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Is China becoming the world's most sophisticated surveillance regime?

THERE is a cliché about the Internet age. "If a product is free, you are the product." This cliché is wrong, argues Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, in her book Surveillance Capitalism. "You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The 'product' derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life."

Surveillance capitalism is a departure from industrial capitalism. Industrial capitalism was driven by production. Surveillance capitalism is driven by extraction. Human beings under surveillance capitalism are not products, instead we are fonts of behavioural surplus data that is then packaged by surveillance capitalists and sold on for instrumentarian ends. "Machine processes replace human so that certainty can replace trust," Prof Zuboff writes.

Surveillance Capitalism is a remarkable work of scholarship. It is meticulously researched, such that in the few instances when it slips into a polemical mode, Prof Zuboff conjures a quote from one of the titans of Big Tech which shows her point not only to be valid but also the callousness with which these companies regard their fellow man.

After a long section showing how the Internet of Things - the embedding of computing devices in everyday objects which allow them to send and receive data and which will proliferate rapidly with the arrival of 5G data technology - will create ever more data to be packaged and sold, she quotes an IBM report which excitedly refers to this process as "the liquification of the physical world".

Surveillance Capitalism is part of the vanguard of texts, alongside works like Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together and Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants which sound the alarm about the dark side of our increasingly connected world.

Surveillance Capitalism may well be the most powerful yet. In detailing the emergence of "a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales", Prof Zuboff is making an argument not just that what we are experiencing is unprecedented, but that it could be catastrophic for humanity.

Under surveillance capitalism, it's not just machines that are automated, the entire economic system is tailored around predictive technologies that automate us. It's not that the machines are becoming more human, it's that technologies like machine learning that require enormous data sets erase our individuality and treat humans as a swarm that can be corralled.

The industrial age, by sparking the climate catastrophe, has had a profoundly deleterious effect on nature. The information age, Prof Zuboff argues, might do the same for human nature.

She pitches Surveillance Capitalism as a modern version of Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. Rather than writing retroactively, she hopes that she can forestall us sleepwalking into digital tyranny.

As I have written elsewhere, there is the start of a privacy awakening in China. As I noted in that article, the nascent conversation about privacy "isn't about privacy from the government - that is a moot point in the context of China. Rather, the privacy debate is about what happens to your data". The privacy debate in China is about the reckless selling of data to third parties and the ease with which personal information like bank details and home addresses are openly traded on the black market and used for outright fraud.

Despite this conversation, the Chinese techno-sphere is heavily dominated by a few companies. Just the three BAT companies (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) alone control or back over 50 per cent of all of China's 124 unicorns - private companies with a valuation of US$1 billion or above.

Alibaba and Tencent, which both have their own payment platforms, have their vast tendrils around every aspect of the digital economy. Because their product offerings are simultaneously diverse across various sectors while simultaneously centralised through their payments platforms, the potential for extracting behavioural surplus data is even greater than that of their rivals in the West.

Surveillance Capitalism, despite its length (over 700 pages long), has only a cursory section on China (roughly 15 pages) and most of it is a glossed account of the social credit system that is drawn from media accounts and is not particularly accurate.

2020, the year that the social credit system in China is due to be implemented, is here. However, while Western accounts tend to view it as either Orwellian or Black Mirror-esque, it remains to be seen how the system will come to eventually be implemented.

Most of the more level-headed accounts written by scholars tend to see it as a digital upgrade of existing systems that isn't likely to have the kind of seismic social impact you would expect if it really were an "AI-powered surveillance regime that violates human rights", as one account described it.

As Shazeda Ahmed, a scholar at UC Berkeley's School of Information, has written, the social credit system is more about reinforcing government blacklists and giving them "teeth". According to the South China Morning Post, this has already stopped the sale of over 26 million plane and train tickets.

Even if the social credit system is not what Western accounts have cracked it up to be, it's clear from recent reporting in Xinjiang that China is in the process of building the world's most sophisticated surveillance regime. As the MIT technology review opined last year, "who needs democracy when you have data?"

  • This is an edited version of an article that first ran on ThinkChina.sg
  • The writer is an anthropologist who is currently reading a DPhil at the School of Overseas and Global Area Studies, University of Oxford

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