Through the Looking Glass

Originally Posted: November 20, 2011.

I wanted to begin thinking about science and technology in Asia by exploring how technology constitutes the relationship East and West in the twenty-first century. I want to do this by reflecting on the story, reported in many places, about the suicides amongst factory workers building iPhones in China. One reflective account can be found in Wired:

What strikes me as interesting about this is not so much the moral issues raised by the suicides themselves (although these are indeed significant), but rather how this provides a rare glimpse of a whole technological infrastructure that is hidden from the Western gaze. In China, we have whole cities (many of which most Westerners have never heard of), vast arrays of factories, and millions of workers devoted to building new technologies. What the Western consumer sees is the finished product – iPhone neatly packaged in a box. When we think of technology, this is the sort of thing we think of.

But the iPhone (and the vast array of other consumer electronic technologies we now have available) requires another kind of technological development too – these vast technological systems of human engineering, manufacturing, and distribution that have arisen in Asia. So, one way to understand or to talk about technology in Asia might be to begin by thinking about it as a kind of ‘flipside’ or ‘underside’ of the technology that we see and use in the West. On the other side of the looking glass, 21st century technology appears very different.

This ‘flipside’ is constitutive of the relationship between technology, society, and state in Asia. While understanding technology in the US or Europe means understanding, for instance, new modes of communication and sociality (SMS, Twitter, Facebook), understanding the role of technology in Asia may mean exploring very different sorts of problems (urbanization, conditions of labor). This calls for studying technology in a very different mode – not just seeing whether trends or ideas or technologies have ‘spread’ to Asia, but realizing the fundamentally different relationship to technology in Asia that this ‘flipside’ entails.

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