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‘Work-bound’ people and digital travel

Xin Yuan Wang4 December 2013

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(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.

The mystery of the young man without a QQ number: accounting for non-users

Tom McDonald24 May 2013

Photo: Tom McDonald

Photo: Tom McDonald

At 5:30am yesterday I was stood on the side of the road in my fieldsite, a small town in Shandong, waiting for the bus. Next to me was a grandmother sat on the side of the road selling cherries. A young man, probably in his early twenties, approached me and politely asked if it was alright to take a picture of us together, a common experience that most foreigners in China will be familiar with.

The man was dressed in cotton cloth trousers, black cotton shoes, and a white T-shirt. He had a slightly unkempt bowl-haircut. It was obvious that he was from the countryside. Indeed, he confirmed that he was from one of the nearby villages and worked in one of the local factories as a labourer.

He pulled out an old, white telephone. The telephone was an affordable Chinese-branded device with a basic colour screen and a cheap built-in camera.

The young man asked the cherry-seller if she would take the photo of us. The cherry-seller tried, but it was apparent that this elderly lady had very limited experience of either operating the phone or photography, so after three failed attempts, and fearing the bus would arrive at any moment I instead proposed “let’s use my phone to take the picture and I’ll send it to you”. I pulled out my iPhone, flipped the screen and took three picture of together. Then I asked him what his QQ number was. He said “I don’t have one”. I asked about Weixin. “None” he replied.

I was momentarily stunned.

I had previously thought that for young labourers such as this were perhaps the most avid users of QQ (in fact Jack Qiu suggests that Chinese social networking is particularly important for the working class in society). And yet, here, in front of me, was a living, breathing exception.

The story ended happily, as on the final attempt the sage grandmother got the hang of the young man’s phone and managed to take a satisfactory picture of the two of us standing next to each other. However, the young man left before I had a chance to ask him why he didn’t have a QQ number. A friend in Beijing offered an explanation when I showed them his photo “this man is very honest,” one proffered, “you can tell by the shape of his nose [referring to Chinese face-reading]. It could be that some people from the countryside think that QQ is a bad thing”.

Is my Beijing friend right? Is there really a moral discourse surrounding the Internet that is enough to keep some young people from using it? Are there more non-users like this young man? And if so, why haven’t Tencent or Sina’s offerings been able to penetrate this part of the market?

One of the benefits of long-term anthropological fieldwork in a normal small town like this is that it offers a chance to uncover groups of people, user experiences and human behaviours that might otherwise go undiscovered if we were to instead use other social science or market research methods. By the end of our fieldwork I hope to have more answers.