New publication: “Digitally enabled engagement and witnessing: the Sichuan earthquake on independent documentary film”

Marina Svensson, “Digitally enabled engagement and witnessing: the Sichuan earthquake on independent documentary film,” Studies in Documentary Film

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This article builds on recent works on witnessing, socially engaged documentary filmmaking and studies on the role of new digital technologies for witnessing trauma, recording memories and enabling activism. In a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008, almost 90,000 people, at least 5000 of them being children, died. Parents and bystanders provided the first footage of the earthquake, recorded in shaky images on their mobile phones and camcorders, and many later continued to document the destruction and their search for justice, which hailed the beginning of citizen camera witnessing in China. A range of Chinese filmmakers documented the disaster and its aftermath in full-length films, and in doing so helped the victims bear witness to their trauma and fight for justice that was unacknowledged in the traditional media. At least 16 independent documentary films have to date been made dealing with the earthquake in different ways. The films fall into different types, ranging from poetic, observational, expository, participatory and performative, and they also reveal different forms of witnessing practices. The article addresses the witnessing practices of ordinary citizens, enabled by new digital technologies, and analyses a selection of the documentary films with respect to their genre and modes of witnessing.

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China and the world: Digital developments and challenges

As part of the Lund University’s 350 anniversary we took part in the thematic week digital society with the aim to highlight the multiple and diverse experiences of the Internet worldwide, and in particular in Asia with a special focus on China. It is easy to think that experiences and current debates in Sweden and the US are the norm, something that I found striking in the debate, entitled Will digital destroy or develop democracy?, that I took part in together with Lawrence Lessig, Carl Bildt and Amelia Andersdotter. However, the issues, problems and potentials in many ways look very different in China or Asia more generally than they do in Europe or the US.

It is worth remembering that Asia has the largest Internet population in the world in absolute numbers, and in addition is at the forefront of digital developments in many fields, including governance, entertainment, and e-commerce. But the region also contains a very diverse digital landscape that reflects its different political and socio-economic realities. The average percentage of the population that has access to the Internet in Asia is only 41.9 per cent but as high as 91.1 per cent in Japan. Although only 53 per cent of the Chinese population has access, at 731 million users China is however the world’s largest Internet nation. On 25th April we organized a panel on Local Experiences, Global Challenges, which included presentations on China, India, and Africa. Professor Hu Yong, Peking University, gave the keynote and provided an insightful overview of the internet in China. I myself gave a presentation that provided a broader perspective on human rights and the Internet (available on YouTube.) The next day we devoted a whole day to digital developments in Asia where Stefan Brehm, Annika Pissin, and Tommy Shih gave presentations on their findings from the Digital China project.

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Impressions from the Digital Café

54th Bologna Children’s Book Fair, 3-6 April 2017

Certainly, the presentations in the Digital Café of the Bologna Book Fair were held in the name of commercial interest. With this in mind I provide a commented summary of some of the impressions I got from there.

Who are the children-consumers?
Sketching the demographics of child-users, a presenter points out that great changes occurred between 2007 and 2010 when the swiping mobile technology was released and manifolded. That means that children age 10 do not know a world without mobile devices, whether their parents had one or not, and that the mobile phone is part of their everyday. Unlike televisions or older style mobile telephones that acted as telephones only, the mobile phone that can be connected to the internet, on which you can listen to music and download apps for all sorts of purposes, turned into an extended part of the human body and identity, a part that children of course feel the need to grow as well in order to become part of the community. Other recurrent ideas about children are that they love competition, and that they have the need to move around. I thought that this probably might not be a healthy idea to have in mind when creating toys or literature for children (as other theories of society and childhood exist that stress collaboration instead of competition).

Story-telling in the digital world
In terms of story-telling possibilities a presenter explains that the devise (TV, apps, books) does not matter for a child, as long as the story is good, and maintains that books are still important as physical objects. Yet, the opinion is divided on that subject, and during a discussion between developers and authors the consensus is found that sometimes the device is more important than the content. Several app developers introduce apps that require the users to engage with literature and the physical books; furthermore, one presenter shows the great engagement of users with the app of her company; the app is a platform for users to write stories, either alone or together, and commenting on the stories (more for adolescents and older than for younger children).

While for the authors clearly the book is first followed by the app, the existence of the story-writing app calls that into question, as stories are written on the app (and occasionally a physical book can be published from that pool). Interestingly, movies, theatre plays, animation films, and story-apps were talked about in terms of ‘non-linear stories’, while books contain ‘linear stories’.

Online content for children is all about play – when the presenter says this, she shows a picture with an empty swing. While some years ago researchers grappled with a possible difference between online and offline until they finally reached the consensus that both social worlds coexist and overlap and are one in the end, the presenters at the Digital café show that the industry is especially playing with and furthering this blurring lines between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’, and most products deal either with AR or VR: augmented reality or virtual reality (more on AR, see these articles from the Economist and digi-capital).

Presenters point out that with devices that work with augmented or virtual realities disadvantaged children can be reached – mentioned are rural children who are shown as being locally and socially behind urban children, autistic children, and children in the Global South, for example. In the cases of those children, the educational as well as the fun aspect are stressed (as for children in general, actually). Devices work with but especially hope to improve on speech recognition, natural language recognition, vision, gesture recognition etc. Although prognosis for the general AR market in China is very positive – China is supposed to be the greatest market by 2020 – the companies represented in the digital part of the Bologna fair were dominated by Korea introducing their AR and VR devices, (they also had a beautiful children’s book (linear story) section).

While the digital development on the children’s book market is interesting and exciting, some developers were aware of the unaffordability of their products for the majority of children. In countries or localities were a kindergarten even cannot afford children’s books or where there are no children’s libraries, augmented or virtual reality devices or books in apps are a far dream.

As a final note concerning China – after a Chinese children’s book author has won the prestigious Andersen Prize last year (see earlier blog), China will be Guest of Honor of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2018.

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Digital Society symposium and events at Lund University 350 Jubilee Science Week

Lund University is celebrating its 350th anniversary with a week of many events, including a symposium on digital society 24-25 April. On 26th April, we organize an event called Digital Asia: Visions, Transformations, and Engagements. At the event we will also present some findings from our Digital China project.



9.15-9.30 Welcome

9.30-10.15 The Limits and Prospects of Nerd Politics in Indonesia John Postill, Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne

10.15-10.45 Coffee break

10.45-11.30 SNS and Civil Society Online in Japan Muneo Kaigo University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba

11.30-12.15 Cyber-Urban Space: Digital Media and Protest Movements in Malaysia and Indonesia, Merlyna Lim, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media & Global Network Society, Carleton University

12.15-13.00 The World (Wide Web) through an App: Internet Use in Myanmar, Elisa Oreglia, Centre for Media Studies, SOAS, University of London.

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Chinese Digital Visions, Puzzles and Insights: Presentations from a research project at Lund University, Stefan Brehm, Annika Pissin, Barbara Schulte, Tommy Shih

15.30-16.00 Coffee break

16.00-17.00 Localising the Internet: Roundtable Discussion with John Postill, Muneo Kaigo, Merlyna Lim, Elisa Oreglia, Johan Lindquist, Hu Yong, Marina Svensson.

The event is free and open to the public. Location: Nedre Palaestra. Time 9.15-17.00.

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Figuring out the Chinese Internet Puzzle

The Lund University Research Magazine has published an article on the Digital China project in a special issue on research about the digital society at Lund University.

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Human Rights Online: Chinese Perspectives and Global Developments

I have written a blog for the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Stockholm outlining some issues and challenges when it comes to protecting human rights in the digital age.

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New publication: “The Networked China Researcher: Challenges and Possibilities in the Social Media Age.”

Marina Svensson has published a new article entitled “The Networked China Researcher: Challenges and Possibilities in the Social Media Age,” Asiascape: Digital Asia, 4 (2017), pp. 76-102.


The internet has opened up new possibilities for scholars to gather data and, in general, to stay updated on rapidly changing developments in the Chinese society. Social media has added yet another dimension as it enables researchers to follow events and public debates as they unfold as well as facilitate engagement and interactivity with informants and other contacts. This article is based on the author’s own experiences and discusses the possibilities and challenges of using Chinese social media platforms. It calls for an explicit reflexivity on rapidly changing technologies. The article also addresses the fact that the researcher leaves many digital footprints on the internet and social media, and the advantages and possible dangers in an authoritarian society such as China. The article is written as a reflection piece and a call for more open and systematic discussions on how digital technologies change research practices in and on China.

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Big Data Here We Come!

When we put together the program for our workshop “Big Data, Privacy and Surveillance in China: Regulations, Actors, and Debates” we found it quite difficult to identify scholars that work on the matter from a critical perspective. Some we knew from conferences and through various networks. We then did the usual thing – Internet research, article review, and snowballing. A few more names came up and in the end we managed to bring together a really interesting crowd. The experience, however, made me curious about what’s going on in big data research. The charts below give a first impression on where we stand at the moment. The global research community published about 4250 articles with the topic “big data” in SCI-listed journals. “Big data” as a phenomenon and potentially new technological paradigm is younger than you might think. Essentially research took off only in 2013, and thus knowledge accumulation at academic institutions is at a very early stage. In line with this observation is the distribution of research categories. Around 80% relates to basic research in computer sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Another 15% deals with applied big data in the natural sciences such as nanotechnology, and biomedicine. Only 5 percent of current research output emerges out of other disciplines. Among this last batch are economics and management the largest category with about 4 percent of all articles. The last percent of research output originates from social sciences; the lion’s share is applied methods followed by ethical reflections and applied ethical issues in the medical sector. These figures shed some light on our big data workshop: We are out early!


Articles on “big data” published in science citation indexed journals

Articles on "big data" by research category

Articles on “big data” by research category

For obvious reasons our research group is mainly interested in critical perspectives on big data in China. Again the figures in the charts below suggest that this is a sensible choice. China is the top publisher of big-data research only outrun by the US. 10% of all articles on big data originate from five academic institutions; among them are two from China while three are from the US. Another interesting feature is the funding situation. In the US about 20% of articles mention financial support from government funds; in China it is more than 90%. In essence big data research reflects an increasing political polarisation where China and the US are eager to size opportunities and gain a first mover advantage. The US comfortably relies on its prestigious universities and the market to raise the funds needed. China’s academic elite is much smaller but steadily growing. The main driver is government support. And where is Europe? Well as usual; third place, divided, with market institutions and government organisations incapable of forging ahead. But make no mistake, in a world where macho-style “make it happen” policies trump or become the core European apprehension becomes a virtue that we should cherish.

Articles on "big data" by country of origin

Articles on “big data” by country of origin

Top-5 institutions publishing on "big data"

Top-5 institutions publishing on “big data”

But before we start to postulate ethical principles that none of the successful technology innovators is going to abide to, it is useful to critically reflect on our own capacity to contribute to a hopefully new emerging field of critical big data studies. If our big data workshop is representative for where we stand, then we need to tackle at least three paradoxes:

  • Firstly, most of us have no experience in using big data technologies or the underlying mathematical and statistical principles. Of course you don’t have to be a craftsman in order to distinguish a good job from inferior performance. Yet a stronger representation of technological and statistical knowledge will be needed in order to reach those that we would like to convince. Diversity, opposition, and frictions are inevitable if we are not satisfied with drafting a manifesto of the converted.
  • Secondly, most researchers look at laws and regulations, legal loopholes, and implementation failures. In China, however, the law isn’t exactly a good indicator for the constraints that keep big data research and corporate capabilities within an ethical frame. And it won’t bring us a long way in the US either where commercial actors will strongly lobby for self-regulation. Thus we have to get more insight into decision-making processes, corporate research, and organisational cultures that shape big data products and services. This point is intimately connected to the last issue …
  • The success of critical big data studies relies on advancing our understanding of how data is collected, stored, distributed, shared, sold, reconfigured, matched, and analysed. Most of these processes are surrounded by secrecy and concentrated in a few centres of power. Many crucial actors neither have the obligation to nor an interest in talking to us. Thus we need to find innovative approaches to collect evidence and gradually push for transparency.

I think our big data workshop was a great beginning. It made us aware of the early stage we are in, the need for getting organised, and the benefit that our research can reap. Of course, there are many hurdles on the way towards having an impact – but that shouldn’t prevent us from making an effort.

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Future and Reality of gaming conference, Vienna, 23-25 September 2016

While I attended the Cultural Typhoon in Europe (see previous blog), the city of Vienna hosted the event Game City. Connected to that a conference about gaming and children took place: Future and Reality of gaming (F.R.O.G.), which hosted a great variety of fascinating discussions under the topic: Beyond Gameplay – Game cultures and game practices (see the programme here). The idea was to learn more about what people do with games and the surrounding culture of games, to look at who is allowed to play and who isn’t. In the introduction an excited speaker on behalf of the city explained that the organizers are interested in surpassing the focus on games as addictive, violent, and ‘bad’ or games as mere entertainment. Instead they would like to understand the ‘real magic of gaming and its meaning for society’.

Since I was mostly busy with the other conference at the university, I could only listen to some of the quite insightful presentations at F.R.O.G. on Sunday, dealing e.g. with girls in e-sport, where males are still predominant in the public image. Especially interesting was the remark that particularly in puberty girls are very vulnerable players as they tend to be ‘forced into’ doing girly stuff, which is supposed to not include activities such as digitally shooting zombies. The speaker, Maike Groen, emphasized that in order to get out of the dilemma of underrepresented girls, organisations could help among others.

Anthropologist Michaela Rizzolli, who studied World of Warcraft and presented about the value-system of gamers, showed how material objects in gaming are composed by seven sets of values (see also this podcast). Other presentations discussed space in games, and the importance of spatial representations in narratives and different genres of games, pointing out that looking for spatial information will enhance the understanding of a game’s narrative (by Atanur Andiç). André Weßel looked at how telltale games could be used in discussing morality with youth or even making them more aware of moral questions in everyday life (see also this upcoming conference on gaming in Cologne). Urban architecture doctoral student, Bruno Amaral de Andrade, provided glimpses into his creative research about the possibilities of using digital games to include children in decision making about the use of public space. Bruno De Paula, presenting about gamer identity, called for a greater participation of children in game creation.

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Where to hide in contemporary China? Children’s online space

Between September 22 and 25 I participated in the first ‘Cultural Typhoon in Europe’ (the original Cultural Typhoon flew over from Japan, activating artists, academics, and activists to work together on different ideas; here a discussion of this year’s typhoon). As the conference theme was ‘creative production of place and space in East Asia’ I thought that this would be a good way to start on a next sub-subject in my digital China theme where I want to focus on the use and appropriation of online space by children.

Children need secrets. They also need time in order to occupy space and claim it their own. While creating space of their own works fairly well in rural environments, urban areas that are dominated by a dense conglomeration of adults, their consumption and their transport space pose some more complications for children to transform into space of their own. Even more complicated are places of mass education. Originally adult-centered, Lefebvre’s work about how social space is used receives increasing attention in childhood studies, shifting the focus to space as an important aspect in understanding children’s lives. At the same time, the notion of space gets a digital twist, and children’s space is said to be found increasingly in their mobile phones or the internet.

In this presentation I explore what digital space for children means, embedded in the theory of Lefebvre’s production of space. The focus lies on the necessity for children to have secrets and space of their own. Adult forces against this claim to secrets and space of their own – not privacy – make use of educational institutions and the domination of spatial infrastructure in the internet and beyond, including surveillance. How can children possibly learn autonomy under these circumstances? Especially autonomous behavior on the internet.

Based on fieldwork in rural China about how children use space, websites created for children, and the global history of shrinking space, this presentation proposes to offer a glimpse into children’s hiding zones in China and explains why and how children should be left alone in the internet from time to time.

Inspired by Lefebvre, I attempted to apply the theory of the production of space, and I asked to remember the building activities of childhood, when children build their little caves in the living room or the corner of a house or in bushes outside; activities with which they practice autonomy. Based on this kind of autonomous space creations, I went to discuss the online context.

This study, I should note, moves in a quite opposite direction of what I tried before when I searched for voices of children in the internet, and the possibilities of children to be heard. Here I am interested in the idea to be neither heard nor seen but to be able to contemplate, experience autonomy, find and build one’s own limits, and be left alone, especially by adults. There is, needless to say, a huge difference in age concerning practices of autonomy offline and online. Furthermore, I expect girls and boys have different practices due to the gendering process while growing up. Empirical material consists blogs and games that are popular with 6-10 year olds.

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