'Twitter Is My City': Ai Weiwei on Living Life Online

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The Chinese artist, architect, and dissident has traded Beijing for the urbanity of the Internet.

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The new issue of Foreign Policy features an interview with Chinese dissident Ai WeiWei. The whole thing is worth reading, but this passage, I thought, was especially striking: 

Ai Weiwei: For the past year, I've not been allowed to travel, but now by logic and reasoning I'm a free man, except that I cannot leave China. You know, I have no desire to travel. I have so many things to do; I cannot finish them now.

Foreign Policy: Your life seems to have migrated onto the Internet almost completely.

AW: Yeah, before you arrived, I'd already spent two hours on the Internet.

FP: So, if your life moves onto the Internet, that's a big, open city.

AW: It is. Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response. They know me better than their relatives or my relatives. There's so much imagination there; a lot of times it's just like poetry. You just read one sentence, and you sense this kind of breeze or a kind of look. It's amazing.

FP: And yet the city of the Internet is not free for everyone here.

AW: No. We have to dig in or climb over, and we have to do so many things to reach our city. That makes the city beautiful. It's worth the effort.

Coming from someone else, that might smack of "cyber-utopianism." From Ai, though, it's the opposite: a simple reflection of circumstances. Ai was imprisoned last year -- for 81 days -- and was released on the condition that he would not speak to the media. It's a condition that he has not kept. And Twitter -- and the Internet in general -- has allowed him to keep talking. Not only has it let him speak without a filter; but the world attention afforded him, as created through the vector of the Internet, has also amplified his voice. And it has, to a certain extent, protected that voice. As Ai told Der Spiegel last year, "I, and not only me, always thought, in modern history Chinese people are like a dish of sand, never really close together. But today I think a dish of sand is a good metaphor because now we have the Internet." 

He continued:

We don't have to be physically united. You can be an individual and have your own set of values but join others in certain struggles. There is nothing more powerful than that. On the Internet, people do not know each other, they don't have common leaders, sometimes not even a common political goal. But they come together on certain issues. I think that is a miracle. It never happened in the past. Without the Internet, I would not even be Ai Weiwei today. I would just be an artist somewhere doing my shows.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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