Getting Cached in Shanghai

Written by Aline Martinez and Jon C Flint

As part of the Cached collective we are constantly on the move, and with an international team of seven we are always in exciting places around the world. Aline and I, recently landed in Shanghai in January to present a talk and lead a workshop around our project Cached at Extrart Base and CAC. We were joined and supported by David Erhun from thecamp, and Walid our awesome collaborator.

Cached is a project that was developed during the Hive Residency programme at the camp, in the south of France you can find more about Cached and the collective here. Our next stop will be IAM in Barcelona where Joana Mateus and Vytautas Jankauskas will lead a workshop, hope to see you there.

Below Aline and I will answer some questions about the recent trip, discussing how everything went, as well as daily life in Shanghai.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for the Workshop in China?

Poster for ‘The Digital Self’ Workshop at CAC

A. The idea of the workshop and the name of it ‘The Digital Self’ is actually one extension of our research around “trust in the age of algorithms”. This research resulted in an experience where inside a room after logging in on an Ipad, a smart mirror starts talking to you and reveals how your “digital self” appears. After this “revelation”, a receipt with your big five traits is printed out. In other words you get to know your psychometric profile according to the way you write on Facebook or Twitter.

This experience was the first output of this research and it unfolded many other questions to explore. Thus, wondering how to control our digital appearance, we divided into articles approaching psychometrics, personal computing and the new techniques scientists are using to understand our online presence in a qualitative way.

Q. What was your biggest fear about visiting China and Shanghai?

A. My biggest fear was around surveillance and control.

J. Mine was our VPNs (Virtual Private Network) not working, then we wouldn’t be able to do much!

Q. What is the digital self? And how is it different in China?

A.The idea of the digital self is not new. The term is explored again and again in films, lectures and art works. Morpheus maybe was the one I heard using the expression almost 20 years ago, and at the time it was harder to grasp the concept. In a few words, the “Digital Self” is a term we use to talk about digital identity, traces and footprints online. It is an online approximation of who you are. And can be built via algorithms interpreting our data and online activity.

In that scope, how social media apps collect our information in China or anywhere is not that different. The difference is more how people respond to the technology. The word that I heard the most whenever talking about technology was “convenient”. It seems that the convenience stands above any other justification of surveillance and data privacy. Chinese people seems to be very fast and adaptive. To apply for a travel visa more and more companies in China are introducing a “trustworthiness” score based on your finances, to make the process of applying for a visa easier, the trade off is that this data could be shared with third parties or even with the government. This seems convenient, right? Yes! But only as an option and not as a rule. To know more about this fact, check this article.

We also saw the concept of television becoming rapidly obsolete there. An app called Tik Tok (the equivalent of Snapchat) is the obsession there. Almost everybody in the metro no matter their age, was watching people doing random stuff online. And as a person who doesn’t have a phone, the fun part for me was to watch this behaviour.

Q. How did people respond to the project Cached there?

Cached at Extrart Base

J. People responded well to the project, and you got a sense that the audience wanted to understand the philosophy and themes around the project in more depth. The idea that you exist online, and how this has an impact on your identity in the physical world was a recurring topic of discussion. One participant asked us if the algorithm could recognise hidden messages in languages. And discussed how people would give words hidden meanings to avoid surveillance, where words like dolphin or brick could denote various hidden messages (in fact a friend of mine recently did a project around this topic). In comparison at a talk we gave beforehand in Lisbon, the audience wanted to know more about the technical side of the algorithms being used.

Q. What was the workshop about, and what did people do?

J. For the workshop we had a mix of Chinese and western expats attending, twelve people in total. During the first part we did a small demo where participants answered some questions related to how they might appear on social media. This text was then feed to IBM Watson in the same way our bigger project Cached worked, and then we printed out a receipt for everyone with their psychometric profile on it. We later explored how certain words and phrases could be changed to give a different score. For example adding more words such as; we, us and them, as well as talking more about people increased my agreeableness score (that is how you get along with others as opposed to how skeptical you are.)

The participants had to answer a questionnaire in order to print a receipt listing the traits of their digital self

Part two was more hands on, we even made a set of design brainstorming cards to help participants choose what they would prototype. They would choose three cards from three different sets. One of the cards denoted a fact or assumption such as “your selfies reveal too much about your persona”, the next was a design task “design a physical product”, and the last card was a constraint such as “to hide this from society”. After using the cards to generate ideas, we laid out an array of interesting artefacts the group could use to prototype and communicate their idea.

A participant using three cards to form an idea
Aline helping a participant with her prototype. This prototype helps to hide the environment when you want to take a selfie.
Prototype using a box, stick and spring

We had a whole range of interesting prototypes the group created. One prototype was a physical smartphone filter made using a colourful slinky. So taking selfies would only show your face with a colourful ring around it, blocking things in your surroundings from view, the idea was that things in our surroundings such as brands or locations would not be seen by third party advertisers.

Presenting the identity selfie stick, this would reveal how your photo would be perceived before taking and posting it
Prototype made with selfie stick, magnifying glasses, a phone and string

We even had a selfie stick that made you look older or like someone else made using a magnifying glass. You were able to draw things like a beard or wrinkles on the magnifying glass and this would become a physical filter to hide your identity.

Some of the prototypes were even sketches or plans, like one for a messaging app you could use with friends and family that would jumble up the words in messages that you could unlock depending on what group you were talking to.

Q. What was it like preparing and gathering materials for the workshop? Where do people shop in China?

J. It is always daunting to navigate and try to find specific things in a different country. For part two of our workshop as you have seen above, we had to find interesting materials as well as tools for the participants to adapt and turn into basic prototypes.

Items we gathered for the workshop

You would expect Shanghai to have plenty of interesting things for us to use! Knowing where to look was part of the challenge, the first place we came across was a large stationery wholesale market near Qufu road station in Shanghai. I don’t think the merchants expected to see a bunch of designers frantically looking for glue guns or elastic bands here. In fact we had more success in the tourist shops dotted around Yuyuan gardens station, there we found a shopping mall filled with small shops selling everything from kites to, stationary, bags and led lights and at much reasonable prices. This was a treasure trove for us as we found peculiar objects to use for our workshop.

We later found out that sites such as Taobao, (China’s answer to Amazon) was not surprisingly more common for people to buy things on because of the convenience. And the phenomenon of “Taobao villages” rural online entrepreneurs who have opened shops on the Taobao Marketplace, are increasing even more. E Commerce sites also give citizens incentives when using their services, such as rewards and even recommendations based on what they buy. This data of course is used to analyse someone’s social credit score, to determine if for example you will get a loan or not based on your shopping habits as well as other factors.

Q. What was daily life like? What did you eat? How did you commute, and communicate with people? What did you do for fun?

J. Two weeks might seem like quite a short time span, but since we moved around a lot in Shanghai and later Hangzhou we witnessed a whole range of experiences.

First of all the food in Shanghai and China in general is very meat based. So don’t expect to find vegetarian food easily unless you go to a vegetarian specific restaurant. We found that showing the phrase 素食 Sùshí didn’t really help that much. The best places for vegetarians we found were near buddhist temples. And the vegetarian food we did have there was very good, some even tasted like meat!! This western trend of fake meat, had been mastered ages ago in China! Also restaurants close pretty early around 9pm so if you don’t want to dine on frog leg hot pot, eat earlier!

Dining on some Frog leg hot pot as it was the only restaurant open late.

We got a chance to ride on the fastest train in the world going at 430 km/h. Transport was easy on the metro, but trying to hail a cab proved to be more difficult. Another thing you notice is that all the scooters are silent and electric, so you don’t always hear them coming. And scooter seem to obey their own traffic rules!

Maglev train Shanghai, world’s fastest train

A. I found the city life there really something. I was impressed to see people doing their morning exercises in the park. Also the amount of elder people just turning on a loudspeaker and dancing during the whole day as ravers do in Europe. Since I like to dance, I gave it a go and tried not to disappoint them!

Aline doing her “exercise routine” in the square
Dancing with a local man

As mentioned before, to build the workshop we had to go shopping. In the touristic area we had no problem communicating since the merchants could speak basic english. However, things got a little interesting when we had to go to the stationery wholesale market. There, we had to invent ways to communicate by pointing and doing the “how much does it cost” sign with the fingers and thumb (you know?). But then, strangely they were answering our sign with another one. We just couldn’t get it, so they would answer with the calculator, we would pay and it was the end of the story.

By chance we asked one of our colleagues who was living in china what the signs meant. And to our surprise, Chinese people count to ten with one hand as you can see in the photo below.

Number sign in Chinese. (image found on the internet)

Overall, going to China was amazing and I can see the positive impact that this experience has brought to my life. Together with Jon, David and Walid, I could experience, discuss and understand the contrast between what we heard, and the reality of China according to those living there. China is growing so fast and I wonder if it will be the same when I come back there.

We want to thank the Hive and David Erhun for their support, and the brilliant folks at Extrart Base and CAC for the amazing hospitality and opportunity.