back then was still blue-collar streamline Foxconnic hands that prop up the name of China as the world factory. The tipping point came around 2013, when the white collar knowledge worker began to outweigh the number of factory worker and today the number of office worker reaches 550 million that doubles the number of manual worker.
Towards Deep Address and Ambient Interface (2013 – present)
The third phrase of cyberinfrastructure development in China is less a glaring mimicry of the Silicon Valley Cloud platforms than a maturation of an indigenous Cloud Polis, Baidu Cloud, Alibaba City Brain, Tencent, Huawei and some others modeled after a different sociopolitical relation and imagination with the state than its US counterpart, a model of hybrid state-cum-Cloud governance where the Chinese state has hacked into the immanent layer of the Cloud platforms, the datacenter, cable transmission, sensor distribution, city grids, satellites, everything is either a state project or must align its business protocols with the state jurisdiction and share its data collection with the state or participate as part of the state data collection project.
The most recent urban level mega-project announced by the Chinese government in 2017 is the plan to establish the Xiong’an New Area, a new special zone located in the outskirt of Beijing. The plan is to build a 2000 square meters urban region accommodating a population of 2.5 million before 2022. The city region also bears its frame as a showcase project of multiple urban mega-utopias – green, cosmopolitan, securitarian and mega-technological.
A deal has been stricken with Baidu to build the world’s first “Smart City” of ambient sensors embedded in cement, in traffic light, in every intersection across all traffic grids and city grids, and to allocate addresses to unlike natural objects such as trees and animals in these widely distributed ecological parks and green zones. It hints at a next-gen Internet of Things towards what Benjamin Bratton calls the ambient interface and deep address.
And this next-gen project is empowered by the Wechat, the Chinese superapp, which makes China a scan or get scanned world. It’s one of the building blocks of China’s alternative information universe that blurs the line between online and offline worlds and refashions the China’s urban landscape into an extremely rich real-world datascape.
To appropriate Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack model, United States still has dominant share on the Cloud Layer with its global coverage of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, but China, given its vast government spending in infrastructure and green urbanism, has greater potential in the City and Address layer where the next-gen real world data- hyper materialism will be getting its foothold.