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Between Threat and Tool:

The Poetics and Politics of AI Metaphors and Narratives in China

Maya Indira Ganesh & Jennifer Bourne

July 2022

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The study of metaphors and narratives can sharpen our awareness of AI technologies as neither neutral, magical, nor inexplicable, and as entirely marked by social and local conditions shaping how this technology evolves.


Metaphors and narratives are world-building and future-envisioning modes of representation of artificial intelligence (AI), doing epistemic work by actively shaping the texture of reality. In this essay, we frame AI as ‘poetically charged’; that is, its metaphors and narratives evoke philosophical and critical reflection on what it means to be human amidst machines designed to appear and act human-like. We bring this “poetic charge” to a study of metaphoric language and narratives of AI through select works of Chinese Science Fiction (SF) literature and in digital advertising and marketing campaigns. As we will discuss ahead, AI exists in past works of fiction that generate imaginaries of this technology before it was technically feasible; and contemporary “socio-technical imaginaries” continue to be generated as it evolves now. Hence, metaphors and narratives sourced from across time allow for a unique perspective on the shaping of AI in the socio-political and cultural context of contemporary China. We identify one pair of metaphors for discussion, a common one that exists in many different parts of the world: AI understood as both threat and tool. The popularity of this metaphor in China as elsewhere in the world suggests that governance actors critically review the positioning of China as substantially different from other countries; this may not be the case after all. We examine these metaphors in light of the human social conditions of life online in China, and specifically the conditions of digital labour. We propose that policy and governance actors critically assess the future of AI in terms of how the threat/tool dynamic refers to marginalized sections of Chinese society working as if they themselves were the tools of, and in, AI systems.

Maya Indira Ganesh

Dr. Maya Indira Ganesh is a technology and digital cultures researcher, writer, and educator. She co-leads a Masters program (MSt) on AI, Ethics, and Society at the University of Cambridge, and is also a senior research fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University. She was awarded a Drphil in Cultural Sciences from Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany, for doctoral work that analysed the emergence and shaping of ethics in the context of autonomous vehicles. She also works as a writer and curator with arts and cultural institutions in Germany on art, culture, and AI. Maya comes to academia after close to 15 years working in research and advocacy at the intersection of digital rights, gender justice, and human rights in the Global South.

Jennifer Bourne

Dr. Jennifer Bourne is the Director of Fellowships at the Berggruen Institute. In that capacity, she directs the development and management of this global fellowship program as well as facilitates communication and program cross-fertilization between Berggruen HQ in Los Angeles and China Center in Beijing. She also is the Associate Editor and Translator of Noema Magazine.Prior to joining the Berggruen Institute, she worked to launch a master’s program in Translation and Interpreting for the University of Maryland, which is the second such program in the US. Prior to Maryland, she worked as Investment Specialist for UK Trade and Investment in England. In that position, she developed investment strategies and boosted foreign direct investment from China to the UK.

Jennifer holds a PhD in Intercultural Communication from University of Maryland. She also holds a master’s degree from Newcastle University in the UK and a bachelor’s degree from China.