Ethnic Platforms and the Failure of Techno-Futurity
This article analyzes a novel yet fleeting configuration of ethnicity, the ethnic platform. Through ethnographic fieldwork of a diasporic Vietnamese entrepreneurial organization, this article explains why this attempt to create economic potential through Vietnamese ethnicity eventually failed. The ethnic platform was organized around two regimes of futurity. On the one hand, the ethnic platform was founded on a hope for a transcendent Vietnamese ethnicity that organized future as potential and forward momentum. This future potential, however, stood at odds with the future present of a refugee subjectivity that shaped the ethnic formation of many of these diasporic entrepreneurs. Hence, the ethnic platform was situated at the disjuncture between incommensurate ethnic temporalities. Despite the ethnic platform’s short-lived existence, this article underscores the importance of failure as an ethno-temporal critique through which we come to see the struggles and limits of techno-capitalism.
One warm evening in Ho Chi Minh City, about two dozen people were crowded into a corporate boardroom in the city’s flickering downtown. In this glassy box, high above the dusty sidewalks and chugging motorbikes, those in attendance were dressed in pressed slacks and button-down shirts. We gathered around a large wooden table, at the head of which was Dat, a Vietnamese American entrepreneur from California.1 He was in his late thirties with a scattering of gray hair framing his temples. Like many of the other people in the room, he came to Vietnam to pursue the economic opportunities the country had to offer. As we each took our turn to introduce ourselves, the accents revealed a wide geographical span: Germany, the United States, France, and England. Most of the people, however, had Vietnamese surnames, and Dat brought us together that [End Page 51] evening to discuss the formation of a Vietnamese entrepreneurial platform. The goal of the platform, Dat explained, was to leverage the international connections of the Vietnamese diaspora and translate this into economic potential. At the start of the meeting, Dat declared,
What [our organization] wants to do is help people be entrepreneurs, give them leads where they can maximize their idea and commercialize their idea and bring it to market … the thing is the Vietnamese network is really strong outside of Vietnam. There’s people here from Germany, from New York, from Silicon Valley and so why isn’t it [sic] there a network for us to tap into those resources so that we can refer business to each other?
Dat, as the leader of this initiative, sported squared shoulders that conveyed a determined confidence. His gestures to draw everyone into discussion were countered by a continual pressure to propel this ethnic platform into action. He warmly encouraged people to offer their ideas and then very deftly exacted commitments of time and responsibility. In all, Dat exemplified the techno-managerial ideal through his embodiment of tangible action and demonstrable effect.2
His tone, however, took a marked turn toward the end of the meeting when only several individuals were left lingering in the room. Among this intimate few, our shared small talk turned to the topic of family histories and journeys out of Vietnam. Dat’s eyes widened, and in a hushed urgency he proceeded to recount his family’s departure. Dat’s family, like many others, left Vietnam on a boat. After several days adrift and lost at sea, a large merchant ship appeared as if from nowhere and saved them all from imminent death. The ship’s captain had seen their little boat in a dream. In his sleep, the captain saw the creaky vessel and its weary passengers in the middle of an empty ocean. The following morning, the captain immediately veered his ship off its planned course in search of the people he saw in his sleep. This dream led him directly to Dat’s boat. When he finished his story, Dat shook his head in amazement, still incredulous after all these years of the improbable miracle of his family’s journey.
This article introduces a novel configuration of ethnicity, the ethnic platform, and discusses its subsequent failure. The distinction between Dat as an entrepreneurial professional and Dat as a former refugee marks a hidden fault line that caused the platform’s eventual failure. The ethnic platform comprises an explicit effort to fashion a new form of Vietnamese ethnicity, one associated with techno-capitalist ideals of entrepreneurial dynamism and innovation. Undergirding this reconfiguration of ethnicity as platform is a temporal schema, what I call a future potential, that attempts [End Page 52] to forge a singular Vietnamese ethnicity, transcendent of geography. In this way, the future potential of the ethnic platform is also grounded in a desire to live unanchored from the weight of history. In other words, the ethnic platform attempts to erase the historical specificity of a Vietnamese identity that has been fashioned through refugee passages. In spite of a professed disavowal for this inherited ethnic history, the organizers of the ethnic platform, nevertheless, were unable to circumvent the temporal disjuncture between their entrepreneurial and refugee selves. The future potential of the ethnic platform ran into direct conflict with the temporal regime that organized the social worlds of this particular Vietnamese diaspora, the future present.
The ethnic platform aspires to build technologies such as video games, social networking sites, or mobile phone applications. More importantly, the ethnic platform is a sociocultural effort to reconfigure Vietnamese ethnic form. Dat and his colleagues envisioned this ethnic platform as a central hub for fomenting entrepreneurial culture in Vietnam. Through this, they hoped to cultivate a professional class of Vietnamese techno-entrepreneurs. As such, they taught Vietnamese students how to obtain investment capital and prepare business plans, along with the latest fads in business philosophy. This platform sought to capitalize on Vietnamese ethnic form as a base from which to generate techno-entrepreneurial value. Moreover, this techno-entrepreneurial reconfiguration of Vietnamese ethnic form attempted to bring together the Vietnamese hyphenates of the diaspora with Vietnamese nationals living within the country, and together they would create a modern Vietnamese future, one grounded in techno-entrepreneurial dynamism. These efforts, however, ran aground due to the disjuncture between the hope for a future potential and the disappointment and nostalgia of a future present.
This analysis of the ethnic platform comprises a postcolonial approach to the cultural studies of information technology and demonstrates the ways in which different places and people are variously hailed and interpellated under techno-capitalism. Such an approach offers a critical cultural account of information technology decentered from the techno-poles of the Global North and decolonizes the hype and hyperbole often associated with future making.3 This essay takes up Stuart Hall’s call to “think at the limit” to show how ethnicity functions as a limit to sociotechnical possibility.4 Ethnicity as limit reveals the postcolonial legacies of empire within information technologies.5 Ethnic reconfigurations are then possible only when we consider ethnicity not as inherent traits that singularly classify whole groups of people but, instead, understand ethnicity as “concrete abstraction variously deployed by human beings in their quotidian efforts [End Page 53] to inhabit sustainable worlds.”6 Ethnicity is a tool people use to cope with an ever-changing world. Furthermore, the future potential of the ethnic platform reaffirms the temporal schematics of duration and deferral as described by Mimi Nguyen in her work on the refugee moral economy of debt.7 Hence, this close reading of the ethnic platform elucidates the ways in which ethnic forms enact different temporal regimes. The persistent multiplicity of ethno-temporality disrupts the idea of singular “homogenous time” as a modernist fantasy.8 By attending to the temporal politics of ethnic form under techno-capitalism, this article reveals how failure is not erased through technological achievement. Instead, it is a persistent and chronic condition produced by temporal disjuncture.
The insights for this article originate from ethnographic fieldwork, conducted from 2009 to 2011 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon. I was originally motivated to undertake this project to understand the cultural significance of information technologies in a place like Vietnam, far from the entrepreneurial center of Silicon Valley. I was specifically interested in the ways in which cultures of information technology constructed knowledge and expertise as ideals based on configurations of ethnicity. At the onset of this fieldwork, I worked with software developers, mobile application programmers, and aspiring CEOs. As I began to work more closely with them, I learned about the important workshops and professional development events they attended during the evenings and weekends. I had no explicit intent of studying the Vietnamese diaspora, but former refugees like Dat played a central role in organizing these off-hour gatherings. Such events catalyzed and shaped the ambitions of the aspiring techno-entrepreneurs I encountered. The sociocultural work of organizing these aspirations converged around the formation of the ethnic platform I discuss here.
Platforms and the Power of Potential
Dat and his diaspora colleagues named their ethnic platform All Vietnam Investment (AVI) with the intent of cultivating entrepreneurial culture in Vietnam. In order to transform AVI into a platform, the organization needed to center itself as a nexus for entrepreneurial activity within the country. AVI intended not only to produce information technologies such as video games, social networking sites, or mobile phone applications, but also to promote a professional techno-entrepreneurial class from which information technologies and other futuristic technologies would be produced. To this end, Dat and AVI’s other volunteer members hosted conferences [End Page 54] to showcase promising Vietnamese technology businesses. From 2010 to 2013, AVI focused on the sectors of online retail, renewable energy, health care, and entertainment. These sectors conformed to a vision of a technology-driven modern Vietnam they hoped to enact. AVI also regularly organized professional development workshops to teach aspiring Vietnamese entrepreneurs how to solicit investment capital, prepare business plans, and manage a growing organization. In addition, AVI worked in a self-described marketing capacity to, as one AVI member described, “raise up the image of Vietnamese technology.”9 AVI, and the figure of the platform, was thus conceived as a solution to the problem of Vietnam as a “premodern” and “low-tech” place.
The platform has recently emerged as an important figure of power under techno-capitalism. Techno-capitalism refers to a specific form of market capitalism, characterized by the importance of information technology industries such as informatics, biotechnology, and software design.10 Accompanying these industries is an entrepreneurial ideology that celebrates flux and continual change. Within this ideology, creativity is seen as the primary engine of economic dynamism. It produces novelty that successively supplants outdated forms and thus spurs economic accumulation. Joseph Schumpeter depicts the figure of the entrepreneur as an individual agent embarking on novel economic activity, “as it is the carrying out of new combinations that constitutes the entrepreneur.”11 Such creative acts of economic generation are attributed to the entrepreneur’s extraordinary capabilities, celebrated as a hero and economic savior who creates growth and prosperity.12 Entrepreneurial value is thus generated through techno-capitalism from a cycle of rupture and renewal, the never-ending result of hero figures pursuing destructive novelty, wealth, and economic momentum.
Set within this new “spirit of capitalism,”13 platforms comprise a fitting commodity to meet the challenges of this permanent state of motion. Techno-entrepreneurs desire to create platforms because they mitigate this permanent uncertainty through the generation of potential and the preemptive capture of value. Broadly speaking, platforms function as infrastructure to support the design and use of additional applications.14 For example, operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS serve as a base from which additional software programming is possible. As the original computational platforms, operating systems provide the architecture within which additional software, such as Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer, must then be constructed. Any additional software program must be built on top of the computational base of the operating system. For most technology users, platforms exist as invisible substructures. Platforms [End Page 55] are the required sublayer that enable other kinds of computational action. In this way, platforms exist as an invisible foundation for other kinds of technological programs. Platforms serve as the technical grounds from which computational action is imaginable and feasible. Platforms therefore exist as the structural and figurative grounds for technological possibility.
In modern computers, operating systems wield power since they are a required infrastructural component for all other types of applications. Platforms like these serve as the structural affordance from which additional technological achievement is possible. They accommodate, facilitate, and enable a sense of expansive technical potential, and it is this quality from which platforms achieve their power. Platforms function as enabling environments that generate future technological development. The power of platforms is grounded in the preemptive capture of that which it generates.15 Platforms catalyze and secure potential, and it is this temporal logic of the emergent capture of potential that gives platforms their appeal beyond technological domains, such as the ethnic work of AVI.
As a platform, AVI sought to create economic potential through Vietnamese ethnicity through several rhetorical maneuvers. First, the language of “leads” organized the temporal energy of AVI. It was the primary organizing principle that guided much of AVI’s work. This language projected an image of forward momentum and was used repeatedly by AVI’s members during planning meetings and in their promotional literature. From their website in 2015, the organization stated,
All Vietnam Investment focuses its business leads service in three particular areas: investments, trade, and software. True to our origins, All Vietnam Investment continues to work with startups and investors to build up and expand entrepreneurship in Vietnam. We help match entrepreneurs with early stage investors to build next generation companies. In the trade sector, through an extensive and trusted network of professionals, we connect reputable businesses in the United States and Vietnam with similar interests. Likewise, we work closely with software companies and developers to source projects in the United States and Vietnam.16
The language of leads relies on the construction of sequence in a state of inevitable growth. Phrases such as “build,” “expand,” “early,” and “next” indicate this sequential schema and depict Vietnam as a place of energy in exponential motion. Second, the language of networks establishes potential by organizing this energy and motion toward a concentrated center. The discourse of networks indicates a convergence and drawing together, important dynamics as Dat and his colleagues worked to match [End Page 56] and connect investors with promising engineers and business directors. AVI’s organizers envisioned the work of building economic partnership between the United States and Vietnam as the metabolic force to combust and realize the entrepreneurial energy that remained “latent” within Vietnam.17 The rhetorical production of economic potential made it such that the realization of this very potential required an explicit consideration of ethnicity.
Ethnicizing Entrepreneurial Potential
The ethnic platform aspires to fashion ethnicity as a base for economic potential. During AVI’s inaugural meeting, Dat claimed, “We are a Vietnamese organization.” The meaning of this Vietnamese character, however, was not self-evident and served as the primary focus of AVI’s collective efforts. As such, AVI’s members hoped to give new semantic charge to the very meaning of Vietnamese ethnic identity in two specific ways. First, AVI set out to address the problem of Vietnam as a low-tech place. Their ethnic platform sought very deliberately to reconfigure Vietnamese ethnic form, from one associated with low-skilled labor and nontechnological expertise to one associated with creativity, innovation, and technological prowess. More importantly, AVI also sought to create a unified Vietnamese ethnic identity that integrated both the diaspora and those living within the country. They attempted to achieve these goals by attributing the entrepreneurial potential described above with an ethnic character. In other words, they attempted very deliberately to ethnicize entrepreneurial potential.
The ethnic platform attempts to imbue economic potential with ethnic significance through the logics of territory, indigenization, and essentialization. After the initial introductions during AVI’s inaugural meeting, the discussion quickly devolved into rancorous complaints about the disappointments of working with the young Vietnamese they encountered. In the midst of an energetic burst of shared frustration, Phuong, a Vietnamese French education professional, interjected, “I want to create home-grown creativity. People that grew up in Vietnam and went to school in Vietnam. Eighty-seven million is [sic] here.”18 Phuong’s emotional outburst brought back into collective focus AVI’s shared objective and served as a calming reminder of the reason for their hard work in the face of frustration. AVI’s organizers saw Vietnam’s potential as residing within the sheer mass of eighty-seven million bodies. This number alone was often circulated at public events as an obvious indication of the expansive potential of untapped consumer and labor markets. Vietnamese youth, unaffected by [End Page 57] the memories of war and curious of the world beyond their immediate surrounds, now sought new pleasures, leisures, and pastimes that would require the introduction and consumption of previously foreign goods.19 These same youth also harbored new aspirations of livelihood and self-fulfillment. Families across all class strata sought foreign education and employment for their sons and daughters in their race to the future.20 The fact of this immense number of people seeking novel opportunities in all forms was but one way in which AVI identified the potential of Vietnam.
In addition to notions of bodies in territory, indigenization also plays a vital role in configuring potential in ethnic terms. Vietnamese American technology booster Anh-Minh Do wrote in 2013 that
Vietnamese people are inherently entrepreneurial. … People open up mom-and-pop stores left and right. If a new shoe store opens up on a local street, within months you’re bound to see a new competitor. People are always thinking about how to make money. Although this has manifested in scams and greedy business people, it’s also instilled an underlying entrepreneurial spirit.21
Entrepreneurialism, in this manner, is assigned an inherently Vietnamese character. Vietnamese people are depicted as naturally and natively entrepreneurial. At public conferences, investors and other economic development officials pointed to the myriad street vendors and market stalls as evidence of an indigenous entrepreneurial presence. This narrative stages Vietnamese people as innately entrepreneurial and “business-minded,” yet the particular ethnic inflections of this entrepreneurial tendency are qualified as merely imitative and informal. Do’s emphasis on the rapid arrival of new competitors in this local street economy serves to remind readers of the derivative character of this entrepreneurial world. By this account, Vietnamese entrepreneurs do not create new economic opportunities but simply copy that which has already proven lucrative. As a lesser form of economic skill, Vietnamese entrepreneurialism is therefore an ideal ethnic site of economic potential in that it can be further refined through the work of the ethnic platform.
This indigenous characterization of entrepreneurial potential is reinforced as part of a teleology that places Vietnam along an ethnic chain of Asian economic dynamism. Henry Nguyen, a Vietnamese American partner at the largest venture fund in Vietnam, stated in an interview that
I always look at Vietnam as the last of the East Asian tigers. … What we’ve seen in the last two decades is the unleashing of the natural talent, the unleashing of this golden generation. You have perfect demographics here in Vietnam and this young generation is the one [End Page 58] that’s going to take Vietnam, a low-income country, to a first world country and I feel that that’s inevitable.22
Nguyen’s use of phrases like “inevitable” and “natural talent” narrates a teleology of ethnic economic dynamism. This teleology of ethno-economic ascent places Vietnamese economic growth within a longer history of Asian economic potency at a moment when such narratives were already under question in light of the post-2008 market crash. Nevertheless, this language of “Asian Tigers” serves to unify disparate places like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand and constructs an Asian commensurability and ethnic-entrepreneurial precedent from which Vietnam is placed as an inevitable addition.
Taken together, the logics of territory and indigenization form a strategic ethnic essentialization that allows Vietnamese hyphenates to forge a shared connection and mutual interest between themselves and Vietnamese people living within the country. The entrepreneurial potential that Dat and AVI’s other members identified as intrinsic and latent within Vietnamese nationals required only their help to render it manifest. Such help was defined as providing for Vietnamese nationals the very same educational institutions and professional experiences to which the diaspora had access as part of their lives abroad. As Lam, a Vietnamese English member of AVI, explained, the only difference between himself and Vietnamese nationals was the educational “opportunities” he had received while living in the United Kingdom. Apart from this distinction, however, they were all Vietnamese. By giving Vietnamese nationals the opportunities for techno-entrepreneurial professional development, education, and training, AVI was helping them to realize a latent and inherent techno-entrepreneurial potential, and together they would create a new form of Vietnamese ethnicity, intimately folded into techno-modernity.
Constructing entrepreneurial potential thus comprises a reconfiguration of Vietnamese ethnic form in several ways. AVI sought to imbue Vietnamese ethnic identity with entrepreneurial associations of creativity, innovation, and technological mastery. AVI also sought to transform Vietnamese ethnic identity into one viewed as global, cosmopolitan, and geographically transcendent. In this way, Vietnamese ethnicity could be viewed as intrinsically entrepreneurial and therefore function as a platform itself, as a base from which to build a shared techno-future for all Vietnamese people, both at home and elsewhere. This configuration of futurity is defined in terms of potential and emergent sequence and reifies states of deferred realization. This vision of futurity within the ethnic platform, however, departs significantly from the futurity of the ethnic forms of the diasporic origins of people like Dat, Phuong, and Lam. [End Page 59]
Refugee Subjectivity and the Future Present
The particular roots and routes of AVI’s members assign a specific temporal character, a future present, to Vietnamese ethnic form. This temporal configuration of their ethnic subjectivity is predicated on a conditionality that defined their affective life in Vietnam. As AVI’s members began their work of building their platform, their original frustrations and complaints resurfaced. They regularly saw evidence of Vietnamese deficiencies everywhere they looked. They fixated on the choking pollution, the chaotic roads, an education system that encouraged rote memorization, and docile employees who did not effectively speak their minds. One Vietnamese American educator regularly relied on the charged adjective “ghetto” when confronted with the emotional frustration of everyday life in Vietnam. All of this indicated the backwardness of Vietnamese ethnicity, and it was these particular frustrations and disappointments that struck a dissonant chord with their ethno-entrepreneurial sensibilities.
When flummoxed by these feelings, a conditional nostalgia soothed their entrepreneurial melancholy. If only the war had not turned out as it did, Dat lamented one afternoon, “We could have been like South Korea.” In the early 2000s, South Korea had entered into Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia as a technological and cultural hegemon. South Korea was lauded as the most digitally connected country in the world and served as a cultural and economic beacon that a Vietnamese consuming public readily emulated.23 Looking across the Asian continent, this South Korea represented for Dat a possible economic horizon for a Vietnam of yesterday. Dat’s nostalgia was for a future already foregone, from a history that never was. As such, his nostalgia was punctuated by a temporal grammar of conditionality that characterized ethnic formation among AVI’s members.
This Vietnamese ethnic formation was largely based on a refugee subjectivity. Dat and many his colleagues at AVI left Vietnam as young children. Their families previously lived in the now nonexistent Southern Republic of Vietnam. This same Vietnamese refugee ethnic formation is readily visible in the Little Saigon communities scattered throughout the world. The name “Little Saigon” refers very specifically to these Vietnamese enclaves that have grown in the aftermath of refugee passages, much like the one Dat and his family undertook.24 The phrase itself has become a powerful symbol for these communities, not only drenched in the memory of loss but now a testament to the new lives that have emerged through survival and will. Little Saigon has become a specific place for former refugees to re-create lost lives and, most importantly, now exists as a state of mind and symbol for this very particular Vietnamese diaspora.25 Within these Little [End Page 60] Saigons, people erect statues to commemorate their refugee passages and to memorialize their uncelebrated dead.26 The phrase “Little Saigon” represents a bold gesture of presence in spite of a history of loss. From the physical and symbolic place of Little Saigon, Vietnamese ethnic formation has become intimately paired with refugee subjectivity.
It is important to note that this argument about the important role of refugee subjectivity in constituting Vietnamese ethnic form does not necessarily negate the myriad roots through which other Vietnamese people have left the country. On the contrary, I recognize the historical fact of these other routes. Recent scholarship situates these other circuits of entry within genealogies alternate to those of war and refugee flight. Nevertheless, I draw my interpretation of refugee subjectivity from Yen Lê Espiritu’s “critical refugee” project in which the refugee figure is positioned as a knowledge object and paradigm.27 Seen thus, this refugee paradigm sets the ethnic limits on what can come to be known as Vietnamese in a broader and global public. The figure of the refugee sets the epistemological limits for a broader set of problems concerning, in this particular analysis, temporality, Vietnamese ethnicity, and techno-capitalism. We can see the very power of this refugee paradigm within the accounts of other roots and routes of Vietnamese journeys as they so often position themselves in opposition to this very paradigm.28
This paradigmatic power of refugee form as Vietnamese configuration belies an invisibility within the broader U.S. public and within the country of Vietnam. Espiritu describes how Vietnamese people have been given little place in the American public imagination. Often narrated as poor and helpless refugees, Vietnamese people have been placed within narrow scripts that rehearse assimilationist ideologies of race-based success and U.S. benevolence. Only very recently has there been American public interest in the Vietnamese experience of war outside of the figure of the faceless enemy.29 Popular American narratives of the Vietnam War have enacted a violent erasure that “involve[s] the highly organized and strategic forgetting of the Vietnamese people” altogether.30 Moreover, the Vietnamese refugee subject is not only invisible within U.S. narratives of war but also markedly absent within official histories from Vietnam. The grand historiographies of revolutionary triumph leave little room for alternate accounts. From this view, the Southern Republic was nothing more than a puppet of U.S. imperial hegemony. While there may be a truth to this claim, there are many other truths denied by this very assertion: the truth of death and suffering on both sides; the truth of the multiple manifestations of desires for independence over the course of Vietnam’s history; the truth of war politics as a literal and figurative wave that washes people out [End Page 61] to unknown seas. Narratives of the Southern Republic and their respective subjects follow very limited scripts within communist history. There is no narrative room for this diaspora beyond their treachery to the cause for independence. The Vietnamese refugee subject is displaced, out of history and out of time within contemporary Vietnam.31
Set against these multiple erasures, Little Saigon exists as an affirmation of continued existence. Little Saigon maintains a self-awareness of its own particularity and is a self-conscious affront to an always present another Vietnam. This affront takes primary form in the politics of anticommunism.32 Anticommunism is a platform that is constitutive of the Vietnamese refugee identity, so much so that many former refugees continue to refuse to return to their former homelands. Little Saigons continue to display the flag of the Southern Republic and refuse any public visual reference to the current government in Vietnam.33 From the Little Saigons across the world, Vietnamese ethnic subjectivity embodies a critique of these multiple erasures. In spite of the hegemonic valence of anticommunism as a political force, the mobilization of this political sentiment by this Vietnamese diaspora is to convey the message of their persistence in life, death, and renewal that, by all other accounts, insists on their absence. It is from this affirmation of life that Little Saigon draws its critique as it asserts itself as the Vietnam that could have been.34
Little Saigon is temporally carved from a conditionality in which both future and present come together. This future present and its attendant nostalgia allow people to re-create Little Saigon in the image of a lost homeland, but it is not merely an affective entrapment in the past.35 Moreover, the kind of conditional nostalgia we see in Little Saigon is the force and power that sets the conditions of possibility for action in a present that simultaneously exists as a future that could have otherwise been. This future present temporally co-locates Vietnamese ethnicity with refugee subjectivity such that the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam is located out of the refugee time of Little Saigon. Little Saigon exists as a conditional Vietnam and justifies the history of suffering and loss, war and flight, but more importantly, establishes the moral high ground for its very presence in the United States, and therefore for its existence as an extant future.
Impossible Futures and Failure as Ethno-Temporal Critique
The ethnic platform places two constructions of Vietnamese futurity in dialectical opposition. On the one hand, the refugee origins of AVI’s members’ ethnic selves temporally place them within a future present. On the other hand, their hope for a transcendent and global Vietnamese ethnicity is [End Page 62] temporally organized around a future defined as potential. Taken together, they serve as two distinct temporal regimes of Vietnamese ethnic form that are fundamentally at odds with one another. AVI attempted to create a transcendent and singular ethnic form in the face of fractured ethnic histories that proved too difficult to overcome. This vision, this platform, and its attendant activities faded away. Dat eventually left Vietnam, and this ethnic platform disappeared as well. The platform’s website is now nothing more than an empty page. Despite its short-lived existence, I bring my attention to the dynamics of this failure because it reveals the struggles and long-standing traumas over ethnic futures under new techno-capitalist guises. The ethnic hope and the entrepreneurial promise of this platform could not be fulfilled in Vietnam, not in this way, not from these roots, not through these routes, not from this diaspora. These technological registers fed new aspirations as people like Dat sought to foster and mentor the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates among the ambitious youth within the country. The accompanying disappointments, frustrations, and failures were the result of a temporal disjuncture between their hope for a transcendent Vietnamese techno-future and the haunting melancholy of their very specific ethnic past and future present. The particular temporal configuration of Dat and his colleagues’ Vietnamese ethnic identity rendered impossible a global Vietnamese form that would bridge between this diaspora and the home-land. Part of the struggle of constructing this Vietnamese techno-future thus stemmed from the illegibility of the temporal construction of their Vietnamese ethnicity. Forming an ethnic techno-future was incommensurate with their ethnic future present and thus a poor platform to generate entrepreneurial value. Through this effort to hinge Vietnamese ethnicity onto an imagined techno-future, Dat and his colleagues reveal how futurity as potential functions as a form of privilege under techno-capitalism. The failure of the ethnic platform illuminates the very limits of techno-capitalist self-achievement for the ability to live within a future removed from history is a distinction not available to everyone. The specificity of Dat and his colleagues’ ethnic history was a poor platform from which to build a transcendent Vietnamese future. For those who suffer ethnicity as an invisible history, living in the present alone is a remarkable achievement, let alone speculating on an unknown future.
I draw our attention to the ethnic platform not simply to point out the fact of its failure, but to identify the temporal schematic that produces failure as a chronic condition. To do so, I turn to Mimi Nguyen’s incisive work on the gifts and debts of freedom in which she describes a moral economy of liberal promise, refugee gratitude, and deferred redemption. I highlight in particular the temporal schema that undergirds this moral economy. [End Page 63] Nguyen argues that duration and deferral are the temporal forms created by this debt economy such that “impossible futures rest within the horizon of … modernity’s now.”36 Refugees are the forced beneficiaries of empire’s violent benevolence. They are the recipients of freedom as gift and through this exchange incur a moral debt that exacts a continual performance of repayment in gratitude. This framework of exchange and debt casts war, racism, and violence as the coin of freedom, not antithetical to it. The gift of freedom, through force, thus places an obligation for payment that ensures the never-ending deferral of freedom’s own realization. Beyond deferral, this debt may only otherwise be relieved through “default.”37
The eventual dissolution of AVI reveals how failure is produced through the disjuncture between the time from which people like Dat have come and when they hope to be. This earnest pursuit of futurity simply defined as potential disrupts the multiple histories and presents that, in fact, give shape to future’s form. The future potential of the ethnic platform exemplifies the duration and deferral that Nguyen describes. Embedded within the hopes and failures of AVI’s members was the ongoing repayment of the gifts of refugee passage, that is, the gifts of economic opportunity and entrepreneurial subjectivity. This regifting of economic personhood through the ethnic platform temporally recapitulates the gift of freedom. AVI’s eventual failure corresponds to duration and deferral as the hope of potential produces futurity on a never attainable horizon. The ethical and theoretical stakes of the ethnic platform hence underscore not only “damage and deficit but also the desires for those things we want, we cannot but want, we cannot want … desires that cause more harm in the present.”38 Techno-capitalism simultaneously produces the hope for a future potential but also the disappointment and nostalgia of a future present, and this renders impossible the realization of future as forward momentum. This is the chronic conundrum of the temporal politics of ethnicity in techno-capitalism. Failure is the dense amalgam of desire as repayments of forced debts; always unfulfilled, always imminent, and always to come.
By examining the failure of this ethnic platform, this article contributes to a growing body of scholarship on the postcolonial conditions of information technology. This line of work looks beyond Euro-American techno-centers to investigate the ways in which people located along the limits of techno-modernity continually approach techno-capitalist worlds yet never fully arrive at their centers. It is important to note that this body of work, while small, is growing.39 The universalizing logics of information technologies suggest at first blush the insignificance of geography, let alone ethnicity and race, in configuring their sociocultural importance. As information technologies travel into new terrain, however, the significance [End Page 64] of these circuits is more than a question of geographic dislocation but more deep-rooted since these objects and media upend the very meaning of their locales. As we see in the efforts of Dat, Phuong, Howard, Lam, and others, information technologies and their attendant cultural ideologies invited a thorough reexamination of the very meaning of Vietnam. At the very center of the ethnic platform were questions such as these: What is Vietnam? Where is it? When was it and when will it be?
My emphasis on ethnicity and ethnic form in this article thus brings critical theory from Asian American studies and places their insights in dialogue with postcolonial approaches to the sociocultural study of information technologies. This is a deliberate gesture to attend to the complex “ethnoscapes” that now occur through the global circuits of information technologies.40 The ethnic platform was remarkable as an effort to marshal Vietnamese ethnicity as a base for generating economic potential. As such, more than just a critique, this article details the ways in which ethnic form is implicated in new forms of temporal power under techno-capitalism. As interest in information technologies beyond the Global North continues to grow, Asian American studies, and ethnic studies more generally, can provide a new theoretical lens that carefully attends to the complex circuits of empire and race within techno-capitalism.
Lilly U. Nguyen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research draws from the fields of information studies, feminist science and technology studies, and Asian American studies and explores the dynamics of ethnicity, expertise, and information technologies in transnational circulation. Her recent scholarship has been published in the Journal of Peer Production, New Media and Society, and the Journal of Cultural Economy. Additionally, her work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Fulbright Institute of International Education. She received her Ph.D. in information studies at UCLA.
1. All personal and organizational names in this article are pseudonyms.
2. Judy Wajcman, Managing Like a Man: Women and Men in Corporate Management (London: Polity Press, 1998).
3. The concept of hype is a useful analytic for a critical analysis of information technologies. See Jenna Burrell, “Technology Hype versus Enduring Uses: A Longitudinal Study of Internet Use among Early Adopters in an African City,” First Monday 17, no. 6 (2012), http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3964 (accessed July 14, 2016); Anita Chan, “Collaboration Cultures, Global Knowledge Work, and Relating through the Digital” (paper, Society for Social Studies of Science, Denver, November 11–14, 2015).
4. Stuart Hall, “When Was the Post-colonial? Thinking at the Limit,” in The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, ed. Iain Chambers and Lidia Curtis (London: Routledge, 1996), 242–60.
5. For a recent discussion of the role of empire in information technologies, please see Miriyam Aouragh and Paula Chakravartty, eds., “Media Infrastructures and Empire,” special issue of Media, Culture, and Society 38, no. 4 (2016).
6. John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnicity, Inc. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 21. [End Page 65]
7. Mimi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012).
8. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983; repr., London: Verso Books, 1991).
9. Author’s field notes, November 15, 2010.
10. Luis Suarez-Villa, “The Rise of Techno-Capitalism,” Science & Technology Studies 28, no. 2 (2001): 4–20.
11. Joseph Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development (1934; repr., New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2000).
12. Frederic Bill, Andreas Jansson, and Lena Olaison, “The Spectacle of Entrepreneurship: A Duality of Flamboyance and Activity,” 163–79, and Anders Johansson, “Innovation, Creativity, and Imitation,” 128–43, both in (De)mobilizing the Entrepreneurship Discourse: Exploring Entrepreneurial Thinking an Action, ed. Frederic Bill, Bjorn Bjerke, and Anders Johansson (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2010).
13. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, “The New Spirit of Capitalism,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 18, no. 3 (2005): 161–88.
14. Tarleton Gillespie, “The Politics of ‘Platforms,’” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347–64.
15. Joss Hands, “Introduction: Politics, Power and ‘Platformativity,’” Culture Machine 14 (2013), http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/viewArticle/504 (accessed July 14, 2016).
16. All Vietnam Investment website (accessed September 10, 2015). [AVI is a pseudonym I’ve used in place of the real name of the organization whose website is no longer available.]
17. Karen-Sue Taussig, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich, “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement 7,” Current Anthropology 54, no. S7 (2013): S3–14.
18. Author’s field notes, November 15, 2010.
19. Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo, “The Class Sense of Bodies: Women Garment Workers Consume Body Products in and around Ho Chi Minh City,” in Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam, ed. Lisa B. Drummond and Helle Rydstrom (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004), 179–209; Elizabeth Vann, “Production Matters: Consumerism and Global Capitalism in Vietnam,” in Anthropological Perspectives on Economic Development and Integration, ed. Norbert Dannhaeuser and Cynthia Werner (Greenwich: Elsevier, 2003), 225–57; and Elizabeth Vann, “Domesticating Consumer Goods in the Global Economy: Examples from Russia and Vietnam,” Ethnos 70, no. 4 (2005): 465–88.
20. For a detailed portrait of efforts to seek out a foreign education by one Vietnamese student, please see Eric Harms, “Aspiring Overseas Student,” in Figures of Southeast Asia Modernity, ed. Eric Harms (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014), 61–62. [End Page 66]
21. Anh-Minh Do, “10 Reasons Why Vietnam’s Startup Scene Is the Most Aggressive in Southeast Asia,” Tech in Asia, September 16, 2013, https://www.techinasia.com/10-reasons-vietnams-startup-scene-aggressive-southeast-asia (accessed July 14, 2016).
22. Adam Bakhtiar and Liza Tan, “Henry Nguyen,” Entrepreneur Asia Profile, April 15, 2014, http://www.cnbc.com/2014/04/15/entrepreneur-asia-profile--henry-nguyen.html (accessed July 14, 2016).
23. Peichi Chung, “Co-creating Korean Wave in Southeast Asia Digital Convergence and Asia’s Media Regionalization,” Journal of Creative Communications 8, nos. 2–3 (2013): 193–208; Dal Jin, New Korean Wave: Transnational Cultural Power in the Age of Social Media (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016).
24. Karin Aguilar-San Juan, Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
25. The phrase “Little Saigon” is so symbolically powerful that when Madison Nguyen, a councilwoman for the city of San Jose, California, proposed the alternative name “Saigon Business District” in 2008, she was subjected to vigorous protests and publicly denounced at a city hall meeting. She was later subject to a recall campaign that eventually proved unsuccessful. See John Woolfolk, “San Jose Vice Mayor Tells Her Story,” San Jose Mercury News, August 2, 2012, http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_21222999/san-jose-vice-mayor-madison-nguyen-tells-her (accessed July 14, 2016).
26. Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo, “Forking Paths: How Shall We Mourn the Dead?,” Amerasia Journal 31, no. 2 (2005): 157–75.
27. Yen Lê Espiritu, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1, nos. 1–2 (2006): 410–33.
28. An Tuan Nguyen, “More Than Just Refugees—A Historical Overview of Vietnamese Professional Immigration to the United States,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 10, no. 3 (2015): 87–125.
29. One notable exception to this is the public reception to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer (2016).
30. Yen Lê Espiritu, Body Counts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 18.
31. While the Vietnamese state has taken an ever growing interest in encouraging members of the diaspora to embark on return journeys, the political designations of refugee (ngu’ò’i tị nạn) are not a part of the lexicon of the government’s return regimes. Instead, these policies typically use the more neutral term “overseas” (hải ngoại), which effectively erases any indication of the conditions of politically motivated postwar departures. For a more thorough discussion of the Vietnamese government’s policies toward returning diaspora, please see Ivan Small, “Embodied Economies: Vietnamese Transnational Migration and Return Regimes,” Sojourn 27, no. 2 (2012): 234–59. [End Page 67]
32. Thuy Vo-Dang, “The Cultural Work of Anti-Communism in the San Diego Vietnamese American Community,” Amerasia Journal 31, no. 2 (2005): 65–85.
33. Don Terry, “Passions of Vietnam War Are Revived in Little Saigon,” New York Times, February 11, 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/11/us/passions-of-vietnam-war-are-revived-in-little-saigon.html (accessed July 14, 2016).
34. Nhi Lieu, The American Dream in Vietnamese (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
35. For an example of Vietnamese refugee nostalgia as longing for a past, see Ashley Carruthers, “The Trauma of Synchronization: The Temporal Location of the Homeland in the Vietnamese Diaspora,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 19, no. 2 (2008): 63–91.
36. Nguyen, Gift of Freedom, 183.
37. Ibid., 189.
38. Ibid., 182.
39. See Sareeta Amrute, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016); Anita Say Chan, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014); Lilly Irani, “Hackathons and the Making of Entrepreneurial Citizenship,” Science, Technology & Human Values 40, no. 5 (2015): 799–824; Silvia Lindtner, “Hacking with Chinese Characteristics: The Promises of the Maker Movement against China’s Manufacturing Culture,” Science, Technology & Human Values 40, no. 5 (2015): 854–79; Kavita Philip, “What Is a Technological Author? The Pirate Function and Intellectual Property,” Postcolonial Studies 8, no. 2 (2005): 199–218; see also Anne Pollock and Banu Subramaniam, “Resisting Power, Retooling Justice: Promises of Feminist Postcolonial Technosciences,” Science Technology & Human Values 41 (2016): 951–66, http://sth.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/07/08/0162243916657879.abstract (accessed July 14, 2016).
40. Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory, Culture & Society 7, no. 2 (1990): 295–310. [End Page 68]