Editor’s Note: Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) and Amelia Guimarin (@femhacktweets) round out the March-April theme on makers, hackers, and engineers with this post that shares three stories of hackers and makers in China. Their observations complicate the celebratory story of hacking/making, giving us a richly detailed look at some of the real challenges and triumphs in this very active space.
Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) is a postdoc at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine and at Fudan University Shanghai, and is the cofounder of Hacked Matter. She researches, writes and teaches about maker culture and its intersections with manufacturing in China. Drawing on her background in interaction design and media studies, she merges ethnographic methods with approaches in design and making. This allows her to provide deep insights into emerging cultures of technology production and use.
Amelia Guimarin (@femhacktweets) is a independent producer and researcher at UC Irvine. She has a background in anthropology and documentary filmmaking and focuses on issues of identity, labor and sustainability. She also runs femhack.com, a showcase of DIY strategies for females with a hacker attitude.
“Making” is envisioned as a new mode of engaging the world, empowering citizens to turn from passive consumers into active participants in economic processes, state affairs and technological innovation. It is heralded as the saviour of broken economies and educational systems, across developed and developing regions alike. This vision of the rising maker is a powerful one. Indeed, it has attracted significant corporate investment (from places like Intel), drawn the attention of governments (from Obama to China) and mobilized money and people across regions (enabled in part by the set-up of new hardware accelerators like HAXLR8R). Making gets people excited (again). It is the story of adventure and of conquering unfamiliar territory to reinvent how technological futures are made today — at its heart it is a vision of technological and social progress. Journalists, scholars, and makers alike have been busy telling this story, joining in on the promotion of making as the harbinger of an industrial revolution (Anderson 2012).
What has fallen through the cracks, however, are other stories of making that do not neatly fit the maker story of linear technological progress, of the Californian culture of cool and of embarking on a bold adventure. In this blog post, we focus on telling this other story of making — of those makers who are rarely thought of as makers and whose stories are less often told.
Earlier this month, we traveled to Shenzhen to attend China’s first featured Maker Faire. Both of us came to the Maker Faire predominantly as researchers, although with different vantage points. Silvia lives in China and has been conducting ethnographic research with China’s maker scene and its intersection with manufacturing since 2010. Amelia lives in California, where she has been working as a documentary filmmaker and researcher on the topic of hacking and education. We recently embarked on a collaborative project of producing a documentary film on China’s makers, with a particular focus on what is going in the Southern parts of China, where small scale maker entities are forging new connections with manufacturers.
There is both a power and responsibility that comes with holding paper, pen and camera – a topic that has received much attention in the discipline of anthropology. The ethnographer makes her fieldsite – she choses whose story to capture and how to tell it, co-constructing the sites she studies through the narrative that emerges from her work. It was in the evening of the last day of the maker faire, when it occurred to us that there was another maker story to be crafted here; it was the end of two exhilarating days filled with workshops, panels, and product showcases with presenters ranging all the way from small-scale start-ups to large corporations like Intel and Foxconn. We were about to head back to the hotel to drop off the equipment, when we paused. Something had changed. The streets that were filled, just hours before, with thousands of enthusiastic makers and visitors were empty, aside from a group of workers, who were in the midst of tearing down the large tents that had protected the booths of gadgeteers from the heavy rain of southern China. It was quiet, aside from the shouts of the workers who in a coordinated effort disassembled the tent. A few hours later – while the makers partied, drank, danced, talked, and celebrated their successful event – the tents were dismantled and loaded onto large by-standing trucks, with no sign left of a big event having ever taken place. A woman with a broom made out of twigs swept the street of the faire’s last remains.
It was in this moment that it became clear to us how much attention is paid to the making of the thing, while the work that goes into sustaining and enabling making the thing is rarely appreciated or lauded as equally cool and valuable. Who builds up and tears down (literally and metaphorically) the maker tent? Who performs the work of organizing maker faires and conferences, of raising money, of building important social connections to promote and engage makers and consumers? What other modes of making are there? What alternative models of collaboration and open-ness do we overlook?
This post will not be about the loudest, boldest and coolest projects at the Shenzhen Maker Faire. It will be about those who work more quietly, and perhaps with more sincerity, than their noisy counterparts on stage.
One of the keynote speakers at the Shenzhen Maker faire was Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired Magazine and now CEO of 3DRobobtics. In his talk, he introduced how making and open sharing can function as a lucrative business model:
This is really the main asset of the maker movement… it creates a community of enthusiastic people who share for free. Our company has hundreds of developers around the world, who we don’t have to pay or to hire, because we have created a place where they can feel part of something… how do we reward them? We teach them. How do we pay them? With a coffee mug. If they commit code, we give them a t-shirt. They love that, because it’s an official recognition of their contribution.
Open source, here, is a business model that rests on low-paid or even free labor. It reminds us of what Gina Neff (2012) observed emerge as “venture labor” during the dot com era, when people began to “think of their jobs as an investment or as having a future pay-off other than regular wages.” Similarly, here, Anderson bets on the fact that “hundreds of developers around the world” are offering their know-how and expertise in exchange for “feeling part of something.” However, in contemporary capitalist modes of production and consumption, it is cash that buys you goods and t-shirts do not equal paid labor. What added a certain ironic twist was the fact that Anderson was presenting on a stage in Shenzhen, one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs, typically thought of as a place of cheap labor and low-income wages and often put in stark contrast to the kind of creative work associated with Silicon Valley. While the wages of factory workers in Shenzhen are increasing, makers are called upon to work for free to help build the vision of a third industrial revolution. And similarly, while the low wages of factory workers are under continuous scrutiny, issues of venture labor are overlooked in the push to bring about the innovation economy.
However, if we turn away from the big stage and look elsewhere, we see other and perhaps more progressive business models built around open source. Take, for instance, DFRobot, an open source robotics company based out of Shanghai.
DFRobot began in 2007, when a group of Chinese engineers, distributed across China and Europe, met online and began working together on building an open source robot. Documenting the process online, they accumulated 20 people, each contributing a different set of skills and the financial means to eventually produce a robot for each of the contributors. When we visited the DFRobot offices, CEO Ricky Ye introduced us to Robot#10 “this is my buddy. this is number 10… each of us got a robot and each robot got its own number… ” Robot#10 embodies an open source business model that DFRobot has kept until today. It is based on the idea of partnership, where each contributing entity is considered and treated as equally valuable. DFRobot helps newcomers to robotics and smaller start-ups lift off the ground, providing them with the expertise in manufacturing, prototyping, and engineering. In turn, the start-ups build on DFRobot’s open hardware platforms, expanding the company’s repertoire. If they move into production and sales, the revenue is shared. As Ricky Ye puts is, “It’s more than t-shirts! We share the revenue.”
Twins separated at birth
In Shenzhen, one has the opportunity to look behind the stage of the Maker Faire and begin exploring the world’s largest machineries of industrial production powering our world of end consumer electronics. On our venture into these makings of another kind, we discovered a unique model of open source business that has flourished in the Southern region of China over the last years. There we met Lawrence Lin, the head of the Application Technology Unit (ATU) of WPI (World Peace Industrial Group), a Taiwanese electronics sourcing and distribution company located in Shenzhen. What Lawrence Lin and his team produce is what we might call China’s version of open source. His team’s main focus is to design development boards (gongban 公板 which translates into English as “public board” or “public good”) for end-consumer electronics and industry applications. Their clients are design solution houses and factories in Shenzhen, who make phones, tablets, smart watches, medical devices, and more. While the ATU team produces about 130 boards per year, it does not sell a single one of them, but gives them out to potential customers for free, alongside a list of components that went into making the boarrd as well as the design schematics. How does WPI make money? The company sells the components that go into the boards. It is, as such, in their interest to support as many companies as possible to come up with creative “skins” and “shells” for the boards.
Their customers, then, take a gongban of their liking as is or build on top of it. The boards are designed so that the same board can go into many different casings: e.g. one board can make 10 different smart watches or many differently designed mobile phones. The results are, for instance, custom-made phones designed for populations who can’t afford a smart phone, but nevertheless want to own a cool device. Take, for instance, the phone in gold depicted below (about 2.8 inch in height, 1 inch width and 0.3 inch depth) designed as we were told for the “lady boss,” or the red phone designed to look like cigarette pack of a famous Chinese cigarette brand, also a common gift for business partners in China.
You might think of the gongban that enabled these and other unique creations of consumer electronics as an advanced version of an open source hardware platform like the Arduino, bridging from prototyping into manufacturing. “We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explained Lawrence Lin to us.
Shanzhai is a term that has been around in China for more than 700 years and literally translates as mountain fortress or mountain stronghold and connotes a Robin Hood spirit; outlaws that have gone away into the mountains who do things based on their own rules. There is a some sense of criminality in shanzhai, just like Robin Hood is a little bit of an outlaw, but in the form of autonomy, independence and progressive survival techniques. Shanzhai was first used to refer to family-owned factories in Hong Kong that made all the knock-off goods people from all over the world came to buy – bags, watches, shoes, etc. With the rise of consumer electronics, the concept expanded to include off label versions of phones and tablets such as the copycat iPhone. Today, Shanzhai has taken on a meaning of its own and researchers have found it to be a Chinese grassroots innovation and creativity (Jefferey 2011). Some people argue that shanzhai is about stealing and copying and that it is really the opposite of innovation. But if you look beyond this image and into the kind of public domain/open source production at WPI, you see a progressive and vigorous open source business model applied to manufacturing.
David Li, the co-founder of China’s first hackerspace XinCheJian, talks about this form of open innovation through shanzhai and the western model of open source as twins that have been separated at birth. However, while there is much attention being paid to open hardware and maker cultures as conceptualized in the west, we know relatively little about its long lost twin coming of age in Shenzhen.
After the Shenzhen Maker Faire, we traveled to Shanghai, where we got to hang out with some of the members of the local maker scene. We had reached out to the mailing list of the Shanghai Hackerspace a couple of weeks in advance to set up interviews. One of the people, who responded right away was Amanda Ma, however not to volunteer herself to be interviewed, but to help us coordinate the rest of the hackerspace crew. “I am not really a maker yet,” was her initial response to our inquiry if we could include her into our interviews and film production.
At the hackerspace, however, it became clear how essential Amanda was to the space. Everyday, after she finishes her other day time job around 2-3pm, Amanda is at the hackerspace. She is the one who keeps things in order, makes sure the space is neat, packs things away when “the guys” leave tools laying around. She sorts out conflicts over how the space is used and reaches out to the wider member network to host workshops. She is also the one who answers questions by members or visitors, introduces the space to potential sponsors and promotes the hackerspace on Chinese social media platforms such as wechat and weibo.
“Hackerspace Mama” is what “the guys” call her. “I like it…I take care of the space and the people,” Amanda asserts. Earlier this year, there was a time, when fewer and fewer people came to the hackerspace and it was often times empty. It was Amanda, who brought people back into the space. In a nutshell, Amanda supports what the hackerspace is on a day to day basis – she holds it together. The work she does, however, is not necessarily what people commonly think of what counts towards making. And even Amanda herself shies away from being characterized a maker: “I hope I will be a real maker sometime soon.”
In addition to the work she does for the hackerspace, Amanda also hacks technology. During the interview, she showed us a recent project of hers. “I am hacking my own computer,” she told us pointing to the the open hardware platform Radxa she configured and glued to the back of a monitor (see Figure at top). To us Amanda is a maker, and perhaps in many ways more “real” than some of “the guys” who get the prime spot on stage.
The stories of Robot#10, twins separated at birth, and Hacker Mama are perhaps less straightforward than the clean-cut maker story of individual empowerment and self actualization. They remind us, however, of the importance to adjust the focus of our lens from the luring cool that speaks a more familiar language and onto the sincere and alternative visions and practices of making that happen backstage.
Anderson, C. 2012. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Crown Business Publisher.
Jefferey, L. 2011. Innovation spaces of the future: research notes on China’s shanzhai meeting the Makers. IFTF Blog.
Neff, G. 2012. Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries. MIT Press.