John Alekna | Seeking News, Making China

On May 8, John Alekna, Assistant Professor in the History of Science, Technology & Medicine Department at Peking University, delivered a lecture themed “Seeking News, Making China: Reimagining Chinese History through Information Technology”. Hosted by Yenching Academy Associate Dean Brent Haas, this was the ninth lecture in the China Studies Lecture Series for the 20232024 academic year.

Interview Notes

Before the lecture, Professor Alekna sat for an interview, discussing the implications of AI on human societies. He noted that AI technology will revolutionize society, making many people nervous. However, historical precedents offer insights into this process. Human society has experienced several communication technology revolutions, such as the Renaissance in Europe, the Gutenberg revolution, the woodblock printing revolution in East Asia, and the advent of the telegraph, mass newspapers, and the internet. “We know that, hopefully, we will get through it. But in the meantime, it will cause a lot of disruptions, just as these previous technological and communications revolutions caused significant disruptions,” Prof. Alekna added. He believes AI will similarly revolutionize how we organize ourselves, necessitating adaptation by governments, educational institutions, businesses, and individuals, especially to new types of AI writing and AI learning. Although AI's drastic changes may initially cause instability and “disconnection”, people will eventually learn to use these systems, leading to new social organizations. Eventually, society will come to a new “stabilization” where people will no longer fear the new technology, and AI will be an everyday occurrence

Prof. Alekna also discussed the spirit of science in modern Chinese intellectual history and its interaction with traditional Chinese culture. He pointed out that over the past centuries, “any culture, intellectual environment, and system of understanding the world is bound to change.” Intellectual life in China has continually evolved, beginning in the late Song dynasty with neo-Confucianist developments led by Zhu Xi. By the late Ming and early Qing periods, Chinese scholars were adopting more empirical and evidence-based methods of acquiring knowledge. They tried to interpret the truth, reality, and knowledge with their observations and experiences rather than via metaphysics or interpretations in ancient texts. The changes in China’s intellectual sphere mirrored the shifts in Renaissance Europe, where scientists like Galileo, Newton, and Boyle conducted experiments and recorded natural phenomena. Thus, when European scientific methods interacted with traditional Chinese culture from the 17th to 19th centuries, there was “an interplay and a melding of streams” rather than conflict or clashes of civilizations.

Additionally, Prof. Alekna shared his cross-cultural study experiences. He appreciated Yenching Academy’s efforts to promote cross-cultural studies and communication. He asserted that “cultures are comprehensible to people outside those cultures and that the differences within a society often exceed those between societies. If one sets out to understand another society, it is always possible with enough hard work to comprehend what is happening within that culture.”


Review of the Lecture

In his lecture, Prof. Alekna first discussed the changes Chinese society experienced in the early 20th century, elaborating on the impacts of radio and other communications technologies on political, economic, and everyday life. He noted that social evolutions in China have been driven by the interactions between technologies and politics, with news playing a crucial role. Understanding Chinese society requires comprehending its information dissemination system.

Quoting Harold Innis, Jürgen Habermas, and Benedict Anderson, Prof. Alekna highlighted the role of communications technologies in shaping social structure and operation. He pointed out that the theory of social development based on nationalism does not apply to China. “Nationalism is seen as a modern construction, but to better interpret social changes, we need to include other political and historical elements,” the guest lecturer noted. He added that information dissemination in China is a collective experience, often shared in public places, through broadcasts or newspapers, unlike the private, individual manner typical in the West.

Prof. Alekna outlined the three major ideas in his book: the interaction between technology and politics shapes mass society, the demand for news drives social change, and understanding social communication changes requires analyzing the news landscape. He defined news as time-sensitive information, noting that news is usually distinct from publicity in the West. However, in China, separating news, propaganda, and other forms of information is often impossible, and tagging a piece of information as “propaganda” is often a result of prejudice.

He gave examples illustrating news and information dissemination in early-twentieth-century China. For instance, despite China’s poor communications infrastructure during the May Fourth Movement, the limitations were technological and geographical rather than cultural. Moreover, the success of newspapers in Japan during the same period refutes the notion that China’s challenges were due to language or cultural factors. Also, it was not because of Western or Japanese imperialist suppression over China since other semi-colonized or colonized countries like Turkey and Argentina had long had advanced technologies. Prof. Alekna concluded that political disunity and irresolution, rather than external suppression, hindered China’s technological infrastructure development at the time.

Radio, emerging in the 1920s, was a revolutionary technology for Chinese society, overcoming geographical barriers without extensive infrastructure construction like railways. The radio played a vital role in China’s War of Resistance, as it was a channel to disseminate important information that brought hope to the people. Prof. Alekna also discussed women’s significant role in information dissemination in China, contrasting the situation in China to the prejudice against women in the West over the same period. Chinese women’s high visibility and participation in information dissemination shattered the technological prejudice, demonstrating a modern, feminist cultural shift.

In the last part of his lecture, Prof. Alekna discussed the role of broadcasting networks in synchronizing political and social changes and facilitating large-scale mobilization. He noted that modernization in China is not linear since access to information varies widely. On the contrary, political elements significantly influence technological development in society since politics is, in essence, an art of choices; therefore, technologies produce different outcomes depending upon the decision-maker’s choices. Prof. Alekna highlighted that information dissemination is not a linear process because social disorder can still occur despite widespread information. He concluded that China’s modernization process has unique features that differ from pre-20th-century industrialized societies, with news playing a central role.

Q&A Time

Q: People got news from limited channels in the past. Like in the countryside, people had to listen to the radio in a community house to know what was happening outside. Where people live and what social and economic status they have decided the convenience of access to news. Are people’s opinions influenced by news feeds and people’s access to news?

A: Yes, they are. Our experience of newspapers differs because of differences in location, social strata, and whether we live in urban or rural areas. However, the desire for access to news is universal. Some scholars questioned whether peasants were interested in the news before they were exposed to it, which is an arrogant assumption. People from the past and those who organize their lives differently from us generally share the same emotions and desires. While they might have different experiences with news, they still engage with it and strongly desire more information and participation. Such desire is universal.

Q: What do you think of China’s government-funded journalism compared to the ads-based news business model? What’s its significance to your arguments?

A: The situation in China differs from that in other countries. The news business in China is not entirely based on advertisements or subscriptions. Many developments in China fall outside the logic of capitalism, making it unique. China adopted industrial technologies for mass newspapers, radio, and receivers later than other countries. By the time these technologies reached China, they had already been tested and matured for ready use in free markets elsewhere. Hence, the capitalist process was not necessary for their implementation in China.

However, monetized information systems remain the weakest link. For example, the radio business in Shanghai before 1953, despite the city having what was supposed to be the best radio station in China at that time, was fragmented with numerous small, private radio stations primarily advertising American nightclubs and theaters. This free-market system meant the poorest broadcasting quality and limited information disseminated. Thus, news in China was either copied and disseminated by volunteers or broadcast through government-supported channels. The government guided and funded technological development to ensure that the public could access information via radio and local government-run newspapers. This form of monetization resulted in an undercapitalized system.

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