Meet Professor Silvia Lindtner from the School of Information and Penny Stamps School of Art and Design, who became an LRCCS faculty associate in 2014. In this interview, she talks about her ethnographic research on World of Warcraft hackers in Beijing, the world of ‘making’ in China, and some of the inequalities present in that space.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard
Couillard: I always like to start from the very beginning – so where did you grow up?
Prof Lindtner: I lived in Austria until I was 21 – I graduated from college in a field called media technology and design, which was designed in many ways to prepare its students to help build something like the “Silicon Valley of Austria.” I didn’t realize that at the time, as I felt excited about the intersection of digital studies, computing, design, and the arts, and the degree helped me learn more about that.
Couillard: And when did you become interested in more academic work?
Prof Lindtner: For my thesis I was already involved in a research lab at the German tech firm Siemens, and at that time I did some basic research in user interface design and mobile computing. I thought that was interesting because it seemed the intersection of technology and people was missing in the computing industry more broadly. After my thesis I worked for a year and half abroad at Princeton in a research lab, and got to work in the space of human-computer interaction. After these two years exploring the intersections of research, technology, and design, I decided to apply for doctoral degree programs in Europe and the United States.
Couillard: So when did China come into the picture?
Prof Lindtner: Fairly late for me. When I was at the research lab in Princeton, I had done some research on game design and also helped design a game. And when I started out on my PhD at UC Irvine in 2006, Bonnie Nardi, one of the faculty at UC Irvine, got a grant from Intel to study World of Warcraft in China, which had become immensely popular in China at that time. She asked me if I wanted to be part of the team, and I was like, “This sounds amazing!” From that point I began learning Chinese.
Couillard: What was your first experience in China?
Prof Lindtner: In the summer of my first year of the PhD program. The project was in partnership with Beida [Peking University], and most of my research took place in Beijing. I spent a lot of time in Internet cafes. For a while, I was following a group of students who were basically hacking World of Warcraft. The Chinese government at that time had censored some of the graphics of the game, and the young people in the Internet cafés were really upset about that – they wanted to play the “authentic” American game. For example, there were skeletons in the game which got replaced with graves. And the gamers were saying, “I’m much more afraid of censorship than I am of skeletons.” So, what this group of students did was that they got a pirated version of the game, purchased a couple of PCs, wrote some software – and set up their own private game servers. They became so popular that a micro-economy developed around the game and some of the kids were even making money off of this. I was so intrigued that I decided I needed to really get good at Chinese and make this my thing.
Couillard: How did these gamers respond to a random Austrian woman hanging around all the time?
Prof Lindtner: As is common for ethnographic research, I developed close relationships with many of them. In the following years, I focused specifically on another emergent gaming phenomenon – the killer game (杀人游戏 in Chinese). People had not only set up their own game servers, but had built gaming clubs to play this game. I spent two summers hanging out in these gaming clubs in Beijing and Shanghai, funded by a grant from the Intel People and Practices Research group under Ken Anderson and Maria Bezaitis. People at these gaming clubs were definitely curious about me. Being white and female opened some doors and closed others – people would invite me in because they were curious. And I became especially close with some of the other female gamers, such as a Chinese woman who’d studied in Germany, who also spoke amazing German. She was an important interlocutor. I’d also spend a lot of time with them offline; we’d go clubbing or partying after the gameplay. They invited me to their homes, and other non-game activities.
Couillard: So when did “making” come into the picture?
Prof Lindtner: Throughout my research in China, I had been interested in the intersection of computing, the digital, and the arts. I had followed a group of people in Beijing and Shanghai who had been working in this space, many with a computer science and/or creative arts background. One that stood out was the collective that had gathered around called Xin Danwei (新单位), which was a coworking space in Shanghai at the time, that brought together an interdisciplinary collective of people interested in an open Internet and Chinese model of design innovation including China’s first Internet bloggers.
I was finishing up my preliminary research and looking into starting my dissertation research, which would be one year of fieldwork. So I contacted them, told them about my ethnographic research, and they were like, “Sure, when can you start?” Which was pretty unexpected – usually people are a little more hesitant. This happened to be the group that set up China’ first hackerspace – only two months after I started working with them.
A couple years later, there was a lot of international attention – China’ maker scene had attracted foreign investment, especially from Europe and the United States. It was especially Shenzhen in the South of China that figured in the global imaginary of making as a renewed and central protagonist. The Chinese government too started supporting these spaces, and they began popping up all over the place. Some of the people in the hacker/maker community were ambivalent about the international and national endorsement – on the one hand, it appeared to grant them at last what China had long been denied: the status of modern innovation. Of course this was a very complex issue, and it’s actually one of the topics in my first book, which I’m working on now.
Couillard: What sort of an impact would you like for your research to have?
Prof Lindtner: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about China and its role in contemporary and past technology and innovation practices. I’m interested in offering an alternative view. I have also become really interested in unpacking how Westerns perceptions of China have been shifting over the years. For instance, Shenzhen is now celebrated as a hotbed for innovation even through it was known only a couple of years ago only for low quality copycats. I think these perceptions can also be mapped to global relations between China and the rest of the world. So I hope my work will help challenge cultural stereotypes and biases around that history.
Couillard: What’s one of the biggest stereotypes you want to challenge?
Prof Lindtner: The whole promise of making (which I want to use as the title of my book) is this story about individual empowerment. That if you give people the right open source tools, they can regain control over the means of production. The promise was: this is for everyone – anyone can take part. This story of promise masks continuous racial and gender inequalities. For instance, in some of the Western-funded incubators where I did my research, continuous enactments of masculinity tied to the promise of regaining control via technological tinkering legitimized and rendered invisible class and gender inequalities. So much of the story is about promise and progress, but even in networks where people say they are committed to challenging patriarchy and classism, you still see these entrenched norms.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more LRCCS interviews.