Volume 20 Numbers 3 & 4, 2010
Review of Working Class Network Society by Jack Linchuan Qiu, MIT Press, 2009
Those of us who have been following the research of Prof. Jack Qiu have heard many of the ideas presented in this book in seminars and conferences. Even at this early stage, it was obvious that Jack Qiu was on to an important point. The recovery of class, hitherto the bread and butter of sociologists, seemed to have slipped away in the excitement of the new media with its utopian promises and possibilities. Admittedly, some of these predictions bordered on the millenarian and fantastic such as the end of inequality and the rise of a postcorporeal society. It is therefore timely that class, with its banalities of everyday life, be reinserted in any discussion and investigation of the new media. Heavily influenced by Manuel Castells and the concept of network society, Qiu adapts this concept to the new realities of the Chinese information society.
Qiu begins by making important distinctions. Most studies of the new media focussed on the consequences of the binary view of the digital divide. While this divide may have been initially important, it quickly became obvious that the technology was so rapidly diffusing throughout society that access itself was almost universal. What mattered was how most people used the technology to improve their lives and how policy planners and service providers regarded the lower ends of the market. This shift from the presence or lack of digital devices to their social and practical uses is the main focus of this book. Qiu examines how people with limited means use the new media to survive under conditions that increasingly affect all but the very wealthy. While China is indeed regarded as having accomplished a major social transformation not seen since the industrial revolution, the cost of this transformation is seldom mentioned. Rural-urban migration, high cost of living, the r eduction of social amenities and instabilities in employment are only some of the costs.
Referring to his subjects as the information have-less, Qiu provides us with graphic images as well as collective statistics on how Chinese people living in the underside of a growing affluence have to navigate the uncertainties of everyday life in conditions not experienced before. Not only are the information have-less often away from their homes but many of the amenities of urban life such as employment, health care, education and housing are often unavailable. Fortunately, access to mobiles and the internet provide some measure of security as people network with kin, friends and associates to obtain what jobs and services are available. This survival strategy is increasingly part of the informal and even the formal information economy of China. Others (e.g. Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls, Picador, 2009) have given us moving accounts of the realities of young women and men living in factory dormitories as they search for a better life. Qiu provides mor e horrific examples of the desperation of the young poorly educated youth. Representations of their deeds vary as one moves from the major networks to informal blogs, indicating that the have-less perceives the world in very different terms. The new media allows for diverse perspectives that often contradict official accounts, opening avenues for democratic discourse but also increasing social tensions.
The have-less share many conditions of life, giving them an objective but not necessarily a subjective class position. The influence of Weber allows Qiu to make more subtle distinctions on the nature of class differentiation and consciousness than is often the case with conventional Marxist understandings. The new working class as identified by Qiu is different from its industrial counterpart not only because it is being shaped in distinct cultural circumstances (i.e. modern China rather than England) but also because of its networking capacities. Instant access to crucial information about jobs, housing and other essentials becomes part of daily life for young rural migrants. Yinni Peng (Mobile Communication & Resistance of Migrant Workers in the Pearl River Delta Area, Philippine Sociological Review 55:2007) discusses how migrant workers use their mobiles to find new and better paying jobs as well as keep track of friends as they change jobs. Patr ick Pui-lam Law and Ke Yang have discussed how blogging has invigorated Chinese civil society and provided avenues for political action (The Blog and Civil Society in China, Philippine Sociological Review 55:2007). Class affiliation and collective action take on new forms in the context of the new media. Even cultural forms such as theatre, poetry and film are being reshaped by the have-less as they negotiate everyday life.
Qiu has given us a new appreciation of the profound transformations generated by the new information society as well as the persistence of inequalities and other continuing injustices. Qiu also argues how effective these inequalities are for maintaining the miracle of China’s economy. He provides us with a more balanced view of the possibilities of the new technology. That they are taking shape in China and other parts of the non-West is a welcome change from the focus of much contemporary scholarship. Qiu starts by posing the question: Do information and communication technologies (ICTs) help the poor, or do they promote the interests of the rich? This apparent lapse into binarism is not fully resolved even as Qiu meanders through complex data showing both the advantages as well as the exploitative consequences of the information society. He avoids the position of technological determinism but shows how the new technology creates conditions of possibilities. Ho w these possibilities will develop depend on external factors but also on how the have-less respond to everyday needs. New forms of agency have opened up and only the future will show how they are taken up. This book will earn its place as an example of a theoretically sophisticated as well as empirically informed study of the effects of the new media.
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