Real Mass entrepreneurialism

Originally posted 23rd July 2017

Poster for Real Mass Entrepreneurship

While exploring Shenzhen, I went to see an exhibition at OCT-Loft by Simon Denny called Real Mass Entrepreneurship. The aim of the exhibition was to juxtapose Shenzhen’s famous electronics markets at Huaqiangbei with the Shenzhen’s tourist theme park “Windows of the World.” The exhibition is housed in a large warehouse-type space and consists mostly of glass cabinets for displaying electronics (of the type commonly seen at Huaqiangbei) variously decorated (by the artist?) alongside over-sized sculptures of various kinds of objects (superheroes, mushrooms, dragons).

The various large-scale public sculptures endlessly remodeled, replaced, and reproduced in theme parks precisely mirror the individual entrepreneurs enabled by the incubators and accelerators leading the movement of “mass entrepreneurship.” The artist has rented from a sculpture workshop which produces objects for Shenzhen’s theme parks, several large-scale models made of materials such as fiber-reinforced plastic and wood in the varied forms of various bodies/figures, mushrooms, Greek pillars, arches, and stones.

Overall, the exhibition didn’t work for me — I wasn’t sure what the juxtaposition of the sculptures and the display cases was trying to do. Denny also included a video installation with interviews of makers and other electronic-market denizens and this was probably the most interesting part of the exhibition. Despite this, the title of the exhibition — “real mass entrepreneurship” — captures something important about what is going on in Shenzhen. It hints at why Shenzhen is important. Moreover, placing Windows of the World side by side with Huaquiangbei also presents some rich possibilities for thinking about what is going on in the city. Here’s what the exhibition itself has to say about “mass entrepreneurship”:

For Simon Denny, the notion of “mass entrepreneurship” not only signifies a socio-economic activity, but also alludes to the repeated duplication and subrogation of “individuals” in the system of production. In a globalized network, individual entrepreneurs representative of innovation and advancement are seduced by fabricated myths and plunge themselves into science and finance through ways of incubation and acceleration, eventually becoming part of the masses.

The video in the exhibition deepened this critique of Shenzhen’s innovation economy: for the Chinese government, entrepreneurship (that is, encouraging people to start their own businesses) is a way of increasing employment without having to find jobs for the millions of young Chinese in search of them. As such the “myth” of entrepreneurship and innovation (that it is the road to becoming the next Jack Ma) become important political tools. I agree with that, but I also think that “mass entrepreneurship” signals something else. Those who work in the Huaqiangbei electronics markets do not “become part of the masses” by virtue of being entrepreneurs. Rather, they are already part of the “masses” and remain so, even as they do the work of innovation and entrepreneurialism. For the most part, and certainly in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurialism has been an elite enterprise (either in terms of money or education level, or both). The kind of entrepreneurialism that one can see in Huaqiangbei, on the other hand, is very different. Although it deals with high tech, what is going on is largely small business. It is not elite activity, but, in many ways, ordinary, day-to-day work. It is the clustering of all this ordinary work within the relatively small space of Shenzhen that makes the electronics scene so dynamic. This “mass” dimension important for understanding what is so special about Shenzhen and why it is different from places like Silicon Valley. It is the quotidian practices that make innovation happen. In some sense, the phrase “mass entrepreneurship” (or “mass innovation”) is an oxymoron — doesn’t entrepreneurship or innovation have to be something that stands out as special from ordinary work in some way? In Shenzhen, that is certainly not the case. New products and new ideas emerge (or are at least made possible by) from the everyday work of buying and selling in the electronics marketplaces. I’m going to write more about specifically how this takes place in an article (not a blog post).

“Windows of the World” is an important symbol of this kind of “mass entrepreneurialism” for a few reasons. First, the metaphor of the Window suggests China looking outwards to the world. That is exactly what Shenzhen is — it has been called China’s “Window to the World.” As the first Special Economic Zone, it became a place where China could borrow models from outside, receive capital from outside, and send its own products back outside. It was and is a conduit. Without these “global” flows through the “window to the world” Shenzhen would not have become what it has. In other words, the “window” reminds of the global dimension that is necessary for “mass entrepreneurialism” to take place on the local level. Without investment from multi-national firms and without globalized “mass” markets, Shenzhen would not be possible. The theme park actually contains a replicas of monuments and famous buildings from around the world — the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, and so on — built as reduced-scale replicas. Through Windows of the World, Chinese tourists can see the rest of the world without leaving Shenzhen. This also should remind us of something going on in the electronics markets: copying. A significant fraction of the new products that emerge from Shenzhen are what is known as “shanzhai” (copy-cat electronic or bandit electronics) — a least some parts violate intellectual property laws.

Second, then, both WotW and Huaqiangbei build on the copy. But in both cases this not mere copying. Rather, the close juxtaposition of so many different elements from so many different places creates something entirely new. In the case of the theme park, a new kind of experience that cannot be gained in Paris or New York of by traveling the world (seeing the Taj Mahal and the Empire State and the Eiffel Tower in one day!). In the case of electronics, parts are borrowed and recombined to make distinctly new kinds of products. Both effects rely on the density of objects — their closeness to one another. Third, if Huaqiangbei is a kind of “mass entrepreneurialism” — a more democratic form of innovation perhaps — then WotW might be described as “mass tourism” — a more democratic or anti-elite form of tourism for which you don’t have to go very far to see the sights of the world. For sophisticated global, cosmopolitan travelers, the effect of WotW is rather kitsch. Significantly, shanzhai electronics have been described in exactly the same way — as smacking of low taste and low class. Perhaps we might say that the aesthetic of WotW and Huaqiangbei is also the same, or similar. Finally, if Huaqiangbei offers the “myth” of entreprenerialism to the masses, what is the “myth” offered by WotW? Shenzhen dreams of becoming a global city (by this I mean its government certainly does, but many of the people who live in Shenzhen also see its growing global significance). By placing “global” monuments in a theme park within the city, Shenzhen signals its aspirations. In this sense, WotW doubles down on the dream of “mass entrepreneurialism” by suggesting its global possibilities and dimensions: both the city and its people can take on the world.