Interview: Xiaowei Wang, Technologist, Writer & Author of Blockchain Chicken Farm

BY Linda Kinstler | Writers on Writing

Xiaowei Wang is a technologist, writer, creative director, and PhD candidate in geography at UC Berkeley. Their debut work of non-fiction, Blockchain Chicken Farm, a reported chronicle of the political and social entanglements of technology in rural China, was published by FSG Originals in October. The New York Times calls the book a “nuanced and thought-provoking account,” in which Wang travels across the Chinese countryside, turning “a keen eye for the steampunk-like details of ancient rural areas now shot through with internet opportunity.” Wang blends reportage, memoir, and speculative fiction to portray the intricacies and contradictions of globalization in rural China. Earlier this year, Wang spoke with the Art of Writing’s Linda Kinstler about their literary and scholarly practices, and why demystifying the language of technology is a critical ethical endeavor.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Xiaowei Wang by Ian Pearce

LK: When did you start thinking about writing up this project? Your book is so clearly and cogently written and organized, but you also experiment with different forms. What was your process like? How did you go about collecting the stories that make up the book? Were you toggling between all of these different modes — audio, film, writing — as you were traveling? How did the form of this project coming together for you?

XW: I really like that question because now that I’m trying to be more of a professional writer — whatever that means — I feel like I’m trying to force a different process, one different from any process I’ve pursued in the past. In the process of filmmaking, or even photographing, you’re just constantly shooting footage. There’s just so much stuff collected. I would interview people, I would have audio, for the film I would have video, and all of that would end up being transcribed. I was collecting recipes from people by word of mouth, just gathering all this material.

The first draft of the manuscript was honestly kind of a mess. It was totally different than what the book is now. In the first draft, I took the recipes I had collected from folks and really kind of compartmentalized them into this, kind of, speculative fiction bucket and was in a sort of short-story mindset. Then there was another part of my brain that was sifting through the interview material that I had collected while traveling, whether it was for the recipes zine or for the tech in China film. It all kind of blurred. And then on top of that, I had all this policy material. So the first draft, the reason why I say it was a mess, was because I honestly didn’t have a sense at that point of what it meant to really have a voice. In academia, you’re writing the paper and it can just be like, here’s the paper, here’s the information, here’s an argument. And that was it. It was pretty empty of any sense of voice.

LK: How did you go about bringing your background as both a coder and an academic and translating it into this very accessible, clear form? You’re very attentive to the different kinds of language that these different modes require. A big concern of the book is about what gets lost in the mystification of code and of technology writ large. Did you have to kind of work your way through that on your own as you were writing?

XW: Some of the feedback from the editors on the first draft was that I needed to explain these concepts as if I were speaking to someone with no background. I’m glad that I had some distance between the first draft and when the second draft was due, because I could step back. I think that the way I’ve realized that I work is that I’ll be writing and transcribing these interviews, summarizing these policy papers, and then I’ll go and do something that seems totally unconnected. I’ll go hang out with film friends and watch a bunch of movies and then maybe go hang out with my friends who are working on food justice.

That allows me to realize that, actually, a lot of us are talking about the same things. We all want the same thing: We want a greater sense of justice in the world, fairer economic systems. But we all have these different words that we use in our own spheres. That kind of context-switching, for me, has been incredibly helpful, a chance to just step back and think about the words we use.

LK: Did it also shift how you think about writing about technology in general?

XW: Totally. This is one of the things that we try to do at Logic Magazine more broadly. A certain segment of writing about any industry has to do with the industry wanting to glorify itself. In order to glorify itself, you need to obfuscate, right? It’s like, “I’m an expert because I’m using all these fancy words that you won’t understand.” Ethically, it’s important to demystify all of these things, otherwise it just contributes to the self-importance of engineering-speak. All these terms, they’re invented. Their invention just made me realize like how fragile everything is, and how it can be played with.  

Not to get too Nor-Cal, but between the first and second draft I went on this Buddhist retreat. In the retreat, the teacher was talking about how, as a single person, we can’t say that we know the whole universe of knowledge. We’re just looking at the sky through a straw. An important part of life is like being like, “Oh, I’m looking at it through the straw. I can only see a tiny part and I have to talk to other people who also know just this tiny patch of sky.” It was a reminder that ultimately, I only know what I know through the vessel of my personal experience. That’s the way that I wanted to relate to readers.

LK: And if you’re like looking through your own particular straw up at the sky, does what you see also inflect your academic research, your work with Logic? So much of what you do, across these different venues and fields, is complementary, like many different parts of a whole. 

XW: I just finished up a year-long new media project. I do all of these things, and maybe they take up to a year or, max, two years. I didn’t fully comprehend the timescale of writing a book. You’re writing something and then it doesn’t get published until two years later. I had this anxiety, I thought, “Oh my God, am I still going to agree with myself?” It’s this hard copy thing that will be out in the world. There’s a sense of gravity to it, a permanence to it, even though that’s not actually true in a sense. It does feel like this is a really new thing for me. At Logic, we publish three times a year, so it does feel strangely new and permanent to write a book, to just even know that my book is in a library somewhere.

LK: It’s incredible! There’s a kind of permanence to the archive.

XW: Yeah, exactly. Ideally. You know, maybe some young grad student, years from now, will find your book and be like, this person is so old and so wrong.

LK: I doubt that. Anyway. Tell me, how did you decide to include speculative fiction in the form of these tiny, fun recipes that create nice interludes between your travel episodes and your observations about different kinds of ways that technology is being applied in China. What work do you want those to do? As I was reading, I felt that I was being conditioned to be able to imagine these speculative worlds, following along on your journey, kind of concerned and disturbed, but also kind of dazzled. What did you want those recipes to do in the book?

XW: I think there’s a way that we always describe futures, especially in tech writing, that is pretty disconcerting. Because it’s always like: “In the future, the internet will collapse. Or in the future, the internet will XYZ.” I wanted to trouble that formula a little bit, in a kind of humorous, subversive way. What I really appreciate about speculative fiction is that they allow you to poke at things in the present, in a way that pushes the imagination.

With the recipes, I was trying to acknowledge that everything can be dystopian and everything is currently dystopian, and yet, we continue in our daily lives. There’s this flavor of the everyday that will carry through. When I think about China, under authoritarianism life still survives and struggles and continues. I think grounding it in food, for me, felt like the way to do that. It’s funny, some people really dislike the recipes, and some people really enjoy them. Maybe because I wasn’t trained as a writer, I’m not sure how to respond to such a range of diverse and opposing responses.

LK: There’s no way of guaranteeing how something will be received, especially something experimental, something that has to be imagined by whoever is on the receiving end.

XW: Right. I’m thinking about all those TechCrunch articles about the future of AI, they function kind of like mirrors when you read them. Some people are like, “Oh, this is a horrible future.” And others are like, “This is an amazing future that I want to live in!”

LK: How has working on the  book changed how you think about the possibilities of writing as an academic pursuit? Has it changed how you think about what the practice of being a grad student is?

XW: I think with academic writing, you can often use certain terms and be pretty certain that the audience knows what those terms mean. In an academic setting, I know what kind of feedback to expect. In a way, writing in an academic setting, it feels — I don’t want to say more comfortable, but the community that I’m speaking to, the sense of who I’m in dialogue with, that feels more stable. Whereas with my paperback book, the circle of readers is much broader.

LK: Last question: How has your personal relationship to writing shifted?

XW: I guess now that the book is published, I’m discovering that there’s a whole realm of professional writers who have gone through MFA programs. Definitely, when I was writing the book, I felt like a complete fraud. But I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was an undergrad, I wanted to become a writer, but quickly realized that that would lead to complete pennilessness. So I don’t know, it’s strange. I’m still processing what all of this means.