The Future is Fake


Last month it was brought to the attention of the US military that a sizable amount of their weapons arsenal had been "sprinkled" with a secret ingredient: fake Chinese electronics. This covert injection of counterfeit circuitry into the DNA of American power, was however, not the handiwork of Chinese spies, but simply the reality of doing business in the 21st century.

As nearly all of the electronic components used by the US military are manufactured in China, military contractors like Boeing, who source parts from a variety of subcontractors, who in turn source other parts from other subcontractors, have been unknowingly allowing bogus goods to slip into their supply chain for years.

The Americans, as it were, have been Shanzhai'd.

"Shanzhai" is the Chinese art and science of ripping off existing designs and repurposing them to meet one's needs. For many, it is a way of life. For China, it's a highly lucrative and internationally notorious industry that produces  fake eggs, fake drugs, cigarette phones, and everything else you might find at the bottom of a well-stuffed Christmas stocking.

News of knock-off Chinese goods showing up in Western markets is nothing new, but the fact that American soldiers have been utilizing weapons patched together with bootleg electronics is a profound revelation.

Imagine for a moment a Reaper drone silently sweeping across the rugged terrain of the Afghan/Waziristan border. A sleek vision of American force, remote controlled by a desk jockey somewhere in Nevada. Behind the drone's flat white exterior are the blips and beeps of various components that may have come from an anonymous DIY workshop located in some third or fourth-tier Chinese megacity. This mingling of top-down and bottom-up engineering represents two competing versions of the future, existing in the same place at the same time for entirely different reasons.

On the American side we have the military-industrial complex, where any patent breach is considered a crime against the state. Totalitarian in the intensity of its design and purpose, its power is concentrated in just a few private corridors, all of which are strictly regulated.

Meanwhile, the Chinese chunks found inside the death bird's guts come from a street-level culture populated with craftsmen who champion the commons.

Naturally, those who engage in Shanzhaiism could care less about patent law, but that doesn't mean that they don't conform to some type of industry standard. One feature that distinguishes Shanzhai is its reliance on "open BOM"; an informal system wherein competing outfits openly share their materials and expertise. This has allowed those who practice Shanzhai to rapidly adapt and innovate, resulting in a surplus of cheap goods for those consumers who want hi-tech and brand-name products but can't afford the real thing.

So who will win the future? If it's any indicator, in the world of Shanzhai, they already have the iPhone 5.