[Interview] Maker Culture in China – Hackerspace, Innovation and Labor

An Email Interview about Maker Culture in China – Hackerspace, Innovation and Labor

Interviewees: David Li, Silvia Lindtner
Interviewer: Dongwon Jo
Date: March 17 – 31, 2014
Publishing: 00 Document #3 (in Korean) in print.

Introduction

Dongwon: I am very glad to interview both of you. First of all, please introduce yourself and briefly your personal history to be a maker and/or researcher about it. What made you get interested and involved in  maker culture?

David: I am originally from Taiwan and went to the states to study computer science after high school. After spending a decade in internet industries in the US, I moved to Shanghai in 2003. With a group of people hanging out in then co-working space XinDanWei who share the same interests in building stuffs based on open source hardware and Arduino, we started XinCheJian, the first hackerspace in China in 2010. 

Silvia: I am currently a researcher at Fudan University and the University of California, Irvine, and will start as an assistant professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan in the fall 2014. I first came to China in 2007 at the end of my first year in graduate school for a research project on online gaming in China. It was a fascinating  project, where we set out to explore “internet use,” and much of what we found was about “hacking”: passionate young gamers writing software code and setting up their own game servers. It was then when I decided that I wanted to come back to China for my dissertation research and started learning Chinese. After language programs over the subsequent summers I returned in 2010 for my dissertation research. My goal was to research more specifically, where in China technology production and design was happening, in particular outside large corporations. And so I came across an eclectic group of artists, designers, entrepreneurs and bloggers, who had gathered around the coworking space Xindanwei in Shanghai. During my research with them, a sub-community formed around David Li, Min Lin Hsieh and Ricky Ng-Adam, who were particularly interested in maker culture, DIY and open hardware. What began as a series of discussions at the coworking spaces, informal dinner conversations, and presentations, evolved after only several weeks into China’s first hackerspace: XinCheJian 新车间 (lit. new workshop or new factory) as a room in the coworking space. I have since worked with China’s expanding maker scene, studying its birth and proliferation all the way to intersections with manufacturing and mass production in Shenzhen, Guangdong. Many of the  makers have become close collaborators, David Li in particular – we collaborate on research, conference organization, workshops, and writing. With a background in design from college, making questions of design, materiality and production central to my ethnographic research was always of interest to me – and so studying China’s emerging maker culture was the perfect opportunity to explore intersections between anthropology and design.

Dongwon: Can you talk a little bit more about XinCheJian(新车间) in Shanghai as the first hackerspace in China? I am curious about how co-founders and members met for the first time and decided to establish it, with what kind of difficulties and issues. Particularly as a physical place, there may be a number of issues in relation to its location, naming, visitors, neighbors, rental fee, maintenance, etcs..

David: Three year in XinCheJian, we have met a lot of interesting people. Being in Shanghai and the first hackerspace in China.
Xinchejian is membership base hackerspace. We charge RMB 100 a month for the membership. Currently, we have about 200 active members. The member profiles are pretty diverse including engineers, programmers, designers and artists.
One of the most memorable members for me is Ziyun Peng. Her story has been profiled in WSJ: “In China, Lessons of a ‘Hackerspace’ – Do-it-yourself hubs are giving a boost to tinkerers and inventors” (By Emily Parker, Oct. 4, 2013).

Silvia: See my comments above. and for more details on the birth and history of XinCheJian, i refer you to my prior publications:

  • Lindtner, Silvia. 2012. Cultivating Creative China: Making and Remaking Cities, Citizens, Work, and Innovation. Phd Diss., University of California, Irvine.

  • Lindtner, Silvia. 2014. Hackerspaces and IoT in China: How China’s DIY Makers remake Industrial Production, Innovation & the Self, Journal of China Information, Special Issue on “Political Contestation in Chinese Digital Spaces” (ed. Guobin Yang).

Dongwon: Can you provide us with some general information about hackerspaces in China? How many, where, when, and who … etc.

Silvia: Hackerspaces have been on the rise in China, there is roughly about 20-25 maker /hacker – type spaces in china today. this includes maker spaces, hackerspaces, libraries that set up maker labs for education, children’s makerspaces funded by the Chinese government as so called innovation houses. This development is in line with the global hackerspace movement with more than 1000 spaces worldwide (List of Hacker Spaces at hackerspaces.org), there is many different manifestations embedded in particular cultural, economic and social contexts. Hackerspaces in China attract a diverse crowd: from young college students from China over people who return to China after years of studying or working abroad to expatriates who live and work in China. They tend to be an eclectic group of people spanning disciplines and fields such as engineering, design, arts, software development, writing, research, and many more.

Dongwon: A typical hackerspace is equipped with laser cutters, 3-D printers, microcontroller kits, and so on. I am curious of any unique means of making or particular products created in XinCheJian (新车间) in addition to those? Furthermore, is there any special facilities, equipments, or artifacts we see only in hackerspaces in China?

David: We have most of the typical machines for hackerspace: 3D printer, laser cutter, drill beds and etc. As XinCheJian is more about the fun of making then making of products, we have more installation projects then products.
Because it’s still easy accessing to equipment in the neighborhood shops, it’s the short of equipments in the hackerspace that marks the characteristics of makerspaces in China. 

Silvia: China’s hackerspaces are in a unique position: they are interfacing with a history and culture of making, making do, DIY and repair. Think of the many repair workshops in China’s markets and on its streets, of the electronic malls filled with components from the smallest to the largest imaginable size, and finally think of China’s vast manufacturing ecosystem. This is making at scale at people’s fingertips. Consequently, China and in particular the South of China, Shenzhen, has also emerged as a new hub in hardware innovation, attracting maker-type start-ups that come out of hackerspaces to produce their products as well as hardware incubators such as HAXLR8R and Highway1 that fund these start-ups. So while the equipment in China’s hackerspacs is in many ways similar to hackerspaces elsewhere, hackerspace members have also access to machines and tools of mass production.

History

Dongwon: I believe that one of traditions on which hackerspace and maker culture has been based is free, libre and open source software (FLOSS) movements in particular and hacker culture in general. Can you briefly teach us about how they have emerged and developed in China?

David: The open source software movement predate the Maker movement. After two decades, open source software has established itself as a worthy ecosystem that supported the Internet industries. Hardware in the embedded industries have always been kind of open source with components vendors publishing the reference boards but only when Arduino appeared to lower the barrier of entry to anyone with a EE degree, open source hardware starts to take off.
Most of the founders and core members of XinCheJian are expats living in Shanghai and have long experience with open source software. It was easy to attract us to open source hardware.
Open source software has shorter history in China starting around 2000 right after the opening up of Internet.

Silvia: In many ways china’s maker scene is rooted in earlier efforts in open source software but also movements and collectives that formed around ideas of internet freedom, open sharing, creativity, and social entrepreneurialism. When I began working with people in and around XIndanwei in 2010, i quickly learned that i had become of a collective of people who had known each other for many years and who considered themselves part of a like-minded group despite or perhaps even exactly because of their diverse interest. what they  had in common was that they interfaced with like-minded people who were active also outside of China, e.g people working at creative commons, journalists and bloggers, people in creative industry, etc. I’d say while FLOSS was definitely an interest for some of the people who are members of China’s maker scene today, this is not true for all of them. Rather, what brings many of them together is their interest in themes such as open-ness, creativity and individual freedom more broadly, with a particular focus on how these values could impact business development and entrepreneurialism in China.

Dongwon: In addition to a brief history of Chinese FLOSS movements and hacker culture, what have constituted the contemporary maker culture in China? Does it make sense that Shanzhai (山寨) is a sort of traditional maker culture? If it has influenced on the cultures of hackerspaces, in what ways?

David: Shanzhai can be said to be open source hardware with Chinese characteristics. The kind of collaborative and open innovation system have appeared in the early developing stage of all countries but in the name of “progress,” the more autonomous system didn’t get a chance to develop.
The Shanzhai has not influent the development of hackerspace and but the sharing nature of both have developed them to become very similar.

Silvia: Shanzhai is an informal and highly distributed network of factories, vendors, design solution houses, component builders, etc. They have gained strength and significant market shares in certain domains due to their highly agile manufacturing spirit. Within this social network culture, innovation is happening fast based on an open source spirit that is in many ways compatible to contemporary’s maker and open hardware movements. While maker culture on a global scale is motivated by certain countercultural ideals, shanzhai culture emerged out of an entrepreneurial spirit and innovation out of necessity. As more and more makers are turning their creative ideas into hardware products, enabled by crowd funding, many come to China and interface with shanzhai culture to mass produce their product ideas.

Cultural economy

Dongwon: It was announced that the Shanghai government might have built 100 hackerspace-like Chuangxin Wu (创新屋, innovation houses) supported by government funding (Lindtner, S., and D. Li. 2012. “Created in China: The Makings of China’s Hackerspace Community.” Interactions 19(6): 18). Did that mean hackerspaces could be established or financially managed by the local/central government? Are there any hackerspace established in that way now? Is XinCheJian (新车间) supported by the Shanghai government?

David: XinCheJian doesn’t receive support from Shanghai Government and is completely supported by its members via membership fee and workshop revenue. The Innovation House initiative is to build 100 community hackerspaces is a good initiative but they also have their own issues to resolve. We have been in conversation with Innovation House.

Silvia: What we were citing in our article, was the announcement of the Shanghai government to build 100 innovation houses. Some of these spaces have been built in the  meantime like a hackerspace for children in a northern district of Shanghai, teaching children and youth how to make things. Government funding also spreads into universities and libraries who have  begun set up maker labs in China. So in this sense you could say that maker-type efforts are supported by the government through funding and staff. XinCheJian is not directly supported by the government. It is an independent space, self-sustaining through membership fees. Some of its members do have connections do governments.

Dongwon: Please summarize debates or discussions about governmental funding and the top-down ways of hackerspace building and managing. What is the current situation there?

David: There are some government attempt to fund hackerspace: DoD in the US to fund hackerspace in high school, Shanghai government’s effort to support innovation house. I think the government recognize the potential of hackerspaces but will take time to figure out how to engage.

Silvia: There is debate in the maker scene on a global level about institutional or corporate funding. For instance, when Make magazine announced that they accepted funding from the military agency DARPA to support educational programs in US middle schools, there was much controversy around the topic – until today. While some believe that hackerspaces should be independent from  any type of institutional affiliations, others believe that the maker movement can be accelerated by makers establishing partnerships with big players. What we have seen over time is certainly a tendency of maker culture scaling up, and an increasing number of spaces accepting funding, partnering with institutions, as well as individual turning tinkering and prototype ideas into new business. I have called this elsewhere as a move from hacking to making: Lindtner, Silvia, Hertz, Garnet, and Dourish, Paul. 2014. Emerging Sites of HCI Innovation: Hackerspaces, Hardware Start-ups & Incubators, Prof. of ACM Conference Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI’14 (Toronto, Canada).

Dongwon: The top-down ways of innovation-related initiatives as such have mostly been driven in the name of knowledge economy or creative industries secured by the so-called intellectual property rights (IPR). Can the economy of Chuangxin Wu (创新屋, innovation houses) be compatible with the culture of hacking/making, and in what ways? How has the exclusive IPR, in other words, managed to co-exist the ethos of open source sharing or the free and open exchange of information and knowledge on which the hackerspaces in China may also be based?

David: We try to engage the IPR debate in term of “Open Innovation.” Eric von Hipple of MIT has done great job laying out why open innovation is the future. 

Silvia: This is a complicated issue, and something that warrants a more in-depth tackling than possible here. as governments around the world, venture capitalists and corporations have taken notice and begun invest in maker initiatives or spaces, the more interesting question to further explore is how this will impact the nature of hacking, making and DIY.  is making still DIY when focused on  mass production and end-consumer products? open source and IP has co-existed for a long time and will probably continue to do so. think about linux and other open source productions that have been merged into the software tools and PCs we use today. hardly any of our tools is void of impact of the earlier open source software community. again, the question is does this mean that open source is selling out when merged into commerce and into the “system,” or do we simple need another language to talk about open source projects that are clearly neither just counterculture nor just pro system.

Technical politics

Dongwon: When hackerspace rather than makerspace, fablab, etc. is used for naming, or branding if you like, your site for activities of (re)making, it seems to explicitly suggest both positive and negative connotation, since hacking, in a word, involves creation and destruction. Indeed, hacker culture is both interesting and important not only because it has created something new and flourished innovative developments as demonstrated by FLOSS movements, but also because it has had a capacity to disrupt or deconstruct established entities in the ways of by cracking, piracy or shanzhai (山寨), trolls, darknet and so on. Please tell me your opinions briefly about its ambivalent aspect, that is technical politics of hacker culture, and about how it has been transformed and turned out in the Chinese context.

David: The maker culture is about education people that it’s possible to build things ourselves. The availability of open knowledge (open source software, hardware) and access to the tools of productions (3D printers, laser cutter) have ignite people’s interest and imagination again in building stuffs.
Based on open innovation model, the Maker Movement is compatible with Shanzhai. Shanzhai was emerged from the necessity while Maker Movement came from philosophical reflection of our relationship to the goods and products.

Silvia: There is a broader move from hacking to making as i elaborate in more depth here: Lindtner et al. 2014. In china, when hackerspaces began spread and the first international maker events took place in 2012, China’s community of makers settled on the chinese term chuangke 创客 which literally translates into creative professional. the goal was to distinguish from terms such heike 黑客 used to connote the illegal forms of hacking.

Dongwon: If the hacker or hacking is perceived as both way in China as well, how do you embrace such ambivalence and dynamics in your activities? If Shanzhai (山寨) is a culture of that kind in China, how have you re-appropriated it to integrate into the scene of maker culture? In doing so, ain’t there any conflicts resulting from transgression of legally, technically, and culturally established boundaries?

David: Originated from different background but Shanzhai and Maker movement share and embrace open innovation model in their cores. There would be no need to re-appropriation needed to integration them.

Silvia: I am not sure I understand this question fully “ if the hacker or hacking is perceived as both way in china as well?” there is certainly ambivalences between those who follow more of a maker and those who follow a hacker approach – but these are mostly of ideological nature so far. for sure, as many makers are striving towards building a new industry, technical and legal questions will become more center stage. so far maker and shanzhai culture are very much aligned, both favoring an open innovation model.

Labor of worker and maker

Dongwon: It seems like that in China and beyond are there at least two young creators such as worker and maker in two factories: “new factory” represented by the hackerspace such as XinCheJian (新车间, meaning new workshop, or new factory); and (old) factory like the Foxconn’s where IT gadgets are manufactured. It also seems that both worker and maker can be connected in terms of IT-related labor for low-cost manufacturing/innovation from the perspective of the above-mentioned governmental initiatives.
Do you have any discursive and/or practical challenges not only to what innovation means in China (Lindtner & Li 2012) but also to what labor means in China and in the changing context of international and mental/manual division of labor? For example, forms of Labor of makers in the hackerspaces might contribute to remake the forms of labor that are fragmented and isolated in the (old) factory system especially in terms of the relationship between human and machine. To the contrary, makers might end up as another isolated form of labor, as the knowledge/innovative production has been also outsourced or crowdsourced to the civic sector in the name of citizen/user innovation or maker culture, which just costs less.

David: This is a subject worthy a longer discussion. The Maker Movement has re-ignite the interests in the making, building, and manufacturing. People around the world going to makerspace, paying membership to learn about using the production tools while the factories in Shenzhen now having problems recruiting new workers to do the same jobs. The maker movement is currently too small to make meaningful impact in the labor situation.

Silvia: This is an important topic that warrants more engagement. what has been largely overlooked in the hyped and overly euphoric tone that pervades much of the news and practices of making are questions of labor. many of the hardware start-ups that have come out of hackerspaces and maker type labs that i have encountered in my research work very very hard and are told by investors and creative industry/new economy scholars alike that taking risks and bootstrapping is the way to success. as starting-up a business rather than going to college is heralded as the new career path, start-ups might well be on track to become today’s workers. at the same, many makers share a fairly privileged background, either higher education, job security or family related. this is different from the workers on the factory floor, many of which still often make a bare minimum. Wages are supposedly increasing in China – one of the reasons why larger corporations turn towards other low-income markets. it is here where makers and manufacturers come together in envisioning an alternative future: manufacturing as a site of creative work and high skill labor. it yes to be seen if the maker movement indeed can have an impact on the labor market.

Dongwon: Is there, in that sense, any event, workshop, or learning program in the hackerspaces in China to connect makers with workers or to deal with labor issues there?

David: Not yet but we have seen some labors flow from large factories to open source hardware companies. For the same work, working for an open source hardware companies are much more fulfilling then in old system. There are more freedom and more learning.

Silvia: A great example here is Seeed Studio, a design and manufacturing house in Shenzhen that offers products and services to makers around the world. Seeed Studio has implemented an agile manufacturing process that not only helps maker types start-ups to innovate and move fast from idea to 1000+ batch production, but that also incorporates workers in the design and development process. Seeed could be a great model for more efforts in this space and an example of change in practice.

A makers’ Inquiry

Dongwon: When it comes to research on these creative (sub/infra)cultures, have you also developed any creative and critical research method(s)?

David: We are forming Hacked Matter as a research hub based in Shanghai to explore how to better bring the stakeholders of different systems to the table via an informal network of common interest.

Silvia: Together with David Li and Professor Anna Greenspan, I have set up a research hub based out of Shanghai that merges design methods, ethnography and theory. WE conduct hands-on workshops, public panel discussions, small to large-scale conferences, bringing together makers, scholars and industry partners. This interdisciplinary intersection allows not only for experimenting with new research methods (a study “with” people rather than solely “about” people for instance). Personally, with a background in design, I have merged in my own research design methods with ethnographic research. This means i conduct participant observations and interviews, but i also participate in the making of things, design processes, negotiations on the factory floor, the organization of maker related events, and co-authorship. more here: www.hackedmatter.com and here: www.silvialindtner.com

 

- – -

David Li is one of the founders of the hackerspace XinCheJian. He has worked in the areas of social networks, mobile systems, and virtual worlds. He received a B.S. in computer science from the University of Southern California.

Silvia Lindtner is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine and at the Cooperative Information and Systems Laboratory at Fudan University, Shanghai. Her research explores the relationship between DIY creativity, global maker culture, and contemporary political, social, and economic transformations in China.

Dongwon Jo is a founding member of the Chung-gaegguri Make center (fabcoop.org) in Seoul and a postdoctoral visiting Researcher at IT Convergence Policy Research Institute in the Seoul National University of Science & Technology. His research interests include cultural studies and political economy of information technology and user.

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