Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 10 July 2010

Anthrodesign on Google in China — again

Tricia Wang, who has earlier analysed the reasons of Google’s lack of success in China, has returned to the topic in a post on Cultural Bytes. She realised, she wrote, that contrary to her earlier analysis,

The bigger issue was more than a matter of Google failing to conduct proper ethnography and user tests on the Chinese market. The real issue is that China and Google see the world in different ways and this informs their outlook on how access to information should be mediated. And ultimately Google assumed that their world view would eventually trump China’s.


 I argue that the Google-China saga is an example of a contemporary clash in moral orders centered around information politics. Google exemplifies a hacker ethic that can be traced back to Enlightenment ideals of individual achievement while China reflects Confucian cultural norms of social harmony that emerged 2,400 years ago during the early Han dynasty. A moral order rooted in Enlightenment ideals rewards rebels, while a moral order rooted in Confucian ideals rewards followers. 

Access to information has become a battle site of cultural imperialism. Information politics is ultimately a struggle over meaning and symbols. Google, one of the main players, has successfully linked the commodification of information to an ethical system of social change which I call “neo-informationalism,” a retooling of neo-liberal ideals and a re-envisioning of imperialism based on information as a primary means to wealth expansion in the digital age.

I was surprised. I found Wang’s first analysis to be good because it paid attention to what Chinese users actually did. I don’t think Chinese users, in general, actually talk or behave in a way that lets itself be traced back easily to Confucianism and social harmony. How useful are these concepts for understanding online communication? Yes, many Chinese think that some form of regulation is needed for the Internet, and no, not many of them are interested in the abstract issue of freedom of expression. But there is also genuine excitement among educated Chinese about Google standing up to the government — because the government is not trusted very much. And in any case, Google’s ideology is unlikely to play a role in users’ browser choice.


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