Silvia Lindtner, UofM School of Information

The Promise of Making: Desiring Alternatives and Hacking Entrepreneurial Living in China
Silvia Lindtner


Fall 2018
Lecture Time: 
Friday, September 14, 2018 - 1:30pm to 3:00pm
Lecture Location: 
R0220 Ross School of Business


Since 2014, a series of Western media outlets from Wired UK over the Economist to Forbes have begun celebrate the city of Shenzhen in the South of China as a rising hub of innovation, a so-called “Hollywood for Makers” and “Silicon Valley of Hardware.” These media stories took up an idea that open source hardware advocates had been promoting for several years: that the city of Shenzhen had become crucial for the realization of one of the key promises of the maker movement, i.e. to prototype concrete alternatives to the pitfalls of the information society and contemporary capitalism. Just a couple years earlier, Shenzhen was largely known as a place of copycats and fakes that lacked creativity where ideas created elsewhere were simply executed and mass produced. What happened within the timespan of only a few years that changed Shenzhen’s image from demonstrating China’s continuous lag in technology innovation towards a place where alternatives to neoliberal capitalism could be prototyped? In this talk, I present excerpts from my forthcoming book “The Promise of Making” to unpack the historical contingencies of this transformation of Shenzhen, and with it China, in the global tech imaginary. Drawing from more than seven years of ethnographic research, I show how the displacement of technooptimistic onto Shenzhen unfolded through and alongside the emergence of “making” as a mode of intervention in the status-quo by hacking not only machines, but also markets and work itself. Shenzhen, I show, was rendered by open source hardware advocates, venture capitalists, avant-garde designers, Chinese politicians and state actors alike as a laboratory to prototype what I call “entrepreneurial living,” i.e. a naturalization of experimentation as a mode of “living on" amidst a pervasive economization of life. While making reformulated a key neoliberal logic of self-economization as a story of empowerment by promising to include ever more people in its call for self-transformation into human capital, Shenzhen came to be seen as the place to accomplish this upgrade of the self and to regain a sense of control amidst anxieties over economic and environmental crisis. Entrepreneurial living as an analytical frame moves beyond a theorization of making or hacking as a countercultural or grassroots movement that exists separate or independent from the systems it sets out to challenge, but points instead to the parasitic relations between contemporary maker cultures, China’s shifting relations in geopolitics and the global political economy.

Additional Notes

Silvia Lindtner is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Information, with a courtesy appointment in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. Lindtner's research and teaching interests include innovation and technology entrepreneurship, making and hacking cultures, shifts in digital work, labor, industry, policy, and governance. This work unfolds through a deep engagement with issues of gender, inequality, and enactments of masculinity in engineering and computer science fields, politics and transnational imaginaries of design, contemporary political economy, and processes of economization. Lindtner draws from more than eight years of multi-sited ethnographic research, with a particular focus on China's shifting role in transnational and global tech production alongside research in the United States, Taiwan, and Africa, She is currently writing a book on the culture and politics of making and transnational tech entrepreneurship in urban China. Her research has been awarded support from the US National Science Foundation, IMLS, Intel Labs, Google Anita Borg, and the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation. Her work has appeared at ACM SIGCHI, ACM CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing), ST&HV (Science Technology & Human Values), Games & Culture, China Information, and other venues. Lindtner is affiliated with several interdisciplinary centers and initiatives on campus including the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, the Science, Technology and Society Program, the Digital Studies Program, the Michigan Interactive and Social Computing Research Group, and directs the Tech.Culture.Matters. Research Group. Together with Professor Anna Greenspan and David Li, Lindtner co-directs the Research Initiative Hacked Matter, dedicated to critically investigating processes of technology innovation, urban redesign, and maker-manufacturing cultures in China. Her work contributes to the fields of: STS (science and technology studies), China studies, digital studies, HCI (human computer interaction), CSCW (computer supported cooperative work and social computing), global communication studies, science and technology policy, and design.