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“Smart Living among Chinese Youth? Issues of Security, Risk and Surveillance through an Investigation of Smart Home, Cashless Payment and Facial Recognition”

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Dr. Gladys CHONG

B.A. (HKU), M.A. (University of Amsterdam), Ph.D. (University of Amsterdam)

Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Creative Writing

Funding:

  • Hong Kong General Research Fund (GRF), University Grants Council. (Project number 12610118, HKD 305,000)

Introduction

  • China aspires to be a technology superpower. Accelerating technology development provides means and opportunities to rescue its sliding economic growth and advance its governing practices. Apart from expanding on big data centres, the authorities work strategically with technology companies to gain information about who the subjects are and what they do. Rather than concerns and anxieties suggested in censorship and (data-)surveillance, young people—born after the 80s in an affluent and globalizing China—are embracing this technology-driven development as smart living: time-/cost-efficiency, transparency, risk-minimization and security. 

Abstract

  • Building on the PI’s current research on how aspirations for the good life shape youth subjectivities, this project goes further by examining how technology works within the nexus of security, risk and surveillance in fostering new conjunctions of governing practices that shape youth subjectivities. Subjectivity refers to the ways that an individual comes to understand her/himself as a subject vis-à-vis the external world. The popular reading of technological transformation as securitization of everyday life raises pressing questions: 1/ How are issues of security and risk formulated through technology? 2/ How do these formulations justify the necessity and the benefits of (data-)surveillance? 3/ How do users’ practices enable, negotiate and challenge these formulations? 4/ What are the political implications? This study addresses research gaps in security, risk and surveillance studies: while security studies emphasize anti-terrorism efforts in the West, studies on security concerning China are restrictively about sovereignty questions. How risk as “preventive security” is appropriated beyond the West is hugely understudied. The power dynamics implicated in surveillance lead studies to focus mainly on the macro-level institutional actors, neglecting historical, socio-cultural and political specificities. This study pushes current studies beyond the existential threats and spectacular political events. 

Methodology

  • This two-year project is an empirical investigation of three case studies that constitute smart living: smart home (the private realm), cashless payment (the social realm), and facial recognition (the public realm). The analytical lens attached to each technology exemplifies how, together, they encroach on individuals’ everyday lives. This project uses a multi-method qualitative design comprising ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews at three technology hubs—Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong—which attract technology companies, investors and youth.