Breaks and Ruptures: In the midst of IT

Posted by Nishant Shah at Dec 19, 2009 10:12 AM |
In this first story, Nishant looks at the ways in which internet technologies shape multiple imaginations. In the narration of the story, the contextualisation and the responses that the story-tellers make apparent, he located the internet in the midst of contestation, as it restructures social boundaries, traditions and communities. The story of an 'internet wedding' that stands as an iconic landmark for different generations, looking upon the Internet as a radical catalyst for change, lays out the first foundations for the framework of transformation and invisibility this project has embarked upon.

Breaks and Ruptures: IT and its discontents

In Shanghai, conversations of technology, eventually become conversations about younger users of technology who are looked upon the legitimate users of these technologised spaces, and more conversant with the quickly changing trends and fashions on the internet. As the country invests heavily into ICT development, promotes the making of Shanghai as the global hub of ICT industries and economies, and encourages younger users to extensively use digital technologies in their life, the digital generation gap has never been more visible than in the crowded, buzzing, video-game-like streets of Shanghai.

These Xiao Huangli (Little emperors), who have already been heralded as brats because of China’s one-child policy and the  growing up in the liberalised China, are an object of great anxiety and concern for an older generation who doesn’t seem to understand them. Sometimes called The Strawberry Generation (CaoMei Zu), this population of young adults is looked at with derision or wonder – Wonder because of their soft and pink strawberry like appearances which reflect their new ethos and lifestyle expectations, and derision because they are ‘soft’, indulging only in acts of self-gratification which seem pointless, selfish, or sometimes foolish. Stories trickle out from old retired army men who sit in the few public parks playing Mahjong, or the women in the gardens, dancing with their fans and practicing Tai-Chi to keep their spirits in balance, or from the middle-aged men and women who grew up in the time of the revolution, who talk about how their children/grand-children/nieces-and-nephews all seem to occupy a world that is alien, disrupting the harmony of the established Chinese life.

In the Special Economy Zones in Shanghai – What is popularly called the Free Trading Zone – scores of immigrants who have shifted to the new city from rural parts of China, recreate, with nostalgia, the past where children were trained to be responsible and connected to their environments. In these economy zones, where the designer brands have exploded on every street and consumption is the only re-creation, hard working parents who dote on their only child, shake their heads in despair about the way the new generations lead their lives – “they work, they spend and when they run out of money, they borrow from their parents to sustain a life devoted entirely to enjoyment” said one of my subjects – mother to a seventeen year old teenage daughter, who works along with her school and earns enough pocket money to indulge her desires. “There is no saving. There is no worry about the future. And there is no care for the family” her friend, another mother to a twenty year old boy agrees.

In our conversations, they tell me a story which I must narrate to you. For the Chinese families, I have been told, the biggest occasion of celebration is a wedding. Conducted with great gusto, it involves a lot of people, noise, drinking, laughing, dancing, fireworks and grand lavish parties. Especially in Shanghai, weddings are incredibly rich and occasions for the involved families to show their affluence, status, wealth and success to the rest of the communities. Like in India, people in China rarely have marriages – what they have are big elaborate weddings which are almost vertiginous in their opulence. But with technology, and the changing times, especially with the yintewang (one of the many words Mandarin has for Internet), there are young people who are doing strange things.

The story is a few years old, but in the minds of both these women, it is illustrative of how times have changed and the Chinese family, caught in these Hard Times, is on the rocks. The story is quite brief – a young man and a young woman, were wangyou (Internet friends) and had met on a site devoted to a particular automotive brand. Their friendship quickly blossomed into love and they decided to get married. However, instead of having a wedding which their families participated in, they put out an open invitation to strangers on the internet to come and attend the wedding – the caveat? That only those who owned the particular brand of car over which the happy couple fell in love were invited. And thus a Car-Wedding came into being. About a month after the announcement, when the bride and the groom proceeded to the venue of the party, they were at the head of a procession of 97 cars, each one exactly like the other. The parking lot was eventually filled with owners of the cars who had come, bearing gifts and smiles, to attend the wedding of strangers who they never met, but knew because they had the same interest in cars.

For the two women narrating the story to me, this was obviously a symptom of breaking families, traditions and social structures with the introduction of the internet in their lives. Interestingly, not long after I had heard the story from them, I also stumbled across it in my conversations with a younger set of people, largely in high school, and ranging from ages 15 – 19. For them, the story was a fascinating account of how this is a symptom of a break from families, communities, traditions and social structures. It was interesting to me, how they said almost the same things but their tone was more of celebration and joy, optimism and hope rather than the despair and shock that had been expressed by the two women. This dichotomous approach to the internet in Shanghai, for me, becomes symptomatic of the tensions, the imaginations and the problematic that the emergence of Internet technologies and their potentials for subverting the erstwhile dominant is producing.

I am going to leave this first story here for the time being.  Let us think of this as the foundation of the larger framework that I want to build for you. However, we will come back to that once I have told the other two stories about youth, technology, and the changing shape of Shanghai.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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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.