Introduction to the Series of “Digital Anthropologies in East Asia”
In 2012, the Google policy analyst Andy Yee claimed that East Asia finally began a second digital revolution which was transforming the region from manufacturing digital hardware to creating digital content and services. According to Yee, this second stage of digitalization was more innovative and valuable: it has turned East Asia into a digital hub reliant on creative industry rather than a digital factory reliant on cheap labor. Developing digital content such as video games and smartphone apps for the massive number of global users has also boosted the digital economy in East Asia and allowed East Asia to compete with the United States. More recently, a similar claim has appeared in many news outlets: East Asia is rapidly catching up to North America in the development of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), the pinnacle of technologies that will lead to a third kind of digital revolution in the region (e.g. South China Morning Post, December 31, 2016). These claims – often made by market researchers, government consultants, and journalists – reveal a simple understanding of digitalization based in the linear development model of economics that assumes the digital (r)evolution will trickle down from developed countries to developing countries, from the West to the East.
Such a narrow understanding of digitalization obscures the “critical nodes” (Mazzarella 2006) of digital development in East Asia, as it fails to situate the process of digitalization within its local conditions. For example, data processing – particularly, marking and labeling objects in images – is a key step for developing algorithms. Algorithms are then used for A.I. development such as image recognition and machine learning. Since data processing is labor intensive, it requires cheap and disciplined workers. In the high-tech industrial park in Guiyang located in southwest China, Chinese digital companies hire young students from a nearby vocational school to process data. These students are being pulled out of the classroom and pushed into the market of A.I. infrastructure development for six hours a day even before they graduate (Synced 2017). The line between a digital hub and a digital factory is rarely clear cut in China (as well as other countries in East Asia) because the diligent, low-cost, and flexible labor is the driving force behind its digital production. It is also worth noting that this vocational school is a welfare project launched by the government to help ethnic minority students from poor families access education. Ironically, these students now are low paid and highly disciplined digital proletarians. The well-intentioned project aimed at poverty alleviation unexpectedly, and yet unsurprisingly, provides a new type of cheap labor for A.I. development in China. Mirroring this reality, the process of digitalization reveals its deep ties to local conditions and reliance on the complex interactions between the state, the market, and citizens.
Our series “Digital Anthropologies in East Asia” thus aims to situate digitalization within its local conditions as a way to capture two critical moments (nodes) of digital development. The first is the critical moment of “digital becoming.” Digital technologies and content are not once-made entities spreading from the western center to the eastern peripheries. Rather, they are invented and developed by local policies, knowledge of the indigenous market, and people’s needs and desires, etc., in a particular society. Such a process of “becoming” often results in unpredictable technological innovations, unique uses of digital products, and intriguing sociotechnical changes. Our series thus traces the “becoming” moments of A.I., social media, digital archives, online discussion spaces, and virtual currency, etc., in China, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Capturing these “becoming” moments illuminates the dynamic process of digitalization in the obviously connected yet clearly differentiated countries of East Asia.
The second is the critical moment of “digital connecting.” Digital technologies and products are not objects that human societies create and put in use. They embody the capacities to reconfigure existing social relations and shape new webs of connections both on- and off-line. Over the past several decades, cultural anthropologists have paid considerable attention to the forms and values of social relations in East Asia. There is a long-standing body of literature describing guanxi (personal connections) in China, wa (group loyalty and harmony) in Japan, and inhwa (harmony between unequals) in Korea. But, how do digital technologies reconfigure guanxi, wa, and inhwa? What new socialities and modes of belonging emerge in East Asia in the digital era? How do digital technologies make new connections among people living in different regions of East Asia and connect East Asia to the other places in the world? How do these reshaped and newly shaped relationships impact social fields and political domains in East Asia? Drawing ethnographic materials from their respective research, the contributors show how cyber forums, video archives, internet celebrities, and mobile devices, etc. invent new avenues for social interactions and community-building. These virtual and actual connections re-channel collective desires and political aspirations in East Asia, refashion people’s imaginations of East Asia’s position in the world, and reshuffle the power relations between East Asian countries. Capturing the moment of “digital connecting” attends to the transformative power of digital technologies and grounds the social effects of digitalization in a local context.
Situating digitalization is critical. It is a critical method for digital anthropologists to scrutinize the mutual transformation between digital technologies and human societies. It is also a critical standpoint from which digital anthropologists can have meaningful dialogues and develop comparative frameworks. Finally, it is a critical tool for anthropologists to engage with the public and participate in conversations on digital development. Currently, market researchers, government consultants and journalists tend to dominate these conversations. However, anthropologists could use empirical data to redirect these conversations and begin to dismantle the linear development model underlying the mainstream discourse. It is with this goal in mind that we start the series.
Editor’s note: We will publish 10 articles from June to October, two articles per month.
Yi Zhou is a contributing editor for the Society for East Asian Anthropology’s column. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology Department of the University of California, Davis. Her research focuses on digital media, affective labor, and governmentality in China.