She is a Chinese global technology ethnographer, owner of a famous Internet dog and ardent Zygmunt Bauman fan. We are happy to have Tricia Wang talk at this year's re:publica about "How to avoid curses in the era of Big Data". Learn more about her topic in our little interview with her.
The motto of this year's re:publica is Finding Europe. re:publica aims to address all political, digital, cultural and economic spheres. Being situated in the US, could you give us one sentence of how you currently perceive Europe? Whether in its digital, cultural or political terms.
I’m going to focus on the cultural-tech aspect. Europe and US seem to be dealing with similar cultural challenges around what it means to live in what Zygmunt Bauman refers to as “liquid modernity,” the idea that we now live in highly amorphous times, partially enabled by software that creates fluid connections that can be quickly tied or untied.
I am fascinated with how technology platforms produce and contribute to this liquid modernity. We use technology apps and services that purport to save us time, but in many ways these very apps and services also produce a greater state of uncertainty. A by product of these software is that it leads to the experience of possibility paralysis—the debilitating feeling that comes with a world of endless choices, hacks, and pathways. I see Bauman’s diagnosis of liquid modernity as the texture of our lives is totally on point. Interestingly, Europe and US have responded to this liquid modernizing of our lives in different ways.
It seems to be that in Europe, individuals and nation-states have a done a better job in publicly and widely surfacing a more nuanced approach to these platforms where as in the US, users have had a more open arms, partially because most of these platforms are US born (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc). European states have done a great job of initiating policies and public dialogues around citizens' information rights. While there are tons of people in the US who are just as critical and nuanced as those in Europe about these topics, the conversations just haven’t been as publicly elevated and amplified as much as it has been in Europe. So in the US I think we have a lot of legwork to do to transform these conversations that typically happen in academia or between expert circles into the wider public.
You are a global tech ethnographer. That sounds really cool. Could you tell us a bit more what you are doing and give a glimpse into your daily work?
Essentially, I found a way to formalize my endless curiosity for everything, love for gossip, and passion for new experiences into an official role called, “global tech ethnographer.” So when I’m in the field, I live with people, listen to their stories, and document it. There’s also a social justice component to what I do because I am always fascinated by people who live on the edges whether they are working in the informal economy, underprivileged, or fighting for equality.
I think the best way to give you a glimpse of what I do is for me to select 3 instances from my fieldwork. When I arrive in a city, I try to map the informal economy. So here’s a post where I talk about my process for doing that. These are a collection of live field notes from my time living with street vendors who sold dumplings to construction workers. Sometimes I just post live field notes, which are usually short snippets of really long field notes shared in real-time from the field to social media. On my most recent trip, I noted that the pictures on the wall in a bedroom was a rural version of Instagram.
For you it is the first time to speak at re:publica and we’re curious: could you already give us a hint on what you want to talk about?
I’ll be talking about my latest obsession, which is the integration of data science and social science. This is a big departure from my research on the Internet in China, but I think it's equally important and connected. There’s been a lot of excitement around big data but this excitement is often coupled the devaluation of what I call thick data – data brought to light using qualitative, ethnographic research methods that uncover emotions, stories, and meaning to improve strategy, policy, products, and services. I’ve been trying to understand how quantitative data became more valued than qualitative data. I think there’s a long historical arc that we need to understand if we want to harness more value from big data.
But to be honest, while I should be preparing my talk, I’m spending most of my time obsessing over Zygmunt Bauman, who will be speaking before me on Friday at 12:30pm – it’s on my calendar! I’M IN STAR SHOCK STILL! I’m now sitting in my pyjamas in my Brooklyn apartment with his books surrounding me and falling asleep to his passage on liquid love and equality. I can barley muster up the energy to brush my teeth, much less work on my talk! I mean, really, Zygmunt is just beyond galactic brilliance! I’ve been reading his work foreeeever and I never knew that my dream of hearing him speak would come true. When I was a graduate student, I often daydreamed about taking classes with him or having him on my dissertation committee. Now, re:publica is making this possible! THANK YOU! YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING!
God I’ve totally hyped up my meeting with Zygmunt – like I’m thinking about our selfie and what I will say or should I even say anything? I mean what do you say to one of the world’s most brilliant thinkers? Now that I have confessed my love for Zygmunt, I’m going to start working on my talk.