notes from the periphery

Futures/futurities for The Redirect at SFMOMA

For this talk, I was asked to present a vision of the future, guided by a series of questions sent to me. I am very grateful for these questions, the chance to present a vision. But I was unable to conjure a vision of the future.

Instead, I will try the difficult task of describing the present as I see it, and perhaps somewhere our views might overlap – difficult these days. For me, traveling through the world, through China, through the US can be time travel enough.

I see the hyperspeed of the Bay Area, as a black Tesla scrapes against a parked car in slow motion, outside a historic black church in Oakland, next to a new brunch spot. Churchgoers and Sunday brunchers mix in a line that goes around the corner, spirituality and community threaded. A homeless man sells print media, as brunchers are glued to their phones. Depending on who you ask these days, Oakland is in the middle of a tech induced decline or a creative renaissance, or both. Survival at the edges.

I can describe to you a warp speed visit to Shenzhen, in its tech culture that remixes and hacks parts into new forms of hardware, hardware that hold an exuberant virality. In Shenzhen’s lack of intellectual property rights, I see entirely modular phones that make repair easy, unlike the cypher of an iPhone. There are phones with built in compasses that point to Mecca, earbuds that sell like hotcakes in Nairobi, co-designed by young Kenyan and Chinese entrepreneurs.

The death of intellectual property rights means a death to a human right, the assumed human right towards claiming invention. It spells a death to the elevated, individual genius. In much of Western media this death is noted as deeply problematic: copy cat culture in Shenzhen, the Chinese inability to innovate, only steal.

In Shenzhen I interview a prominent member of the maker movement who calls herself a cyborg. She brings up the deep contradictions of Western views on innovation. Why was it, she tells me, that the girls she grew up with in Shenzhen, who went on to work as factory girls in electronics factories were seen as mindless drones, while a few miles away, she soldered on Youtube and was heralded as a maker movement star? In this challenge to an Enlightenment era construction of humanity, of a purity of invention, I think of Sylvia Wynter’s wise words. “…The struggle of our new millennium will be one between the ongoing imperative of securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human”, she writes. And this line between security and uncertainty I believe, marks so much of our relationship to technology. the moment, as the computer scientist Terry Winogrand writes about, as the moment where we ascribe rationality to machine and the ongoing obsession with who is human.

I travel to another fold in time, rural Shandong China, in a Taobao village. In this village, over 70% of households make products at home for, an e-commerce platform made by the Chinese tech giant Alibaba. In rural Taobao land, the laws of Taobao supersede government laws. Farmers toil in the fields and during holiday seasons, they make costumes in home workshops for customers from Shanghai to Hanoi. One farmer is now a millionaire. I wander through fields, judging and gauging, ready to indict the viscitudes of platform capitalism, worried of a future where an entire village uses Alibaba’s mobile payment system, of tech led credit ratings. Of being beholden to Alibaba forever, amidst a village Taobao kindergarten and a Taobao hotel. The number of Taobao villages have skyrocketed, with more to come under Alibaba’s Rural Development Strategy. Other companies, like Foxconn are beginning to understand this spatial fix, this moving inward into the countryside, leaving expensive cities, like Shenzhen. Last year, Foxconn opened a 300,000 person iphone factory in Henan. All of this, under a loose policy by the government of “rural revitalization” – a nod to the rise of industrialized farming and the tech economy that must replace it.

I ask one farmer, who is also a Taobao producer, about his concerns for the future of his village’s close ties to Taobao.

He tells me that “the future” is a concept created if you believe that everything in the present is imperfect. He says that here, in the fields, in the long dark of winters, is the revelation that the universe is perfect as is. It is up to us to maintain it. There is no future, because every day depends on precariously balancing the present.

So if the future is produced, what does it mean to hold still the present? When we speak of crisis and apocalypse in the future, what needs do those words serve? Who’s needs do they serve? I think of an interview with indigenous sci-fi writer Rebecca Roanhorse. In it, she says “I think Native folks have already experienced an apocalypse, all the sort of dystopian tropes you see in movies, we’ve experienced those — our land lost, our children taken away, sent to schools and things like that. And we’ve survived.”

To hold still the present for a moment, means facing the different threads of time that weave our understanding of technology, of who we construct as the human, of what we construct as technology to begin with. After all, technology itself is a produced concept, as historian Ruth Oldenziel has documented: it was Thorsten Veblen who came up with the idea that technology is something that engineers produce. Before that, the loose umbrella of how-to was an unelevated, technical art that anyone (including) could attend to.

In a constructed futurity: who has the right to the future, who is left to steward the present? I think of software and how its builders dream of changing the world, while underneath, labor and geographic peripheries power copper mines and data centers. I think of how much work we have if we commit to the project of revolution, and who really does the work.

I wonder who are the people who must agree to the fictions someone else wrote, and those who are powerful enough to write fictions for the rest of us? I am not good at inscribing fiction, because I am still unlearning everyday the concrete and psychological fictions someone else has written.

And spending time in the Chinese countryside trying to unravel rural technology use, economic prosperity and nationalism, I begin to realize my questions are all insufficient. The mismatch is my urban understanding of time, the fictions that I have learned. Life in one village still centers around the agricultural calendar. In the agricultural calendar there are nine days in a week. Because of this, I never get the market days right.

When I finally figure out the days, I walk by people stirring sesame oil in a giant wok, all sorts of contraptions to distill, boil, assemble, nourish. If Veblen could divide realms into technology or not, surely these contraptions can be technologies too. And if we already live in a world where time travel is possible simply by traveling through multiple understandings of time and talking to others, what happens when there are multiple understandings of technology? If we embrace multitudes, what happens to the desire for a singular future, for reassurance, or our even our desires for certainty?