Blockchain Chicken Farm (2020) by Xiaowei Wang

I enjoyed this read, and I love how Xiaowei Wang (Creative Director at Logic Magazine) interweaves quotidian observations from fieldwork, with critical insights on innovation and the geopolitics of technology. It makes me feel like I am sitting on the train with them travelling across cities in China, shifting in and out of different milieus.

Fitting with my current mood to immerse myself into 中国文化 Another chinese book I am currently reading is Invisible Planets. Wish I could find the chinese version. recently, I am grateful for their attempt at providing a decolonialised perspective on topics I care deeply about.

The (Anglophone) discourse on technology development is undisputedly shaped by the Global North. I have been craving to read books on the real and warm-bodied stories of how technology has spawned sociocultural practices across different communities or societies. (Even then, I am cognisant of XW's positionality of their Western-educated and immigrant status, and how this influences their retelling of these stories.)

Here I summarise some themes that stood out to me.

The Sociotechnical

Stories with, of, and around technology

What I appreciated most are the semi-ethnographic accounts of the invisible labour that goes into tech production. Perhaps drawing upon their background in investigative journalism, XW was able to tease out the human stories behind the mostly inhuman and immense world of e-commerce, agritech and more, in one of the fastest-growing economies. They track down and draw comparisons between the different subcultures that have emerged on digital platforms and reflects on how "online interactions of communities are but a manifestation of their broader socioeconomic conditions".

In the first few chapters, they unpack China's rural revitalization strategy "…economic experiments are being unveiled as part of Rural Revitalization. These experiments rely on technology and the internet as catalysts, creating new socioeconomic ecosystems of rural entrepreneurship, hearkening back to the Town and Village Enterprises of the 1980s." and the transformation that accelerated digitalisation have wrought on these small towns. "Made in China" in the past relied on scaled production outputs. Now, it is being redefined by the countryside.

Quoting a sociologist,

"At the core of rural culture is a belief that the universe is already perfect as it is, and that our duty as humans is to maintain that harmony. [On the other hand], urban culture is centered on the belief that the universe must be constantly corrected on its course, and that life is defined by the pleasure of overcoming future challenges.

They bring us to unseen places to shed light on the tensions between the narratives we hear about innovation and what it really is like on the ground. As consumers, we are often not privy to the processes and people involved along the supply-chain. In this book, XW travels to the heart of the e-commerce boom, speaking with manufacturers, producers and drone operators. Reflected in the title, they show us what it's like behind-the-scenes of an agricultural blockchain project for a chicken farm. Part cautionary tale, part illuminating exposé, XW weaves in and out of multiple stories throughout the bookIn the village of Dinglou, known for their loud costumes, they interview the manufacturers behind the costumes made for stage and film. Dinglou was even designated by Alibaba as the first Taobao village in 2012.; from blockchain chicken farms, to Taobao villages to the culture of shanzhai, all the while touching on buzz-worthy topics like trust on blockchain, AI ethics, China's digital economy strategy, food safety and precarious labour. Most of the time, XW reflects on the the improved economic conditions while leaving us to ponder on the genuine net positive impact on the people's lived experiences.

Instead of the one-dimensional narratives we see of China's growth trajectory, XW provides a transient but touching dive into a country with patchwork development and reveals its effects on the vibrant, lived experiences of people.

Cultural relativism

How we use technology look differently across different sociotechnical mileus. This is embodied in the following quote,

"The West doesn't understand our problems. We just have too many people. The government has to operate at a scale you can't even imagine."

While it is easy to revert to (ontological) relativism as the source of misunderstandings, we cannot understate the importance of fighting against this. In fact, it can be a locus for connection.

I was fascinated by the distinction in conceiving artificial intelligence that is rooted in different cosmologies. E.g. Western vs Chinese AI; What is the qi or energy centers of a chinese-influenced AI?This reminds me of my place in relation to Singapore, and also the markedly different sensations I feel when I am "overseas", vis-à-vis to the land I was walking on.

Yet, there are universal currents - the "desire for community, for companionship, and, mostly, for monetizing emotions has never been stronger." The rise of social media platforms and their affordances have enabled different sub-cultures to emerge, transcending nationalities and distances in space. Livestreaming, for example, is an increasingly popular phenomenon which even has uptake in Singapore and is envisioned to be huge in e-commerce.

Earning Social Trust through Good Governance

XW also highlights the importance of social trust in today's world. Beyond social trust, competent governance is needed to build the necessary infrastructure for trust to manifest. For blockchain, it is implemented best when there is no trusted centralised authority—you'd defer to the executable code or "smart contracts" to maintain a trustless architecture. They pushback against this idea, and maintains that blockchain's philosophy fundamentally assumes the worst of human nature—scarcity and selfishness.

I could go off-tangent about the importance of governance and trusted authorities in an increasingly decentralized world. Maybe I might write about Web 3.0 soon (reading a book about it now too).

Machinic ecologies

I am interested in how e-commerce has transformed not only people's economic conditions and their physical lands, but also the digital space. For instance, dropshipping has transformed our experience of virtual spaces, with every interval of our social media feeds peppered with advertisements on the most mundane objects and things.

The internet has a material and, I argue, a phenomenological effect on our lives.

The internet promised disembodiment, but the internet has never been more material. The notion of discrete physical and digital worlds is nothing but a convenient fiction.

XW investigates how the countryside has adopted various "emerging technologies" to streamline their processes, improve productivity, increase profits and distribute the funds for the betterment of their villagesEarly this year, it was also announced that Huawei, one of the largest infrastructure/technology providers in China, is investing in pig farming. It was not until I read this chapter that I found out that China's is the world's largest pork producers.. Famously, China also has one of the fastest uptake of mobile payment usage (i.e. Alipay), where hardly any transactions involve actual cash.

Of these transformations, the text begs the question of how these innocuous acts reflect the state of the world we are in now. As technology becomes entangled with their/our ways of living, how do we read this unfamiliar ecology of sociotechnical practices?

Misc. learning points

Finally, do enjoy the following quotes and summaries:

Chinese policies

Poverty-alleviation programs involve younger members of the party being deployed across China, providing assistance and relief like repairing water pumps, conducting digital literacy initiatives. This reflects China's decentralised and autocratic pattern, decentralised at the local scale with fairly loose controls, but authoritarian on national policies.

Thoughts on AI ethics and fairness

"Without questioning the intrinsic faith held in prediction, or the political economies of building algorithms, the field of AI ethics and algorithmic fairness will remain mere fodder for dinner party conversations among the rich."

I agree - all the corporate hogwash is nothing without the inclusion of everyday people's inputs.

Stories of village-scale transformation

  • Entire swaths of Guiyang designated as “digital towns,” where young rural migrants sit and generate training data for AI, clicking on images, tagging animals and objects.
  • "Digital Villages"
  • "Taobao villages" - rural villages that product merchandise for Taobao
  • Guiyang as a tech boomtown, dreamy sci-fi landscape
  • Zhuji as a pearl city

Shanzhai culture

  • originally a derogatory Cantonese term for knockoffs or pirated goods; the outdated impression that shanzhai products only copy, cannot innovate
  • yet, it is this messy, hacker and remixing culture that encouraged innovation
  • stands in contradiction to the increasingly proprietary nature of American technology


  • migratory movements intra-cities; usually from poorer regions to urban centers in China
  • the floating population in a floating world.