Digital Dystopia and Us: Will the New Global Paradigm Kill Off Our Freedoms

Opinion
17.04.2020

In the midst of what is now known as the corona-crisis, people around the world voice their fears about the ever-reinforcing grip of the government over the private lives of individuals. Closing borders, extensive policing, location over cell phones, and other similar measures seem to herald a new era the world is about to enter.

This, however, is not exactly the case. The corona-crisis, however it may end, is but a trigger of something that has been brewing for a long while now.

The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. triggered the demise of the Roman Republic and its transformation into an empire. The assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in 1914 triggered the First World War. Still, neither of them was the cause of the later events. They were merely calls to action, or as Romans would say, casus belli.

The unification of Germany in 1871 made World War I almost inevitable as the new empire’s colonial appetites came into play when almost the entire planet was already divided between the great powers of the time. By 1910, almost every country in Europe was pretty sure that the war was imminent and making preparations.

Caesar’s assassination was preceded by two dictatorships of Marius and Sulla and civil war. The corrupt interests of the new Roman nobility, desecration of elections by de facto legitimate bribery, political agendas of high priests, and most of all, seemingly endless rivers of riches flowing to Rome from newly conquered provinces made the Republic’s demise only a matter of time.

Triggers are very different from causes, then. Assuming that Caesar and Franz-Ferdinand were not assassinated, this would not change the course of history pretty much. It’s more than likely that Caesar would eventually have become the first princeps civitatis (i.e. early emperor) of Rome. Had Franz-Ferdinand been alive and healthy, the war may have started a bit later following another incident or even use a pretense casus belli—much like Hitler did in 1939 by claiming Germany was attacked by Poland.

So, will the corona-crisis become the trigger that will turn our civilization into some cyberpunk dystopia or something like that? To answer this question, let’s have a look at what’s been brewing for the last 20 years or so.

Every Year Is 1984

There is a very fine line separating past dictatorships from modern, and it is the year 2000, or the time when internet access became more widespread. Before then, the biggest threat to autocratic regimes was the displeasure of their elites and/or military.

According to The Digital Dictators essay and the Mass Mobilization Project, nearly a third of all dictatorships in the world were overthrown by coups in the period from 1946 to 2000. On the contrary, public protests ousted a mere 16% of the regimes during the same period. Back in the 20th century, it was relatively easy for authoritarian regimes to maintain control over the population through secret police and state propaganda, so their biggest concern was a relatively small group of de facto aristocrats.

With the advent of the internet, everything has changed. According to the same data, from 2000 to 2017, protests unseated 23% of dictators. The ease of communication via the internet made it much easier for the opposition to coordinate their efforts. A series of so-called color-code revolutions in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan was followed by the Arab Spring, the second revolution in Ukraine, and government collapse in Libya. This made public protests a much greater threat to autocrats around the world.

For that reason, dictators of all shapes and sizes tend to repress free access to the internet in one form or another. The examples of Cuba, where going online from their own home is a rare luxury; Russia where a state watchdog RosKomNadzor can ban access to any website at will; or North Korea where one can access the world wide web only upon the approval of the ruling party and to a minimal extent all show this trend. In the 20th century, autocratic regimes had only to make sure their coup-prevention measures were in place.

Still, even though the internet was first praised for ensuring greater freedom around the world, autocratic regimes soon made use of it to reinforce their standing. Added to that are the recent developments in technology, such as neural networks and AI. Face recognition solutions and geolocation control make it way easier for a government to keep its finger on society.

It should be noted, however, that those technologies themselves are not malicious. Their risk comes solely from the intent of the people who use them. Had they not been in place, the government would have come with another solution to attain the same results. In East Germany, for example, the ominous secret police of Stasi wiretapped almost every phone in the country, and the ratio of secret policemen to civilians was 1:67. For comparison, the same ratio in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was 1:5,090. Stasi didn’t have face recognition technologies or satellites. But their efficiency, if the term is any applicable, was quite comparable to their modern counterparts.

The most notable use case of hi-tech in reinforcing the autocracy is obviously China. Its infamous social credit system makes great use of face recognition to incentivize loyalty in citizens and punish those viewed unreliable by the Party. The government employs AI to gather gargantuan amounts of data on every person in the country effectively keeping them under the hood. Even though the system is far from being finished, it is only a matter of time.

The same approach covers not only regular citizens but government officials. After the de facto enthronement of Xi Jinping, he can just easily keep tabs on every courtier or minister to weed out any defection or unrest at the early stages. This effectively makes the Chinese regime the first one to eliminate the possibilities of protests and coup d’état in one stroke.

China also makes lots of efforts to export its government control solutions abroad, most notably to some African autocracies like Uganda. In 2019, it was reported that its government used Chinese systems to hack into the communications of its political opponents.

But no matter how ominous it may look, the biggest providers of digital surveillance and intelligence solutions are not Chinese companies. Most of them come from perceivably democratic nations like Italy, Israel, and the United States. And they sell them to the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Mozambique, among others.

Finally, there is the notion of state propaganda, which is also an item of export in the cases of China and Russia. The internet is flooded with fake news created by their propagandists, while technologies like deepfake make it very easy for them to create proofs of non-existent events to shift popular opinion or throw mud at their opponents.

Notably, it all has been happening long before SARS-CoV-2 reared its ugly spiky head. Even if you have never visited China or Russia or read news from there, you might as well be convinced in some things originating from there having read them in polished English on some U.S.-based website or heard them in a hysterical radio show.

In a word, the corona-crisis is not even a trigger of mass surveillance and gaslighting in media and social networks. It is already a part of our world and has been one for a while. The tsunami of fake news has made it difficult for some people to tell the truth from lies. Just as prescribed by George Orwell.

Corporate Hegemony and State Interests

One of the concerns I have come across in recent days is that following the collapse of the global economy, governments will start buying out or investing in tech giants which, in turn, would grant them access to controlling the public on an epic scale. While this is definitely not an improbable scenario, things again may not be as they seem.

Let’s start with Big Tech, which is an umbrella term to describe the U.S.-based giants like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google alongside Microsoft. Those corporations are powerful enough to scare state regulators, and some politicians in the U.S. have spoken in favor of somehow splitting them in order to avoid monopolization.

The spokespersons for the corporations, on the other hand, said that this breaking up will only help Chinese businesses gain a foothold in America and, more importantly, kill off the chances for America to win the technological arms race.

The sad truth, though, is that Amazon or Google are American only by their place of incorporation. They are transnational corporations with transnational interests. Most of them, aside from Facebook, are active in China already. Apple manufactures iPhones there, Amazon competes with Alibaba, and Microsoft has even made a special Windows 10 version for the Chinese government.

China, in turn, has its doctrine of civil-military fusion that, in layman’s terms, requires any research or invention to be fit for use in civilian life and warfare alike. All companies working in China have to comply with Chinese regulations, which effectively means that they cooperate with the Communist Party of China, officially or informally.

Google and Facebook themselves are well known for breaching user privacy on numerous occasions like the infamous Cambridge Analytica case or e-mail perlustration, to say nothing of censorship pursuant to complicated corporate guidelines.

Big corporations obviously pursue their own agendas focused on market access and profits, which is of course completely normal for any business. Still, when it comes to China, its power causes self-censorship not only in Google’s search results but even in the movies and social media outside China.

For instance, the initial script of, let’s be honest, abysmal film Pixels had the Great Chinese Wall demolished but it was replaced with the Taj Mahal so as not to offend the Chinese officials. In the case of the 2012 remake of Red Dawn, the Chinese government voiced a complaint about being depicted as baddies, so the screenwriters replaced China with North Korea, a country about whose complaints nobody gives a single damn. For the same reasons, Mercedes-Benz deleted a quote from the Dalai Lama on its Instagram account and said that there was an “erroneous message” that “hurt the feelings of people” in China.

This, however, didn’t stop People’s Daily, a large Chinese newspaper, from dubbing Mercedes-Benz an “enemy of the people,” the term earlier used during the Reign of Terror in France and the Stalinist purges in the USSR (though coined in Ancient Rome). Those are just a few examples of how the Chinese agenda affects Western businesses present there, and how those businesses later have to propagate the same agenda in the West. Stanley Rosen, a China specialist at the University of Southern California told The Financial Times that “for the China market you self-censor because of its size,” and that’s basically the gist of China’s soft power.

In other words, the business interests of large transnational corporations dictate that they have to whitewash the political quirks of the Chinese government and censor their agenda or even help spread authoritarian communist propaganda in order to make more money, which a rather peculiar union between communism and capitalism even considering that China is in the equation.

Тransnational corporations don’t care much about national interests. As the name suggests, they have already transcended them. So, will they become the servants of governments? They already are. Not through some reptiloid conspiracy or Nibiru attack but through their most obvious incentive: money.

The economic reality of capitalism basically prompts them to service the interests of monetary sources that can decide whether they can operate in respective jurisdictions. And it’s not just about China: the Cambridge Analytica scandal mentioned above clearly shows that there’s nothing country-specific about technology or media companies catering to governmental interests, even if they are not state-owned.

In the aftermath of the corona-crisis, governments may indeed start investing in tech giants. But in terms of governmental control, they don’t really have to. The buy-out might make the command chain a bit shorter and replace market incentives with direct orders but the result won’t be too different. After all, it all depends solely on the goodwill of the government and the extent to which it is accountable.

The Fall of the Old Order

So, if the corona-crisis isn’t going to prompt mass surveillance and business-state mergers, does it mean that it won’t make much of a difference in the aftermath? The short answer is no. But those changes are going to be more conceptual and profound than your typical cyberpunk dystopia. And the world has been ready for them. Just like with Caesar or Franz-Ferdinand, the unnamed person eating a bat soup triggered the reinvention of the world as we know it with just one stroke of a hand.

What we see is a nearly artistic demolition of the old social norms. It is not a stranger to our civilization: first, it was seen a hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution when the institutions of family, a centuries-long tradition of social hierarchy, and the very idea of artistry were thrown from the ship of modernity by the revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries sang hosanna to the death of the old world order and the birth of the new one, industrial and intellectual, out of the ambers of its predecessor, and now the process seems to repeat itself in some way. For the last twenty years, we have been building a foundation for an entirely new system of civilized relationships. And this system is based on big data and social transparency. Both of them were prompted by social media and related technological advancements.

The social relations have changed dramatically in comparison to everything known before. Thanks to the internet, the world has become one big village where everything is interconnected and almost any person is a couple clicks away. Thanks to smartphones, you can have internet access almost everywhere. Thanks to Facebook, everyone is a friend.

It all has virtually destroyed the very concepts of friendship, romance, and employment as they were known before. In their place, there are now friends on Facebook, lovers from Tinder, and employers from the internet. Making love online is alright now. Working from home is now the new black. Millions of people have tasted it and found it was enjoyable.

Funny thing. It looks like us introverts had an evolutionary advantage all along.

Similarly, as shown above, the handful of opinions presented to the public in old newspapers and TV news was replaced by a myriad of posts, stories, and features some of them were downright fake. Traditional media are gradually losing their role as heralds and become filters that separate fake news from real ones. Meanwhile, propagandist media also change their roles: instead of interpreters or filters, they become generators of news. This signifies a new trend in information policies, which is a tradeoff between accessibility and reliability.

Those processes effectively undermine and gradually change the social hierarchies and the conceptualization of a person’s place in society. It was more or less concealed, like the future demise of the Roman Republic, but became obvious after the trigger event had occurred.

The change took only a month or so, hence the initial shock. The pandemic suddenly relieved us of most rudimentary social practices and concepts coming from the 20th century leaving us only with what we have built during the recent twenty years. And now we, as a civilization, are undergoing the harsh five-phase process of accepting those changes as a new social norm.

Another part of the equation is the recent news about the governments using mobile data to track gatherings of people during the quarantine. While those data are presumably anonymized, this generally signifies a growing reliance of the authorities on Big Data. This reliance may increase as AI makes more reasonable decisions using big data. Eventually, it may bring about a world where no decision is any longer made by inferior human brains.

Combined with the already-existing practices of digital surveillance and data collection beyond ethics, this, in fact, depicts a whole new society that would value AI over human reasoning and obey its directions, either through sheer will or tailored deepfake propaganda. Or through some sort of gadgets not invented yet. By the end of the century, the world will become unrecognizable to those of us who had seen the old order. This is futurology, of course, but definitely a possibility.

Basically, it all depends on what kind of society we were living in at the moment when the trigger was released. Changes always take time. And now we are living in the times of changes unseen in the known history of humankind.

For now, though, we should get accustomed to working from home and not getting surprised that the Chinese government knows what we had for breakfast.

Written by Jenny Aysgarth, editor-in-chief at forklog.media

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