Working-class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-less in Urban China, by Jack Linchuan Qiu. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2009. xvi + 303 pp. US$37.00/£27.95 (hardcover).
China's internet has been the focus of worldwide research, with a strong emphasis on the use of the new information and communication technologies by the urban middle class and on technological developments such as the construction of einfrastructure and e-commerce. Other research has examined how new media contribute to civil society empowerment or state control. After spending five years conducting interviews and research, Jack Qiu, one of today's best-known researchers on internet development in China, presents a careful analysis of what he terms the "information have-less" in China. He describes cases of empowerment and disempowerment to show how internet usage has formed China's "invisible" majority: migrants, the old, the poor and minorities, within both the urban metropolises and rural areas. In this detailed and comprehensive study, which includes personal observations, interviews in selected places all over China, quantitative data analysis and Castell's theory of a network society, Qiu provides a fascinating picture of a hitherto almost unknown phenomenon. While he does not deny that internet usage in China is structured according to class, gender and region, he demonstrates that it still exerts a strong influence on China's economically less-well-off classes.
Qiu argues that "a working-class network society" is gradually emerging. This specific class is increasingly being shaped by different cultural practices deriving from the use of the new technologies, and Qiu examines the ways in which these are related to the specific societal and economic circumstances which have led to China's becoming the world's leading manufacturer today. The diffusion of the new technologies in this section of society differs widely from the dominant forms found in the more widely researched urban middle class. For example, the most widespread technologies available for use by the information have-less are mobile phones and Internet cafes. For these, state control blocks the reception of large amounts of data, resulting in the invention of new forms of social practice.
Qiu's book is divided into three main parts. The first, "Networks Materialized", provides a descriptive introduction to ICTs, their use by the working-class (as defined by Qiu), and how the ICTs have developed and been transformed during recent years. Qiu notes the changing role played by internet cafes and the influence of mobile communication, that is, the Internet applications that are increasingly being implemented on mobile phones. …