If the trick to living well with technology is balance—between scrolling and occasionally mustering up the energy to leave the house and see friends—2020 has not only tipped these delicate scales but managed to ensure that they were laid waste altogether. With billions of people isolated in their homes across the world with nothing but their screens to help them socialize, teach, learn, and work, many are discovering that digital relationships are a poor substitute for flesh and blood connections. We have gorged too much, too mindlessly, on this thing that ultimately doesn’t serve us awfully well, it seems; the only way forward is to deny, absolve ourselves, and repeat.
Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside arrives in our oversaturated digital moment as a welcome reprieve, reminding us that there is more to technology than our thumbs hovering over our phones, unable to escape ourselves. Wang, who is the creative director at Logic magazine, visited a number of new businesses across China’s countryside during the past year to document the ways in which rural towns have become the engines of global consumer capitalism. Technology is steadily changing how work is done in these far-flung places. In a village in the southern province of Guizhou, chickens are tracked with Fitbit-like ankle bracelets; a 25-year-old man in the eastern province of Anhui remotely controls drones that spray pesticides on crops all over the country; in the southwest, small communities are being turned into manufacturing zones for online shopping.
Stories about technology, Wang (who uses “they”/”them” pronouns) writes, often focus on cities, influenced by the bias of what theorist Jack Halberstam has deemed “metronormativity.” While metronormativity posits that “rural culture and rural people are backward” subjects who must be “saved” by “internet, technology, and media literacy,” Wang’s travels show the centrality of China’s countryside to global life. What does it mean to hold on to the binaries of “rural versus urban, natural versus man-made, digital versus physical” at a time when—as one of Wang’s case studies shows—nearly all the Halloween costumes worn by children in suburban America come from one tiny remote village in western China? It is only by bringing the supposed periphery into the center that we can begin to unpack the ties that bind us and see the systems that make our lives tick.
Many Western narratives about contemporary China draw on the language of contradictions: the “gleaming skyscrapers alongside ramshackle food stalls, the chaos of crowds tracked by surveillance cameras, the steam of a wok reflecting the blue light of an iPhone.” Wang finds this play with predetermined symbols unsatisfactory; they deliver myth at the expense of actual insight. “I know you’re here writing about a book about Chinese technology, but the only way to understand China’s future is through its past,” the author’s great-uncle, a former doorboy at a local Western restaurant who is still haunted by memories of famine in the nation, tells Wang.
The countryside commands a mythic status in the narrative of the modern Chinese state. During the civil war with the Nationalists from 1927 to 1949, Mao Zedong had strongholds in rural areas and mobilized peasants to “encircle cities from the countryside”; when he established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he made the countryside the site of his agrarian-centered revolution. As power has flowed to the cities over recent decades, resentments have accrued around the hukou system, a government household registration system that disincentivizes people from migrating by limiting their access to social benefits to which they would be entitled elsewhere, such as education and insurance. But mass migration to the cities for better jobs continues regardless.
Economists warn that China now faces an “agrarian transition,” which could further accelerate migration to urban sites as small-scale farming is supplanted by industrialized agriculture. In 2010, a state-affiliated think tank identified China’s 750 million rural workers—particularly dissatisfied younger workers living on the margins of a city—as a key threat to the government’s legitimacy: “Policy-making must confront the pressing reality that migrant workers now dominated by a younger generation will remain in towns and cities.” The government, in response, has spurred efforts to construct a “new socialist countryside” over the past decade, marshaling technology giants to develop a place, Wang writes, “filled with peasants starting e-commerce businesses, small-scale manufacturing, new data centers, and young entrepreneurial workers returning to their rural homes.”
The titular blockchain chicken farm is one such effort to forge a new countryside, itself doubling as a way to cool down social discontent about food safety. This is a perennial concern in China: headlines over the years have warned of human hair being ground up in soy sauce and bubble tea balls being made with plastic peas. In the quiet Sanqiao village, two hours from the southwest megacity of Chongqing, farmer Jiang oversees the local blockchain chicken operation in his area. Launched by Lianmo Technology, the project affixes free-range chickens with a tamper-proof ankle bracelet that tracks their steps and location, logging this information through a blockchain ledger, which provides data on the chickens in an efficient format. Chickens are further tested every two weeks for the presence of illegal antibiotics. A QR code affixed to each ankle bracelet takes the (largely middle-class) consumers to a website where they can see the data of the chicken’s life cycle and be assured that the chicken they are consuming is sufficiently free-range. Although the project’s future is uncertain—last year, Lianmo ordered 6,000 blockchain chickens, but there is no such order this year—Jiang remains optimistic, Wang reports. But the problem is, Jiang continues, that while his region is remote, pollution-free, and enjoys fresh air and clean soil, “the villagers don’t quite know how to put a dollar value on that.”
Blockchain, now hailed as a way to ensure social trust, ironically has its roots in a paranoid way of thinking. We can’t trust institutions, and every system will have bad actors, the thinking goes, so why not create a decentralized “ledger” where records are distributed and synced among many people—in the case of the blockchain chickens, they include the farmers, the inspectors, and the consumers—ideally making the project impervious to a single effort to sabotage it? But as Wang observes, “technical systems are legible only to a select few,” and judging by the audiences of the bitcoin conferences held in California, these few are overwhelmingly white and male.
A similar hierarchy is evident in a conference for a high-tech drone company that Wang attends in the southern city of Guangzhou; investors and venture capitalists sit at the very front, followed by engineers and bored-looking journalists, with drone operators at the back. This typifies a paradox inherent in many tech circles today: “utopian” projects are undergirded by ideologies that have little faith in people, ushered through by rigidly hierarchical businesses, and they run on systems that are so, complex and esoteric that any avowed commitment to a democratic ideal feels thin. Moreover, the goals they chase, which involve a complete “connection” of the world’s people, optimized control of global supply chains, and the synthetic generation of social trust mediated by a surveillance complex, will always remain mere illusions. The pandemic has shown us how easily the vast sprawling machinery of our lives can collapse in the face of an aberrant threat.
It has also led to a ramping up of tensions between the United States and China. Blockchain Chicken Farm is more interested in seeing what unites the citizens of the two countries than what distinguishes them from each other. A brief visit to a facial recognition company in Beijing, an account that would have benefited from further detail given rising concern about China’s surveillance apparatus, finds Wang expecting to encounter a sinister, Soviet-like den. “[I]nstead, I was met with a total indifferent openness combined with the dry, surgical threat of a nondisclosure agreement. It didn’t remind me of Silicon Valley; it was Silicon Valley.”
And like Silicon Valley, the language of the hustle is everywhere. When visiting Sanqiao village, Wang chances upon a large red banner strewn across a local hospital that announces “Being lazy is a disgrace. Being self-reliant leads to strength,” a slogan that is “eerily reminiscent of several American values: Don’t be lazy. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Wang later visits an oyster farm near the coastal province of Zhejiang, where they meet an entrepreneur who runs a global pearl business. The oysters that yield the pearls are packed up and sealed, then flown halfway across the world to America. Their pearls are sold by cheery white women influencers on Instagram via live “unshucking” videos. These influencers often hail from North Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, and other places with some of the highest unemployment figures in the United States and are “consultants” for various Multilevel Marketing schemes (MLMs). They have bought the oysters at a hefty price and must offload them quickly to avoid spiraling into debt: “direct selling is not the cheerful respite from life it appears to be in ads, but a kind of desperate grab at survival.” Technology, along with globalization, has evidently helped to connect the world, but such connection feels overwhelmingly like a mutual race to the bottom for ever diminishing profits. It’s unsettling how what looks like joyful self-empowerment can edge so close to its opposite.
Discussions about tech, Wang writes, are often “caught in a long list of binaries: Tech is dehumanizing, tech brings liberation. Tech dragged the world into the mess it’s in, tech frees it from this mess.” Can we ever break out of the binaries? Wang’s cautiously optimistic approach advocates for the messy, imperfect power of being human: that an algorithm or data can never sum up who you are and will become; that technology, when harnessed properly, can one day serve open systems. It is also telling that one of Wang’s last case studies, concerning a group of countercultural nihilist Chinese youth known as shehui ren, those who believe they cannot advance to the “upper-middle-class life promised to them in advertisements” and who reject conventional values of jobs, marriages, and families, turn to live-streaming platforms and lifestyles that valorize the hustle.
One of the shehui ren Wang profiles, a young livestreamer named Nicly, shuns conventional beliefs in the value of education and hard work. School, she says, is lame and boring; besides, only the already wealthy can get rich from the usual paths of social advancement. Instead, she hustles, selling face masks and perfume on her live videos. Counterculturalism, in Nicly’s worldview, is indistinguishable from materialism—an approach that further enriches the wealthy few while occasionally rewarding the lucky striver. You could condemn her personal choices, but the space for a genuine alternative diminishes by the day.
Much has been written of the domination that tech giants exact on virtually every aspect of our lives, but increasingly attention is being given to ways we can challenge this, whether through pushing for policy changes or deleting apps and accounts that weigh us down. Wang appeals, counterintuitively, for us to look at the way we relate to ourselves and to others offline, gently exhorting us to continually exercise awareness and care. It’s the sort of work that asks us to set aside the values circulated by technology today—the continual hustle to secure one’s future; the placement of self-image at the center of one’s universe; the glinting promise of easy reward—and sit with indeterminacy, the present, and the unglamorous duties we owe to one another. “The present moment promises nothing—it only demands,” Wang concludes. What’s left is “the tender, honest work of attempting to make meaning, instead of looking, waiting, or wanting.”