Interview: Xiaowei Wang on tech, China, writing through your emotions, & the power of community

This week, I’m introducing a new interview series on creatives working at the intersection of writing and tech. As a writer and UX researcher, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to balance both worlds, and also how rewarding. In this series, I’ll talk to fellow writers in tech to learn how they navigate these seemingly disparate career paths and passions, hear about their latest work, and what advice they have for other creatives in the field.

First up, we’ll hear from Xiaowei Wang, artist, writer, technologist, and Creative Director at Logic Magazine, author of the recently published Blockchain Chicken Farm, and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.

Xiaowei Wang on tech and China, writing through your emotions, and the power of community

I’m that person who you’re like, what do you do exactly? I think the quick summary and keywords would be “multicultural tech writing with nor Cal vibes.”

You’ve had a unique journey into and through tech, in a variety of roles — engineering, design, teaching, writing — at startups as well as in academic environments. How did you first become interested in tech, and how would you describe your path into your current role?

Recently you’ve also taken up writing. How does writing fit in for you?

I also write a lot about tech. I just finished a piece for Mozilla recently about inventing new Chinese characters to bypass automated censorship. It’s creativity versus human creativity versus the machine.

Thinking about your experience, which cuts across both writing and tech, what feels more like “home” to you? Do you identify more with one side or the other?

I have been using the term “artist” because it’s broad. It encompasses everything and it’s loose enough where people can pick and choose. If I’m getting paid to do a China tech talk that’s more policy oriented, you can list I’m a PhD at Berkeley. Or if I’m doing something outside of that, you can list these other things. I’ve begun to sweat it a lot less. Y’all can describe me for your convenient purposes however you need.

A peer mentor of mine, An Xiao Mina, said, you can do all these things, but also you need something for people to grasp on to. And it’s not less of a reflection of yourself. It’s just helpful framing for others. It’s less about branding, because I have personal problems with that, and more just means that if someone needs to hire a researcher or writer who looks at tech in China with a more human oriented approach, they can think of me. Talking to mentors really helped me finesse that it’s more an approach to getting work than trying to brand myself to be a thought leader.

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You recently wrote a book, Blockchain Chicken Farm. Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing, called it “A brilliant and empathetic guide to the far corners of global capitalism.” What is your book about, and why did you dedicate the last few years of your life to this project?

So you felt this calling, really, to explore this topic. How did that calling turn into a book deal?

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The book is not told from a distance — it includes your voice and experience as a character. Why was it important to do that?

Even now, the bad reviews that I get for my book say, ‘this wasn’t the business book that I thought it was, why is the author in it so much? It’s not giving me the hot trends and insights into tech and China.’ And that is all in the sphere of receiving a performance from the people you’re interviewing. If I am doing research in China and my friend is there, who’s not Chinese, they are given a performance, and everyone’s so nice to them. For me, people think I must be from Hong Kong or something, so I’m just not given that performance. And I think it’s super important to acknowledge that. I really tried with my book to push it more towards the poetic, and bring in some framing to help people.

What was the actual experience of writing a book like for you?

Writing is sometimes really lovely when the flow’s going. But other times it’s like there’s a giant rock and you’re chipping at it with this tiny, tiny chisel.

I think the hardest part was getting over myself. I had to go to a lot of therapy. It was weirdly emotional. Getting stuck in a random village in rural China for the night — that was actually totally fine, if not amusing, and happened a lot. But yeah, the emotional stuff. Wow.

What’s one thing that you learned about yourself in the writing process?

In addition to writing your book, you are also the Creative Director for Logic. How does your work at Logic fit in?

The community part is so key and I wish that someone had told me that starting off, but no one tells you that. Even if you go to school for a creative degree, they never say: Actually the most important thing is not the work that you’re making. The most important thing is the community that you want to be part of. And who’s going to be your friend after you graduate.

The most important thing is not the work that you’re making. The most important thing is the community that you want to be part of.

Why is community so important?

I get emails from younger folks who want to know how I got to where I am and how I make money. And the first thing that I noticed is they say, Oh, well I really want to have more time for my art. And I say, okay, well say you’re making art. Where do you get feedback from? And they’re kind of stumped, and say, well, I’m just going to make it and it’s going to be good. Or, I’m going to post it on Instagram and I’ll get some likes. But thinking about what is that sustainable community that you’re building is really important.

What advice do you have for other artists in tech occupying this interdisciplinary space?

What’s next for you?

You want to give your collaborators a greater voice.

Xiaowei Wang is the author of Blockchain Chicken Farm & Other Stories, now available at a bookstore near you. They are also the brains behind the recently launched Logic School, an online, experimental school for tech workers designed to cultivate community and critical thinking to transform the tech industry.

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Author, Listen Like You Mean It. UX researcher, TWTR, PINS, etc. I write about the intersection of technology + society + personal growth. ximenavengoechea.com