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

Silvia M. Lindtner

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

Abstract: In this talk, I draw from a 14-months long ethnographic research project in two sites in China: 1) small-scale experiments that center on alternative food and spiritual practices via life in nature and solidarity in the countryside and 2) large-scale, data-driven agricultural projects at the outskirts of major urban centers. I 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 “inner” ecologies — from its borderlands to people’s most inner selves. They position data-driven techniques of automation and artificial intelligence as key to the state’s ability to manage these life worlds that have partially escaped its reach. These technopolitical projects are driven by what I call “data engines,” i.e. a participatory form of governance shaped by an engineering mindset that aims to cultivate citizens as productive selves who operate on behalf of the state’s ambition to “rejuvenate the nation” by turning inwards—China’s “hinterlands.” I show how data engines govern via the cultivation of feelings of safety and sustainability. They promise national sovereignty and security via the automation of China’s soil and soul. I discuss the spiritual and technological practices that data engines attempt to regulate as well as the gaps of this seemingly all-encompassing automation quest, and the compromised forms of solidarity that form therein.

Bio: 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.