An ode to slow technologies of encounter: the tables of China

Juan Ortiz Freuler
5 min readFeb 25, 2024

By Juan Ortiz Freuler & Jiaqi Zhao*
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Politicians and Ministers across the world seem increasingly obsessed with how technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) will allow them to reshape their relationship with the public.

What values do government officials seek to advance when deploying AI?

This question is often overlooked or under-discussed when a technology achieves the type of media hype that AI is getting this year. This is a problem because once technology is deployed into government offices, it will reshape the government itself.

True, the impact of deploying technology is not as rigid or deterministic as tech gurus promoting data-driven government would hope, but it still reshapes relations: As Langdon Wiener notes, rather than determinism, there are unstable interactions. The general set of technological affordances interacts with user behavior, the cultural and economic contexts, and more. It is less a factory assembly line and more like…soap bubbles unleashed into the dentist’s waiting room(?) The point is that some things are certain, others are likely, and some are unpredictable….

Far from the fast-paced corridors of Beijing, or the futuristic offices of Shenzhen; in a small rural town in the south of China, the authors of this piece, two communication scholars, found themselves reflecting on the ways in which technologies of encounter are shaping the relationship between the government and the people inhabiting this area. The technology in question: tables! Over the summer month of August, students at Renmin University of China get to travel and do volunteer work, mostly in rural areas of China. In the case of Jiaqi, this was Fengyang, a picturesque town of 12,000 inhabitants in the southern Fujian province, and renowned for its tea. After sharing a conference in Beijing, Jiaqi agreed to help Juan, from maté-tea obsessed Argentina, visit this town.

Pictured: Fengyang, a town in Fujian Province

A characteristic of the visit: we were lodged in local administrative offices. As such, much of our time, including breakfast, lunch and dinner, was shared with government officers. As researchers studying technology, two elements stood out to us as shaping much of the work taking place in these offices: the tea table and the round table. What follows are personal reflections shared with the humble purpose of enriching discussions on the impacts of deploying technology in government.

THE TEA TABLE

The tea tables are a common feature occupying a sizeable part of offices in Fengyang and dominate the area designed for meetings. This style of tea drinking is referred to as “Gongfu tea” and originated in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Today, it remains popular in parts of Guangdong and Fujian provinces. As can be seen in the picture, the table consists of an integrated boiler, a large cup in which the tea is brewed with hot water, a set of small teacups and a block of plied wood that is designed in a way that absorbs the liquid that is spilled both purposefully– in the process of rinsing cups after changing teas–, or that may spill unintentionally during the act of serving, which is not uncommon given the small size of the cups and the conversational context in which the table is used.

The design promotes the act of serving to be assigned to a single person. In the government offices, this is the public servant who is hosting the meeting…and the beauty of a tea town is that it is often served to the same farmers that have harvested the tea that is consumed. In this way, the performance materializes the idea of public service to those visiting the office, an often daunting experience for people working in the fields. Furthermore, the tiny size of the cups create a need for regular refills, giving dynamism to the conversation, and reiterated opportunities for the public servant to change the tempo and topic of conversation, including by changing the herb being brewed.

The tea itself changes with each flushing, offering fluid markers to the passage of time, while the act of serving becomes a slow dance that cyclically unfolds itself out of the tea table and wraps around the guests in a gesture of care.

Pictured: Jianjie Zhang, Director of the Party-masses Office of Fengyang , preparing tea in his office. Published with his consent

THE ROTATING TABLES

The second technology that caught our imagination was the rotating round table. The earliest record of Chinese people using round tables dates back to the Wei Dynasty(220–420. The wars of this period led to the integration of different ethnic groups, and the rotating tables were introduced to the Central Plains by nomadic tribes.

In contrast with Western-styled dining halls, where food is typically delivered in individualized portions, the collective portions are placed on a rotating table. As such, food is presented as a common resource, equidistant and equally available to all…as the table turns. This design requires close coordination among the sitters: One must pay attention to everyone else when food is sought, since turning the table when someone else is serving themselves might cause a splash. Given this permanent risk, the most aware diners would notice any attempts to serve yourself and dash out a hand to stop the table from being spun. A vivid reminder of the interdependence in our society. A message that is particularly tangible when food itself is at stake…and it is not just those immediately next to you that have the power to shape what becomes available to you and when. The full set of people at the table shape your opportunities and outcomes.

Dishes on top of a round glass circle that allows them to circle around a round table
Pictured: a round table in Fengyang

CLOSING REFLECTION

At a time in which public attention is focused on the speed offered by artificial intelligence, the slow dance induced by the old technologies of bureaucracy are a good reminder that what we seek is connection and coordination, not further intermediation. We seek care, not speed. We seek to be perceived and appreciated as persons who are complex and unique, and not have our personalities sanitized to fit into a statistical measure.

In times of rapid social changes, perhaps we should carve out space and time for the slow art of human encounter. Maybe the officers that are requested to design a plan for the adoption of AI could pose the question: Is this tool better than the tea table at forwarding our goals? The results will be varied, but surely would enrich discussions on the deployment of these tools in government and, more broadly, the role of public servants as such.

We might get closer to technologies that embrace the dance of social encounter, instead of trying to hammer it out.

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This text is also available through my personal website. Reproduction and translation are allowed under a CC-BY license.
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Juan Ortiz Freuler is an Argentinean lawyer, tech researcher affiliated with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University; a Wallis Annenberg Fellow and Ph.D. student, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and a co-initiator of the Non-Aligned Tech Movement.

Jiaqi Zhao is a doctoral candidate majoring in Communication at the School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin University of China.

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Juan Ortiz Freuler

Justice & participation. ICTs & Data. Affiliate @BKCHarvard. Alumni: @oiiOxford & @blavatnikSchool . Chevening Scholar. Views=personal. Here-> open discussion.