Science, Computers, and Society

People walking with computer screens on their back

Analysis of the social impact of computer technology has a particular edge due to the impact of hegemony-reinforcing political discourses on China. Despite the monumental works of China scholars like Needham, the absence of science, like the absence of capitalism, has justified Orientalist actions and attitudes towards China. Both internal (as seen in Maoist rhetoric) and external analysts have argued that Chinese culture itself is inimical to the development of science. For example, Richard Baum writes: “the institutionalization of the ethos of modern scientific rationalism in China is significantly impeded by the contemporary persistence of a number of atavistic cultural traits that have survived the passing of China’s traditional Confucian order” (1982: 1167). Science and technology studies (STS), a discipline that critically examines the social and cultural aspects of science and technology, is uniquely positioned to evaluate such issues in an emerging, postsocialist Chinese modernity.
In the case of China, science and technology, in particular, have been dominant parts of political thought in the history of twentieth century China. As Western imperialists further challenged Chinese sovereignty on the littoral (the areas most affected by contact with foreign people, ideas, and technology), “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy” became a rallying symbol for reformers and revolutionaries of the early 20th century. The development of Western scientific institutions reflected wider shifts in Chinese society towards a new regime that was ultimately characterized by “scientific socialism.” Science and technology, as a discursive system, is of course a “cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world; it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones” (Escobar 1994: 211). It is, however, a particularly powerful cultural invention because science and technology naturalizes its epistemological origins. The laboratory (or by extension the factory, the market, and other territorial spaces where scientific and technological knowledge is produced) is portrayed as an “objective space.” These spaces artificially reconfigure natural objects by transforming or making partial versions (reducing), taking it out of context, and controlling the timing of particular occurrences. Knowledge thus produced through the social institutions of science and technology asserts a universalistic applicability that masks the particular cultural conditions of scientists and technologists. People involved with computers and other information technologies can draw upon a universalizing authority seemingly empty of social and cultural particularities. The social and cultural outcomes of the localization of computer technology – such as the increasing stratification of economic and educational opportunities – are then justified as a necessary aspect of modernity.
As a result, I have conducted fieldwork research on technology and popular culture. To study technology, I examined a Hakka cyberspace community, the Hakka Global Network (a listserv), and other Hakka Internet resources illustrated how Hakka all over the world use the internet to shape ideas of what it means to be Hakka in the 1990s. I have continued this line of research through an examination of the computer industry (The Legend Group, aka Lenovo) and “Chinese cyberspace” in Shanghai.