The Illusion of Freedom in the Digital Age

Over the last few weeks, media around the world have been saturated with stories about how technology is destroying politics. In autocracies like China, the fear is of ultra-empowered Big Brother states, like that in George Orwell’s 1984. In democracies like the United States, the concern is that tech companies will continue to exacerbate political and social polarization by facilitating the spread of disinformation and creating ideological “filter bubbles,” leading to something resembling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

In fact, by bringing about a convergence between democracy and dictatorship, new technologies render both of these dystopian visions impossible. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to fear.

Much of the coverage of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) focused on President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. He is, observers warn, creating an information-age dictatorship, in which the technologies that were once expected to bring freedom to China’s 1.4 billion citizens have instead enabled him to entrench his own authority. By providing the government with highly detailed information on the needs, feelings, and aspirations of ordinary Chinese, the Internet allows China’s leaders to preempt discontent. In other words, they now use Big Data, rather than brute force, to ensure stability.

And the data are big indeed. More than 170 million face-recognition surveillance cameras track every step citizens make. An artificial-intelligence-enhanced security system can spot criminal suspects as they cycle beside a lake or purchase dumplings from a street vendor, and immediately alert the police. Data surveillance cameras feed into China’s “social credit” data bank, where the regime compiles thick files on its people’s creditworthiness, consumption patterns, and overall reliability.

The CPC is also using technology to manage its own ranks, having developed dozens of apps to communicate with party members. Meanwhile, it blocks some of the empowering features of technology: by forcing all tech companies to have their servers within China, it effectively “in-sources” censorship.

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