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.  

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)