Reuters

For dissidents like Ai Weiwei, the internet is fulfilling roles once played by urban space.

Screen shot 2012-08-13 at 12.45.48 AM.png

The new issue of Foreign Policy features an interview with Chinese dissident Ai WeiWei. The whole thing is worth reading, but this passage, I thought, was especially striking: 

Ai Weiwei: For the past year, I've not been allowed to travel, but now by logic and reasoning I'm a free man, except that I cannot leave China. You know, I have no desire to travel. I have so many things to do; I cannot finish them now.

Foreign Policy: Your life seems to have migrated onto the Internet almost completely.

AW: Yeah, before you arrived, I'd already spent two hours on the Internet.

FP: So, if your life moves onto the Internet, that's a big, open city.

AW: It is. Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response. They know me better than their relatives or my relatives. There's so much imagination there; a lot of times it's just like poetry. You just read one sentence, and you sense this kind of breeze or a kind of look. It's amazing.

FP: And yet the city of the Internet is not free for everyone here.

AW: No. We have to dig in or climb over, and we have to do so many things to reach our city. That makes the city beautiful. It's worth the effort.

Coming from someone else, that might smack of "cyber-utopianism." From Ai, though, it's the opposite: a simple reflection of circumstances. Ai was imprisoned last year - for 81 days - and was released on the condition that he would not speak to the media. It's a condition that he has not kept. 

And Twitter - and the Internet in general - has allowed him to keep talking. Not only has it let him speak without a filter; but the world attention afforded him, as created through the vector of the Internet, has also amplified his voice. And it has, to a certain extent, protected that voice. As Ai told Der Spiegel last year, "I, and not only me, always thought, in modern history Chinese people are like a dish of sand, never really close together. But today I think a dish of sand is a good metaphor because now we have the Internet." 

He continued:

We don't have to be physically united. You can be an individual and have your own set of values but join others in certain struggles. There is nothing more powerful than that. On the Internet, people do not know each other, they don't have common leaders, sometimes not even a common political goal. But they come together on certain issues. I think that is a miracle. It never happened in the past. Without the Internet, I would not even be Ai Weiwei today. I would just be an artist somewhere doing my shows.

Photo credit: David Gray/Reuters

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A sign outside a storefront in Buffalo, New York.
    Environment

    Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

    The Western New York city possesses a distinct mix of weather, geography, and infrastructure that could make it a potential climate haven. But for whom?

  2. A line of stores in Westport, Connecticut
    Equity

    Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing

    In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Invisible walls created by local zoning boards and the state government block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.

  3. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  4. photo: A vacant home in Oakland that is about to demolished for an apartment complex.
    Equity

    Fix California’s Housing Crisis, Activists Say. But Which One?

    As a controversy over vacancy in the Bay Area and Los Angeles reveals, advocates disagree about what kind of housing should be built, and where.

  5. The Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria.
    Design

    The Prophetic Side of Archigram

    It’s easy to see the controversial group’s influence in left field architecture from High-Tech to Blobism 50 years later, but it’s easier still to see it in emerging technologies and the way we interact with them.

×