I had the uncanny sense of reading science fiction when I began Blockchain Chicken Farm—technically a work of nonfiction, thoroughly researched and intricately pieced together. On the surface, it’s a mind-boggling survey of how technology is shaping and creating economies across China, particularly in its countryside. Or as author Xiaowei Wang writes, inverting that influencer-influencee trope: “Rather than seeing the way technology has shifted or produced new livelihoods in rural China, I have been humbled to see the ways rural China fuels the technology we use every day, around the world.”
In the book’s loose travelogue framework, we find ourselves in unexpected places. There’s Dinglou village, which has improbably transformed itself into a global costume manufacturing hub, with family homes doubling as fulfillment centers. In the namesake “blockchain chicken farm,” located in the mountainous village of Sanqiao, we’re introduced to a supply chain that provides for affluent urbanites, who view online videos to verify the authenticity of their free-range poultry. There’s even the virtual space of Facebook Live pearl parties, where prepaid oysters from the “pearl city” of Zhuji are pried open to reveal their treasures—a more surreal, celebratory version of YouTube unboxing videos. If Blockchain reads like sci-fi, that’s because, in overlooked parts of the world, the future is already here. I can’t think of any other recent work that comes close to capturing the alternate reality that is China today.
As our narrator, Wang is generous with hyperspecific details, while periodically zooming out to give us the fuller picture. They are a writer, artist, and programmer, as well as the creative director of Logic magazine. Recently I spoke with them over email about their travels, the concept of shanzhai, Chinese dishes, skincare gadgetry, and shopping.
Ling Ma: This book spans a great deal of territory, both geographically and in its wide range of subjects. How did you realize that all of these belonged in the same book?
Xiaowei Wang: The subjects and places throughout the book have a mood that I like to term “modernity gone off the rails.” For example, Dinglou village was a boomtown—it had developed really fast, from farmland to a bustling center. Dinglou and the neighboring village had high-speed internet, lots of money flowing in, hot pot restaurants, but at the same time large craters on the side of the road and some really bizarre, uncomfortable interior architecture. The buildings had been constructed to aspire to some image of being “cosmopolitan” or “modern,” but falling short in an absurd way. There were dazzling light fixtures and shiny granite floors at the hotel where I stayed, but no hot water for a good chunk of the day.
“Modernity gone off the rails” is, to me, the combination of mundane and inspiring, the absurd and creative. It connects people on opposite sides of the world in unexpected ways that remain hidden to them, most of the time. It’s a little punk rock. It’s the messiness that happens in the day-to-day while both learning to live in an interconnected, technologically rich world and at the same time pushing against the prescribed instruction manual. It’s also a willfulness, to keep hustling, keep trying, whether you’re a young pearl entrepreneur in Zhuji or a Facebook livestreamer involved in a multilevel marketing scheme.
I’m reminded of what happens in user testing digital products: As a designer, you find that there’s always surprising ways people use the product, that exceeds what you intended, perhaps against all your safeguards or instructions. This kind of friction troubles some of our desires for a frictionless world. To me, the friction points to how so much of the objects and tools are actually the result of this large-scale fiction we’ve all built up, together. Some of the rural folks I met were encountering this fiction for the first time, which meant that they could see through the made-up rules of markets, of socially acceptable ways of achieving success, in a way that I couldn’t.