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The Promise of Making: Desiring Alternatives and Hacking Entrepreneurial Living in China

Silvia Lindtner

Since 2014, a series of Western media outlets from Wired UK over the Economist to Forbes have begun celebrate the city of Shenzhen in the South of China as a rising hub of innovation, a so-called “Hollywood for Makers” and “Silicon Valley of Hardware.” These media stories took up an idea that open source hardware advocates had been promoting for several years: that the city of Shenzhen had become crucial for the realization of one of the key promises of the maker movement, i.e. to prototype concrete alternatives to the pitfalls of the information society and contemporary capitalism. Just a couple years earlier, Shenzhen was largely known as a place of copycats and fakes that lacked creativity where ideas created elsewhere were simply executed and mass produced. What happened within the timespan of only a few years that changed Shenzhen’s image from demonstrating China’s continuous lag in technology innovation towards a place where alternatives to neoliberal capitalism could be prototyped? In this talk, I present excerpts from my forthcoming book “The Promise of Making” to unpack the historical contingencies of this transformation of Shenzhen, and with it China, in the global tech imaginary. Drawing from more than seven years of ethnographic research, I show how the displacement of technooptimistic onto Shenzhen unfolded through and alongside the emergence of “making” as a mode of intervention in the status-quo by hacking not only machines, but also markets and work itself. Shenzhen, I show, was rendered by open source hardware advocates, venture capitalists, avant-garde designers, Chinese politicians and state actors alike as a laboratory to prototype what I call “entrepreneurial living,” i.e. a naturalization of experimentation as a mode of “living on" amidst a pervasive economization of life. While making reformulated a key neoliberal logic of self-economization as a story of empowerment by promising to include ever more people in its call for self-transformation into human capital, Shenzhen came to be seen as the place to accomplish this upgrade of the self and to regain a sense of control amidst anxieties over economic and environmental crisis. Entrepreneurial living as an analytical frame moves beyond a theorization of making or hacking as a countercultural or grassroots movement that exists separate or independent from the systems it sets out to challenge, but points instead to the parasitic relations between contemporary maker cultures, China’s shifting relations in geopolitics and the global political economy.
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When and Where

Map Ross School of Business - R0220

September 2018

1:30pm - 3:00pm

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