By Chris Black
Surveillance capitalism is an imminent danger
Silicon Valley’s surveillance capitalism will be far more enduring – and more dangerous – than China’s archaic “techno-totalitarianism.”
It is interesting to compare GAFA (acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and China. Both are emerging powers around which the world is reorganizing. GAFA and China can be seen as the two facets of modernity, especially given the technological (AI) revolution. And both are the biggest threats to freedom today.
When it comes to Big Tech, everything revolves around creating a ubiquitous surveillance system for collecting personal data convertible into cash. China on the other hand is setting up a techno-totalitarianism that it is trying to export.
The two models continue to be in opposition: oversight by private companies GAFA versus oversight by the Chinese state; international supervision versus national supervision; supervision for economic purposes versus supervision for political purposes; horizontal and decentralized logic for GAFA versus vertical and centralized logic for China; the logic of remunerating platforms that offer “free” digital services and the Chinese logic of police sanctions.
GAFA created what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, while China increases its surveillance capabilities through capitalism. To distinguish the two, Shoshana Zuboff compares the Chinese “big brother” with GAFA’s “other big brother.”
Of these two models, the most dangerous is probably not the one you believe.
Chinese techno-totalitarianism could thrive in the world for four reasons. First, regardless of any Chinese influence, it can resort to already authoritarian regimes. Second, China wants to export its model and put its economic power at the service of this goal. As in the days of the USSR, for developing countries accepting Chinese investment means accepting a package that, more or less tacitly and in the medium or long term, will include a political component.
Third, control through technologies such as 5G can establish Chinese hegemony in the world, thus strengthening the regime and providing it with unprecedented means of espionage and destabilization of other countries (just like the US does today).
Finally, the two major determinants of our future, which are the (real) environmental crisis (not the global warming crap) and the technological revolution, will promote identity, nationalist and populist retreats, which would also be very tempted by the Chinese model.
By 2100, China will lose a third of its population. But there are three even stronger reasons not to believe in the future of Chinese techno-totalitarianism:
1.Historically, development has been accompanied by political liberalization around the world. China is proving to us today that it is not an iron law. But nothing says that this resistance lasts indefinitely. The Tiananmen movement proved that, at least in 1989, part of Chinese society longed for freedom. More recently, the regime almost fell into liberalism before XI Jinping came to power. Today, Hong Kong is a formidable Achilles heel for China.
2. The Chinese totalitarian pact is based on economic growth. It means choosing development instead of freedom. However, there is no guarantee that Chinese growth will remain at the levels observed in recent decades. Growth always tends to be capped in order to align with that of developed countries. In addition, China will face two major shocks that could seriously hinder its rise. First, a shock to the environment and health, as 98% of Chinese people breathe air that does not follow WHO recommendations. Respiratory diseases have become the leading cause of death in China. The second major shock that China will face is the demographic one. By 2100, China will have lost a third of its population, 400 million citizens. It will be difficult to continue to grow at a steady pace under these conditions.
3.While the Chinese totalitarianism is impressive on paper, it is also extraordinarily inefficient in real life. In conclusion, when we evaluate the efficiency of a thing, we are only interested in its results. Given the enormous resources used by Chinese’ high-tech totalitarianism, it becomes complicated to sustain. Putin proves that you can lead a country very well, without filling it with cameras or using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence.
All that needs to be done is to silence all forms of opposition and then hold elections! There are as many differences between the Russian regime and the Chinese regime as there are between a Formula 1 car and a tank. Chinese totalitarianism seems modern because it is based on the most advanced technology, but its foundation is classical. It is an old school communist totalitarianism based on blunt force, as it existed at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. an archaic and out-dated fundamentalist regime, far too expensive and cumbersome to really have a future.
Unlike the totalitarianism that the GAFA system could lead to.
An excellent episode of the Black Mirror series perfectly illustrates the totalitarian society that awaits us. The episode is called Nosedive and the universe described there is very similar to ours: everyone is permanently attached to their mobile phone.
But the genius of the Black Mirror is to introduce into our universes a disturbing element, which makes them fall into dystopia. In “Nosedive”, this element is a generalized interpersonal scoring system. Indeed, today we evaluate the Uber driver, the online doctor or the hotel room via Booking.
“Nosedive” imagines that, tomorrow, everyone could be permanently evaluated. You could score the neighbour for the smile given in the elevator, the husband after a marital dispute, the colleague at work, etc. In “Nosedive”, this social score determines the fluctuation of each person’s popularity rating. And people’s living standards are a function of their popularity, because low-ranking people are socially and economically penalized. Instead, benefits or bonuses are given to high-rated people.
The result is an absolute nightmare: perfect slave-enforced totalitarianism, because the system requires constant monitoring and self-control in order not to get bad grades. It is the realm of hypocrisy and internalization. Popularity assessment emphasizes pre-existing inequalities, especially economic ones, because it is far easier for the rich to be pleasant, smiling and likeable.
In addition, general surveillance is unbeatably effective, as each becomes the other’s police officer.
Through this social credit score platform grows a horizontal totalitarianism that makes the police and even a Big Brother system totally useless!
This type of totalitarianism is truly modern and unprecedented, but its risk has been identified in the past. As early as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville stressed the danger of the drift of democracy to the “dictatorship of the majority,” to which everyone should submit.
Surveillance capitalism makes this danger almost a given in the near future.
If technology threatens our freedoms, then we must be more afraid of its use by democracies than by dictatorships.