For many people, tech in rural China conjures images of “Taobao Villages,” in which residents hope to earn their keep by making things to sell on Taobao, an e-commerce platform run by Alibaba. It is here that e-commerce and fintech are meant to lift people out of poverty, making lives more modern and progressive. At least that is the narrative Alibaba and the Chinese government’s Rural Revitalization strategy are pushing – the managed inflow of tech talent from urban areas and investment in digital technologies will solve all social and economic ills.
Xiaowei Wang’s book is founded on the author challenging their own “metronormativity,” the notion that rural populations are somehow backward and in need of being connected to cities. This notion is tied to techno optimism, but it equally underpins the simplistic view that it is technology – not the political and economic structures created by those in power – that displaces and exploits people.
Blockchain Chicken Farm challenges the overused binaries of urban versus rural, digital versus physical, machines versus humans. In doing so, the book shows how the periphery of rural China, as Wang says, “fuels the technology we use every day, around the world”. It reveals how closely connected the Chinese countryside is to the rest of the world. Questions about the meaning of innovation and who gets to define its boundaries elicit novel and profound answers.
Wang lays bare the relationship between technology and power. The example of a chicken farm in Guizhou is used to launch a sharp critique of blockchain. How can technology help to scale social trust when the institutions asking to be trusted are big corporations and their coders? In Guangdong, the author sees the relentless quest for optimization bring together industrial pig farming and artificial intelligence. In a police station in Guiyang, they witness predictive policing become an act of “crime production” – just like in the United States.
Blockchain Chicken Farm is more than a book about China. It is a personal and intellectual exploration of being human, at a time when capitalism is encouraging us to chase a future in which technology enables us to neatly predict and control our lives. Instead, Wang urges, we should “honor the unknown,” (re)learn how to build inclusive communities and attend to the present moment – much as Guangdong’s cooperative farmers do when they tend their rice paddies.
Reviewed by Rebecca Arcesati