The good feelings were so thick they were dripping from the walls. The location was a cozy lecture room where Clay Shirky, according to the introduction by An Important Person from Columbia University “one of the savviest” commentators on the internet’s influence on society, recently explained why Xiaomi, roughly China’s Apple, is “more than just another phone company.”
How to account for the warm fuzziness of the gathering, given these times of neoliberal despair? Not to mention the brisk autumn weather outside the Columbia Global Center in Beijing. A look around the room provided some clues.
As might be expected for a talk like this at a distinguished academic center located in the middle of Beijing’s technology hub, looking back at Shirky were overwhelmingly young Chinese: well-dressed, likely equipped with a fancy degree from an even fancier college (think Columbia), and with a latest model smart phone at the ready, quite possibly courtesy of Xiaomi.
Shirky’s story of the meteoric rise of Xiaomi, a company founded only about five years ago, thus played well with the tech-savvy, connected audience, not to mention that Shirky’s tale stroked Chinese nationalist pride.
It is not just that Xiaomi’s hardware is “remarkable,” said Shirky. To him, Xiaomi’s innovative and initially risky ways of doing business – and here we are getting to the crux of the matter – provide evidence of smart phones’ many benefits, which are spreading their benevolent effects throughout societies across the globe.
Shirky did not quite put it like that. But it was the overall sense one got from his talk and jived well with his earlier writings, including Here Comes Everybody.
According to Shirky Xiaomi is a special company because it relies on open source software, has no retail outlets but depends on e-commerce, and uses social media for much of its advertising. Xiaomi truly cares about its relationship with its users, averred Shirky: it has not outsourced its helpdesk, unlike many other big companies, and asks customers which features they want on their phone. Xiaomi, in short, is unusually responsive to customers’ wishes by virtue of an elaborate feedback loop.
A cynic might comment, said Shirky, that now that the company made it big it will not care about its users anymore – or only just a little. To put it differently, now that users with their free labor have helped make the company big, it has not need for them anymore.
Shirky disagreed. His evidence consisted of a digital note from the company publically thanking the first hundred users who had agreed to upload Xiaomi’s first operating system at the risk of wrecking their phone.
That’s hardly compelling proof. Indeed, the note reproduced on the power point slide said what Shirky said it said. But words are cheap, especially digital ones. There is a term for such a message: public relations.
Shirky’s happy vantage point from which he tells the story of Xiaomi is so limited that it distorts. In an age of mass online surveillance, rampant commercialism, economic crises, social unrest and towering inequality – not to mention the continuing dreadful media coverage despite (because?) the internet – why tell the story of a design company and the supposedly great relationships it has built with its customers?
Why ignore the crucial issue that, despite Xiaomi’s undoubtedly real responsiveness to customers, the power relations are still very unequal? They are the company, you are an individual, unorganized consumer. You depend on them, need them, they do not depend on you. If they say no, you have no recourse, no matter how justified you are in whatever your complaint is.
Why only mention as a side note that Xiaomi is “obsessive about controlling costs”? One shudders to think what this means for the people who actually manufacture the phones that Shirky himself loves so much. In fact, as Shirky again offhandedly mentions in the short book on which his talk was based, some of Xiaomi’s phones are made by Foxxcon, a company notorious for treating workers badly.
There are two huge problems with Shirky’s talk and book. One is that he overestimates the importance of technology, in this case smart phones, in bringing about positive changes in societies. Let’s remember that the American middle class had it much better in the seventies, before the internet age, than it does now. Journalism collapsed in the US in part because of the internet, which also did nothing to stop Washington making illegal war in Iraq. And then there was the 2008 financial crisis. (To be fair, he did apologize to his audience for that one.)
The second problem is that he underestimates the nefarious influence of commercialism. To him, Xiaomi is simply “in the business of giving people what they want.” The assumption seems to be that if only companies could be truly free, they would make all of us extremely happy. A more sensible starting point would be that making money and providing useful and accurate information don’t mix well. It’s the main reason why US journalism is so flawed.
To be fair again, Shirky was mainly talking about smart phones, not information, but he does believe that smart phones are a source of freedom. Still, if the free-market model truly works well, then why are Americans not much better off than they are?
While listening to Shirky’s conversational, clear and smooth talk, I realized that his popularity in part stems from bringing the right kind of upbeat, pro-private business message to the right kind of audience. Additionally, Shirky knows how to tell a story and turn a phrase. For instance, this is how he explains what Shanghai is like to his friends back in New York City: “Imagine New York, but busy and crowded.”
It’s too bad he doesn’t use his talents to tell a different story.