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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Rethinking Things and “Thingness” in Modern Chinese Culture
4: For a (Democratic) Holding Cyberspace: Chivalric Hacking and Computerized Things in Early Chinese Web Novels
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
The University of British Columbia, Canada
Narratives about hacking in digital China are often bound up with inter-state strife and corporate warfare/crime. Hackers, with their extraordinary coding and cracking skills, are readily co-opted by government and enterprises (or their opposition groups) to advance or preempt cybersecurity threats. This paper retrieves an earlier genre of Internet chivalry (wangxia) in which hackers are characterized as brilliant yet noncompliant knights-errant who poke around inside the digital technology, championing intellectual curiosity, civic liberty, and social justice while steering clear of the nationalist or neoliberal hegemony. In an age when the code as a public object (thanks to the open-source movement) is being forced into a protocological network of informatics control and into a property regime to be traded off like other private goods, the Internet chivalry romances not only romanticizes the technical transgression against a Deleuzian “society of control” but also reclaim our shared need for computer programs as public things around which people convene, collaborate, and contest in concert out of care for the world.
This paper first shows how the totality of informatic control has penetrated Chinese web novels, pointing out novels about hacking as a demystifier. It then analyzes the anarchist world of coding in Xing Yusen’s trilogy of Internet chivalry considering Honig’s discussion of public things, focusing on how cyberspace holds programs and how certain public program survives cyber-privatization. The paper ends by discussing the thingness of cyberspace regarding the durability and circularity of its holding power for cultivating democratic netizenship.