Joe Xu comes to us after working undercover in the tech industry. He has a Ph.D. in Media & Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he wrote the dissertation, “Involution Nation: Passion, Place and Precarity in the Chinese Mobile Tech Industry.” [Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.]
1. Tell me a little about your scholarly background and research.
The digital experience is so mediated and delivered to us through screens that we rarely think about the human cost and labor behind it; this [omission] is what I want to unravel in my own research. My project–which is an ethnographic view on thinking the future of tech and work–argues that tech workers occupy a contradictory position where they’re both victims of platform oppression and global capitalism and they’re in the privileged position of being some of the few people in the world who can subvert these systems of control. These corporate institutions are very nebulous and not open to the outside; production is often totally opaque to the consumer, and it is a process wrought with precarity and abuse–especially in the Global South. Most Americans don’t realize that our apps and mobile games are made overseas–China is responsible for 40% of all global game production on the app store. Much of my work aims to penetrate the opaque veil obscuring industrial practices, which are often abusive.
2. What attracted you to DSI at U-M?
I’m super interested in the organizational structure of DSI. It's very unique, especially coming from UW-Madison where things are dispersed across campus. It’s really impressive to see so many faculty from different disciplines come together to have conversations, solidarities, and reimaginings of a more just tech culture. I’ve been really impressed by having that breadth of support and knowledge from so many people from such different backgrounds.
3. You’ve worked as a documentarian, broadcast journalist, and in tech–how has that influenced your research and approach to scholarship?
Having worked in various industries, I find that I have a very practical outlook. I stress that rigorous theory is not enough—you have to have creative ways of translating theoretical work into something that can be widely applied. Usually, students in my class aren’t there for the theory, but because they want to work in industry. And this provides ample opportunity for teaching about labor precarity and institutional barriers to industry entry. I can actually tell my students (who are very open to these conversations), “You are the change-makers who can make the industry better.”
4. Tell me a little about the DIGITAL 258: “Global Media Industries” course you’re currently teaching. What can students expect from a class with you?
Media industry classes tend to focus on screen industries like TV and film. But my class is different because I also incorporated the game industry, the music industry, and the promotional industry. These industries are often ignored in entertainment because TV and film are the “prestige” sectors in this field. But in terms of raw revenue, the gaming and promotional industries are actually bigger! This class caters to diverse student trajectories. Whether a student wants to work in PR or TV, the material I cover in this class will help students have a critical understanding of various media industries and critical understanding of the work processes that govern us. So in this way, DIGITAL 258 is a very practical class.
5. What’s your favorite text on your 258 syllabus?
Last week I taught “Korean Meme-icry: Samsung and K-Pop,” a piece about K-pop from Kyung Hyun Kim’s book Hegemonic Mimicry. It’s interesting because it connects traditional industrial production in Korea to the industrial production of K-pop idols. In drawing a comparison between Samsung and K-pop production, this piece asks us to think about how the constant mass manufacturing of commodities isn’t that different from manufacturing cultural pop idols.
6. Why do you think it’s important to encourage global and/or comparative media studies?
If you look at the current global environment, all the conversations are about disconnection and disagreements between different nations. Now more than ever, we need connections and articulations between divergent cultures and viewpoints. It’s critical for students to be able to see this, and seeing it from a media industry's perspective is even more telling because the logistics and supply chain of our media production is heavily dependent on global labor. Our apps and software are made overseas, and that labor has long been rendered invisible. To be able to see that clearly and reflect on its human cost is really important for people pursuing these careers in the future.
7. What do you hope to accomplish as a postdoc at DSI?
This semester, I’m primarily focusing on teaching; I’ve always wanted to teach “Global Media Industries.” I’m really enjoying being able to deliver DIGITAL 258 and fine-tune it based on student feedback. My focus for the Winter semester is to adapt my dissertation into a book project, which is going to take some additional research and fieldwork overseas. I hope to have some kind of working proposal to pitch to prospective publishers. Because my dissertation was written during the pandemic, I feel like I should get it out before people forget about the pandemic and its impacts.
8. And, our final question—what’s a typical day online for you?
I mean… apart from the logistics of teaching and emailing and constantly figuring out if things are working properly, I listen to music and watch YouTube videos. Sometimes I doomscroll on Twitter but I try to avoid that…