Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the implementation of surveillance technology and “social credit” in China—variously described in the Western press as “dystopian,” the work of a “digital dictatorship,” “high tech authoritarianism,” or a “surveillance technostate,” Regardless of the terms used, the implication is that the system the Chinese government is building looks to be right out of the pages of a Western SF novel—1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, We—or the BBC television show Black Mirror. While traveling in China, being greeted at airports and train stations by facial recognition scanners, digital fingerprint collectors and more CCTV cameras than one can count, certainly does suggest a lot of data are being collected.
Whether its the Chinese presses’ positive utopian narrative of the technology’s benefits in securing public safety and reinforcing social stability, or the Western media’s negative anti-utopian narrative of total surveillance and complete authoritarian dominance, there certainly is confidence in the ideal of surveillance technology to see everything and track everything.
Both the utopian and dystopian versions of these narratives of surveillance, however, begin from a confident assumption about the way that technology works—that it accurately represents reality on the ground and that it always operates seamlessly, logically and frictionlessly.
From its beginnings, the computational age has always dreamed of a rational machine to order the chaos of human life—that the proper inputs may yield proper solutions and the foundation for correct engineering. The glow of the computer screen entices with a promise of enhanced visibility, the binary clarity of the digital machine tempts with the promise of order, and properly written code suggests the potential for a truly logical structure for organization.
For a Chinese government not far removed from a legacy of central planning and one still concerned with control and management at all levels, computing technology no doubt entices with its utopian potential for managerial control. And, for a government also obsessed since the end of the Mao era with fighting back luan—chaos or disorder—it is not surprising that computing’s power to surveil, track and store voluminous amounts of data on citizens’ activities would be very desirable. From a government point of view, when you have 1.3 billion people, many millions of whom are a migrant floating population, what could be better than a nationwide system that encloses all of Chinese society in a digital network that identifies, ranks and tracks all individuals within it!
Yet even as I read these media stories with great interest and unease, I am reminded daily of the moments when utopian planning uncomfortably bumps up against human social reality. The straight lines, the order, and the beauty of “the plan” is very different when deployed on the messiness of reality. The promise of the architectural diagram, the beauty of rational flows and the joy that comes from the dream of complete order—the strategies of design and code—are often unprepared for the tactics of everyday human accommodation. Software has bugs. Computing is corrupted. People double-park their cars. Drunk men urinate in the back alleys of even the most well-designed urban spaces. IPhone screens, glossy in their utopian form, are in practice covered in smudgy fingerprints.
A few weeks ago while bicycling around Jiangxinzhou here in Nanjing—where local villages have recently been cleared to make way for a new gated Singaporean High-Tech Ecopark, I came upon a newly constructed wall. Before utopian construction can commence the space needs to be cleared and ordered. Its straight lines, consistent height, and mechanical consistency made it a beautiful partner to the newly-constructed asphalt road along the western edge of the island. The uniform whiteness of the wall, its confidence of design, to cut across the rural landscape—was inescapable. It sure did make for some great biking.
On one ride, only a few days after the wall went up, I came upon a hole that some locals had created in the wall. It was a hole, I found out some days later, was used for locals to access ships along the shore—to move goods to meet other needs—perpendicularly across the plane of the plan. It was a beautiful example of the way that humans cobble together solutions, go around plans, and make do.
Whenever I think about the seemingly inescapable, comprehensive surveillance network that China seems to be building I will take a moment to think about the lesson of those folks that dealt with the new white wall.
Every beautiful wall has a hole.