SP: With a population of 802 million, China is home to the largest number of internet users in the world and 788 million smartphone users. Could you explain what the Chinternet is and what makes it unique?
XW: Chinternet is a term to describe »the Chinese internet,« a unique internet ecosystem and culture that flourished behind »the Great Firewall.« In the late 1990s, a few American tech companies entered the Chinese market, but because of stiff competition from local Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu, the American companies eventually left China. Government restrictions on the free flow of information (including censorship and information manipulation through the »50 cent party«) also created this unique culture and ecosystem of apps.
While internet adoption in places like the United States started with personal computers, for many Chinese internet users, their first interaction with the internet is through a mobile phone, and using apps.
»I think poetry and humor allow us to constantly subvert power.«
Under these constraints, a unique netizen culture has proliferated, of slang and memes to discuss censored topics all the way to doling out mob justice. And for everyday citizens, mobile phones are crucial to daily life. These days, you use your mobile phone to do everything, from taking the subway in a city to paying for pork buns at your neighborhood street food stall.
SP: The Future of Memory to a certain extent is an exploration of Chinese digital culture with a focus on forms of expression through memes, emojis, puns — despite its serious context it has a poetic and funny quality — what role do humor, pop culture, and poetics play in your work?
XW: I’m inspired by the poet Audre Lorde’s proclamation »poetry is not a luxury.« I think poetry and humor allow us to constantly subvert power. I’m reminded of an article that Zara Rahman recently wrote: https://deepdives.in/can-data-ever-know-who-we-really-are-a0dbfb5a87a0
In it, she describes how data is just a slice of who we are, at a certain point in time. And I think this is the interesting tension between quantification and poetry — there’s a lot that machines cannot yet capture, and especially words and jokes that automated systems of censorship can’t capture. It takes time for even human censors to react.
And I think that’s what I find most inspiring about the memes, emojis and puns that come out of trying to bypass censorship … it’s how there’s always going to be poetry and life, even if power tries to snuff it out.