Grey Room

Magic Waves, Extrasensory Powers, and Nonstop Instantaneity: Imagining the Digital beyond Digits

Xiao Liu

Cover of the Chinese translation of Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (1981).


In “A Lost Dream” (Diushi de meng), a Chinese science fiction story published in 1983, a country girl unable to go to college encounters Dr. Di Fang, a cognitive scientist. Dr. Di promises to turn her instantly into a highly knowledgeable woman by means of a mysterious medium whose efficiency of information transmission surpasses such traditional means as spoken and written language. The girl agrees and goes to sleep. On awaking, the girl finds herself fluent in French, English, Russian, and German and erudite in mathematics, physics, and biology.

This story about direct information transmission during sleep is one of many similar science fiction stories published in China during the late 1970s and 1980s. In these stories, the acquisition of information is no longer registered by human consciousness but becomes a subliminal function of the body. The emergence of these information fantasies resonates with broader cultural transformations: Maoist celebrations of manual labor were being replaced at this moment in China by a new emphasis on information work. For officials and intellectuals eager to reconnect post-Mao China with the global order of capitalism, futurist visions of an “information society” generated both exhilaration and anxiety. These conflicting attitudes are palpably conveyed by the era’s science fiction literature about expedited production of information workers through instant information transmission. The information-carrying wave (bo), the mysterious medium for cognitive change in many of these stories, calls for special attention, since it links the popular imaginary of information both to the increasing prominence of cybernetic discourse in sociocultural life and to the development of media technology in the 1980s in China.