By: Sophia Possidente
Photo Credit: Marlayna Demond
Dr. Fan Yang is an Associate Professor in UMBC’s Media and Communication Studies department and a faculty affiliate in the Asian Studies program. Her current research project, "Shenzhen: A Media City of the Global South" analyzes the role of the city as a global nexus in technology production, examining its transition into AI development in the context of globalization.
I spoke to Dr. Yang about her ongoing research, previous publications, favorite MCS courses, and advice for aspiring researchers.
Q: What is your favorite MCS class to teach and why?
A: I always say 333 is one of my favorites, and 334 too because they’re kind of connected. 333 offers different lenses for people to think about media phenomenon, media events and media artifacts, and I feel like it’s very empowering as an educator to allow students to start seeing things differently.
Connecting to 334, that’s when you connect the theories to global media phenomenon and think about the connectivity between different places, different people, different media industries, and consumers. I see them as twin classes, so that’s why I always say they’re my favorites to teach.
Q: What is a recent accomplishment – it can be anything; a research project, or a talk you gave – that you’re especially proud of? Why is that topic so important to you?
A: I gave a talk as part of the Association for Cultural Studies in a series that they organized. The talk I gave there was about Shenzhen, a city located near Hong Kong that is mainly known as the manufacturing site for a lot of Apple products, among other digital gadgets. It’s almost the symbol of “Made in China”, but it has recently been reinventing itself to be a site for “Made in China, Intelligently”, so things like AI production. My talk was centered around thinking about Shenzhen in relation to the global south in terms of development of AI infrastructure.
I also just finished a paper about Shenzhen and future; it’s for a special issue called Interrogating Futurity. I looked at two specific examples out of Shenzhen; one is the robot as this non-human figure that becomes very dominant in imaginations of the future of the nation. The other artifact is the drone; a Shenzhen company called DJI has 70% of the market share for consumer drones globally, and their drones were used by both Ukraine and Russia. It’s really interested in branding itself as this futuristic company; its headquarters is the most anticipated architectural piece to be completed this year because it combines the aesthetics of the drone with material structure. It’s envisioned to be another iconic figure of the future of architecture in Shenzhen. So those are the things that are combining into this project called “Shenzhen: A Media City of the Global South”, which to me is an opportunity to situate China not just in globalization, but in thinking about the global south as a concept.
Q: What has your research process been and what are some of the most exciting things that you’re learning during this project?
A: I think just learning more about AI itself. My students in 499 know that for the past few semesters I’ve used the book Race After Technology, which talks about the systemic bias that informs some of the AI development in the west. An interesting case in relation to Shenzhen is that there is a Shenzhen-based company that produces phones that are very popular in Africa, in part because their algorithms configure the camera lens to showcase dark skinned individuals better than the hegemonic global brands. Simultaneously, it is still a data extraction of the population, but then it’s also informing new aesthetics; they brand themselves as wanting to make beauty not whiteness. “Blackness as beauty” is one of their slogans. I feel like it’s very exciting to learn about AI, and then to think about the different contestations of power between the north and the south.
Q: I have to ask… what inspired your recent paper on Too Hot to Handle? Why is it so important to study reality TV?
A: I try to always think about the very mundane experiences that we have, especially things that we sometimes associate with stigma. Reality TV is something that we don’t necessarily celebrate. But for cultural studies people, when things like Too Hot To Handle become the top viewed shows on Netflix, that means something. Especially at that particular moment of the pandemic, with people just starting to isolate in the west. The show has a robot that has “Factory, China” as its origin when introduced – just like the way they show where the contestants are from – which brings up so many layers. It’s a tongue-in-cheek joke because so many of our gadgets are made in China, but then there’s also the notion that this robot is keeping everyone from touching each other. In that way, people were already saying: “is this robot kind of like the coronavirus that’s also from China?”. So all of these layers come into play in the discourses around it that made me really interested in exploring what’s happening there. Through that I was also able to think about Netflix, the platform on which the show was screened. If you think about the mechanism of the robot, which is, according to the narrative, absorbing all the data and trying to figure out ways to respond, that’s kind of what Netflix does. It’s one of the first platforms that uses user data to configure their shows and advertisements to feed people what they “want”. So that’s how we get this connection between the robot, China, coronavirus, Netflix, and what this means at the moment. A lot of times we ask questions like: “why this, why now?” trying to reveal complexities related to something as mundane as a reality TV show.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who either wants to get into MCS research or is conducting their very first project?
A: I would really encourage them to be open to different possibilities. There’s so much you can say about one thing, and once you start researching you will find so much more than you expect, whether it’s on the production side of the phenomenon or the audience side. I think that open mindedness could be very beneficial in terms of broadening your scope of research.