“It is a pair of goggles through which you see a totally different world where the story is all about you and you are in it.” If you read this text in 2017, you may have assumed it to be the advertisement of the latest virtual reality, or VR, headset. However in 1935 people read a similar text in Stanley Weinbaum’s scientific fiction Pygmalion's Spectacles. Amazed at the eye-opening imagination, few would have imagined it to become reality in the near future. We live in such an age that things that appeared in scientific fictions merely a few decades ago have been making themselves part of our everyday lives. Ecstasy, first, then anxiety ensues — in the face of VR technology where is the boundary between the real world and the virtual world? Are we still authentic human beings if one day we spend more time in the virtual world than in the ‘real’ world?
Such anxiety is actually nothing new. For thousands of years, human beings have never stopped examining the meaning of life, what is reality and what is nihility. If there is something new this time, it is the unprecedented speed of technology developments which cast a dazzling spotlight upon the ancient questions. The spotlight is so conspicuous that we almost feel we have to focus on it in order to find an answer.
It is natural to think if one wants to study the digital one should go to a digital-savvy population. A few years ago, I traveled to a small factory town in southeast China to conduct a 15-month anthropological study of social media use among Chinese migrant workers. Local people looked at me, thinking I was totally out of my mind: “Why us?” they asked — what’s the point of studying somebody who can’t afford most digital devices and who spends most of their time on factory assembly lines?
My informants were right to have some doubts. It is true that before Chinese rural migrants were the digital have-less. However such a situation has been changed since the booming of the budget smartphone which facilitated most of them to leapfrog into the digital age. My research showcases how Chinese rural migrants embraced the possibilities of the digital to the fullest and thus became a ‘social media population’ in China.
In China over 250 million people left villages to work in factories and cities — the biggest migration in human history. For the rural youth, who accounts for the majority of the labor force, the rural-to-urban migration was no longer merely pushed by economic pressure, but more pulled by the personal aspiration to get rid of one’s humble past and join the modern world. Social media is mainly to explore the new possibilities of social life and create a fantasy world online.
JiaDa, a 21-year-old factory forklift truck driver, was taught to use the Internet and QQ, the Chinese social media, by his fellow workers in the factory. Before migration, he had no chance to even touch a computer in his home village. On JiaDa’s QQ profile, there is no hint of factory work at all whereas there are hundreds of photos of night clubs and fast cars. JiaDa also keeps a car - a Smart -on YY.com, another social media platform which he uses for playing massive online games and live streaming. On YY.com, besides virtual cars, noble titles are also purchasable. JiaDa bought himself a baron, the only noble title he can afford, which already cost almost 1/10 of his monthly salary. In return, whenever JiaDa logs in, the system sends a notification to all: “let’s welcome baron ** who came in his Smart!” JiaDa apparently feels good about it. “Well, in reality I can never afford a car, but here I can,” he half jokingly said.
JiaDa’s virtual car reminds me that a century ago Chinese people went to photo studios to take a portrait photo in a car model made of hardboard with a foreign landscape backdrop. The look of a car may have changed, but to apply ‘virtuality’ to feel good and look good is actually an old solution that existed long before the digital age.
The photo studio is still popular nowadays. Many young factory girls have a dream of taking a set of ‘art photos’ . “I wanted to record my youth, the most beautiful phase in my whole life,” Lily, a 19-year-old factory girl, remarked. It took the stylist at the photo studio two and half hours to put make-up on Lily’s face. Massive foundation applied, fake eyelashes glued, straight hair sculpted into perfect curls. And then she was put into a breast padded, over-sized gown, tightened up by clamps from the back. The stylist, like a punching machine in the factories, shaped one factory girl after another into an identical-looking movie star.
"Applying 'virtuality' to feel good and look good is actually an old solution that existed long before the digital age."
At first glance it looks bizarre that Lily would take such a once-in-a-life look as the record of her youth. But what Lily posted on her social media explains things. On her QQ Lily posted many photos of European style pretty women and the way she talked online is as if she were a princess. Therefore, it seems that the photo series produced by the studio is certainly not the record of the offline Lily, but the image she see of herself on social media. Offline, Lily worked at least 10 hours per day and 29 days per month on an assembly line. Her family with five family members squeezed in two small simple rooms, sharing a toilet with another two rural migrant families. There is no hot water nor heating when the temperature falls below 0 degree celsius and no air conditioning when the temperature soars above 38 degrees celsius.
On an extremely hot summer evening, Lily was ‘working’ with QQ in her room. Her eyes were glued to the screen of her smartphone. She only glanced up at me when she heard my shouts under the attack of a swarm of mosquitoes.
“Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, hum?” she quipped before her eyes moved back to the screen, leaving me totally stunned by what I just heard.
Lily’s remark enlightened me to think where do people really live. In fact, many young factory workers’ leisure time is mostly dominated by the screens of their budget smartphones, and activities such as playing games and social media. They move all the way from their home villages to live geographically closer to a modern world - however, it seems that it is only online that they actually arrive there.
We need to understand where people live, without assuming that the offline is necessarily more real than the online. In both JiaDa and Lily’s case, online is the only place to craft oneself when there is minimal scope offline. The offline word, the reality as we regard it, is actually experienced as a mere physical situation to support the real life online. That is, people work offline and live online.
The meaning of life is to give life meaning. True. It also indicates that the meaning of life is not a priori but a given. In the end whatever meaning we give is generated inside our brain. Being stimulated by virtual reality, or by physical reality makes no substantial difference given meaning in the human brain is by no means physical. The fantasy Chinese factory workers build on social media is the meaningful reality where they can see themselves live with self-respect and where they actually live.
The history of human kinds tells us virtuality is not a bad thing at all. Tens of thousands of years ago, the development of human language facilitated sapiens to climb up to the top of the food chain. The significance of language is not just about information control, but also the unprecedented capability of handling things which are not present-at-hand — being capable of dealing with virtuality is a significant sign of the development of human cognition. The strategy of applying virtuality to guide, make sense, fulfill our daily life is simply as old as human civilization — sexual fantasy, folktale, religion …you name it.
So in the end it is not a story just about Chinese factory workers. It is a story about all of us. Digital technology is no more virtual than any other fantasy we had before the digital age, and the virtual is always part of our real life. To worry whether our lives will become less real in the face of VR technology simply misses the point. After all, we are all experiencing virtual reality in our various ways as we have been and will be, with or without, most of time without, the VR headset.
 download free PDF of the author’s book ‘Social Media in Industrial China’ at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/social-media-in-industrial-china