If there were an award for the best book title, Blockchain Chicken Farm would surely be in running for 2020. Xiaowei Wang leads off this collection of connected essays about technology and society with a story about how the blockchain has been deployed in China’s rural organic chicken farms to provide untamperable provenance for China’s upscale consumers.
Each chicken wears an ankle bracelet that is physically tamperproof, which tracks characteristics such as number of steps taken and the location of the chicken. A chicken Fitbit of sorts. The front plate of the ankle bracelet has a QR code on it.
Or maybe it’s a just a marketing gimmick to allow consumers to bond with with their dinners:
customers can scan the QR code before preparing the chicken. Scanning this code leads them to a page with details about the chicken’s life, including its weight, the number of steps it took, and its photograph.
The combination of the surreal, faintly humorous and possibly momentous typifies this eminently readable foray into some of the farther reaches of technology’s tentacles.
Blockchain Chicken Farm isn’t really a “China book” at all.
Blockchain Chicken Farm is, on the surface, a collection of reportage, travel writing and some philosophical musing of the kind that is a common feature of, in particular, “China books”. But, significantly, Blockchain Chicken Farm isn’t really a “China book” at all: Wang is peering into the future of tech and society and finds—convincingly—the most important signposts in China rather the United States.
Wang is particularly interested in food, that most basic of human requirements and the one seemingly least amenable to software engineering. But AI and other technologies are now affecting the way this most basic of industries—one so basic that it, perhaps that more than any other, constitutes a way of life—is structured.
Looking at tech in rural China forced me to examine the ideologies that drive engineers and companies to build everything from AI farming systems and blockchain food projects to shopping sites and payment platforms. These assumptions about humans and the way the world should work are more powerful than sheer technical curiosity in driving the creation of new technologies and platforms. Embedded in these tools are their makers’ and builders’ assumptions about what humans need, and how humans should interact.
These changes are happening first in China because it is policy:
Xi Jinping’s recent policies of Rural Revitalization have taken a much bolder stance in addressing hollowed-out villages and rural decline… The new socialist countryside will be filled with peasants starting e-commerce businesses, small-scale manufacturing, new data centers, and young entrepreneurial workers returning to their rural homes. Rural Revitalization envisions the use of blockchain and mobile payment to catalyze new businesses, and will leverage big data for poverty relief and distribution of welfare benefits.
Wang talks to farmers and venture capitalists, including the Chinese firm Bits x Bites,
the world’s first venture capital fund dedicated to food innovation. Its mission is to “shape the future of good food,” providing both investment returns and social benefit.
The intersection between technology and economic development has in China created different bedfellows than in the West. E-commerce giant Alibaba is directly involved in rural economic development; the instant messenger WeChat has grown into an entire ecosystem which includes finance (something which has not gone unnoticed by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). Some of the latest bedfellows look, to outside eyes, decidedly strange:
Right now, delicious, chef-lauded pork in China is being produced by NetEase, one of the world’s largest, most profitable internet gaming companies.
Social trust can’t scale.
Wang must have understood the natural tendency for readers outside China to smile and go “uh-huh”, for some of what might otherwise be considered musing in reality builds up an intellectual framework for the discussion, something done so conversationally one hardly realizes it is happening. Wang starts by noting that not all people are the same:
At the core of rural culture … is a belief that the universe is already perfect as it is, and that our duty as humans is to maintain that harmony… One farmer told me that the future is a created concept… In contrast, urban culture is centered on the belief that the universe must be constantly corrected on its course, and that life is defined by the pleasure of overcoming future challenges.
Wang then turns to the matter of “trust”, a fundamental issue for all large society-wide systems. Food safety, she notes, “revolves around social trust” and that “social trust can’t scale… When supply chains were shorter, being able to meet your farmer created this trust”:
Rather than trusting the government, people have shifted their trust to the private sector: [upscale supermarket] Hema, Alibaba. This leads to cascading, glaring contradictions. The problems of food safety are the result of a privatized, free market model of agriculture with global reach—where competitive market behavior drives cost cutting. The government serves as a way to mediate social trust, to regulate and protect its citizens. Along the way, the government has struggled to be effective, which has conveniently led private companies to compete in the free market for a monopoly on food safety. Business articles laud Hema and other tech-company supermarkets as innovators digging into food safety: the same set of market forces that created the problem is now purportedly coming to the rescue.
Wang is not arguing here that China will “win” the technology race; she seems not to think that there is a race at all. But why is China a better guide to this brave new world—about which Wang is decidedly ambivalent—than Apple and Tesla? Necessity is as always the mother of invention: for China to get where it wants to go, it will need the sorts of society-wide systems—of which blockchain chickens are a somewhat bizarre and perhaps impermanent manifestation—that Wang discusses. China’s problems are just bigger and China doesn’t have the West’s luxury of legacy systems to muddle through with.
The result may not be what we expect:
Matilda, the founder of Bits x Bites, had put it this way: If big companies like Nabisco symbolized the nineties, hundreds of smaller, fragmented companies will dominate the future, catering to a continuum of different tastes and experiences. And this landscape of smaller companies is what some people see as part of “the New Retail.” This New Retail will be powered by the edges of manufacturing, in places like Dinglou.
Along the way, Wang makes seemingly banal, but in fact quite profound observations:
Databases allow people to read, write, update, and destroy data in a fairly dependable way. They also require the people who build databases to form strong opinions about the world and the way it’s structured.
The way we interact with our world, the way we define which interactions are possible and meaningful, is determined in many cases not by democratic processes but by engineering decisions.
Blockchain Chicken Farm is a fascinating (and fun) discussion of how technology development plays out differently in China, but more importantly, it provides a mirror, largely unfogged by priors, of how the push and pull between technology and society may well play out not just in China but possibly everywhere else.