Working-Class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China
by Jack Linchuan Qiu;
MIT Press; US$35.00
Han Ying left her home in rural Sichuan province when she was only 16 years old for the city of Chengdu. There she hoped to find a better life and escape the poverty she had grown up in.
Soon after arriving, Han began chronicling her life as a migrant worker on a blog, writing about her jobs and sharing her feelings of homesickness, loneliness and her aspirations for the future. Over time, Han’s virtual diary attracted thousands of fans while inspiring others in similar situations to share their experiences as well.
Jack Linchuan Qiu spent more than five years traveling around China, talking to people like Han about the ways in which they use the internet and mobile phones to find jobs, form social networks, access information and better their lives. He tells their stories in Working-Class Network Society, a book illuminating the complex and layered ways in which technology has become wedded to the basic human existence of China’s economically disadvantaged.
Qiu argues that long-standing debates on the "digital divide"– the social division between the information haves and have nots – fail to capture the pervasive diffusion of technology among a group he calls the "information have-less."This group, which includes migrant workers, the unemployed, senior citizens and youths, comprises the "working-class network society."
The concept was inspired by techno-sociologist Manuel Castell’s theory of network society, which seeks to explain the advent of an information-age social structure based on global networks of communication, politics, business and culture. Embedded within these networks are new forms of inequality and empowerment determined by access to and exclusion from information.
To be sure, the information have-less have emerged in other developing countries as well, but what makes the Chinese case remarkable is the sheer scale and pace at which lower-end users have adopted communications technology.
The context is also important. As China continues its massive economic and structural transformations, millions whose future was once guaranteed by the state now have greater autonomy but also greater insecurity. Mobile phones and the internet have become a means of obtaining social support and information as well as maintaining family ties.
Qiu describes the spillover into the world of work as "network labor,"whereby relationships between workers – who previously may have had little or no contact at all – are forged "under new conditions of industrialization, globalization and networked connectivity."
It is a phenomenon that stems from the dissemination of inexpensive mobile phones and internet access via cyber cafes to millions of the previously disconnected. An interesting twist in the story is that many of the information have-less are factory workers who assemble the very products that are changing their lives.
In presenting his complex picture of the rise of China’s working-class network society, Qiu raises fundamental questions about what the use of this technology means for the country’s poor and their place in society.
Qiu cites examples of cultural and political empowerment – such as Han Ying’s blog – whereby a new avenue of expression and collective shared experience has emerged among geographically dispersed yet technologically connected migrant workers. Yet he stops short of saying that the working-class network society will capitalize on this wider access to information and use it as an agent for large-scale social change.
As of now, the group is fragile, consisting of disparate, loosely connected networks that are still vulnerable to commercial exploitation and state control. Information, it would appear, does not equal power.
The next step
What is needed, Qiu argues, is not only an awareness of how the less wealthy use communication technology to obtain information and cultivate social networks, but also concrete steps in the public and private sectors to ensure working-class networks can survive and thrive, so these new participants do not become disconnected again.
The first step in making this happen, he says, is acknowledging the existence of the information have-less caught in the great divide between the information haves and have nots.