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This evening, I am brushing my teeth surrounded by dozens of pin-size black worms that roil and roll along white ceramic tile. A child’s socks and underwear are hung out to dry on a small rack next to the sink. It’s been raining all day. I’m in a small village in southern China, at the border of Jiangxi and Guangdong. I arrived in the village to try to understand how e-commerce has affected life here, with farmers selling goods directly to consumers, using WeChat’s robust mobile payment system. After missing the last bus back to the nearest city, I am now on an involuntary meditation retreat.
Since I’m American, my hosts have assumed I need spacious, extraordinarily comfortable conditions, which is why I’m staying at the most modern house in the village, by myself. It’s a two-story concrete building with an outhouse that has a ceramic squat toilet, just a few convenient steps away from the front door.
It’s so cold here that I can see my breath inside. There are no radiators, just a small plastic space heater that defeatedly wheezes lukewarm air. It’s the only sound I hear besides a low, watery gurgle, accompanied by the wind rattling through cracks of the window frame.
Nighttime is dense and dark here, with no streetlights and few houses, eerily emphasized by the silence of the village. My movements feel muffled and dull. I am unused to this kind of solitude, as someone who spends most of my time in cities, and I am scared—stuck in a new place with only the worms to talk to, maybe a ghost or two, replaying supernatural horror movies in my mind. Without the stimulation of light and sound, my mind turns over thoughts and stories on repeat, revisiting inconsequentially boring past moments like a mantra: Did Xinghai think I was a jerk because I didn’t say thank you earlier when he dropped me off? Did I end my e-mail to Gu in the wrong tone? What if I get stuck in this village forever? How slow would I be at harvesting rice? I get bored with my own thoughts and download a night-light app on my phone after scrolling through pages of App Store reviews.
“Why are you here?” One of my hosts, an old rice farmer, asked me this earlier. I had been traveling for days, and in my exhaustion, his question took on a more existential note. It took me a minute before I could sputter, “I’m here to see you.”
I felt the pull of rural China about three years ago, after visiting villages in Guizhou, seeing a side of China very different from the one portrayed in most forms of media. This pull was amplified by my need to challenge my own metronormativity—a portmanteau of “metropolitan” and “normative,” coined by the theorist and scholar Jack Halberstam.
Metronormativity is pervasive—it’s the normative, standard idea that somehow rural culture and rural people are backward, conservative, and intolerant, and that the only way to live with freedom is to leave the countryside for highly connected urban oases. Metronormativity fuels the notion that the internet, technology, and media literacy will somehow “save” or “educate” rural people, either by allowing them to experience the broader world, offering new livelihoods, or reducing misinformation.
For me, challenging this metronormativity is crucial. So much of the extended crises and the rise of authoritarian populism throughout the world has been a result of globalization. The urban-rural dynamic is central to globalization, with rural areas serving as the engine, the site of extractive industries from industrial agriculture to rare earth mining. I believe our ability to confront metronormativity will determine our shared future. We are intertwined across cities, villages, and national boundaries, bound by material circumstance.
I have traveled to rare earth and copper mines in Inner Mongolia, driven along dusty highways past wind turbines and data centers, visited villages where artificial intelligence training data is made, and seen empty villages where all the young people have left for electronics factory jobs in cities. Rather than seeing the way technology has shifted or produced new livelihoods in rural China, I have been humbled to see the ways rural China fuels the technology we use every day, around the world.
Questioning metronormativity means demanding something outside the strict binaries of rural versus urban, natural versus man-made, digital versus physical, and remote as disengaged versus metropolitan as connected. To question metronormativity demands a vision of living that serves life itself, and not just life in cities. Embarking on this line of questioning demanded a big change in my own core beliefs.
The dynamics of rural China are not isolated to China itself. Yet because of its geographic distance from the United States, it remains a kind of periphery. These rural peripheries, the edges of the world, hidden from view, enable our existence in cities. These areas produce everything from the cotton in the clothes we wear to the minerals that create the computers in data centers. They also produce the food we eat. It is impossible to disentangle the countryside from food—food is at the core of the dynamic between the rural and the global. As humans, we eat to survive, and our appetite for food has carved new geographies and technologies into the world. Urbanite appetites, especially, have shifted rural economies, ecologies, and societies over the past three decades.
I have a difficult time grasping the full dynamics of complex concepts like climate change, which creates economic and ecological relationships at a dizzying array of scales throughout the world. Yet agriculture and what we eat are tangible manifestations of these entangled global issues that affect all of us. According to a recent United Nations report, a third of human greenhouse gas emissions stem from industrial agricultural practices. These same industrial agriculture practices have rearranged the way rural communities live, fomenting political change around the world.
Conducting research in rural China meant that I could, selfishly, return to villages that I love being in. There was an allure to living at a pace and scale that felt comprehensible, to living in a place that felt grounded. It is easy to romanticize rural Chinese villages as idyllic scenes of nature, small and disengaged—yet many of them are sites of economies and agricultural practices that are foundational to our world. And as numerous historians, such as Robert Brenner and Sue Headlee, have shown, shifts in agriculture and rural politics were crucial for the transition into industrialization and capitalism throughout the world. In thinking through agriculture, through a sense of place and belonging, I was influenced by the writings of bell hooks and Wendell Berry, for whom being and belonging acquire a sense of urgency—especially in a political and economic system that dislocates people from place and community. It would have been easy to attribute the loss of belonging, of place, to just technology accelerating us into the singularity of despondency. But challenging my metronormativity meant challenging these ideas of the digital world versus the physical world, and pulling back the idea that becoming a Luddite and disengaging is the only way to reclaim a sense of belonging.
“Why are you here?” I am here because looking at technology in rural China, in places that produce the technology we use, places that show how globally entangled we are with one another, allows me to confront the scarier question that technology poses: What does it mean to live, to be human right now? Looking at tech in rural China forced me to examine the ideologies that drive engineers and companies to build everything from AI farming systems and blockchain food projects to shopping sites and payment platforms. These assumptions about humans and the way the world should work are more powerful than sheer technical curiosity in driving the creation of new technologies and platforms. Embedded in these tools are their makers’ and builders’ assumptions about what humans need, and how humans should interact. It is not enough to critique these assumptions, because in simply critiquing, we remain caught in the 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. Tech creates isolation, tech connects marginalized communities. The difficult work that we face is to live and thrive beyond binaries and assumptions, and to aid and enable others to do so. How do we begin this work?
At the age of ninety-five, five years before her death, the activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote The Next American Revolution. Published in 2010, the book sounded an alarm bell for our present condition—a time when politics was no longer politics as usual, where traditional forms of protest were not enough to induce change, and when ecological disaster wrought by unfettered material and technological growth was looming. Despite all this, she pointed to a source of hope: “the great turning.” The great turning, a term borrowed from Buddhism, refers to a growing tidal wave of people now taking the first step toward change: addressing spiritual impoverishment. “These are the times to grow our souls,” she writes. The way to respond to crisis is to practice compassion and change the cycle of suffering. We can all actively practice compassion in our own way, whether we are doctors, teachers, or businesspeople. Engineers and makers and builders of technology have this opportunity; I hope this book sparks something for you. After all, code is words made executable—we must take care in what we say. And for those of us who see code as an apocryphal text, who see technology as indeed accelerating us toward a despondent, tightly controlled world, I hope this book reaffirms the power that you hold in being human, and demonstrates ways certain technologies might actually serve open systems. To spark the great turning, we need to transform our compassion, our imagination, and our society—we cannot focus on reforming our technologies alone. Most of all, I hope that this book brings you to parts of China that you might never visit, takes you beyond a map of abstractions, a flat map made by metronormativity.
At some point on my involuntary meditation retreat, I start to panic. I have my phone, there’s 4G service, and, trying to combat the dark, I scroll Twitter, read the news, peruse my WeChat feed. Against the heaviness of the night, the oppressive immediacy of the cold and quiet, and the lurking outhouse worms, the words on the New York Times website feel far away, flimsy. My thoughts feel flimsy.
With my phone screen on, set to my new night-light app, I finally begin drifting into sleep.
In the morning, the scarce winter light starts to shine at 7:00 a.m. I wake to a different world, one that is much less scary, much less sinister than my mind had imagined, at night, in silence. I hear the sounds of ducks and chickens, a single car in the distance. After tidying up the house, I walk past rice paddies and a small stream to the main road. I stand, waiting for the bus.
Copyright © 2020 by Xiaowei Wang