Liwen’s Digital Journey Into the Computer World

Last week, I shared Debora Lui’s essay about her relationship with the Netflix Queue as an example of the work I’ve received on an assignment I set my students in the graduate prosem I teach on media theory and methods. They were asked to write an essay which drew on personal experiences as the basis for theoretical observations about media and popular culture. Today, I wanted to share another example of the work generated in response to this assignment. This one comes from Liwen Jin, a CMS first year master’s student, who comes to us from the People’s Republic of China. So much has been written in the west about China’s embrace of digital technology that I thought you might appreciate reading her perspective on the changes new media has wrought in her country and about the process by which she became digitally literate.

Liwen’s Digital Journey into the Computer World

Liwen Jin

My first time to touch a computer was in May 1995, when I was about to graduate from a primary school. My parents sent me to a professional institute to let me get some basic training in wielding the computer. However, when I arrived at that summer school, I was totally surprised and even scared by the fact that all of the students there were twenty or thirty something except me, only a 12 year old girl in that big class. During that time, very few Chinese people knew how to operate a computer. Computer education was limited to MS-DOS and keyboarding. In that class, though I was the smallest one, I got the highest grade in the final test, which made me pretty confident in utilizing the latest technologies, and it fascinated me with that small magic”box” at that young age.

After that, I had no more experience with the computer until entering high school in 1998. Every high school student in China was supposed to get some elementary computer education. However, the fact was far from the requirements set by the country’s National Education Ministry. High school students usually sat in the computer room, busy doing their own homework. Driven by the intense pressure of College Entrance Examinations, high school students usually devoted all of their time to their studies. They did not have weekends, nor extra time to watch TV or play the computer. They were usually regarded as one of the most “miserable” social groups in China. Besides, the Internet was not popular at all at that time. Getting access to the Internet was very expensive and the speed was quite slow. Without the Internet, a computer is just a dead body without its soul. To me, the computer at that time was an alternative to the typewriter, which had no connections to my daily life or studies at all.

The late 20th and early 21th century was a period when China was fervently riding the wave of the “information economy”. The bubble of the dot-com economy in the West brought this fever to China too. The business of computers and dot-com rose to prosperity overnight.

In late 2001, my parents bought me a $2,000 personal computer because I was admitted to one of the most famous universities in China. However, it was still rare for college students to carry a personal computer around on campus in that year. I became the first one in my department who owned a personal computer. Fully enjoying the “luxurious” convenience of the computer and the richness of information, I nonetheless slipped into one extreme. I became really immersed in the virtual world. I spent less and less time communicating with my classmates, but more and more time chatting with strangers on the Internet. In different chatting rooms, I disguised myself by different “identities”: college student, female artist, singer etc. I enjoyed discussing art, Chinese literature, films, and entertainment news with different people using different identities. Just as Sherry Turkle says in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, the existence of the Internet has become a place where people are able to forge “cyber-identities” and even get more comfortable being who they are. The Internet possesses the magic to “decentralize” the social identities of users in the virtual world–it strips users of their identities, wealth, social status and social relations in the real world, which makes it possible for online individuals to freely express their opinions and communicate with each other. It “shatters” the “bodies” of people, making their online identities so fragmented and multiple that it becomes really difficult to unify them. Besides, I felt that the separation of online identities from offline identities also resulted in the irresponsibility of netizens to their online speeches.

Indeed, my immersion in cyber space gradually separated me from “true” communication with my friends in real life for a while. Some of my friends even thought I got the symptoms of autism. In fact, during that time, except going to school, I usually confined myself to my room and surfed on the Internet.

But gradually, many of my friends got the same symptoms as mine. From 2003 to 2004, most of my classmates got their own computers and began to replicate my experience with their own. Generally speaking, girls liked to indulge in chatting on the Internet, while boys preferred to play computer games. It became a common phenomenon that dorm-mates chatted on OICQ or MSN instant message instead of talking face to face even though they were living next door to each other. Furthermore, it became very true that some students who behave timidly in real life may speak arrogantly in cyberspace. I actually was also along with them. My friend once told me, “you look very gentle and quiet in real life, but so funny and naughty on MSN. It’s really hard to unify those two of ‘you’!” That’s what I defined as “cyber schizophrenia.” People could have two or even more personalities with the infiltration of “virtual life” into real life. I still remember that one boy who looked extremely shy in real life unexpectedly sent me a series of love letters via email or MSN instant messages at that time. But after I turned him down, he looked so natural and unembarrassed when encountering me on campus. It seemed that the guy on the Internet was not “him” at all. Indeed, the Internet, in this sense, greatly challenged the Chinese tradition of Confucianism which urged people to abide by the principle of moderation and to avoid verbal aggressiveness in any case.

One of the most interesting cyber events during that period was cyber love. It became a fashion especially among college students, since young students had more time surfing on the Internet and they could usually pick up new technologies much more quickly than other social groups. Besides, people do tend to be more frank and audacious in cyberspace. There was a popular love story entitled “First Intimate Touch” written by a Taiwanese writer on the Internet during that period. It described a tragic cyber love story which got widely spread among college students. In fact, the “First Intimate Touch” also ushered in the prosperity of cyber literature in China. The Internet opened a new door to aspiring writers and connected them closely with the audience. In the past, writing had long been considered as a lonely profession, but when prose and poems got put on the Internet, the instant feedback made writing not so lonely any more. That phenomenon could be regarded as the early stage of the convergence of media producers and consumers.

In 2003, another kind of online community began to fascinate me. That was the online Bulletin Board System (BBS). My university’s BBS was one of the most popular college BBSes. It was usually deemed the virtual home to all NJU (Nanjing University) students, just like Mecca to the Islamic. Even though I have been graduated for nearly two years, I still cannot get rid of the habit of logging into NJU BBS every day to see the latest news and join students’ discussions of hot social issues. I thought BBS could be a virtual form of the Habermasian public sphere for the cause of China’s democratization. However, I gradually found that online communities like BBS only validated the theory about the principles of the popular mind of large gatherings of people on the Internet. This theory was first proposed by French social theorist Gustave Le Bon in his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind:

The masses live by, and are ruled by, subconscious and emotional thought process. The crowd has never thirsted for the truth. It turns aside from evidence that is not to its taste, preferring to glorify and to follow error, if the way of error appears attractive enough, and seduces them. Whoever can supply the crowd with attractive emotional illusions may easily become their master; and whoever attempts to destroy such firmly entrenched illusions of the crowd is almost sure to be rejected.

On Chinese BBSes, there was one recurrent issue that never failed to attract the attention of “the crowd”, that is, the anti-Japan nationalism. Last year, MIT’s Visualizing Culture issue was just a case of this point. MIT’s Visualizing Culture course, which used a 19th century wood-print image of Japanese soldiers beheading Chinese prisoners, was spotlighted on MIT’s home page. Unexpectedly, these images swiftly sparked complaints from the MIT Chinese community. Some Chinese students re-posted the images to several famous college BBSes in China, which stimulated a vehement fever of anti-Japan hatred on China’s BBSes. Those “angry young people”began to throw “bricks” on the Internet. Someone even exposed the email address of Professor Shigeru Miyagawa, and instigated people to condemn him via email. Vociferous comments flew around the BBS sphere. Most of them were rude, while truly rational and objective voices were only submerged under the abuse. Obviously, the masses in the blogosphere could easily lose their rationality and follow the “emotional thought process.”

In 2004, the term “blog” became a key word of that year in China. I also joined the crowd to chase that trend. I established my first blog on the Internet and kept writing essays and poems on it. It was really a wonderful place for me to write my meditation on various social, political or cultural issues, and then share with my friends. Compared to BBS, the advantage of the blogosphere lies in its greater rationality than the BBS sphere. On BBS, with their true identities veiled and agitated by mass netizens, people tend to express extreme ideas and they are free of any responsibility for the consequences of their speaking and contents. In the blogosphere, one blog is a separate and independent unit, which is immune to the chaos of the crowd. Besides, after the advent of blogs I saw a trend of the unification of online identities with offline identities in China. Some bloggers have begun to view their blogs as a virtual spiritual home and uncover their real identities on blogs. In this way, netizens will be more responsible for their online speeches. Thus, blogs were supposed to become a powerful driver to accelerate the democratization process in China. However, it dismayed me again. The swift development of celebrity blogs in 2005 finally brought a rigid hierarchy in China’s blogosphere. The popularity of a blog became positively related to the fame of the blogger in real life. Celebrity blogs greatly overshadowed common people’s voices, the result of which discouraged ordinary people from participating in the democratization in China. Besides, the features of the”eyeball economy” dictated that rationality and abstractness were usually far from the foci of our society. The people in cyber space were rarely willing to bother themselves to explore the profundity behind the text. The entry which gets the most clicks on my blog is actually the one to which I post my own photos.

Today, I have been used to the life with the computer and Internet, though my mom still thinks that is addiction. But MIT is always a place full of computer/Internet “addicts.” I cannot even imagine a day without computers and Internet! However, I have to admit that working on the computer is quite inefficient. With the Internet open, the computer becomes a kaleidoscopic world which seduces you to do everything else except your work. The affluence of information on the Internet is thus a virtue as well vice to us. To me, I will continue my journey in this colorful digital world. And I will continue exploiting every chance brought about by new media to promote the democratization in China. I believe that should be regarded as one of the most important missions for overseas Chinese students, to develop and advance our own country along the way of democracy.

Jin Liwen hails from China, where she received her undergraduate degree in media and communications from Nanjing University followed up by studies in American politics and history and international relations at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. She interned in the news commentary division at China’s largest media organization, China Central Television (CCTV), and worked as a journalist at News Probe, an investigative documentary series that addressed the problems of marginal populations such as homosexuals and AIDS patients. This experience encouraged Liwen to turn her academic work towards a critical investigation of the relationship between various media forms (traditional media, blogs and online bulletin board systems) and the development of a democratic culture and public sphere. At CMS, she is eager to continue her research into the role of media in facilitating political democratization and international cultural understanding.

Comments

  1. Henry, Liwen,

    Thanks for sharing this. I am impressed how you went from “first contact”… to enthusiast… to healthy skeptic, in really only a few years. Wow!

    Likewise from education… to relationships… to democratization… to commercialization… and back again. Terrific anecdotes, well told.

    Henry, this assignment is a great idea.

    Cheers, David