Part of my Reading pipeline.
- 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
- 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
- What China faces now is a potential “agrarian transition,” a term used by economists and agricultural policy makers. Agrarian transition is the process in which farmers are pushed out of the countryside and small-scale farming is replaced by industrialized agriculture, which requires less manual labor. As a result, there is a surplus of labor as farmers attempt to re-skill or find new jobs.
- The Made in China 2025 plan comprises industrial policies that include homegrown farm-machinery manufacturing and the stabilization of food production. Closely associated with the goal of poverty alleviation is the desire to create new consumers (and internet users) through a rural “consumption upgrade,” where the hope is that rural internet users will become full-fledged online shoppers. China Mobile and China Unicom have rolled out feats of infrastructural magic, including 4G and 5G cell service to remote regions.
- Although China harbors dreams of becoming an AI superpower, the question of the countryside will have to be resolved in order for China to garner enough knowledge workers.
- One farmer told me that the future is a created concept, and that in the fields, in the long dark of winters, there is no future, because every day depends on tending to the present moment. An act of care. In contrast, urban culture is centered on the belief that the universe must be constantly corrected on its course, and that life is defined by the pleasure of overcoming future challenges.
- A deliberately tongue-in-cheek headline from the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reads: FIRM USES HUMAN HAIR IN SOY SAUCE “BREAKTHROUGH.” The article reveals that ground-up human hair was being put in soy sauce, cutting production costs by half. Profiteers diluted the original sauce with hair, then put the doctored soy sauce back in empty brand-name bottles and onto supermarket shelves.
- Other unsavory cost-cutting techniques include making tapioca bubble tea balls with plastic green peas and using inedible red dyes on chilies.
- Why is China so bad at food safety? John elaborates on the problems of scale that Matilda mentioned. Feeding 22 percent of the world’s population on 7 percent of the world’s arable land is just plain difficult.
- Over the past few years, tech companies including Alibaba, JD.com, and NetEase are all making forays into the food and food-retailing space, leveraging tight control over all degrees of the chain. These companies are centralizing production and shipping, with the help of informatics and sensors, giving consumers a sense of control over their food.
- China consumes five billion chickens a year (which is still only about half the American chicken-consumption rate of nine billion per year).
- Blockchain, like an authoritarian regime, uses a parallel logic: people cannot be trusted in a free market, and bad actors are intrinsic to a social system. In order to mediate trust, a technical infrastructure is better than a government; governments are made up of fallible people, whereas technical infrastructure works automatically. Instead of the government moderating trust, blockchain does so with machines.
- Under governance by blockchain, records are tamperproof, but the technical systems are legible only to a select few. Even exploring transactions on a blockchain requires some amount of technical knowledge and access. The technology of record keeping has become increasingly more complex. This complexity requires trust and faith in the code—and trust in those who write it. For those of us who don’t understand the code, trusting a record written in natural language on a piece of paper seems at the very least a lot clearer.
- More recently, popular support for Bitcoin and cryptocurrency has oscillated between feverish excitement and wariness about its electricity consumption—it requires more electricity annually than Switzerland.
- NetEase’s foray into the food space is a clever business move. As Matilda mentioned to me in Shanghai, information about food is central to food safety. This makes industrialized farming, including modern pig farming, an information business, with a focus on scaling trust.
- towering server sits behind a glass pane, with a printed poem: CODE / LINE BY LINE / BUILDS THE FOUNDATION / FOR ETERNITY / JUST LIKE SAND / GRAIN BY GRAIN / CALMS THE ROARING SEA.
- Aliyun offers a way to help sort through data using AI. In these large-scale farms, pigs are stamped with a unique identity mark on their bodies, similar to a QR code. That data is fed into a model made by Alibaba, and the model has the information it needs to monitor the pigs in real time, using video, temperature, and sound sensors.
- The logic is striking. A demand for pork drives industrialized farming of pigs, which increases disease transmission. The constant emergence of diseases drives the implementation of new technologies like AI pork farming. These technologies go on to make pork cheap, driving even more availability and demand, as people start to believe pork is a necessary part of their diet. AI is not the balm to any problem—it is just one piece of the ever-hungry quest for scale.
- There could be scenarios where an AI model helps countless small-scale fisheries across the globe examine weather patterns, getting rid of the need for expensive forms of expertise. This stands in contrast to the current economics of AI, which would lean toward an expensive, corporate AI model that demands small fisheries become industrial fish farms to recuperate costs.
- My mother’s is the kind of job that some people think robots should take over, that should be optimized and automated. After all, she would supposedly get more free time and fulfillment in life. The irony is, she stopped feeling fulfilled when her workplace became optimized, her work stripped of meaning, turned into mere labor.
- After all, life is defined not by uncertainty itself but by a commitment to living despite it.
- In the viral online article “This Screen Changes Lives,” the writer Cheng Mengchao documents a grand experiment carried out by Chengdu Number 7 High School—a decision in 2015 to livestream the school’s classes to seventy-two thousand students in poverty-stricken rural areas of Yunnan and Guangxi with the help of New Oriental Education, an edtech (educational technology) company based in Beijing.1 The initial results were dire: rural teachers tore books up in protest, resentful of being replaced by Chengdu teachers on a digital screen. Rural students would unexpectedly burst into tears of frustration, confronted with how behind they were compared to city students at the same grade level. “I didn’t know I was so bad in school, I didn’t know I was so worthless,” remarked one student.
- One hindrance to Chinese innovation has been the accusation that any technological advancement boils down to a government conspiracy to surveil its citizens. The analyst shakes her head, perplexed by the American obsession with the Chinese surveillance state, while Americans seem to care so little about the surveillance in their own lives.
- The great innovators of the United States found that innovation was culturally constructed. Technology and innovation were far less universal than they had thought.
- Yet, like most desk-based jobs these days, the ethical boundary becomes defined by awareness. When you have been made accustomed to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, how could you see the larger picture to know whether you’re doing harm?
- He laughs good-naturedly when he says this, as if he doesn’t mind telling the truth—something people loathe doing these days, when preserving the image of success is about the same as achieving success.
- I spend more time with my coworkers than with friends or partners. My daily life is either sleeping or working. It’s like having a family, but I wonder if this is the family I would actively choose. And on evening BART rides back home, I listen to music in my headphones, watching other people with startup-logo-embroidered backpacks scroll vigorously on their phones, smirking and laughing at the screens. I am still left with a sense of loneliness. Kristie’s next pearl party awaits me at home, along with a box of Green Chef and some packages from online New Age boutiques.
- Maybe that’s just a microcosm of the difficult work that we want to skip: the work of building a community upheld by boundlessness and belonging, a sense of purpose beyond reducing work and life to simple economics.
- I continue to stare. The present stares back. The present moment promises nothing—it only demands. It demands building the communities that shift culture, that allow interbeing to thrive. It demands the work of awareness and care, instead of the tools of efficiency and scale. It demands seeing individual freedom as nothing more than a way for all of us to be oppressed.
- Most of all, the present demands the tender, honest work of attempting to make meaning, instead of looking, waiting, or wanting. Through the present moment I see the glimmers of liberation embedded in the work we must do at this time. Because what else can we do?
Exploring the political and social entanglements of technology in rural China.
- Author: Xiaowei Wang
- My rating: ★★★★★
- ISBN-13: 9780374538668