I'm wrapping up my two week visit to Shanghai and thought I'd share some reflections that might be of interest to the SN community. It's my first time visiting in over 6 years, and while things haven't changed much on the outside, a lot has changed as I'll discuss below. There isn't much here that's specifically about Bitcoin, because I mostly spent time with family and none of them are particularly into Bitcoin; but some of the thoughts are tangentially related to Bitcoin.
  1. We are already cyborgs
    I struggled with how to summarize my thoughts succinctly, and I settled on this: we're already cyborgs. A cyborg is part human, part machine. I think that's almost a fair way to describe living in Shanghai. It feels impossible to live here without your phone and the associated (Chinese) apps. Everything here is done by app. Shopping, rides, food, payments, everything. If you tell a waiter you're ready to order they'll tell you to scan the QR code. And good luck trying to get a cab without ordering from an app. Cash is supposed to be accepted, but they'll tell you to use your phone. If you insist on cash, they might not have enough change.
    The phone is very much an extension of your body, like an appendage. It probably has more utility than your left hand. It's likely more central to your identity than your embodied self. Someone in possession of your phone and passwords can function as you more easily than you can in possession of your body.
  2. In a cybernetic world, interoperability between cultures may become harder
    All of the above might seem convenient if you're already plugged into the system. But for someone who doesn't have all the apps and doesn't read Chinese well, the adjustment is quite difficult.
    I'll give you an example from the airport. China needs you to fill out a health information form to enter. I'm used to doing paper entry forms. They usually hand them out on the plane. But lo and behold, in China you're supposed to fill it out on an app (which of course I wasn't told about until I landed). When I didn't have the app, the guard instructed me to download WeChat, which I used to scan a QR code that took me to the entry form. And of course, with it being all in Chinese, I needed the guard's assistance to fill it out. By the time I was done, all the other passengers had already gone through. (They must have all been Chinese and knew about the app already--I was flying in from Macau).
    Thankfully, my paper passport and paper visa still worked.
    This isn't the only example. Pretty much everything took longer to do, especially at first. Because everything required a new app, getting used to the interface, learning the Chinese terms for navigating the app, etc.
    When I noted my experiences to Chinese friends and family, they said that the Chinese now feel a similar discombobulation when traveling outside. None of the apps they rely on for daily living work outside China. They have to adjust to a new technology stack and a new language. I'm pretty sure traveling was easier before this, and we got along fine with our grunts, gestures, and a few words of each others' languages.
  3. Authoritarianism makes itself attractive to outsiders
    On the surface, Shanghai is a damn impressive city. More impressive than any American city I've been to recently. It's clean. The architecture is mostly nice. Technology level is off the charts. You feel safe (partly because there are cameras everywhere, and I mean literally everywhere. You can't drive 10 ft without some street camera flash going off.) My friends here are all well paid. They drive nice cars, are raising nice families, and seem to enjoy life.
    I went to a Museum of Urban Planning (yes they have that in Shanghai) and the designs and philosophies seem thoughtful. But there was a dystopic undercurrent. One presentation at the museum was about the "Future Vision" of Shanghai. They want to make it a city with "Global Influence," and as part of that they want to create a "Laureate Community" of world renowned scientists and scholars. Hmm, wasn't this the plot of Bioshock or something? And of course, this vision was complete with AI assistants everywhere and self driving cars and all that. It sent shudders down my spine.
    Then I thought about Shanghai and its role in broader Chinese society. Clearly, Shanghai is the trophy city of the Chinese regime. I reflected on the amount of input resources the city must receive and whether the city generates a corresponding level of output. My wife gave me an apt description: Shanghai is kind of like Dubai. The regime pours resources into making their trophy city attractive to foreigners, but it isn't an accurate reflection of the rest of the country. Unfortunately, I've never gotten to see other parts of China and I wonder how they compare to Shanghai.
    All in all, I felt attracted to Shanghai. It helps to have friends and family here already. And to know that they are doing well. I entertained thoughts of moving to Shanghai. But then I remembered how life here can be turned off with the flick of a switch, and I thought twice about the idea.
  4. This trip reinforces my hope for a global technology stack built on decentralized hard money
    Okay, I have a lot more to say but should wrap things up. How does any of this relate to Bitcoin? Well, it reinforces my hope for a global technology stack built on decentralized hard money. The cat's out of the bag in terms of technological integration of daily life. Like I said, we're all cyborgs, not just in China but in the West too. China is just ahead by a few years. Ideally, our technologies should be interoperable between cultures. But the problem with tech-integrated lives is the centralizing power it gives to the technology owners (or those with power over the technology owners). We've already seen how that plays out on social media in the West; in China the ramifications are even more severe.
    What is the solution? I think people on SN already know. We need more decentralized, open source, protocol-driven modes of interacting. Bitcoin is the foundation because it allows for decentralized P2P exchange of value. That is what makes everything else possible, because everything else is exchanging some service for value. Nostr is already trying to do this for social media, but we need it for other markets as well.
    So my encouragement, if you are one of those building out this vision, is to continue your efforts and know that your work is appreciated and valuable to humanity!
I spoke to a friend last night still living in Shanghai. He said the lockdown was terrible, but everything now has opened up & booming.
Shanghai is definitely its own kind of place. Go just 80km west to Suzhou & the culture is completely different.
bitcoin still faces the same problem everywhere in that people need to know about it & be willing to accept it as payments. I can't really imagine this happening in China until their RMB is debased significantly. Even then they seem to prefer convenience over freedom (everything you described), so it might even take a change of government/revolution.
I agree. I'm under no illusion that Bitcoin would be accepted in China anytime soon, even in our lifetimes. That's why it's still just a vision, but a vision that makes so much sense. I guess the saying "we're still early" still holds true in that sense.
Hey thanks for these thoughts and descriptions!!
The reality you describe in Shanghai must be shocking. Clearly the country is not closing itself to foreigners, but they may be trying to avoid locals to leave it.
Regarding the cyborg aspect, I believe it is something that is coming for sure. Human behavior is increasingly being rationalized. Check out Obsidian, where some people consider it the second brain, and are using it as such, not to mention the future AI plugins for that, that are already coming in the following weeks. (https://www.reddit.com/r/ObsidianMD/comments/1522umt/a_gpt_assistant_within_obsidian_trained_on_your/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=android_app&utm_name=androidcss&utm_term=3&utm_content=2)
My point is, my behavior and thinking can be fully explained in a digital modular way, as long as I follow and embrace a living standard and guidelines. If people remain rebel and unpredictable, there may be a way out of that dystopia.
my behavior and thinking can be fully explained in a digital modular way, as long as I follow and embrace a living standard and guidelines
This is so true. Another thing about this app-enabled way of living is that, although convenient, it kinda locks you in to certain patterns of behavior. There's less room to go outside the system and do things differently. Just more food for thought.
Yes. The more predictable the better. The less variance of the way you areliving the better. It is a sad part of progress IMHO.
Centralization is efficient, as is authoritarian rule. Decentralization is messy, but in some areas of life and society it's essential, or we end up in a gulag.
Efficient government, in general, is a good thing until it turns its target toward you.
And generally that happens "for your own safety".
I like my governments highly incompetent or/and corrupt.
This is deep. "Authoritarianism makes itself attractive to outsiders". I went to Shanghai a number of years ago. The city left a very deep impression on me. Silly question from me, do the cameras on the street actually "flash"?
They do actually. My eyes are trained to recognize it because where I live in America there's a street camera too (that issues automated red light tickets)
Very interesting. If someone refuse to download there app I wonder how things would work. I typically refuse to use anything not open source, and got a phone in the past initially just to try Bitcoin apps. Do you have any example of people who refused to use their app and know how it went?
I'm curious about this myself. None of my friends and family were in this camp, so I don't have any examples. It's something I'd like to try myself, but I'd need to do more research first.
Thank you. By the way, I have heard of the Chinese Yuan expiring at a certain date to force people consume. In practice is it true? Did you have your family running into this kind of problem?
I don't think this is true. Where did you hear of it? I do remember that China experimented with a CBDC that had an expiry date, but I don't think regular yuan expires
Oh I see, thank you. So this was about CBDC only and it was an experiment. I vaguely heard about that but didn't look into the details.
This is such a great writeup. So many good and non-obvious points.
Maybe this one is my favorite:
Authoritarianism makes itself attractive to outsiders.
It's good to reflect on what can be, for a while, some very nice features of authoritarianism. From everything I read, the peeps in El Salvador are over the moon about what Bukele has done, because their lives are less chaotic. It seems like a great tradeoff for them. It probably is a great tradeoff for them, at least for now. It's all a matter of perspective.
I dunno if you travel regularly, but please, keep doing stuff like this.
Interesting that you should mention Bukele and El Savador, because for most of the 1st world Asian countries, they did require some authoritarianism to bring them into the modern world. For example, Taiwan didn't really become a democracy until the 80s. But good on them, they were able to successfully transition to a democratic society without bloodshed. Sometimes it seems like you might need a strongman to bring order out of chaos, and the question is whether that power can be relinquished peacefully