by Dustin Breitling
The Sunlight That Lost The Glass Window
“I’m trying to build a crystal ball,” foxily asserts Jun Wang, the urbane visionary while his piercing crimson eyes scan the room and an aloof grimace sweeps over his face. Wang proceeds to speak about his company iCarbonX, now heralded as a revolutionary technology that brands itself as “building an ecosystem of digital life based on the combination of consumers’ big life data, internet and artificial intelligence.” Ultimately, the realization of Wang’s ecosystem entails the collection of saliva, proteins and DNA combined with factoring lifestyle choices such as workout regimes, diet and the environment to construct a “digital you,” a you charted, graphed, and hologrammed at the tip of your fingers. Wang’s appetite for bodily data imbues his hope that “by analyzing all the data we can get our hands on, we will be able to see more clearly to predict what might happen to your body in the future.” Yet, Wang’s scale of vision doesn’t simply go unmatched by its implementation, rather Wang’s construction of his crystal ball becomes endorsed by one of his biggest supporters and champions yet, the Shenzhen-based Tencent whose product WeChat hosts over 800 million users and has been proclaimed as ‘The Internet of the Future’. Ultimately, it is providing a preview to the West of the inevitable shape of things to come, engineered and brought to you by the Chinese Civilizational State.
Notoriously, WeChat has established itself as a Megalithic Application notably expanding beyond the basic features typically encompassing instant messaging, photo and social network service. Rather, its ambitions extend much farther into incorporating functions such as a digital wallet, arranging doctor appointments, paying electricity fees, and booking transport, notably distinguishing it from its Western counterparts. Also, its recent introduction of a ‘Heat Map’ has unveiled another promising feature: the capability to monitor foot traffic in an attempt to get a bird’s eye view of what is considered “irregular” assemblies of people—critically, an irregularity that is picked up and fed to State authorities.
Here, possibilities and imaginations run amok, whereas a stream of articles emerging in the West about Chinese Big Data analytics, we are beginning to see sci-fi surveillance realized from cringe-worthy examples of the daily intrusions citizens face with every move, their finger-swipe, and even eye-movement algorithmically tracked. It has become particularly highlighted through the recent uproar that has centered on the Chinese government’s attempt to implement a social credit system linking a citizen’s financial, social, political and legal credit readings into a measure of their trustability score. Yet, responses from bloggers and advocates of the credit system have defended it on grounds that, since 1.3 billion Chinese lack a credit card, it places bankers and loan providers in vulnerable financial positions.
Already, one of the major players in the market, Alibaba, operates a social credit system where, by means of its algorithms, it produces scores based on traffic tickets, and on whether one has paid or delayed tax payments and what has been purchased online. Glancing over its Colossal plan for large scale implementation of a social credit system entitled Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020) entails the following punitive measures: low scores will prevent citizens from obtaining public office, limit access to social security, flag individuals for more thorough scrutiny when passing through customs and restrict access to certain hotels and restaurants.
Yet, WeChat shouldn’t be the only phenomenon ensnaring Western attention as rather it is just one component amongst a vast ecosystem of Chinese companies exploring and advancing the intersecting fields of Social Networks, Virtual Reality, Robotics, DNA Sequencing and notably Artificial Intelligence. Attention has turned towards reports focusing on the country leading the world in ‘deep learning publications’ and on Baidu, officially establishing the largest deep neural network designed for Machine Learning and a speech recognition program that has rivaled or surpassed persons in recognizing English and Mandarin speech. China is also in the midst of laying out its roadmap for the further development of Artificial Intelligence, intending to build an AI industry worth $150 billion, and to make China the global leader in the field by 2030. The former leader of Google’s Brain project and who has just retired from Baidu, Andrew Ng declares “Whoever wins AI, will own the future.” However, Andrew Ng’s proclamation raises questions whether the role of Artificial Intelligence yields itself as a viable combatant to counter and outmaneuver the Western goliaths in crafting the most advanced and sophisticated data collection and intelligent systems; or perhaps it pushes us towards a different set of considerations of China’s endeavors.
‘Like a monkey playing the piano’
We can begin to wonder if in the coming years the notion of the “Saviour arriving from the East’’ will be a fitting designation for the country that is presently juggling multiple roles; as it solidifies itself as the ‘leader of the free trade world’ and increasingly takes the initiative to pressure the United States to abide by The Paris Accord and follow through on its Climate Change commitments. Double downing on its global commitments, it is now engineering the world’s largest investments in clean energy and equally facilitating the simmering conflict between North Korea and U.S. Here, we can further unpack the notion of the aforementioned “Civilizational State” as it becomes integral in understanding what “Civilization” entails, as explored by Martin Jacques and Zhang Weiwei. They understand China as a “Civilizational State” shedding light on a deep-rooted incommensurability between the Nation-State and the latter. Even though, Statehood and Civilization itself are profoundly entwined, a Civilization-State emanates from a “very distinctive notion of the family, ancestral worship, Confucian values, the network of personal relationships that we call guanxi, Chinese food and the traditions that surround it, and, of course, the Chinese language with its unusual relationship between the written and spoken form.” On the other hand, the Western Nation-State isn’t necessarily eschewed in the light of the unprecedented modernization period that followed Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations period. Rather, according to Jacques, “China’s geological structure is that of a civilization-state; the nation-state accounts for little more than the top soil.” ibid Ultimately, Civilizational State should not be pinned down to a territorial demarcation, but rather a double role arises or, as the ancient proverb asserts “good things come in pairs.”The Civilizational State isn’t merely preoccupied with its own internal affairs, it ratchets its ambitions to a global scale, a global scale that aims at preserving the international world order at any cost or, according to Lawrence Lek’s video essay 2046, to “not care about a dramatically better future, as long as it survives .”
Respectively, Lek’s seeming cynical proposition becomes fleshed out in his work, where, rather than leveling a critique against Western naiveté, he explores their thematic character and guides us to understand that a unilateral future has already arrived. Yet, it is not a futurism evocative of similar predecessors such as Afro-Futurism and the projection of a vision that marries a reimagining of tradition and techno-futuristic possibilities to craft emancipatory worlds. Rather, it shares certain affinities and a sensibility with Sophia Al Maria’s conception of Gulf-Futurism, which is a mangled cocktail of erased historical memory, rampant consumerism, the ruthless steamrolling of capitalist modernity, and particularly in the Middle East, the slurping up of and distribution of the ‘black corpse of the sun’: oil.
Importantly, Lek urges what he understands as SinoFuturism to not be entirely confined within the territorial bounds of China, rather its omnipresence pervades and seeps. We can find it through products that spill and circulate in every market, or investors that are linking together the Pearl of Strings and New Silk Road that is enmeshing the world economy, or the ready export of students streaming through western university campuses. Yet, SinoFuturism doesn’t bid for any ‘manifesto’ integrity, rather it unabashedly and mechanically embraces the seven key stereotypes (Computing, Copying, Gaming, Studying, Addiction, Labor, and Gambling) to underline how China itself generates its own form of Artificial Intelligence. It is an artificial intelligence whose modus operandi is a world where no single author runs the engine, concerns for copyright is trivial and the addiction to ‘machine learning’ doesn’t need to be weighed down by questions about ethics nor morals. Ultimately, it is purely a future that will be bent on preserving and ensuring the survival of the ‘Global Civilizational State’ by any means.
Thus, the automated impulse to question the ‘who,’ ‘how,’ or ‘what’ deciding about the implementation of the program ‘survival by any means’ is rendered void. Rather the crimson, crackling, and swarming pool of neural networks generates and propels what Lek claims has inaugurated what Sinofuturism ultimately is a ‘science fiction that is already here.’ Thus, drawing on another marriage, Lek identifies the rapport between artificial intelligence and its explosive rate of development that is displaying its ‘Xeno’ character, or a ‘Xeno’ intelligence that is proceeding to outstrip and even bewilder its designers. Here, Lek references the difficulty for programmers to even grasp the internal operations of their neural networks, beckoning us to consider a parallel in the historical link between the Western fascination with the inscrutable, mystical, faceless, and unknowable Orient. Lek invites a dose of Techno-Orientalism as a vehicle to extend beyond Western identity-politics to embrace what has been characterized as a fascination with “iconic images that are indicative of the threatening alternity attributed to Asia in its technologized form, as embodiment of the inassimiable, unfamiliar, often illegitimate, obsequious and devious who haunt the dark alleys of Western civilization .” Furthermore, we can venture that Lek welcomes what we could identify as the ‘Thallus of The Orient’ an undifferentiated, blotted amorphous mass, one that disregards the sieve of Western identification in its wedding with Artificial Intelligence. The wedding could bear the title of what Vincent Garton terms a ‘Xenofuture.’ Accordingly, “ a radical identity with the Other: Xenofuturism in all it forms…..Xenofuturism does not need Western adherents. To remain relevant, Westerners need it.”
When I found a new world
Ultimately, if the catchword ‘singularity’ gains any currency in a contemporary articulation, perhaps we may find it in China. However, our terminal stop shouldn’t be the simple comprehension of the sheer magnitude of the Civilization State and its Artificial Intelligence. If we return to our sibylline of the hour, Jun Wang, and the inquiry to him about his greatest dream, we can tap into the Civilizational State’s possible future: surviving and readying its citizens for their next upgrade. Jun Wang looks confidently to elaborate: “to eventually transfer the physical body and its information from its carbon platform onto a silicon chip.” Now does it really matter if that information is an original or a copy? Recall again that our lucky number is two with ‘all good things coming in pairs’, therefore, Sinofuturism prepares to untangle us towards a future squarely focused on the command, control, and copy keys.
Nothing is sacred. Authorship is overrated. Copyright is wrong.
by Dustin Breitling
This article was previously published in Czech on A2 magazine #10/2017: https://www.advojka.cz/archiv/2017/10/zitra-jako-vcera
.Title of the first book ever written by an Artificial Intelligence
. Mozur, Paul. “Beijing Wants A.I. to Be Made in China by 2030.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 July 2017. Web. 25 July 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/business/china-artificial-intelligence.html>.
.”‘China brain’ project seeks military funding as Baidu makes artificial intelligence plans.” South China Morning Post. N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 25 July 2017. <http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/technology/article/1728422/head-chinas-google-wants-country-take-lead-developing>.
.”Home.” Martin Jacques – Martin Jacques – Author, ‘When China Rules the World’, columnist, broadcaster, lecturer. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2017. <http://www.martinjacques.com/articles/civilization-state-versus-nation-state-2/>.
.Lavender, Isiah. Dis-orienting planets: racial representations of Asia in science fiction. Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2017. Print.Techno-Orientalism “the phenomenon of imaging Asia and Asians in hypo-or hyper-technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.”