IT and the cITy

Nishant Shah tells ten stories of relationship between Internet Technologies and the City, drawing from his experiences of seven months in Shanghai. In this introduction to the city, he charts out first experiences of the physical spaces of Shanghai and how they reflect the IT ambitions and imaginations of the city. He takes us through the dizzying spaces of Shanghai to see how the architecture and the buildings of the city do not only house the ICT infrastructure but also embody it in their unfolding. In drawing the seductive nature of embodied technology in the physical experience of Shanghai, he also points out why certain questions about the rise of internet technologies and the reconfiguration of the Shanghai-Pudong area have never been asked. In this first post, he explains his methdologies that inform the framework which will produce the ten stories of technology and Shanghai, and how this new IT City, delivers its promise of invisibility.

Shanghai. City of bits, bytes and Baozi. China’s home-grown success story that eclipses the colonial legends of HongKong. The city that was, until the Bejing Olympics, the showcase city which is now working hard at recovering some of its stolen glory as it prepares for the World Trade Expo in 2010. A city that is constantly at war with itself, trying to museumise its past, eradicate pockets of history and times, and running to escape its present and live in a futuristic tomorrow. A city that broke the distinctions of the public and the private, by privatising all that was public, and by encouraging the private to be constructed for a public spectacle. There are many stories of Shanghai to be told, but the one that needs to be told now, is about the space of the city and how, in its attempt to become an IT city, it has become a city of surfaces, all reminding you, in an overwhelming hypervisual way that is the predominant aesthetic of cyberspaces, that it is the city that not only houses technology but also embodies it, becoming, possibly, the only city in Asia that brings the IT back into the City.

Aerial view

 

 

A cursory glance around you, perhaps travelling in the uber efficient metro system that feeds into the mobile metaphor of accelerated speed and space that Shanghai has become, or just walking down the more touristy XinTianDi where the rich and the famous of Shanghai’s society hang out, or walking down the HuaiHai Road where sky-scrapers fortress the sky and shopping malls greet you with neon-lit spaces of consumption, you are overwhelmed at the significant and ubiquitous presence of internet technologies. The buildings are designed to be interfaces, rather than walls, covered constantly with the graffiti of digital advertisements, live weather and stock updates, displaying the latest block-buster movie, or just presenting a kaleidoscopic array of lights spiralling in a dizzying, schizophrenic style on the surfaces of the buildings. As you walk through the sci-fi inspired urban landscape, you try and suppress the feeling of being inside a giant-size arcade game, waiting for a gobbling monster to come and devour you, and continue browsing at the city that never remains the same – either the surfaces mutate so that not even signboards or billboards remain the same, or the very buildings disappear into rubble under the shadows of gigantic cranes, as a concentrated demand for real estate necessitates a constant recycling of limited space (The estimate says that 60 per cent of Shanghai gets rebuilt every ten years), or high speed transport dissolves the city into a blur so that only the biggest and the brightest buildings stay as north-stars to the fluid geography of the city.

If you happen to stand on the magnificent Bund in PuXi (The older Shanghai), you keep on looking down at the ground beneath your feet, making sure that it is still there, because the slightly lurid but dazzling sky-line that faces you, with huge LCD screens mounted on buildings, lights flirting with low lying clouds on the top of gigantic buildings, and a constant buzz of electricity breaking the waves in the Huangpu river, you know that you are in a city that gives IT its address. No other city in Asia – not even the almost-not-Asia spaces of Tokyo or Singapore – gives you the assurance of being completely and totally immersed in the glory of Internet technologies. Shanghai stands, networked, connected, mobile, accelerated, and in a time-less vacuum that hoovers the future into the present, as a city that technology studies will have to reckon with in a paradigm of its own.

Shanghai Bund

And so strong is this seduction of technology that conversations about technology and its place in Shanghai, always revolves around the surface – about the building of the surface, about the dissolution of depth (temporal or spatial),  and about imagining the city only in terms of light, connectivity, and speed.  So that the historicity in PuXi becomes a flat display of the Chinese Way (Zhongguo Fangshi) and the work-in-progress present in PuDong remains a quest for the future. In this split discourse, the questions and concerns  - about governance, about citizenship, about regulation, about cultural production and political negotiation - become invisible. Like the buildings, which get guised in digital cloaks, the questions that pressingly need to be asked but are always postponed, also get cloaked in the rhetoric of development propelled by ICTs and globalisation. In a city that was constructed to eternally deflect attention, ownership or voices, how does one begin to scratch at the surfaces (Literally and figuratively) to search for something more than narratives of consumption, solipsist self-gratification, and self-congratulatory development?

It is with this agenda, in this city, torn and marked and seamlessly stitched by technology, that I start to unravel my questions about Internet and Society in China, trying to look at relationships between technologies, city spaces and identities, drawing from seven months spent at the Centre for Contemporary Studies at the Shanghai University. These stories, written with retrospective memory and embellished by the privilege of hindsight, posit a set of questions about Internet technologies, construction of city spaces, and manifestation of identities in China, but especially in Shanghai, to locate potentials of social transformation, political participation, engagement and discourse, which has not been transplanted on technology studies in China. In the process it also lays down a framework to understand how, in an oppressive or authoritarian regime, the cultural becomes the grounds upon which foundations of new political intervention and social change can be built.

This blog, in its ten different entries, relies on academic and popular discourse, semi-structured interviews, participant observation, field work, conversations, and personal experiences that I collected in my stay there, trying to deal with the double translations of culture and language. Whenever I have been unsure – and those moments have been many – I have tried to discuss and debate ideas with colleagues, friends, peers and participants, to ensure that the observations or arguments are qualified by more than just a neo-colonial meaning making sensibilities.  Despite that rigour, if faults remain, they are all mine, and hopefully will serve as points of entry into a fruitful discourse.

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Author

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.