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Visibly invisible: you can always see me

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 March 2014

The Little Prince is probably the novel which I have read the most times. Each time I read it, I am warmly touched. Amid field work, I am reading it again. My favorite part is the conversation between the fox and the little prince, when the fox tells the little prince that meaning of ‘to tame’ is to ‘establish ties’.

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

I have to quote the whole lot what the fox said,  not only because it is beautifully written, but also it reminders me of a recent talk between myself and  my informant LX about QQ (social media) permission settings.

LX is a sweet factory girl who is 19-year-old. One day she complained that I was always ‘invisible’ (my QQ status) online, which is true. My QQ default setting is ‘invisible’ which means I can get QQ messages but my QQ contacts don’t know I am online when I log in. To be ‘invisible’ means I won’t be disturbed by other online contacts and it has become an accepted/applied strategy among my informants who have hundreds of QQ contacts to log in as ‘invisible’.

There are six online status of QQ (see the screenshot below): I am online; Q me (chat with me); Away; Busy; Do not disturb; and Invisible.  For most people (90%) as long as they are online, the status is either ‘online’, or ‘invisible’, or ‘away’ with auto-response. The reason for being ‘invisible’ varies– the main reason is that people do not want to be disturbed or get involved in a conversation, however still want to view others’ Qzone (online profiles) and don’t want to miss any important message. ‘Do not disturb’ as a status is rarely used since people think that is rude.

QQ status

I thought there were only six alternatives one can choose until LX taught me that actually there were some other ‘hidden’ options in the advanced permission setting. Right click any QQ contact’s avatar, on the pop-up select box (see screenshot below) there are a few options which enact different operations upon the certain contact, for instance: send instant message, send an Email (QQ offers email service which is the dominant email service my informant used), view chat log (one can check the local chat log, which is the chats that occurred on the current digital device or roaming chat log, which refers to all the chats under the same account occurring on different digital devices), put this contact on top of the contact list, edit the name (QQ names, in most cases, are not real names, as I mentioned in my previous report. As a result users will usually note the real-name if they know it), group the contact, delete the contact, report the contact (for online  harassment), create a desktop shortcut, enter his/her Qzone, check his/her Tencent weibo (twitter-like service QQ offers) etc. and permission setting (see the screen shot below, blue highlighted). In the permission setting, there is one option that says “yin shen dui qi ke jian” (make visible to him/her in invisible status) which means the selected contact can always ‘see’ you even when you are in ‘invisible’ status.

QQ advanced permission setting

I felt honored to realize that I am the second person who can ‘see’ LX when she is ‘invisible’ to others on QQ (the first one is her boyfriend).

It is like you can always see me, and I am always there waiting for you, you know, very close and exclusive.

LX further explained the significance of ‘visible invisibility’. In return, I set her as the first contact that can ‘see’ me when I am ‘invisible’, which made her very happy. Such mutual advanced permission setting reinforced our relationship.

‘To see’ is different from ‘to look.’ The latter happens all the time, however in many cases does not necessarily lead to the former. A senior manager of a local factory told me that the logic of assembly line is that humankind is a part of the machine. I asked him whether he personally knew any of the factory workers. Rather than answer ‘no’, he told me “it’s not necessary”. True, he only needs to know the machine. I am probably the first one (the weird one) who visited the factory workshop and paid more attention to the workers rather than the product, the building, and the machine.

“All the rural migrants are just alike” as some of my local informants put it. In this small town, in factory workshops, monotonousness on a daily basis is the grand narrative, eclipsing individuality.  Most of the time, my rural migrant friends are ‘invisible’ to most people, even though they certainly did not ‘set’ themselves as ‘invisible’.  Unfortunately unlike on QQ, the default ‘social’ setting of ‘invisible’ cannot easily be changed in their offline life. To live against such daily ‘invisibility’, LX’s skillful usage of QQ allows herself some ‘privileged’ visibility, and in consequence,  an ordinary factory girl who is just like a hundred thousand other rural-to-urban migrant girls shall be unique in all the world, at least in the ‘virtual world’ created by social media.

‘Work-bound’ people and digital travel

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 4 December 2013

IMAG3938

(Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

One of the research foci of our project is the usage of social media among disabled, house-bound people. As the profile of Dr. Karamath in Tales from Facebook (Miller 2011), and the story of Amanda Baggs in Digital Anthropology (Ginsburg 2013) suggest, social media, or internet in a broader context, allow disabled people a ‘bigger’ life. For example, allowing people to express themselves better, to communicate with friends more conveniently, and even a gain a ‘second life’. Even though I have encountered people who have disabled relatives in their  rural hometowns and heard people talking about disability caused by factory work, so far in my fieldsite I have only met one person who has a slight problem in his left leg.  I found that it is difficult to find similar examples of appropriation of digital technology among disabled persons at my field site given that most residents live here for the purpose of working.

However, from time to time I witnessed another kind of ‘bound’ situation which is not caused by physical disability among my ‘working class’ informants. I called it ‘work-bound’. WDG, is a local grocery shop keeper in his early 40s. His shop opens from 6:30 am to 10:30pm (16 hours), seven days a week. He cooks in the shop, has three meals in the shop and even sleep in the shop since otherwise thieves will visit during the night. He and his family (his parents, his wife and two children) virtually live in the shop 365 days per year. Even though the rent for his shop is not very expensive (around 2000 pounds per year), he still can’t afford to close the shop for a whole day, so it is open every day of the year. He told me that for 4 years, he only closed the shop once since he needed to send his mother to hospital on that day.  WDG is not alone; most shop keepers at my field site see ‘closing shop for holiday’ as a total waste of time and money. WDG is always busy at his shop. People come to post parcels, top-up mobile phone or game points, and buy food and drinks throughout the day. For the purpose of doing business, three years ago WDG installed a desk computer at his shop. Thus, he spends most of everyday sitting in front of his computer. It is curious to note that besides pages for mobile phone and digital game top-up, another ‘always open’ webpage is Google Earth, where he checks different places in the world from time to time. One day, knowing that I study in London, WDG skillfully googled the London map and asked me to show him where I lived in London. He also asked me to show him around UCL campus, and the British museum nearby. The whole family crowded in front of the computer screen to see the Google map of London, or to use their words, to ‘visit’ London. I was just amazed and moved at people’s pure joy that came from the virtual tour of London in their 12 square meter shop which they were confined to 365 days per year, 24 hours per day.

Compared with small shop keepers, factory workers have relatively longer ‘off-work’ time. People who work in factories have two days holiday per month. However one cannot take two consecutive days, which means that most of them can’t afford a holiday longer than one day. This month I was invited to join a group of my factory friends’ trip to a nearby sightseeing place. From the field site to that place, high speed train takes four hours for one-way, however ordinary train takes almost 9 hours. Nevertheless, the high speed train ticket costs around 20 pounds more than the ordinary one, so my friends decided to take the slow train without thinking twice. Therefore, they will spend almost 18 hours in transit, and less than 12 hours at the sightseeing attraction. On Saturday, they managed to leave a half day earlier to catch the afternoon train. On the train out, they played cards for almost 9 hours – everyone was so excited about the card playing, even though when they arrived at midnight, everybody was exhausted. The worst thing was in order to save money, they booked a very cheap guest house in a night club district near the train station, and there were stereos blasting in the district until 4 o’clock in the morning. Even though everybody managed to get up at 7 am, no one had enough energy to do any sightseeing for the rest of the day. After cans of redbull, we managed to finish the main sightseeing place in the morning, but after lunch, none were willing to move anymore. Thus, we wisely did a couple of things to kill the rest of our 5 hours in that city – sitting at KFC, staring at our smartphones, uploading photos to QQ and Wechat, and some even played the Wechat online game “tian tian ku pao” while others slept with their heads resting on the table. The communication between people at the site was very limited, it seemed that everybody felt too tired to talk with each other. Finally, one remarked, “I have never felt playing QQ and Wechat was a blessing as much as today!”  it was a joke which made people laugh. However the fact that my friends came all the way to a sightseeing place to spend a whole uninterrupted afternoon with their smartphones was not a joke at all. Life moved on after the one-day trip, my friends arrived at 6:30 the next morning and had to go straight to work at 7:30am. I checked all of their social media profiles and found that none of them mentioned how tiring the trip really was. Instead, they used beautiful and delightful words to describe how happy they were and how interesting the place was. I felt like going to the place by merely looking at the warm smiles on the beautiful photos, failing to realize that the place we went to together was actually the same place they talked about on their social media profiles.

The two ‘trips’ which both took place in November made me to think about the connection and question what digital media means to people in these two trips? It seemed that on the one hand, digital media allows people to experience the world in a way that will never happen without the technology otherwise; on the other hand, digital media have become such a significant and overwhelming part of people’s lives to the degree that people somehow need to reconstruct their offline world through the online world. The digital not only in certain degree freed people from their ‘work-bound’ offline life, but also significantly powered them to construct a much more interesting image of their offline life via social media. Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder what will happen if one day my shop keeper friend WDG finally has the chance to go and visit London, what he will do during his stay in London? Will he still spend a decent time on Google earth or his QQ profile every day given the ‘window’ offered by Google earth has long been the only familiar and unfailing way for him to see the world?

References

Ginsburg, Faye 2013 “Disability in the Digital Age”, in Digital Anthropology 2013. Heather A. Horst & Daniel Miller (ed.) London: Berg.

Miller, Daniel 2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Something we take for granted in the digital age

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 14 December 2012

Photo: Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII (Creative Commons)

The other day I was talking with my friend via Skype, whilst at the same time using my smartphone to check some information. I couldn’t find it anywhere. At last, I had to hang up the call and return to the library to find my phone, before suddenly realising that I was, in fact, holding my phone, talking to it when I was trying to find it. This anecdote provoked much laughter from my friends. However it may be more than a joke. Why didn’t I notice the phone? Obviously the mediation of technology in this communication has been ignored, which would be regarded as another example of the humility of things - “the more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process” (Horst & Miller 2012: 25). As such, it is no surprise speed at which people now have taken the digital for granted in the digital age.

Despite the popularity and saturation of digital technologies in many places, no generation of human beings has yet lived their whole life span in this digital age. Many of the earlier writings concerned the digital media (the Internet, cyberspace) as a “virtual” place. As the opposite of the “real”, “virtual” seems less real, and thus less valid to represent the authenticity of humanity. Then why bother to study a “virtual” place? It is safe to say that human kind have never just lives in a tangible world since the very beginning of human culture. ‘Virtuality’ is neither new, nor specific, to the digital world. We all live in a culturally and spiritually structured world which involves a huge amount of imaginative aspects: the legend of the tribe, the memory of the ancestors, or forms of art, etc. Culture, as shared systems of imagination and practice, shapes people’s idea of kinship, identity, community, and society – in sum, the very deepest assumptions about being a human being in the world. In this regard, the digital world ontologically does not differ from any other worlds at all.

Nevertheless there is something unique about the digital. Digital has created an ‘always-on’ lifestyle (see boyd 2011:72), in which the boundary between online and offline has become blurred. Being ‘always-on’ does not literally mean always-on the Internet, but rather always having the capacity of being connected. Also being ‘always-on’ does not necessarily means being always accessible. You can leave the phone unanswered or ignore the messages on IM (instant message), and individuals have quickly developed a sophisticated strategy for communication with a whole palette of possible digital communicative channels (see the idea of polymedia). The primary concern of media choice has shifted from an emphasis on the affordances of media to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences which as been articulated by the media choice: one medium may be good for arguing or avoiding arguments; one may be suitable for flirting or communicating secrets, so on and so forth. ‘Always-on’ and ‘polymedia’ would mean different things in different social milieu, but one thing is for sure: we can no longer just examine the binary opposition of online or offline; or concentrate on one single medium to analyze people’s communication in the digital age.

References

boyd, danah. 2011. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle”, in Graham Meike & Sherman Young (eds) Media Convergence. Pp. 71-76.

Horst, Heather A. & Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.