You were an American living in Myanmar when you first started blogging for CoLab Radio, and now you’re living in China. What have you been up to?
I moved to Myanmar full-time at the end of 2009 because the resource-constrained creativity I’d seen on earlier travels there fascinated me – I’d traveled pretty extensively around Asia, and I’d never experienced anything else like it. I was fortunate to have had the chance to study Burmese intensively before I arrived, which enabled me to make close friends and experience deep insights into local life. I parlayed my weekend hobby of documenting and analyzing resource-constrained creativity in Myanmar into a Fulbright grant to study the same in China, centered on the customization of agricultural vehicles. Nowadays, I’m based in Chongqing, China (the largest city you’ve never heard of at population ~30 million), though I make frequent trips to small cities and villages to explore how resource constraints inspire users to customize and “hack” their vehicles to perform various applications – from water delivery, to electricity generation, to powering irrigation systems, to running open-air “movie theaters”, and beyond.
How did you start blogging? Take us from square one to the present day.
Though always a wanderer, I had never planned on curating my experiences in any formal format. I began blogging after showing and explaining some pictures I’d snapped on a recent walkabout to a friend in Yangon. When he asked whether I had ever recorded my reflections anywhere, I revealed I would sometimes write short blurbs in the little “description” box in iPhoto. He encouraged me to share them online, and I couldn’t find a good reason not to. As I invested more time in it, I realized I wanted to blog to create a permanent record of the sorts of things that interested me, and all of the comments and encouragement I’ve received from people who’ve taken an interest in Square Inch Anthropology have kept me going to date.
What is your favorite thing to document, and how?
Although Square Inch Anthropology (thanks to Grant McCracken for allowing me to use his idea) tends to be a bit “all over the place”, some themes that tie it all together include resource-constrained creativity, repurposing, and metis in general.
One of the side effects of development, anticipated or otherwise, is a transition that a society undergoes where the mindset of those within it shifts from a philosophy rooted in reuse and repair towards a more “throwaway” approach as resources become more bountiful and readily available. As a society’s resources become more abundant, the creativity shaped by a lack of resources – the subject that most interests me – becomes scarce. Analyzing how people in resource-constrained contexts repurpose, reuse, and otherwise hack the objects that surround them gives insight into what issues are most pressing in their lives, where local priorities are, and contains inspiration into avenues to explore when designing for that context.
Follow Zach at squareinchanthro.com.