China’s Alternate History of Gadgets

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic recently posted a chart showing which consumer electronics gadgets were most quickly adopted by US households in the last 50 years. What would a Chinese version look like? China has a radically different history of popular technology adoption and penetration that is shaped not only by a 20th century dominated by poverty, war, and limited access to universal education, but also by cultural idiosyncracies. Some gadgets found in most American households, such as the answering machine (I have yet to hear a compelling explanation why no one uses one, or voice mail) and the clock radio (now leapfrogged to cell phones), were never embraced in China despite being available and are only seen in Western movies. Some were skipped entirely, such as 8 track players, dying overseas before they ever crossed over. Others, such as the VCR, arrived late and, while popularly adopted, never enjoyed the ubiquity they had in the US because they were followed too soon by VCD and DVD players. Only 17% of urban households had a color TV set in 1985 while 12% of rural homes had a TV set at all, but by 1999 both figures were over 100% – a level reached in the US as early as the late 1960s. Considering how gadget-obsessed the world is these days, its worth keeping in mind how radically different another culture’s relationship with consumer electronics can be compared with our own. One of the most radically different technological histories in China involves telegraphs, typewriters, printing presses and computers – how IT tackled the Chinese written language.

This weekend I met an employee of China’s Founder Group, a state-owned enterprise focused on IT and pharmaceuticals, told me the company takes great pride in one of its founders, Wang Xuan, a Peking University professor who led Project 748, a national scientific research project which developed laser photo-typesetting technology for Chinese characters in the 1970s and 1980s, enabling Chinese-language publishers to move into the digital era. Hong Kong newspapers were still typesetting by hand in the 80s, some 20-odd years after digital printing technology first emerged in the US market. Wang, celebrated in the mainland as a “modern Bi Sheng,” referring to the Song Dynasty inventor of movable type, was one of a long line of Chinese developers who tackled the immensely complicated problem of creating printing, typesetting, communications and input systems for the Chinese language, which arguably only became truly universally accessible with the development of computer-based Pinyin input systems and laser printing.

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