New World Same Humans #25

TikTok, Trump, the CCP, and you: what a divided internet means for your future.

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The internet was supposed to bring us closer together. We all know that the reality has not been so simple.

This week, though, I want to look at a online phenomenon that may do more than any other internet trend to estrange billions of people from one another in the decades ahead.

It all starts with TikTok.


One wall, two realities

Want to glimpse the geopolitical future? Take a look at TikTok. This week the app was pulled deeper into an ongoing dispute over who rules the internet.

Earlier this week the viral video platform announced that it is pulling out of Hong Kong. The company cited a new security law that grants mainland China increased powers over the city. TikTok say they’re concerned that if they continue to operate in Hong Kong, they may be forced to hand user data to the Chinese government.

The kicker: TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, called ByteDance. That means that the app has always been viewed with suspicion by the US government, which views Chinese social platforms as an arm of the state. ByteDance are keen to stress that the version of the app that operates worldwide is independent of the domestic version, called Douyin. The move to pull out of Hong Kong is meant to reassure the US that this remains the case; that TikTok user data won’t end up in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

ByteDance aren’t worried about Hong Kong for nothing, nor are they alone in their concerns. This week, Trump made TikTok the focus of a barrage of anti-China rhetoric, and even threatened to ban the app. Such a ban is extremely unlikely, and practically unenforceable. But ByteDance clearly want to do everything they can to avoid a row. Meanwhile, Google, Facebook and Twitter have said they’ll stop responding to requests for user data made by the Hong Kong government.

So this is July 2020. An app best-known for teenage viral dance crazes finds itself at the centre of an increasingly fraught set of geopolitical tensions.

There is, of course, a broader story here. Indeed, the overarching context for these events is a phenomenon that will do much to shape the decades ahead. The internet is dividing in two. We’re seeing the consolidation of two rival online spaces: one for China and its allies, and another for the rest of the world.

This division has been emerging for years now. Chinese citizens have long been unable to access a host of western platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and Pinterest. So what’s new?

First, it’s ever-more clear that China sees the pandemic as an opportunity to take a great step forward in its project for global dominance. That means a more assertive CCP; see the moves to take control of Hong Kong. Second, and relatedly, we’re entering a new age of deglobalisation. Even if Trump doesn’t win a second term it’s likely the US will remain somewhat protectionist. Meanwhile, European countries will be practising various forms of state capitalism for years to come. All these shifts will act to intensify both the split between two rival visions for the internet, and the geopolitical importance of that split.

Back in NWSH #13 I wrote about the trend towards human unification. Take the long view and people across the globe are more alike, and metaphorically closer, in all kinds of ways. For much of the last two decades – in what we might call neoliberalism’s Imperial Phase – it was easy to believe that we’d soon see that historical trend reach its endpoint in a totally globalised world. But now, via populism and the pandemic, borders are back.

So far, our discussion about deglobalisation has revolved around national borders. But this week’s TikTok story is a reminder that they won’t be the only, or perhaps even the most important, dividing lines in this new era. The digital border currently being drawn may turn out to be more consequential in the long run. After all, a divided internet is a divided world. One in which commerce, culture, and the exchange of ideas will constantly bump up against a virtual wall.

Clearly the implications are vast. But it’s the effects on our cultural lives, and on the way we see the world, that I find most intriguing. The 90’s and early 2000’s – essentially the pre-internet and early internet ages – primed us to expect a world in which humans everywhere would come to share a global hivemind. From Boston to Beijing, we would all laugh together at some future Friends, eat some future Big Mac, and wait for the next instalment of some future Harry Potter-style literary blockbuster. Instead, it seems we must prepare for a world in which two quite separate informational landscapes evolve in parallel, while the people on either side of the dividing line become ever-more estranged.

I don’t want to over-simplify. The border that separates the Chinese from western internet will always be porous. But the internet is far more than only an informational tool. It has rewired the way we think, and continues to create new modes of consciousness, new definitions of truth, new realities. So what does it mean when the internet is split in half in this way? And all this taps into the even broader polarity that will surely prevail in the 21st-century: between liberal democracy in the west and the audacious experiment in techno-authoritarianism currently taking shape in China.

Rewind 30 years, and the early pioneers of the internet believed they were building a technology that would usher us into a new age of mutual understanding. This story is a reminder that the reality has been much different. Digital technologies cannot liberate us from the bonds of history, nor do they allow us to transcend our fundamental nature. Rather, they cause that history to haunt us in new ways. And they allow our fundamental nature to find new expression.

We expected a future of shiny, happy, liberal democratic consumers. Instead, we face the spectre of a world divided in two. What does that mean for our shared journey as a species? How sustainable is it? How intense will the calls be, inside China and out, to tear down the digital wall that separates one internet from another? We’re going to find out.


Lucky for some

Four extended snippets to share with your virtual neighbours this week:

🤖 Speaking of borders: I wasn’t looking for a story that perfectly encapsulates the dark intersection of Big Tech and looming authoritarian dystopia. But I found one. The US wants to build a ‘virtual wall’ along the border with Mexico. Hundreds of solar-powered towers, equipped with cameras and thermal imaging, will surveil the borderline. An AI trained to distinguish humans from animals will alert guards if it sees people trying to cross. The company behind all this, Anduril, is the creation of 27-year-old Palmer Luckey; he sold his previous startup, Oculus, to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.

🏢 Young workers are missing the office more than their older counterparts. In a survey of US workers conducted in April, over 70% of Gen Z and 60% of millennials felt negative about working from home, compared to 50% of older workers. Get ready for the next HR message from hip startups desperate to attract young talent: we have an office, and you can come every day!

👾 Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, is partnering with the UK immersive theatre company Punchdrunk to ‘develop the next generation of live experience’, which they say will be at the intersection of theatre and gaming. Regular readers will be reminded of a NWSH obsession: augmented modernity and the emergence of virtual worlds as domains of meaningful experience.

💡 A Russian-American historian predicted the political unrest of 2020. Back in 2012, Peter Turchin predicted that 2020 would be a year of peak social unrest in the US. Turchin uses mathematical models to spot deep underlying patterns in history; he calls the discipline cliodynamics. The historian says falling living standards and rising competition among social elites are key causal factors for the current unrest. The existence of patterns in history is another NWSH obsession.


Internet dream time

Thanks so much for reading this week.

When it comes to the future – and bifurcation – of the internet, New World Same Humans will keep watching. This instalment covered an unlikely triad: TikTok, Trump, and the CCP. With those players on the field, who can say where the game goes from here?

In the meantime, though, the New World Same Humans community is busy building its own little corner of the internet. And we should invite more people to the party!

So if you found today’s instalment useful, please forward this email to one person – a friend, family member or colleague – who’d also enjoy it. Or share New World Same Humans across one of your social networks, and people know why you find this newsletter valuable.

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Until next week, thanks for reading,

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.