US–China tech rivalry reflects contrasting cyber cultures
23 May 2019|

There’s a growing debate in policy circles right now: are cyber technologies good or bad for democracy? Are internet platforms weakening public debate and social cohesion? Will artificial intelligence inevitably favour tyranny?

What’s often missing from this debate is a nuanced appreciation of culture. Every piece of technology is invented by humans and for humans. Whether a technology has ‘good’ or ‘bad’ effects can depend on the social and political context it came from.

Most of the cyber technologies we use today reflect the values of Silicon Valley elites and the American government’s light-touch approach to the tech sector. American tech has enabled significant good, but the values baked into it have also proved toxic—something that we’re only now beginning to understand.

But America is losing its technological supremacy. China is poised to lead on AI, 5G and quantum computing, while its firms are increasingly dominant in consumer-facing platforms, from e-commerce and online payments to social media and gaming. American and Chinese technologies necessarily embody different value systems; understanding both will be essential to navigating the social and geopolitical consequences of technological progress.

The internet started life as a network for sharing resources between American researchers. Its pioneers prioritised openness; they didn’t design security into the network because that would have slowed traffic down. But this feature became a flaw as the internet expanded. Any internet-enabled device is now vulnerable to being hacked. In addition, because advertising was the only way to make money on a network designed to be free and open, surveillance became, in Bruce Schneier’s words, ‘the business model of the internet’.

Today’s internet platforms also reflect America’s unique cultural mix of muscular capitalism and hyper-individualism. Is it really a surprise that the country whose advertising industry convinced people to smoke tobacco and drink Coke turned the internet into a global tracking machine designed to make people buy more things? Or that the culture that brought us narcissism-as-celebrity through the likes of Kim Kardashian also created Instagram—where #me is always trending?

Recent advances in AI have underscored how cultural context infects technology. Machine-learning tools used by courts to inform parole decisions have been shown to be systematically biased against African Americans. Until recently, when Facebook users searched for ‘pictures of my female friends’, the platform would prompt them to look at bikini shots. These tools were not designed to discriminate. However, because they were ‘trained’ on real-world data, they hold a mirror to a culture that is, regrettably, racist and sexist.

Smaller countries that are technology ‘takers’ have long had to grapple with the downsides of American tech.

For example, because of their advertising-driven revenue model, social media platforms seek to maximise user attention—often by prioritising divisive and emotionally charged content. In America, this feature has exacerbated polarisation and identity politics. But for countries with ethnic tensions and weak institutions, American social media algorithms are fuelling actual violence. Online rumours and hate speech have sparked race-hate attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka and spates of religious violence in India, and contributed to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

American platforms also reflect the libertarian worldviews of many Silicon Valley engineers, including the belief that unfettered free speech is nearly always a net positive for democracy. This has long rankled Europeans, whose own political values and history have caused them to view privacy as a human right and understand the perils of hate speech. In this respect, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation can be seen as an effort to bend American tech to European values.

Awareness of the downsides of American tech is growing, but discussion about the values likely to shape Chinese tech is less advanced. What is clear is that these values will not be identical to those that have guided American tech. In the words of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, ‘We have our own value system. We don’t accept the Western political value system completely.’

Management theory has long maintained that China is a relational culture, where duty to family and the state is prioritised over individual rights. It’s therefore unsurprising that Chinese platforms don’t emphasise free expression and privacy—and that trend is likely to continue.

China is also a historically ‘low-trust’ society, which helps to explain the emergence of China’s ‘social credit’ system and its apparent strong domestic support. Many in the West perceive social credit as simply government control of Orwellian proportions, but it may also help bridge China’s trust deficit by providing incentives for—and evidence of—citizens’ and officials’ lawfulness and integrity.

As Bing Song recently argued, most Western analysis of social credit also fails to appreciate Chinese society’s longstanding tradition of using government structures to ‘promot[e] moral behavior’. Given this context, we should expect Chinese platforms to nudge users to comply with the party-state’s notions of ‘morality’, and to prioritise transparency about user identity and activity over notions of anonymity or privacy.

It’s also instructive to look at the Chinese tech sector’s culture. As venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee has outlined, China’s relatively weak property protections meant that its tech pioneers faced a hypercompetitive ‘coliseum’. Kill-or-be-killed tactics, not lofty Silicon Valley ‘mission statements or “core values”’, were the key to survival—as was a fanatical work ethic that would have had American engineers ‘running to their nap pods’. It’s not surprising, then, that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, known today for its ‘wolf culture, allegedly paid bonuses to staff who stole trade secrets. Chinese tech’s win-at-all-costs mentality will continue to shape the sector’s conduct and products.

Finally, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to exert control over its population’s digital experience. It does this by introducing laws, inserting itself into corporate hierarchies and rewarding tech executives who demonstrate party loyalty. As a result, the top tech firms tend to reflect the CCP’s values; New York Times journalist Li Yuan recently said of Huawei that its ‘soul is steeped in Communist Party culture’.

The future trajectory of technology is not a given. Technology takers including Australia must ask ourselves: what values do we want reflected in the technologies we use, and what costs are we prepared to incur to guarantee this? We then must identify the levers available to us to influence technology powers like America and China, and their companies.

American companies are subject to the rule of law, are accountable to regulators and can be motivated to change by activists and public opinion. We have fewer levers available to shape Chinese technologies—a reality that should make us even more determined to understand their latent values.