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Blockchain Chicken Farm

Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China's Countryside

Xiaowei Wang
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2020
256 pp.
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In Blockchain Chicken Farm, Xiaowei Wang reveals the myriad ways that technology is transforming our lives. They unveil, for example, the unexpected connections that exist between industrial oyster farming in rural China, livestream-fueled multilevel marketing schemes in the United States, and the app-enabled gig economy in which Chinese influencers participate. Following the threads of places and people woven together by new technologies, Wang helps readers trace the patterns emerging in the tapestry of our tech-infused world.

Each chapter provides a view into not just how we use technology but why and to what end. Emphasizing the often-hidden human engine that powers our app-driven economy, Wang exposes the flaw in our tendency to conflate societal and cultural aspirations with the promises of technology and challenges us to honestly measure what value technology delivers. In the 21st century, they argue, we demand that technologists solve the problems that our governments and communities have not. In doing so, we inadvertently empower companies to exploit and amplify those same problems.

Most of Wang’s vignettes relate to Chinese agriculture. This decision, which roots the narrative in the visceral language of human sustenance, grounds the heady subject matter. The titular example takes readers to the GoGo Chicken farm in Sanqiao, a “dreamlike” village that sits in one of the poorest regions in China. Here, Wang introduces the straw-hatted “Farmer Jiang,” who has partnered with his village government and a blockchain company to sell free-range chickens via an e-commerce site. Jiang’s chickens sell for RMB 300 (~$35) each, an amount equal to 6% of the average annual household income in that part of China. Wang explains that high-profile failures of regulatory oversight have left many Chinese with a deep distrust of the food supply chain and that upper-class Chinese urbanites will pay a premium for reassurance about food safety, which, in this case, takes the form of a vacuum-sealed chicken that comes with a QR code revealing blockchain-logged details of its life on the farm.

Wang suggests that Americans, driven by concerns over animal welfare, may desire similar reassurance about their food’s provenance. In both China and America, they observe, technology allows the upper class to buy its way around governmental and societal shortcomings at prices that are out of reach for most people. Technology does not correct the intrinsic problems, and most cannot reap the benefits of the technological “solutions.”

Without resorting to an overly romanticized notion of rural wisdom, Wang treats individuals like Jiang, whose future remains uncertain owing to the vagaries of e-commerce supply chains, with respect and empathy. Because of this, they largely succeed in their goal of reframing our understanding of technology as neither the cause of nor the solution to our problems but rather as a force reshaping the human experience in fundamental ways.

About the author

The reviewer is at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, San Jose, CA 95112, USA.