July 13, 2021

The one hundredth birthday party of the “great, glorious and correct” Chinese Communist Party was celebrated with an all-singing, all-dancing, light-show extravaganza in Beijing’s National Stadium, the metal nest built for the 2008 Olympics. On 1st July, a cast of thousands played scenes from the Party’s founding to the present. They didn’t mention that the Party was created with the help of Soviet agents, but the most arresting bits of the performance drew on the best, and worst, of Soviet propaganda.

Over a century ago the director Sergey Eisenstein decreed that, sinceindividualism was horrendously bourgeois, the heroes of Communist film and theatre should be the masses. He created remarkable crowd scenes in films like The Strike, in which “the people” moved in unison like one homogenous being: a collective revolutionary energy. At the CCP’s birthday party, it was the scenes depicting the early twentieth century that notably nodded to early Soviet cinema, with relentless torrents of actors rushing from different angles across the vast stage, coalescing first into an arrow, then into a star.

Interspersed between the crowd scenes were vignettes about Chinese Communist leaders — done in the stiff, declamatory, hysterically happy style of Stalinist Socialist Realism, which replaced Eisenstein’s avant garde ideas as the USSR wore on. Mao was shown founding the CCP with grandfatherly goodwill surrounded by fiery-eyed comrades reminiscent of Petrograd’s proletariat.

After over two hours, history caught up with the present. Ballet dancers dressed in the uniforms of the People’s Liberation Army pranced with machine guns, celebrating modern China’s military might. A huge screen showed videos of Xi Jinping giving speeches at the UN, in that vacant, bored way of his, like a hyper-wealthy schoolboygoing through the motions in class knowing he’ll never have to work. Every clip of the President was greeted with high-pitched squeals from the audience, of the sort associated with boy-band concerts: Stalinist cult of personality meets Instagram era energy.

The political message behind the aesthetics was ripped from Soviet propaganda, then: our system achieves success when the masses are directed by a few superior leaders in the Party. The birthday celebrations were another opportunity for CCP flunkeys to restate their favourite mantra: liberal democracy is a mess; checks and balances have degenerated into confusion and paralysis; centralised control is the way forward.

The history of the twentieth century seems to show that this is bunk. In the Cold War, Politburo control lost heavily to the messy but more open approach of liberal democracy. But the CCP is betting that something fundamental has changed. At the climax of the birthday performance, instead of celebrating some Soviet-style Five Year Plan, a great neon blue “5G” hovered above the stage, while hologram ones and zeros drizzled down. The compere, holding a red book, celebrated how China will lead the world in the online era.

“Tech advances” the Sinologist Martin Hala explained to me, “offer an opportunity to leapfrog ahead, and at the same time to implement the “original intent” of Leninism and Maoism, mostly through facilitating centralised control that had previously been difficult to achieve.”

Centralised control was prevented by the primitive technology of the twentieth century, the theory goes, but in the age of all-knowing algorithms, AI and ever-bigger data, the force that can amass the most information and then use it to direct society wins. The CCP envisages a world of enhanced online surveillance, where all your behaviour is tracked and analysed, where the vestiges of privacy are wiped out — but which will deliver success and convenience, even satisfaction. Total digital surveillance will allow the CCP to know so much about you — much more than you can know about yourself — that it can deliver you the optimal education system; the finest health program; the most appropriate job; the safest, sleekest city; and the ideal entertainment. Even the “free” market can ultimately be controlled more effectively, the CCP argues, through centralised big data analytics about where that market needs correcting.

Such visions of the future are accepted, whether happily or unhappily, way beyond Beijing. No less a sage than Yuval Harari believes that today’s “technology favours tyranny”. Implicit in such thinking is a concept of the human as reducible to data. Luciano Floridi, a professor of all things Internet, Ethics and Philosophy at Oxford, argues that the digital era signals a revolution in what it means to be a human. Just as the Copernican revolution made people realise we are not the centre of the universe, and the Freudian one that our thinking selves were actually impelled by our unconscious, so today we need to realise that we are just sub-sets of our own data, that our data knows more about us than we do. The Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre has suggested that our data can predict everything from our sexuality through to our real political preferences. Their studies claim that our digital footprints “are better judges of personality than friends and family”.

This thinking also pervades Silicon Valley. For the tech monopolists, more data means more profits rather than direct political control, but the underlying premise is the same as the CCP’s: we suck your data, and then feed you the “optimal” products, (fake) news, and friendships. Who needs complex freedom of choice when algorithms can decide everything for you? There’s a whole allegedly philosophical strain among the self-appointed “futurists” of Palo Alto, with their dreams of data collection enabling technology to surpass the humble human mind in what they term “singularity”: the moment that machines will think better than humans. “Singularity, Not Self,” read a big piece of somewhat CCP-style bit of corporate graffiti in Facebook’s London offices in 2019.

The internet, in short, is the interface on which familiar great questions about governance and what makes us human are playing out. The challenge China and parts of Silicon Valley are throwing down is fundamental. In a digital age, is democracy really the best system? If our data knows more about us than we do, then isn’t it best to hand decision-making to a higher power? Comparisons with the Cold War are generally unhelpful when we consider our interconnected world, but there is a battle of ideas starting to play out. As the new US administration and the leaders of “Global Britain” mumble pleasantly about reviving democracy, this is where to start.

“Ours is a spirit that goes freely through the world and inspires others to join in the cause of defending liberty,” says the US President, though it’s frontline states like Estonia and Taiwan who are showing the likes of US and UK the way. In Taiwan, Audrey Tang — the whizz-kid activist who became Digital Minister — is the great apostle of making sure tech can favour democracy, not tyranny. The model of Silicon Valley social media is often built around grabbing your attention (and thus your data) by encouraging behaviour that is divisive and hateful — and ultimately undermining democratic discourse. Tang, in contrast, uses new platforms that strengthen deliberative debate. Pol.is, for example, is designed to foreground the commonality between people’s arguments on divisive policy issues, and then shows how they can move to consensus and create laws acceptable to the majority.

Imagine if, instead of the rancorous shit-show of our current social media, we actually had public service platforms that created the online iteration of the ancient Greek Agora. It would actually give people a stake in political decisions on everything from the local budgets through to reforming the health system, rather than letting them feel “left behind”.

Tang also argues that we should stop lumping all “data” together. There are some things, like health, where it is useful to aggregate our behaviour in order to design the most efficient interventions. Citizens can opt to hand their health data to a central institution, as long as it is then not used for any other purpose. It’s no accident that Taiwan had one of the best responses to the Covid crisis — with relentless tracking of cases, but nothing like the totalitarian measures taken inside China. But choosing to hand over health data doesn’t mean you have to hand over everything else.

Because ultimately, autonomy matters. In Joanna Kavenna’s 2019 novel Zed, adystopian dark comedy, the future currentlyenvisaged by Silicon Valley and the CCP has arrived. Society is ruled over by tech companies who track and monitor all our behaviour, and then spit out the “ideal” lifestyles, jobs, policies and romantic partners based on predictive algorithms. But the algorithms don’t actually understand humans. The data spits out false outcomes. The romantic partners are never right. The “ideal” society makes people depressed and mad.

Every generation has to re-define what it means to be “free”, where our sense of self begins. In a digital age our individuality begins at the place where our data cannot understand us. Freedom emerges in the space between the algorithms and our actual lives. Tech can deliver many wondrous and terrible things, but it will always fall short of really knowing what makes us human.