In 1984, as it became increasingly clear that the USSR was falling further behind the US in both technological and economic leadership, computer science guru Stewart Brand uttered the words: “information wants to be free”.
In the years following the end of the Cold War, this phrase would become the calling card for digital utopians, the ‘Californian Ideology’ blending social libertarianism, cybernetics and free market economics.
The term had multiple meanings, particular in relation to the economics of information. As Brand himself would clarify: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”
I argue in Fully Automated Luxury Communism that this contradiction is critical in determining what ‘value’ is in contemporary capitalism. Information as a factor of production is becoming consistently cheaper, yet, at the same time, its increasing centrality means artificial scarcity is progressively required to maintain profit. We see this in a range of areas, from intellectual property rights (think pharmaceutical drugs), to monopolies and forms of excludability. Harvard academic Yochai Benkler formulated this contradiction, and what it might entail for business as usual, with pithy clarity: “We now have the basic elements for a clash between incumbent institutions and emerging social practices.”
Yet even those critical few who grasped this contradiction, just like Brand and his cavalcade of disciples, did so in a broader context. Not only was the ‘end of history’ an operative presumption both shared – Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks, was published only a year before the global financial crisis – but the geopolitical dominance of the US was viewed as permanent. Thus the ‘digital revolution’ was, in many ways, relatively apolitical, primarily because the economic, technological and military hegemony of the world’s hyperpower was not in question.
The rise of China has shattered that presumption, with Asia’s largest economy ascending ‘value chains’ more quickly than the think-tankers and policy wonks of Westminster and Washington’s Dupont Circle ever imagined. A juggernaut based on exporting consumer durables, while buying trillions in US treasury bills, is one thing; a rival inching ahead in areas like AI and synthetic biology quite another. Just as with self-regulating markets, neoliberal gurus drank their own Kool-Aid, pronouncing that an ‘embourgeoised’ China would gradually adopt liberal democratic norms and defer to Washington. Neither is happening.
Which is where TikTok and Huawei come in. What both stories distill is how China’s rise is not solely economic and political, but also technological. At the end of July, the latter became the world’s number one phone maker – just weeks after the UK, following the US, said it would exclude the company from its domestic 5G network. TikTok faces similar measures, and will be banned in the US from September if negotiations for a purchase by Microsoft fail. For the first time in 250 years – the 1770s being not only the decade of the American Revolution, but also when Watt and Boulton perfected their steam engine – an Asian power is vying for long-term technological leadership with the West. They are doing so while opening a maritime base in Djibouti, and a network of ports across South Asia and East Africa.
Despite repeated invocations of ‘free trade’ as a salve to the problems of under-development, first by the British and later the Americans (the former doing so while eagerly under-developing the Global South), what the TikTok farrago reveals is that ‘free trade’ is still only preferable, or even permissible, as long as it benefits Anglo-America.
What’s more, the duplicity of ‘concerns’ regarding China accessing the personal data of TikTok users is all the more absurd given ‘signals intelligence’ has been expertly deployed by both powers for generations.
One whistleblower described America’s NSA as a “dystopian Stasi on steroids” that “just wants to know everything”. Britain’s GCHQ, meanwhile, was already on the way to storing 100 billion pieces of metadata a day as far back as 2012.
None of this is done with the slightest bit of accountability. Not a single GCHQ document has been made public since 1948 and, just three years earlier, the global ambitions of the British state were made clear when the London Signals Intelligence Board, along with the security services, decided the Government Code and Cypher School should attempt “the interception of all communications and radio transmissions of other nations”. This, in 2020, is what apparently makes the Chinese state so dangerous.
In reality, few informed observers believe China particularly cares about TikTok, with the FT reporting how Beijing doesn’t view its parent company ByteDance as “strategically important”. What the saga does provide, however, is further evidence of a technological cold war between the US and China – a conflict with no advantages for the rest of us.
It also begs a question: if TikTok is not permitted to operate in the US, then why are Facebook, Google and Amazon allowed in Europe? After all, there are major misgivings around the impact of the social media giants on democratic processes, and their use of consumer surveillance is well-documented. Meanwhile the latter is hammering retailers and high street commerce, all while paying a pittance in tax. As Basecamp’s David Heinemeier Hansson wrote on Twitter, a presidential action to ban TikTok “might just kickstart the conversation about how the EU would be better off kicking out Facebook/Google/Amazon and the rest of the American big tech locust.”
The conflict between the US and China is only just beginning. Elsewhere, the latter’s lead in the realm of synthetic biology has led to the field being dubbed “Sputnik 2.0”. That begs the question of what a ‘boycott’ might look like if China develops a cure for lung cancer or dramatically mitigates Alzheimers. Things are even more intense in the sphere of AI, with both ‘AI superpowers’ unique in having large domestic populations, advanced technological development and legal frameworks favouring innovation over privacy rights.
All of which asks profound questions of Europe and the English-speaking world outside the US. Australia’s economic fortunes are entirely tethered to China – so how useful is it to remain a military and technological satrapy of Washington? The same is true in Britain: excluding Huawei from the country is one thing, but in terms of ‘taking back control’ it is an empty gesture if it simply means Britain is a technological, as well as political, appendage of America.
Technology is political, the age of digital utopianism is over and, in an era when geopolitical rivalries extend to social media, medium-sized powers – like Britain – are compelled to pick a side. Europe has been rejected, and China is clearly off the cards. That leaves the US: a country with an economic settlement at breaking point, a political elite which is catatonic and where internal dissent is increasingly febrile.
Taking back control is about to get a lot more complicated.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.