In this episode I speak with Gabriele de Seta, a scholar working on machine vision, digital media and related technologies in China. His piece about the Chinese term ‘black technology’ (heikeji 黑科技) captured my attention, which led me to write this note. The expression ‘black technology’ originated in a Japanese anime, and was subsequently translated into Chinese, becoming a buzzword for describing the most advanced kind of technologies, the cutting edge of the cutting edge. De Seta explains that the term has come to mean, ‘futuristic developments and opaque innovations — any technology characterized by a novelty yet to be fully grasped, harboring both promise and threat.’ By exploring the idea of black technology, not only do we recognise a term that is commonplace in Chinese but largely unknown in English, we are reminded of the importance of considering how technologies are mediated through the social and cultural contexts in which they are used. As de Seta observes,
as an ambiguous signifier oscillating between near-future developments and science-fictional innovation, the trajectory of heikeji [black technology] epitomizes the imaginaries through which computation and automation have been envisioned and narrativized during the past decade in China.
These themes are prominent in our discussion. We talk about the emergence and meaning of the term ‘black technology’, doing so in relation to some of de Seta’s other work on digital practices in China, such as considering how ‘deep fakes’ are commonly known as huanlian, which literally means ‘changing faces’. Our conversation explores important sociotechnical themes, thinking about how ways of understanding interact with ways of doing, and how visions of the future inform and shape contemporary practices. A more basic conclusion that comes through is the vital need for greatly expanding our thinking, moving beyond the Western frames that dominate how these issues are generally considered.
This conversation has been cross-posted on the ‘Imperfect world’ podcast feed. It was produced with support by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. Previous episodes: IW01, IW02, IW03, IW04.