Book Review: Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (2020) ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Xiaowei Wang’s book, Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, presents a nuanced and detailed account of the lives reality of many people in China through the lenses of history, culture, and emerging technologies. She makes clear through her writing that China is undergoing a massive shift through efforts to digitize the economy and society (and especially rural economies and societies) while also effectively communicating why so many of these initiatives are being undertaken. 

From exploring the relationship between a fraught cold chain and organic chicken, to attempts to revitalize rural villages by turning them into platform manufacturing towns, to thinking through and reflecting on the state of contemporary capitalistic performativity in rural China and the USA alike, we see how technologies are being used to try and ‘solve’ challenges while often simultaneously undermining and endangering the societies within which they are embedded. Wang is careful to ensure that a reader leaves with an understanding of the positive attributes of how technologies are applied while, at the same time, making clear how they do not remedy—and, in fact, often reify or extenuate—unequal power relationships. Indeed, many of the positive elements of technologies, from the perspective of empowering rural citizens or improving their earning powers, are either being negatively impacted by larger capitalistic actors or the technology companies whose platforms many of these so-called improvements operate upon. 

Wang’s book, in its conclusion, recognizes that we need to enhance and improve upon the cultural spaces we operate and live within if we are to create a new or reformed politics that is more responsive to the specific needs of individuals and their communities. Put differently, we must tend to the dynamism of the Lifeworld if we are to modify the conditions of the System that surrounds, and unrelentingly colonizes, the Lifeworld. 

Her wistful ending—that such efforts of (re)generation are all that we can do—speaks both to a hope but also an almost resignation that (re)forming the systems we operate in can only take place if we manage to avoid being distracted by the bauble or technology that is dangled in front of us, to distract us from the existential crises facing our societies and humanity writ large. As such, it concludes very much in the spirit of our times: with hope for the future but a fearful resignation that despite our best efforts, we may be too late to succeed. But, what else can we do?