I Have Seen The Future and it is a Chinese Vegetable Washing Machine
But I am nonetheless concerned about "black technology" marketing and a possibly fake British kitchen appliance company.
Before going any further, please watch the two minute-long TikTok video embedded below:
What do we make of this glimpse of gadget-infested domestic Chinese life? Are we enthralled by the Jetsonian vision of science-fictionalized convenence? Or appalled at this wanton display of amok commodity fetishism? The Western reaction on social media earlier this month to the circulation of the “What Do Single Women Do After Work” video ran the gamut.
Take your pick:
“Omg China is living in the future!”
“This is a climate change disaster!”
“Who puts lettuce in their ramen?”
“Where can I buy that self-bag-tying garbage machine or that glasses-cleaning device?”
No question, the video’s viral power stems from its sublime demonstration of how Chinese appliance manufacturers have perfected late capitalist techno-gizmo consumer wizardry. This used to be the un-challenged role of the United States in the global economy. Then, in the 1980s, Japan started making waves. But now China reigns supreme.
The video emits more than a whiff of self-aware performance art, a kind of in-the-know “Sinofuturism” that one very informed observer has dubbed “inverse Orientalism.” It is one of many similar videos gathered together at the TikTok homecoming.diary site, along with What Does a Girl Eat When She Comes Home and Share My Life After Work. The huge viewing numbers that some of these videos command suggest that there is a thriving global market for catering to voyeurs curious about the consumer habits of upper-middle class young women in urban China.
These texts are grist for a thousand dissertations. But my first question, after watching the video three times in a row, was what in the world was that vibrating thing she put in the bowl full of water and tomatoes?
Answering this question sent me down some unexpected paths.
I started with the assistance of Naomi Wu, aka @RealSexyCyborg, who provided a handy time-stamped list of the showcased devices on Twitter.
So the tomato-cleaning device is allegedly an “ozonated water vegetable sanitizer.” After playing around with some possible Chinese translations of this title, I ended up stumbling upon an unboxing video on Douyin (China’s original version of TikTok) for the “Bolali fruit and vegetable machine” (果蔬极). With the brand name in hand, I made quick progress, discovering 1) a listing on the Taobao ecommerce site selling the device for approximately 140 U.S. dollars, 2) advertorial copy on Sohu.com that described the device in question as “black technology,” and 3) an English-language website for Bolali that described the company as having been founded in Manchester, England in 1905 by a person named “Bolali Adam.”
The About Bolali page declares that “Bolaili is a kitchen appliance manufacturer that has had the honour of serving the British peerages.”
Please note that the marketing copy misspells the company’s own name. Nor could I ascertain whether a person named “Bolali Adam” has ever actually existed. Besides the UK Bolali website, the only Google-able references to “Bolali Adam” are all on Chinese-language pages. Best I can tell, the English version of this company is a fake, seemingly motivated by the intent to swathe Bolali devices with a Western imprimatur. (The Taobao page for the vegetable washing device includes a sticker noting that Bolali originated in England.)
But this makes no sense as a marketing strategy! In 2022 who would possibly be looking to the UK as a source for gee-whiz consumer technology from the future? Further confusing the situation, the product listings for kitchen appliances on the English website don’t even include any of the fancy “black technology” gadgets that are prominently promoted on the Chinese language website for Bolali.
The future is SO confusing!
But maybe that’s what “black technology” is all about? Maybe it is supposed to be mysterious?
I had not previously encountered the term “black technology” in a Chinese context until this week. This is embarrassing, because as explained by the China scholar Gabriel de Seta in his enlightening article “Heikeji 黑科极 [‘black technology’]: Opacity and Incomprehensibility in Chinese Innovation”, the phrase “black technology” started being deployed in China in the 2010s “to describe both technologies readily available in existing commercial products (e.g., machine learning) as well as futuristic technologies only portrayed in science fiction narratives (e.g., warp drives).”
.”..a term like heikeji, with its blurry boundaries and vague promises, is a textbook example of how AI products are peddled as high-tech ‘snake oil’ through pseudoscience and dubious appeals to depth. At the same time, the novelty and opacity of heikeji offers the opportunity to trace how technologies are mystified and how increasingly untenable myths about them are then questioned. By combining a generalized futuristic provenance and technical incomprehensibility, heikeji pointed towards a promising path of national innovation leapfrogging and profitable advancements in global competitiveness, but also to the threatening shadow cast by opaque technical systems to come.”
It gets better. According to de Seta, the term “black technology” actually was first coined in a series of Japanese novels called Full Metal Panic, to describe “discoveries and innovations well beyond present human knowledge, which are mysteriously understood by a category of human beings called ‘Whispered.’”
In Full Metal Panic!, the Black Technology varies from massive humanoid combat robots to artificial intelligence, invisibility cloaking, energy sensors, palladium reactors, and monomolecular cutting blades (Fandom contributors, 2020). It is likely that the term Black Technology was translated into Chinese as heikeji by local fans of Japanese ACG; from subtitles and comic book dialogues, it seeped into everyday jargon, testifying to the unpredictable discursive loops connecting science-fictional narratives and tech industry imaginaries.
So if I’ve got this right, shadowy, possibly British, time travelers from the future are delivering advanced kitchen technologies to Chinese entrepreneurs for the comfort and satisfaction of aspirational urban Chinese women.
Or maybe I’ve got that wrong. My grip on reality has been loosened by this exploration. However, my reporting has revealed at least one thing:
According to the Sohu advertorial copy, the technology deployed in the “fruit and vegetable machine” does not actually have anything to do with ozone, but instead uses “hydroxyl purification technology” to remove germs, pesticides, agricultural waste and other nasty stuff from fruits and vegetables.
Food safety is a pressing concern in China, and hydroxyl purification technology does appear to be a real thing, although in the West it seems to mostly be used as an air-freshener. So maybe the Bolali “fruit and vegetable machine” is legit. I am chastened to think of how just two and a half years ago, I felt like a barbarian in China when confronted with the requirement to wave my phone above a bar code to access a restaurant menu, but today, after almost two years of a pandemic, the very same technology is ubiquitous in the United States. Perhaps a year from now I will be posting my own videos from my own kitchen packed with the latest in Chinese technology.
The future is unknown, and I will always be looking for new monetization strategies for my eccentric interests. Nevertheless, I’m still not entirely sure I want to wash my vegetables with a “black technology” device made by a company that may or may not have invented a fake British kitchen appliance firm as a marketing gimmick.
But I will definitely keep watching the videos.