We were incredibly pleased to have Silvia Lindtner, PhD speak at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on her incredible work in Chinese techno-social ethnography.
Lindtner researches, writes and teaches about the production and use of digital technology, with a particular focus on DIY (do it yourself) “maker” and open source culture and IT development in urban China.
Working at HAXLR8R, a hardware incubator and accelerator, Lindtner described her experiences in Shenzhen, China. Over the last six years, Lindtner conducted in-depth ethnographic research in China and worked as an on-site ethnographer, going to factories, electronic dept stores, and noting the growing group of startups that are emerging out of hackerspaces.
“DIY making is no longer a hobbyist movement,” Lindtner said, “but an emerging industry of tech innovation.”
Lindtner pointed to the importance of the emerging DIY culture shifting to a ‘Maker’ culture. Shenzhen itself is a concentrated map for makers, with a 15 block district as a hub for hackerspaces. One tech entrepreneur aptly noted: "Shenzhen is like living in a city-sized techshop.”
What Lindtner’s research found is that China is an 'authentic' maker culture, and it is pervasive across different socioeconomic classes. Not a strictly capitalist motivation, 'making do' becomes the reason for the 'maker’. Earnest DIY efforts lead to a means to make ends meet. There is also a strong ideology of individual empowerment.
“This is illustrative of a broader shift originating a DIY/hacker ethos to a 'Maker Approach', which is now being commercialized, and moving from prototype to product design."
The Chinese term 'Shanzhai’, meaning ‘copycat’, translated literally means 'mountain fortress', connotes a Robin Hood, hiding in a forest and taking from the rich. This concept aligns with China's counter-culture ethos: taking from the rich, big brands, and repurposing for collective use. These efforts stem from a milieu of small-scale production houses in China, catering to populations who can't afford expensive technology.
Two prime examples are built off Arduino, the open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software which allows an interface/bridge between the digital and physical world: Spark Core, a wifi-enabled development board for creating internet-connected hardware; and Seeeduino, Seeed Inc. Founder & CEO Eric Pan's 'Shanzhai’ version of an Arduino board, which bridges the gap between the manufacturing community and DIY. Instead of "made in China", the packaging of the hardware reads: "Innovate with China."
Hackerspaces, hardware incubators, and manufacturers work together; experiment with, and implement new models of mass production, end-consumer design and models of innovation.
"In the West, we would share the source code,” noted Lindtner, “In China, we see the hardware version of that concept."
Chinese ‘hackers’ aimed to brand themselves appropriately so as to benefit from the good graces of the Republic. Collectively, they chose to call themselves "Chuangke," meaning creative professional, versus "Heike," meaning illegal or black-hat hacker.
Additionally, hacker/makers renamed hackerspaces "innovation houses," and the government funded 100 of these workspaces in 2011. Since 2004, the Chinese Ministry of Culture, Liu Shifa, has pushed to move away from stigma of "Made in China" to a much more innovative, "Created in China."
“Liberal discourse of creating economy and building a creative society is a narrative with a strong political discourse,” Lindtner noted, “but not one that hackers are necessarily opposing.”