Digital Civilization in the Making (part 3)

The culture-technology imaginary in China

In the global imagination the idea of China is reflected in various ways. Outside the PRC, many see a rising economic superpower, a threat to western democracy. Others see a land of exquisite culture and art, traditional practices like kung fu, acupuncture and Tai Chi. Chinese products can be found in the world. One only needs to look around. Household goods, electronic devices, batteries, clothing, fashion accessories, and myriad components (“ten thousand things”). All these are ‘Made in China’.

How the western world saw China in the past is part of the historical record. But the world is less western now. In his book China Imagined, Gregory B. Lee writes that the “certain way” that outsiders knew China is no longer so clear-cut: “in the twenty-first century, ‘China’, whose shape and form and categories we in the West invented and maintained, is starting to escape us.”

Within China, the view is different. Even putting to one side a tide of nationalism that has risen in response to western criticism, most Chinese people subscribe to the conviction that the nation is an economic superpower. They no longer accept that China is weak and backward, the self-assessment that dogged China’s reformers over the past century, sometimes referred to as ‘national humiliation’.

China’s leaders gesture toward self-confidence and assertiveness, promoting ‘discourse power’ (huayu quan). International boundaries markers are redrawn. Foreigners are less welcome than they were a decade ago unless they are defenders of China’s development path who might be interviewed on China Global Television Network (CGTN). Among the Chinese Diaspora, perceptions of China’s ascendency range from patriotic pride to apprehension about so-called “wolf warrior” assertiveness. However, within the PRC itself, the government is seeking to consolidate a shared identity, to rule things in and out, to authorise boundaries of identity. Part of this revolves around an appeal to the core values of tradition, as well as reinforcing the core values of socialism.

A continued emphasis on “cultural security” persists in political propaganda. The state-owned Chinese media provide a partisan image of China in line with government directives. People’s lives are getting better; national minorities are happy to be rejuvenated; peasant and village populations are beneficiaries of technology and environmental policies. The view presented is consistent, even homogenized. My Twitter feed from the China Daily, when I choose to look at it, is a cheer squad for China Inc.

The government is carefully shaping the new Chinese imaginary. By imaginary, I refer to the changing identity of China, both within and without its borders. Most notably, a dual “culture-technology” imaginary has come into play, a future-oriented vision of China where people lead better lives because of the latest innovations, and where traditional values still hold society together. This culture-technology imaginary is embedded in the Chinese Dream, the government’s future oriented program for national rejuvenation. On the nightly Chinese TV news broadcast viewers were used to scenes of workers labouring in factories and farms; now the dominant images are robots, drones and labour-saving technologies. Virtual and augmented reality applications are found in businesses and in cultural exhibitions, for instance the 8 Minutes in Beijing closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 was a display of techno-culture, transcending the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Incidentally both were choreographed by the film-maker Zhang Yimou, although the winter display failed to arouse the world’s media. 

In order to make use of the concept of the culture-technology imaginary it is necessary to briefly indicate where the term “imaginaries” comes from. Imaginaries is a different concept than image, and the much-discussed association of soft power. The political scientist Benedict Anderson coined “imagined community” to show the rising forces of nationalism in south-east Asia. The print media played a constructive role, filling in the gaps of imagination, allowing people to identify with a coherent entity, the nation.

The philosopher Charles Taylor’s has used the term “social imaginaries”, referring to how people collectively come to see themselves. Social imaginaries can lead to a shared sense of legitimacy, underpinning western democracy and its multiple modernities. Another linked concept is the “collective imaginary”, an idea developed by Cornelius Castoriadis, a Greek philosopher. He argued that when the collective imaginary, also called the “instituting” imaginary breaks down, it is necessary to create a new one. The capacity to control and refresh the collective imaginary is evident in Trump’s “make America Great Again”; and in Xi Jinping’s great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, also referred to as the Chinese Dream.

In China technology has suddenly appeared as the solution. And once more the west has provided it. That is, forced technology transfer in return for market entry. Gregory Lee says: “… almost everything constitutive of today’s China has come from the West, both the economic logic applied in China today and the accompanying technological/technical system.”

Culture too, has come from the west in the shape of Hollywood, but the door is now closing. The Great Firewall blocks most. Many now despair of China’s new isolationism and rely on VPNs to retain their connection to western values, especially returned scholars from the west.

The culture-technology imaginary provides us with a lens to examine how culture and technology have become instruments of statecraft, providing a link to the past and a promise of the future.  

Digital Civilisation in the Making (Part 2)

The Future of the Creative Industries or the Creative Industries of the Future?

The digital revolution is changing the way people communicate. More significantly, the algorithmic curation of peoples’ decisions to consume and view content raises important questions about the future of the creative industries.

In the past policy makers were primarily concerned with the viability of the creative industries: how to create new markets; how to reward copyright holders, how to identify emerging talent.

A more relevant discussion today is: what are the “creative industries of the future?” How will people produce, consume, and share cultural works in the future? Streaming content is already the new normal. Influencers, podcasters, and a plethora of snake oil salesman constitute the new attention economy. What Stuart Cunningham and David Craig call “social media entertainment” is now the default setting for so much content innovation.

Recently in China the state media drew attention to “four great new inventions”:  mobile payments, high speed rail, e-commerce, and bike-sharing, which are now part of peoples’ daily lives. These are more accurately described as innovations, emblematic of a new kind of digital civilisation, which includes the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, drones, digital currencies and Blockchain.

There is much at stake here. Scientists have transformed the world we live in, from providing solutions to complex social problems, working out the structure of DNA, and developing airplane navigation systems. The Silicon Valley based virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier, argues that digital globalization repatterns the world, shifting our collective organizing protocols toward a new kind of network efficiency. The question is not whether this shift is happening but rather the degree to which everyone participates. In China, it seems everyone is willing to participate.

The next question to ask is: does this change the way we think? Are we more creative because of our new digital affordances?

Increasingly scholars in the humanities and the sciences are collaborating. The common ground for collaboration is building a better future for humanity. Creative solutions to social problems are needed more than ever and many disciplines have a role to play.

In my work I refer to the cultural evolution timeline in China, from mass production of cultural goods, largely in factories (the 1990s) to the beginnings of mass customisation (from the 2000s). The term cultural evolution even made its way into Chinese policy language by the end of the 2000s decade.

China was moving out of the era of being the world’s factory. The 2000s had seen an enormous amount of funding invested in cultural industries: mostly theme parks, cultural quarters, and film production bases. This is an example of policy makers’ concern with the future of cultural industries: how to protect heritage while ensuring that turnstiles click over.

But by the second decade mass innovation was the spirit of the times. Incubators and maker spaces began to flourish. The grass roots were showing signs of a new vitality. With people online in mass numbers, it was necessary to transform this participation into something positive. The Chinese government moved to legitimise the entrepreneurial spirit of start-up culture, which required people with both skill sets, technological and creative. The two cultures (the sciences and the humanities) were coming closer together and it was possible to talk of the cultural industries of the future.

Rethinking the future of ideas and of human creativity

With science and technology driving forces behind social transformation, and with automation and machine learning now central to the industries of the future, we need to ask: what is the future of human creativity?

The digital entrepreneur Kai-fu Lee, believes that human creativity will be less important for China in the future. He sees a global shift occurring—from the age of discovery to the age of implementation, and from the age of expertise to the age of data. In Lee’s view, talented entrepreneurs, engineers and product managers will be the ultimate winners in this new natural selection. We now have drones, robots, smart cars, smart cities, smart phones. Lee has co-authored a new book with science fiction writer Chen Qiufan called AI 2021: Ten Visions for Our Future. The scenarios here are mostly optimistic, which I think reflects the prevailing sentiment in China.

Educating for the future

On a more global front, recent times have seen a renaissance in education:  a focus on science, technology, engineering and maths, the STEM disciplines. Proponents argue that there is a higher degree of rigour involved in scientific research. Accordingly, universities’ reputations are enhanced by the number of research grants, patents, and citations. The solution, at least in the humanities field in which I work, is now called Computational Social Sciences. The ability to analyse large data sets creates a demand for a new job description—data scientists.

This is happening in many universities at the same time as traditional disciples like anthropology and sociology, which involve people engaging in face-to-face investigation, are facing the axe.

So, what does this mean for human creativity, the faculty that distinguishes us from all other animals? Will the new kind of thinker be a hybrid? Is teaching students computational skills rather than critical enquiry skills the recipe for the future? What will be the skills required to survive in the humanities of the future, or to revert to the other side of the argument: what is the future of the humanities?

Practical task-oriented skills can be learned with application. Hours spent studying engineering subjects translates to good grades more easily than in arts course. The long process of learning how to think requires time and it requires us to relearn the lessons of history, to re-read the works of Shakespeare again, or the Analects of Confucius.

In the humanities the power of the idea (or even the metaphor) is paramount; having this kind of critical expertise is not simply a matter of time spent studying. It’s about dialogue, questioning and self-reflection. The defence of the traditional humanities is that critical skills are vital to our future. We can create better algorithms, but we can’t always predict human nature.

The COVID-19 crisis is an example of this. Scientists can harvest the best data available but human behaviour is often irrational.  We therefore need to constantly be asking how and why questions, which have a lot to do with ethics and moral values, which artificial intelligence and machine learning are not very good at.

Machines are changing the way we interact and much of this is for good. Collectively we are smarter. But there are downsides. Too much information feeds conspiracy theories which lead to misinformation and encourage disinformation, which eats away at the social fabric.

Many people use their thumbs more than hands, they use emojis instead of expressing real thoughts in words; and they ‘like’ a post on social media because they feel obliged to like it, because online friends have liked it. Mimesis rules.  

Despite the affordances that make entertainment easier to access and provide more “choices”, “old-fashioned” human creativity remains critical, no matter how smart machine learning becomes. This is exactly why we need to resist calls to diminish the role of the humanities, while at the same time being more open to inter-disciplinarity.

Soft power, confirmation bias and illusions of grandeur

The term soft power is common in international relations but hardly familiar in suburbia, where it is easily confused with washing powder. Like one’s washing, soft power can fade. While the term has appeared in an enormous number of journal articles, book chapters and op-eds over the past three decades, mostly celebrating and comparing nations, it remains an inherently fuzzy concept. Although it had its origins in political science, the term has been co-opted by East Asian media scholars.

Those who use the currency of soft power in both domains pay dues to Joseph Nye Jnr, a political scientist. Soft power was popularized in Nye’s 1990 book about the “changing nature of American power” (Nye 1990). Within a decade, his work led to a league table model of normative attributes, akin to a national beauty contest, if you want to be cynical. But beauty never lasts. Things have become ugly for superpowers. The US has descended several rungs in the league tables since Trump went feral. And China has seen a backlash due to its Wolf Warrior diplomacy and disputed origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most cited global soft power ranking is Soft Power 30, a joint initiative between Portland, a strategic communications consultancy based in the US, and the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. The Soft Power 30 evaluation currently covers 60 countries although the polling data is drawn from only 25 countries.

The Soft Power 30 is skewed towards public diplomacy and perceptions of nations and its metrics have a bias towards western democracies. Similarly, research institutes like the Pew Center poll public opinion on various issues, such as trust and favourable views, which have fluctuated wildly. As I will explain below, such vox pop polls can be flawed due to confirmation bias. An extended discussion of this argument can be found in my recent co-authored book China’s Digital Presence in the Asia-Pacific, available Open Access (see chapter 5)

Cultural soft power: waves and flows

Cultural soft power is another variant. Adding the extra adjective “cultural” makes the meaning more specific and reflects shared national pride in both tradition and creativity. It is primarily about resources, including national cultural heritage and talent. Film stars can add lustre to a nation’s profile on the world stage. With Oscars and Nobel Prizes you call yourself a creative nation. Blockbusters too help spread the word.

Even before soft power there was “cool”; some may recall the swinging sixties and the buzz around British pop culture, which Tony Blair tried to recreate in the 1990s with the creative industries. Before the sixties life in Britain was somewhat dull. Rock and roll music, blended with American blues, Buddy Holly and Elvis transformed the image of Britain, radiating from London outwards. Today, the equivalent city of buzz seems to be Seoul.

Probably because soft power feels a bit unconvincing, other metaphors have been added to the mix: for instance, charm offensives and waves. Then there are flows, a term mostly associated with globalisation, evoking big picture luminaries like Immanuel Wallerstein, David Harvey and Francis Fukuyama.

Flows are popular in describing media consumption; it began with the one-way flow of information from “north to south” in the 1970s (associated with cultural imperialism) to the multi-directional empowering flows from the margins to the centre (associated with diversity). Flows imply a lack of state intervention, a consumer-led model of natural forces in which users and markets adjudicate value.

The wave metaphor on the other hand gestures toward a peak; a wave may gain in momentum with the help of government; for instance, the Korean Wave, which has become a focus of South Korean national identity and has launched hundreds of PhDs.

These days it’s easier to develop metrics about competitiveness, or coolness for that matter. Thanks to the ease of accumulating data, there are indices for social progress, innovation, happiness, food security, standards of living, press freedoms and Internet connection speeds.  Counting tangibles such as the number of people in employment or the number of patents registered, however, is easier than designing methods to measure the value of cultural products and services, which is often intangible and always subjective.

Social media

What people think and what they say about cultural products has an extended social life because of social media. This applies to opinions about one’s own culture or a foreign movie. People tweet, share and comment, usually in their home language. And this social media commentary mostly reaches people with similar world views, for instance, those in one’s social media groups.

The “net effect”, real or imagined, is therefore something we need to take seriously, including its illusions; for instance, confirmation bias. The internet is designed with confirmation bias as a key part of its algorithmic logic. People bookmark, save, select, review, and share what they like or agree to. And people filter out what they don’t like. Algorithms recognize such likes and feed us more of the same, reinforcing our perceptions. As a result, we may suffer from the information overload disease, “hardening of the categories.”

Most people, for instance, harbour favourable views of their own culture and will therefore be drawn to opinion and commentary that reinforces their beliefs (or biases), while ignoring critical views which may be perfectly logical. It is therefore important to be aware of bias in reviews, especially when they are posted on online platforms!    

The Two Cultures

The two cultures: what have we learned so far?

In 1959, an English writer CP Snow instigated a fierce academic debate by arguing that scientists in the UK would benefit from a closer understanding of the work of their colleagues in the humanities, and vice versa. Snow believed that the technological age was dawning and Britain was languishing in the past. Not enough scientists were being trained.

This became known as the Two Cultures debate. To place this into a broader context, in 1959, the Russians were exploring space, the microchip had been invented in the US and China was in the second year of its ill-fated Great Leap Forward. The academic journal Technology and Culture was published for the first time. In October of that year, a ground-breaking TV series called the Twilight Zone launched on the CBS network in the US (it wasn’t the first time that science fiction was televised but it was the first time that stories about the paranormal appeared. Modern viewers will be more familiar with the X-Files).   

In Snow’s mind, literary intellectuals were elitist. A pragmatist, with a foot in both camps, Snow saw failures in the education system. He felt that the brightest children were pushed towards the traditional literary disciplines in Britain. Snow was critical of what he saw as ‘useless knowledge’, much of which in his opinion was bound up with tradition. A predictable backlash came from the literary establishment in the form of F.R. Leavis, a prominent literary critic who used his skills to denigrate Snow.

Snow suffered personally from these attacks on his integrity. While Snow’s intervention did little to bring the two cultures together, it stands as a landmark moment. The Two Cultures debate played out over the ensuing decades.

The division between culture and technology, the two cultures, was not new, however. It is worth considering some precedents.

A similar contest of ideas had played out in the UK in 1882 between the scientist T.H. Huxley, a supporter of the theory of evolution and Matthew Arnold, the son of the great cultural luminary. Although this was a civilised debate, the line of argument was similar. Huxley believed that science should have a higher role in the educational curriculum. Arnold contended that science was useful in its ‘practical application’, but in his view a good education required an understanding of fine literature.

About the same time a distinction was being drawn between technology and culture far away in China.  The circumstances again involved tradition. The tiyong relationship, as it is called, is usually translated as ‘Chinese learning for essence, western learning as method’ (or pragmatic application).  The Opium Wars, beginning in 1842, allowed the western powers to enter China. Some reformers believed that China was in need of modern technology, which could be borrowed or copied from the west. In fact, as it turned out, the west offered more than just technology. In the New Culture Movement that followed in the early 1900s, western culture offered a template for modernisation.

Today the gap between the two cultures still exists in some parts of the academy but there is an increasing recognition of inter-disciplinarity, as well as discussion of the post-human condition, which reflects the co-evolutionary trajectory of humans and machines. As the eminent social scientist Helga Nowotny writes, ‘Never before have we had the technological instruments and the scientific knowledge to see so far back into the past and ahead into the future, nor the techno-scientific capabilities for action.’ (In AI We Trust p. 2)

By the mid-2000s in China, the long-standing division between humanities and the sciences had started to break down. The idea of the integration of technological innovation and cultural creativity became popular. It was a result of convergence. The internet had changed communication practices. Suddenly everything was online, or could be distributed online, so you didn’t have the separation of the factory where things were made by workers and the market where goods were sold. The Chinese government then moved to legitimise the entrepreneurial spirit of start-up culture, which required people with both skill sets, technological and creative.

Many people have added to the division between the arts and sciences, with varying degrees of rhetoric, and it has become more relevant as the humanities loses its impact. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The biologist EO Wilson believes that the creative process in science and the arts have some similarities, even though the two fields use different approaches. Wilson says:

In works of literature and science alike, any part can be changed, causing a ripple among the other parts, some of which are discarded and new ones added. The surviving fragments are variously joined and separated, and moved about as the story forms. One scenario emerges, then another. The scenarios, whether literary or scientific in nature, compete (p. 275)

Digital Civilisation in the Making (Part 1)

Digital China

In our ever-changing digital age, people make use of intelligent technologies: smart phones, smart cars, and smart cities.  Governments invest in innovation. Artificial intelligence is the roadmap of the future. Increasingly, intelligent machines free people from mundane tasks, allowing us to interact with distant others, share ideas, and build collaborative networks. The sedimentation of data in the cloud replaces the sedimentation of knowledge in libraries and museums, what many refer to as ‘civilization.’ Whereas knowledge allowed people to elevate their status within society in traditional China, digital literacy is allowing masses of ordinary people to transcend space and time, to reconnect emotionally with distant others using video, images and emojis, to participate in China’s burgeoning sharing economy, or even to initiate a start-up. China is intent on consolidating a digital civilization; and this has widespread implications for industry, governance, population management, and even international relations.

Civilization matters a great deal to China’s leaders. China is sometimes referenced as a ‘civilizational state’, an idea first proposed by Chinese intellectuals and later promoted by the British Marxist Martin Jacques. In the Chinese political lexicon, being civilized means ‘fitting in’ with the national plan, accepting the party-state’s directives and guidance, and obeying laws. Four normative models of civilization coexist in contemporary China: material, spiritual, political and ecological. The rise of material civilization is equated with a more prosperous society beginning with economic reforms in 1978. Many people sought opportunities in a market that was largely unregulated, where conduct was increasingly immoral. Personal networks (guanxi), the black market, and corruption were part of the reality of everyday life. The behaviour of market opportunists needed to be managed, even controlled; hence the normative expectations of a ‘spiritual civilization’ were delivered in mass media campaigns and advertising.

As Carl Minzer points out, life in China has changed markedly since the economic reform era began. Arguably, the most conspicuous feature of today’s China is internet connectivity. In 1996, the nation’s first commercial internet service was launched. Prior to this, the nascent technology was viewed as a mechanism for scholars and scientists to share information. In 2000, only 1.8% of the population was online. With the burgeoning of commercial internet services, hundreds of millions of Chinese people rushed to purchase smart phones and tablets, most seeing no need for a computer, or even email. By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, internet penetration had climbed to 34% of the population, a total of 516 million people. The number now exceeds 800 million.

In 2014, innovation became a buzzword with the State Council launching a policy called ‘mass entrepreneurship and innovation.’ Start-up fever took hold in coastal cities like Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing and the previous decade’s focus on creative clusters turned to incubators and maker spaces. The term innovation featured in the government’s 2015 Work Report fourteen times, compared with only three the previous year. Masses of Chinese were suddenly aspiring to be digital entrepreneurs. This digital transformation has happened at breakneck speed. Regional governments, mayors and many venture capitalists have been quick to accept the vision that China is becoming an AI superpower.

Beginning in 2015, the 13th Five Year Plan enshrined future-centred initiatives such as Internet + and Made in China 2025, programs aimed at deploying cutting-edge technologies such as cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and next generation information technologies with the intent of transforming national firms into globally competitive ones. Large parts of the Chinese economy, from commerce, finance, health care, to cultural industries and transportation were reshaped and reimagined. As Lee Kai-fu, a Taiwanese venture capitalist with deep experience in China’s nascent digital economy has argued, the expertise that made Silicon Valley successful no longer applies because machine learning algorithms are replacing human endeavour.

By the time the 13th Five Year Plan was unveiled, the affordances provided by China’s digital platforms had replicated or localised those of their Silicon Valley counterparts. Western companies like Facebook are now cherry-picking ideas from China’s internet companies.

Chinese tech companies have been quick to develop innovative applications, echoing the tide of techno-nationalism, tempered by tech trade wars with the US. China’s ‘digital champions’ include the internet technology companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, (sometimes called BAT), as well as Bytedance, owner of the popular short video app Tik Tok, the e-commerce giant Jingdong.com, food ordering company Meituan, and technology hardware companies Huawei and ZTE.

In recent years, the China Central Television (CCTV) evening news program, broadcast from Beijing, has replaced stories about the productivity of people’s manual labour, once a symbol of shared national growth, with news of labour-saving machines. Robot toys proliferate in shopping centres along with virtual reality (VR) amusement arcades. Maker spaces, co-working spaces and fab labs appear in the proximity of university campuses.

Technological innovation has indeed generated profound changes in peoples’ lives. Taobao (e-commerce) Villages are helping rural populations tap into the digital economy. The Greater Bay Area in Guangdong Province in south China linking Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macau, Foshan and Guangzhou, exploits the region’s leadership in technology. Moreover, in keeping with the zeitgeist, the Guangdong provincial government has issued ‘digital governance’ guidelines.

In the cultural domain, meanwhile, the datafication of cultural memory, such as the Mogao Grottos in Dunhuang and the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, attracts financial and technical support from internet companies including Tencent and Alibaba, while digital tourism apps are being developed that provide ‘politically correct’ knowledge of regions.

Digital Lifestyles

Disintermediation, the process whereby online technology eliminates institutional gatekeepers, has played out in dramatic ways in China. The architecture of many essential services and online transactions are managed by commercial communications companies, not financial institutions as they are in the West. Alipay is operated by Alibaba. Tencent offers WeChat pay. In fact, not using Tencent’s WeChat messaging app along with its convenient transaction services, would lead to social exclusion. Most services in China are online, some are only online, and many are only accessible by apps.

QR codes proliferate. Cash transactions are virtually obsolete; even beggars and buskers present a QR code for scanning. Coffee, now associated with modern urban lifestyles, is offered by a Starbuck clone, Linkin Coffee whose orders are received on the company’s mini-program, a mobile app downloaded on WeChat. Orders in most restaurants are conveyed to the kitchen on digital devices and food is even delivered by robots and drones; many people even shun restaurants, choosing to have meals delivered by courier services such as Meituan and Ele.me.

Alibaba’s Freshippo grocery supermarkets, now operating in a hundred cities, dispenses entirely with the need for people, allowing shoppers to scan payments on Alipay while their purchases are moved to the check-out on conveyer belts. Huawei’s Mate 20 mobile phone production line is completely automated, except for humans who make random ‘quality checks’ and add a final QR code sticker.

The reality of a digital civilization in China includes the goal of population management.

Facial recognition and big data harvesting are helping the Chinese government regulate society, along with the practice of scoring people’s social behaviour called Social Credit, which is likely to expand nationally, following successful pilot schemes.

Predictive algorithms increase efficiency and regulate unruly behaviour but they also endanger civic freedoms. The digital cloud now contains traces of what we read, consume and share. Writing about western realities, Shoshana Zuboff has referred to ‘information civilisation’, a dystopian vision of Big Tech which has superseded ‘industrial civilisation’.

The algorithms that shape identities are changing how humans interact. This transformation is occurring globally; in some nations this constitutes a real threat to democracy. It becomes harder to know if the information people receive on their ‘news-feeds’ or via social media is human-created or machine-created, or a combination of both. What is fake and what is real? Who, or what, is writing the code?

In this regard, China’s coming of age as a digital superpower raises an alarm. The willingness of people in China to surrender data stands in contrast to traditional Chinese society in which people only shared personal information among family and close friends. The traditional social model (guanxi) that cemented ties between people has morphed, particularly among younger people, into an online universe of liking, matching and sharing.

Digital Civilization Extending

It’s not hard therefore to comprehend the enthusiasm of Chinese people for a digital lifestyle, considering that many essential services were previously obtained through guanxi. While the sharing economy in China has alleviated many government concerns about social disruption, it has in turn disrupted business models. Bike-sharing is commonplace, but the ease of ride-sharing has led to more vehicles on the road, not less.

China is increasingly connected to the outside world and China’s digital footprint is extending. The take up of WeChat is widespread among many non-Chinese, as are Alipay, Tik Tok, and Huawei phones within many parts of Asia.  Chinese digital platforms are connecting up regions, cities and people. China’s digital civilization is likely to consolidate as people in Asia become ever more dependent upon Chinese platforms, expertise and algorithms.

Digital China may be the reality for many, especially those Chinese under thirty, who were ‘born digital’. But a more alarming scenario is the global sphere. As Lee Kai-fu has noted, human civilization, not Chinese, or Soviet, or Western, is at a critical juncture. This civilizational crisis, he says, is AI-induced, and in the near future it will impact upon regions where economies have been built on low-cost labour, including much of Asia. Computer literacy will certainly benefit society, as long as there are jobs in the future. For Lee, the world order is changing, not in a geo-political sense, but in a post-human one. This mirrors to some extent the Chinese political weighting now placed on ecological civilization. In the main, emerging technologies are seen as providing solutions to industrial pollution. But as James Beniger has argued, while technological innovations have extended the processes that sustain human life, these subsequently increase the need for control, and improved technologies of control. In this domain, China has made significant progress.