Informatics Seminar Series
Winter Quarter 2023

Friday, February 24, 2023

“Data Engines: The Allure of Automating China’s Soil and Soul”

Seminar Postposed

Silvia Lindtner
Associate Professor of Information Director of the Center for Ethics, Society and Computing (ESC)
University of Michigan

In this talk, I will draw from ethnographic research I have conducted over the last 14 months across two sites in China: 1) small-scale businesses that center on alternative food and spiritual practices via life in nature and the countryside and 2) large-scale, data-driven agricultural experiments at the outskirts of major urban centers. I will discuss how these two sites interact for the implementation of two recent state policies on “rural revitalization” and “national strengthening.” These policies are aimed at reinvesting into China’s “hinterlands:” from rural farmland to people’s most inner selves. They position data-driven techniques of automation, surveillance technology, and smart systems as key to the state’s ability to manage life that has partially escaped the state’s reach. And they call upon young professionals who have turned away from the city to live and work in China’s countryside to co-produce what I call “data engines,” i.e. a participatory form of techno-governance driven by an engineering mindset that aims to cultivate citizens as productive selves who operate on behalf of the party state and its ambition to build a “strong China” by turning inwards—China’s history, soil, and agriculture. Data engines, I show, simultaneously enable, and slow down the automation of China’s soil and soul.

Silvia Margot Lindtner (she/her) is Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Information and Director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC). Lindtner's research focuses on the cultures and politics of technology innovation, including the labor necessary to incubate entrepreneurial life and data-driven futures. Drawing from over a decade of multi-sited ethnographic research, she writes about China's shifting position in the global political economy of computing, supply chains, industrial and agricultural production, and science and technology policy. She is the author of the award-winning book Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation (Princeton University Press, 2020), and co-author of the multigraph Technoprecarious (Goldsmiths/MIT Press 2020). Lindtner is a Visiting Associate Professor at NYU Shanghai, a CUSP (China-US Scholars Program) Fellow, and a fellow in the National Committee on United States-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program. Her research has been awarded support from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), IIE (the Institute of International Education), IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services), Intel Labs, Google Anita Borg, and the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation. Her work has appeared at ST&HV (Science, Technology, and Human Values), ESTS (Engaging Science, Technology and Society), SocialText, Women’s Studies Quarterly, China Information, ToCHI, ACM SIGCHI (Human-Computer Interaction), and has been covered by the Economist, New York Magazine, NPR, The Atlantic, Wired, the MIT Technology Review, and more.

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