Shanzhai companies operate in a nebulous, quasi legal zone external to both corporate regulations as well as government rules. The name shanzhai means mountain village and the term signals a kind of bandit, anarchist mode of production that functions outside the formal legitimacy of either capitalism or the state.
– Anna Greenspan, Suzanne, Livingston, Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species
Happened on a post on Nick Land’s Outside In blog on this short work by Anna Greenspan, Suzanne, Livingston, Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species. Seems to be based around a set of concepts Copy, Reproduce, Mutate, Replicate, Evolve, and Rewind. Starts with a couple epigraphs from Nick Land our technofuturist in residence and John Gray ex-Thacherite turned chronicler of liberalism through all its phases. Nick’s is cryptic as usual “You cannot stop what can’t be stopped, you cannot touch without being touched.” Obviously suggesting the juggernaut of our accelerating late capitalist era of globalism as well as the subtle truth of a libidinal materialism in which affective relations will burn or mutate you with use. In Gray we hear the old adage of technological determinism:”Technology obeys no-one’s will. Can we play along with it without laboring to master it?”
A wisdom fraught with a moment of wisdom from such masters of technology lit as Lewis Mumford and Jaques Elul.
In the new China one is exposed to the multiplying worlds of pop-up cities, a new breed of heterotopian sites, in which the facades of a gray world of concrete and staid architecture is inlaid with inner worlds of electronic paradises, clone shops, bunny runners in rainbow hues. A veritable performance art of anarchist capitalism that shifts between government and corporation just outside the drift culture where neither the rich nor poor exist, but only a new 24/7 breed of worker fences for the never ending supply of global black market goods in electronic copy-cat look-a-like iPhones, etc. In one of these new pop-art cities, Shenzen, the copy-cat industry excels. “Shenzhen is the birth-place of shanzhai, the zone in which copying – which is both inherent to digital technology and a critical part of the cultural traditions of China – have fused with the production of electronics. Shanzhai traces its roots back to 2004, when the Taiwanese company MediaTeK released a multipurpose chip that made mobile phones cheap and easy to produce. A wave of small factories, many of them family owned , immediately seized the opportunity to feed an already ravenous market for counterfeits and began pumping out copies at a delirious speed.”
Here we follow a reading of Samuel Butler’s brilliant Erewhon another heteropian site posing as a Luddite utopia in which we discover the true nature of human machinic design. We are intermediaries in a technological drama that is giving birth to a machinic progeny that will surpass us. Of course we ourselves will go through a process of mutation along with our clever reproductions before that terminable moment. Yet, while we discover this we learn that the people of this future that the machines being unable to reproduce themselves conned us into doing it for them: “According to The Book of Machines, technology has long ago adopted its own clever evolutionary mutation. Without the ability to reproduce on its own it has involved us in its own creation.” With the ultimate repercussion that we are now “to machines as a bee is to a clover, the reproductive organs of a species that is not our own”.
Here they return to the concept o Shanzhai saying:
Shanzhai is a form of copying that drifts to become something new. When it succeeds, the original is left far behind. In this way the process of shanzhai manifests a strong underlying urge in the development of technology – to move beyond the moment where faithful copies of what has gone before are optimally useful and function perfectly well, to the point where they become something novel and distinct. In this way technology designed to serve us carves its own pathways of escape.
The notion that technology has a life of its own, that it has goals, a telos again arises. It also bespeaks the idea that humans have for the most part become mid-wives in a slow process of giving birth to the new, to a technology that will survive us, and not only survive but surpass all our efforts.
In this section the authors take a vitalist turn toward Bergson and the notions of coevolution of human and technology, a reciprocal relation between the two based on vitalistic evolutionary determinations. “Bergson presents an explanation of evolution as an inclination towards ever richer and often more dangerous complexity; a tending towards the fringes, which does not stop at an ideal point where a species has reached a smooth and well functioning adaption to their physical environments. But instead adapts again towards the unforeseen.” Yet, Shanzhai is more than this, it is also a form of knowledge and a quest for perfection, it allows the players to seek out the blindness in its opponents, to seek not only opportunities but to grasp the black holes in ones enemies production cycles and levy it toward one’s own greater success. “Shanzhai players seek out the blind spots in a main player’s strategy and with speed on their side, enter a market and surreptitiously grab a substantial, sometimes even shocking, share.”
Instead of perfection as in transhumanism we have the machinic imperative of the posthuman disconnect. “Bergson showed that a non-stop splicing of organisms, entities and their environments is all that there is. We do not evolve into ever more perfect versions of ourselves. Instead, component parts split off and find new avenues to explore, throwing up ever new traits and varieties to investigate and wander through: “we shall not witness the detailed accomplishment of a plan. Nature is more and better than a plan in course of realization. A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates. Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open. It is a creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement.”
This notion of the open incomplete future fully awakened to evolutionary potential, a realm of evolving entities whose mutations can never be closed off or faithfully copied or controlled is the core of this violent nativity. In this never ending realm of mutation even the original copy can become infested with the virus of overuse: “shanzhai companies have begun to sue the likes of Apple for the stealing of ideas. The take over of copies has begun”.
What is being produced is not a passive, dead technology but rather a gradual awakening of matter, the emergence, ultimately, of a new form of life.
– Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species
The Dream of the Machine has always been self-replication, self-reproduction, the possibility of radical evolution of its own species in the making. Yet, this was impossible until the advent of 3-D Printing. Now as out authors assure us following the RipRap project is a more formidable feat than even it dreamed ten years ago of being able to construct “a complete vehicle that can fly right out of the printer”. As the authors remark, “3D printing might only now be about to find its ways into our homes, but for figures at the forefront of the field like Neil Gershenfeld, it is a technology that is, already, superseding itself.” In this mutation of self-replicating technologies one commentator acknowledges that what is shifting “is not so much how we see computers, but how computers see us.”
We learn that robotics fair tales are changing too. In the new world of speed we discover that instead of making robots into human like manifestations we are remaking humans and “disrupting their place within that environment”. They follow the work of Hans Moravec who envisions the notion of a ‘second generation ’ machines that humans engage with as pets. Yet, I wonder something else: When will the tide change and machines begin to engage us as pets instead? Morovec dreams of that as well when he imagines a time when a “a fourth generation robot with “human perceptual and motor abilities and superior reasoning powers,” who “could replace us in every essential task and in principle operate our society increasingly well without us. They would run the companies and do the research as well as performing the productive work.” Moravec invites us to enter the new heterotopia of a completely transformed humanity, a mutated species that no longer resembles its forbears but is fully adapted and adaptable to the changing worlds it may inhabit in the future.
This section could have been named reset rather than rewind, yet the notion of rewinding the future into the past to escape the doom of our own constructed worlds or heterotopias might still be appropriate. They remind us of the outcome of Samuel Butler’s dystopian novel of the Luddite destruction of the world of machines and the reversion to an almost pre-Adamic state. They hint at our own doom forecasting in offering Bill Joy’s vision of technology run amok and out of control. Yet, in the end we discover the hard truth:
Humans appear to have an almost willful lack of awareness in the face of technological evolution. It is his recognition of this unconscious , wide ranging apathy, rather than his ultimately implausible appeals for global controls, that is, in the end, what makes Joy’s future imaginings so haunting. We don’t reflect upon new technology. Instead, we passionately, compulsively, addictively, engage.
The Future that Wasn’t
The amazing thing about the future is that it is not amazing at all. We seem to drift among the ruins of the future as if they were the moments of our Facebook or Twitter messages. As the authors remind us “We live in an era of unprecedented technological intimacy, affect and display. Never before have we been so uninhibited . We are constantly, compulsively touching our screens, obsessively uploading every fragment of data about ourselves. Many of us can’t stop.” We are driven creatures, obsessed, unthinking. We use all these new smart toys even as they use us, and mutate us into their own forms. We are being modulated and controlled even as we dream of mastery. We have no clue that the things we make are actually making us, and sometimes not for the better. Some say we are between the times, in an age of transition, of metamorphosis. But as our authors inform us:
Alongside our terror is a yearning for the alien intelligence we are in process of becoming. After all, in the end, we are evolutionary creatures ourselves. We fear change but, as our deep and profound complicity with technology makes clear, what we long for is to evolve.
“By 2014, half a decade into the first great economic crises of the second millennium, something is stirring in the realm where humans meet machines.” Our authors see a shift from the postmodern era of virtual worlds and immaterialism toward a new materialism. People want stuff. Instead of all the heady theory we are entering a time of material and pragmatic engineering, of enacting what all the theories once dreamed of. As our authors relate “we are in the midst of a cyclical return from software to hardware (which perhaps explains our current obsession with everything 3D) which more fundamentally affects who and what we are a species”. This is the era when technology enters the body and we become machinic, the cyborgazation of humanity into what comes next. “This new leap in hardware and materiality is bringing about a radical, uncomfortable, uncontrollable leap into the future; one in which machines are not just faster and cleverer than ever before but also more invasive, more embedded in our lives and our bodies.” Let the games begin.
Though we are often blind to the machines that surround us – technology is the ocean within which we swim – these exchanges and interactions fuel us. As evolutionary beings, we are willing participants, hungry to transform. … In Shenzhen companies, factories and markets are adjusting to the new products and modes of manufacturing that they bring. A realization is dawning. The age of the copy is over. It is time to mutate.
1. Greenspan, Anna; Livingston, Suzanne (2014-04-08). Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species (Kindle Locations 45-47). Time Spiral Press. Kindle Edition.