Page 99 of my doctoral thesis Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China is a messy microcosm that is yet quite representative of the whole dissertation. The page is positioned right at the beginning of the fourth chapter, in which I try to describe “contemporary China’s postdigital media ecologies” through the local tech buzzword weishidai [‘micro-era’], a historical moment
in which the Internet, fragmented, ubiquitous and personalized, disappears in the fabric of everyday life.
Even when read in isolation, this page feels as overbearing as the rest of the thesis, my writing rushing through composite terms and neologisms I deploy in order to pin down glimpses of the sociotechnical reality I thought I witnessed during my sparse months of fieldwork. The first couple of paragraphs are a really bad example of terminological proliferation in social science writing – hardly giving words any room to breathe, I propose a flurry of concepts: “technomorphology”, “weishidai”, “technological imaginary”, “postdigital”, “post-media” and “post-Internet”. Cobbling together my dissertation in a disciplinary context that emphasized ethnographic mystique over theoretical debate, the lexical flourishes offered by barely digested media theory readings made me feel sharper and safer.
My writing then moves to a couple of fieldwork impressions, but only after reframing my whole research project through a disillusioned self-reflection:
I traveled to different locations in Mainland China looking forward to collect the insights of media-savvy and enthusiastic Internet users, expecting to give voice to strong opinions on digital media and their culture. Instead, as time went on, I realized that most people I was talking to deemed my research topic to be extremely vague or not groundbreaking at all: some noticed the importance of an Internet connection only when it didn’t work, to then quickly realize they didn’t even know what they really wanted to use it for (Fig. 35); others were active content creators on different digital media platforms, yet didn’t have much to say about it: “Yes, feel free to use my photos. As for your questions, I would love to help you, but I really don’t have any opinion, I don’t want to disappoint you” (ZuoYou, May 2014, Shanghai).
Eventually, I didn’t use one any of my friend’s photos, and his opinions – even if articulated in small talk rather than formal interviews – kept informing my writing over the years. When I last saw him in Shanghai a few months ago, we spent an entire dinner talking about livestreaming apps.
Figure 35, which appears at the bottom of the page, is a composite of screengrabs from social media posts made by another friend over a six-hour span during which her VPN (Virtual Private Network) software stopped working. Unable to access Facebook, she laments “the hopelessness of not being able to connect to the Internet” through a Chinese-language post on her WeChat account. When her VPN comes back online after a few hours, she writes an English-language post on Facebook noting how “have the network the but again don’t know what to do”. Besides the evident design similarities between the two platforms, and her decision to use different languages on each of them, this constructed image evokes the pragmatic use of software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship while also resonating with a self-aware disenchantment about the feeling of purposelessness resulting from digital media use.
The page ends with the heading of section 4.2.1, “After digital media”. I clearly remember titling this section as a nod to Mark Hobart’s volume After culture: Anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. His use of the term “after”, in turn inspired by Johannes Fabian, is echoed by Florian Kramer’s definition of “post-digital” as
a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical […].
If page 99 of my dissertation manages to make a point about postdigital China, I hope it is the following: after digital media, there is more digital media.
de Seta, Gabriele. 2015. Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China. PhD dissertation. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.
free download of dissertation available here: https://www.academia.edu/25790317/Dajiangyou_Media_practices_of_vernacular_creativity_in_postdigital_China
Gabriele de Seta is a media anthropologist. He holds a PhD in Sociology from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. His research work, grounded on ethnographic engagement across multiple sites, focuses on digital media practices and vernacular creativity in China and Taiwan. He is also interested in experimental music scenes, internet art, and collaborative intersections between anthropology and art practice. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available on his website http://paranom.asia.