Losing Touch

As of December 2011, there were 331.6 million wireless subscriber connections in the U.S. according to industry tradegroup CTIA – The Wireless Association (1). By a growing margin, more telephone numbers ring through to mobile phones than to land lines (2), and it has become a common occurrence for households to abandon or forgo landlines in favor of mobile phone service. Surveys conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that as of mid-2011, nearly a third of all American households (31.6%) had only mobile phones. While individually these statistics reflect a significant change in consumer preference, when taken as a whole, the shift towards mobile phones as the primary telephony platform highlights a subtle, yet amazingly profound transformation.

Over the past two decades telephone numbers have transitioned from being primarily associated with a place (e.g., 301-696-3657 dials to 113 Rosenstock Hall) to being primarily associated with a person – the owner of the mobile phone assigned to the number. Untethered by physical location, mobile phone numbers provide a constant, convenient, and consistent way to reach an individual. That is, of course, when you have the mobile phone.

In the China of the factory girls, stories abound of girls who became unreachable because they lost their mobile phones or had them stolen and of teachers who, without their mobile phone, became unavailable to students. When a phone was gone, so to was the ability to reach the individual to whom it belonged.

In the U.S. ownership of one’s telephone number is so valued that legislation was passed to allow consumers the ability to transfer a number from carrier-to-carrier or from phone-to-phone (3). In China however, such legislation does not yet exist. For migrant factory workers this presents a unique limbo where workers can, and often do, become disconnected both from a physical location and reliable personal connection. “The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone.”

I would like for you to consider for a moment how you might connect with one of your friends if nether of you had access to a mobile phone. Perhaps you would use email to agree upon a time and location to meet. Perhaps you might call his or her dorm room, apartment, or workplace and leave a voicemail suggesting some convenient meet up. Devoid of these means, you might have to be more creative – a letter sent through the mail, a note attached to a shared door or other frequented location.

When I pose this question to my students, they very quickly fall into relying on the use of a physical location – most often a residence – as a means of connecting. In the U.S. though, some 2.3 – 3.5 million people lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence at some point during the year (4). Roughly 8% of this tally is youth aged 13 – 21 (5). According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq., this population is homeless. For these individuals, maintaining connectivity with their social circles is an ongoing challenge. It is no wonder then, that to those suffering from homelessness, having a mobile phone provides a means of retaining a sense of connection, even without a fixed address (6).

So now for my challenge to you. Try turning off your mobile phone and avoiding online social interaction for a weekend. If you are brave, try a week. How disconnected did you feel? Leave a comment on the blog and let me know about your experience.

David Gurzick, Ph.D., Department of Economics and Management

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The Cultural Revolution–Some Background

Propaganda poster titled “Protect the Great Results of the Cultural Revolution, 1974,” in which young people loyal to Mao Zedong paint political messages on a wall, modeling correct behavior and proper revolutionary diligence.

In the story of her family’s history in Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang provides an overview of the turbulent history of China in the twentieth century. Among the events she narrates is the Cultural Revolution, during which her grandfather’s tomb is desecrated. The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966-1976 and was an attempt by the government to destroy traditional Chinese culture. What would it have been like to have been a university student in China at this time? During the Cultural Revolution urban high school and college students were sent to rural areas to be re-educated in the “Up to the Mountains, Down to the Villages (上山下乡, shangshan xiaxiang)” campaign. This campaign was initiated in the hopes of making students better revolutionaries and spreading new technology and knowledge to the countryside, but also had to do with the very real fact that the government did not know what to do with the millions of urban youth after schools were closed across the country. Many of these students had joined the Red Guards, a paramilitary group and social movement, created under the urgings of Mao Zedong, but that was wreaking havoc across the country. It is the Red Guards in Factory Girls that dig up the remains of Leslie T. Chang’s grandfather and destroy his tomb and grave marker. Some students went willingly to the countryside, caught up in the revolutionary zeal of the moment. Others, like members of Leslie T. Chang’s family, came from what was determined to be anti-revolutionary backgrounds and had no choice. During the Cultural Revolution over ten million students migrated to the countryside, with some living in rural villages for nearly a decade, one of the many large scale migrations to occur in China during the twentieth century.

Leslie Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Professor of Art History and Archaeology

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Thinking About the Book

Now that you have downloaded your copy of Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, I would like to invite you to hear listen to an NPR (National Public Radio) interview with the author. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95691866

I believe you will find that the interview will provide you with a good sense of the process that the author used to gather information for the book and the many strands of information and insight that she weaved into the book. Additionally, it is wonderful to hear the voice of your author in preparation for her visit on campus in October.

I was struck by the clarity of the voices within Factory Girls. The world of the immigrant worker in China is one that is capturing a great deal of attention within and outside of China. What does it mean to be one of over 150 million migrant workers? How does working in these factories impact the young workers and their families? What are the ethical questions that should be addressed when developing mega factories? What are acceptable working conditions within mega factories? How does culture and tradition impact the lives of these workers? These and many other questions were swirling in my mind as I read Factory Girls. What questions does this book provoke for you? How has this book changed what you thought or felt about the issue of mega factories and the people that work in them? I invite you to add your comments and thoughts here as you blog about Factory Girls.

Kate Conway-Turner, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs

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