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Chinese and Western mobile innovations offer new possibilities for state and corporate control of the populace and show that from a certain psychoanalytic perspective, some our consciousness is already uploaded.

Alfie Bown

CHINA is now leading the way in perhaps the single most important field of technology: mobile application development. Just a few years ago, China’s famous firewall – blocking everything from Facebook to Google – meant that its internet and application stores were filled with copycat sites and programs offering stripped down versions of those designed in the US and Europe. Today, the Chinese “SuperApp” reverses this trend, trailblazing technological advances and introducing significant new methodologies for corporations and the state to regulate and monitor the experience of its cities, ultimately with the aim of keeping the population in check.

While this may seem alarming to those looking from across the water in the West, the same technologies are already in a development phase in the US and Europe as well. What they together make visible is a project of transformation of consciousness in which the mobile phone plays a central role. From a US or European perspective, the more openly centralized state control that is so characteristic of China serves to further consolidate the impression that things are different in the West. Hong Kong, from where we publish, is uniquely placed in this relationship, because while it has access to much of the Chinese technology market, it also has no firewall and therefore full access to Google and other US applications. From Hong Kong, it’s the similarities between trends in mobile app technology that are far more striking than the differences.

China’s Mobile Future

At last month’s Melon HK, five leading tech developers from China and the US agreed that it will not be long before mobiles have rendered computers and consoles relics from the past. Mobile “SuperApps” are a particularly vital part of this technological future. The phenomenon of Tencent’s WeChat — first developed in 2011 and already by a huge margin the most-used application in China — is the first truly successful of such “SuperApps,” the basic premise of which is that various applications (chatting, social media, blogging, restaurant review, travel, online banking and more) are all rolled together into one single program. Whereas Tencent’s older QQ was a mere knock-off version of Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, its latest software takes app technology to the next level. WeChat has recently gone international, and a number of similar SuperApps modeled on WeChat are now in development across the globe. Facebook – with its new review features, diary, SMS service and forthcoming fundraising facility – is working hard to occupy this space in the West. WeChat is marketed in the name of increased user convenience, but the dangerous side-effects of such all-consuming applications can hardly be overestimated.

For one thing, it introduces a new level of synthesis between data collection and movement monitoring, where all data is now directly collected in a single service. Of its 1.1 billion users, more than half access WeChat 10 times a day or more, while many users leave the app active continuously, using it to map, shop, bank, date and play. WeChat’s logic is embodied by its seemingly strange “heat map” feature, designed to let users see where crowds are forming in real-time. The feature is packaged as a convenience tool, as if it has nothing to do with control: the objective is simply to help us access the least crowded shopping malls and avoid human and vehicle traffic congestion.

SuperApp

SuperApp Dystopia, by Jeremy Simmons

 

The problem is that this crowd data is visible to authorities as well, and its true potential is as a preventative measure against protests, occupations and riots. The data can alert authorities when crowds are gathering in the wrong places (i.e. protests or riots), leading to a preventative police presence, for example. Additionally, the data can be used to offer alternative routes to those looking to circumvent any blockages, which could be particularly important in the Hong Kong context where occupation of the business district in events like the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of 2014 is a significant tactic of progressive opposition. With the movement data of so many people, authorities can minimize the disruptive power of such protests by anticipating blockages and offering substitutes, reducing the financial and practical cost of protests and thereby reducing the power of opposition to the state. As a side benefit there are corporate beneficiaries as well as governmental ones, since the data can of course maximize profit, sending consumers to the less crowded McDonalds or Starbucks, inducing consumers to optimize their behavior from a revenue generating perspective.

There is a dangerous feeling in the US and Europe that such patterns are uniquely and typically Chinese but still some way from the function of new technology on their own shores. For instance, the “social credit” game system planned for implementation in Beijing to rate each citizen’s trustworthiness and give them rewards for their dedication to the Chinese state received media coverage and expressions of shock from the US and UK. While in China the links between the new “SuperApps” and the state are more open, in the US the illusion of privacy remains paramount. When WhatsApp announced last year that it would no longer pass information to the police, media in Hong Kong voiced concern that this would make things difficult for the state, whereas in the UK there was an inverse reaction: the press expressed betrayal that WhatsApp had ever shared such data in the first place. This suggests that the key difference between China and the West may be not so much the restrictions of freedoms in China but the illusions of freedom in the US and Europe. Contrary to this assumption, electronic structures of mapping and controlling the movements of users already operate along a similar framework in major Western cities too.

App Control in London and New York

London and New York serve as two illustrations of this. As I discussed in an earlier piece, a Transport for London talk considered “gamifying” commuting, discussing the possibility that if a particular tube station is becoming clogged up due to other delays, TfL could give “in-game rewards” for people willing to use alternative routes. Whilst traffic jam prevention may not seem like evidence that we have arrived in a dystopian future, it actually shows the dangerous potential in such technologies. If inner-city congestion can be smoothed out, then so too can potentially subversive uses of the city space like those just mentioned. Likewise in New York, while the New York Times spoke of WeChat’s ‘heatmap’ as a dangerous and dystopic feature, it perhaps didn’t know that the NYC app AvoidHumans offers New Yorkers the same service and therefore runs the same risks.

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Furthermore, the new and fast-growing culture of in-game rewards carries significant potential to organize citizens and is not so far from the system designed for Beijing. Even in China it seems that private corporations, rather than governments, are leading the way with such schemes and the same can be seen in the UK and US. We might be at the beginning now, but it is not difficult to imagine a not too distant future in which digital rewards and punishments characterize the smooth functioning ‘smart cities’ of the future where all movements are centrally organized to maximize profit and prevent non-conformity. Just last week US media reported China’s financial rewards for turning in foreign spies with typical expressions of shock, but New York already has an official state mobile app, ‘See Something, Send Something, which digitizes this very process by allowing users to conveniently report anything suspicious. In fact, New York has more than 15 official government applications, suggesting very strongly that apps marry consumer convenience with state interests in the US too.

On a more subtle level, while Time magazine reported on how useful Google Map’s new feature of predicting where the user will want to go might be, they neglect the dangerous side effect that such programs will encourage citizens to repeat cycles of the same patterns. In the same way that more innocent ‘predictive’ applications like Spotify keep the user listening to the same types of songs and then ‘sell’ them new material based on the creation of a pattern, Google’s new feature will ensure that already habitual humans become even more so, discouraging possibilities of spontaneous decision making and route-choice by making it more inconvenient not to follow the route mapped by the phone than to stick to it. At the same time, small changes to people’s routes can be encouraged by technology such as Apple’s iBeacon and the app ShopDrop, which allow retailers to send offers and information to nearby citizens via GPS tracking. Once in profitable patterns, citizens can be kept there.

Although user data is often shared between different corporations and between the public and the private sectors, this fact is generally by our patterns of thinking and talking about these data giants as discrete brands. While in China Google’s censorship means that WeChat uses Baidu Maps as its API, the international version of WeChat simply taps into Google Maps, showing just how deeply integrated these corporate technologies already are. This integration means that there is no comfort to take in the idea that different kinds of data are going to different places rather than to a centralized state database. From 2016 WhatsApp was sharing data with Facebook (its parent company), suggesting that the Chinese “SuperApp” is hardly the first time that collected data ends up in one place. Google’s executives are supremely close to the seat of power in DC, and it’s difficult to imagine that Zuckerberg is far away either, given his recent feints towards a political profile, indicating that while individual data may not be straightforwardly passed on to the state in all cases, the connections are already there.

From a US or European perspective then, the more openly centralized state control that is so visible in China serves to further consolidate the impression that things are different in the West. But the technology is simply more advanced in the People’s Republic. What this comparative view on WeChat offers us is a glimpse into a dystopic future in which companies and governments can not only track every movement but influence and reprogram these movements. In the end, from crowd control to profit maximization in the “smart cities” in both the East and West, applications play a key role in keeping us confined to corporate and politically conformist paths.

Mobile Consciousness

In an even more invasive way, such technologies aim to increase the degree to which decisions taken by the city’s inhabitants are dictated primarily through mobile phones. In his recent book, Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has argued that technology is ‘mutating’ human consciousness. If there is any truth in this, it is certain that the mobile phone will play a central role. This is something openly recognized by the CEOs of app development companies but hardly considered by users. With programs like Maps and Uber, the paths of citizens are mapped out so that while the destination remains a user-choice for the time being, the route is not. Yet, with the anticipation of the user’s desire that will come with Google’s ability to predict where you want to go as well as how you want to get there, even this may change. If so, we are currently in the early stages of the intervention of the mobile phone into the decision-making capacity of individual citizens.

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“Predictive” applications (which include Spotify, Siri and other popular apps) are on the rise and are widely considered the next big thing in app development, but we may be thinking about them the wrong way. These services aim not only to predict but to influence, deciding for us what we want and how we go about getting it. In this light Pokémon GO (now banned in China) can be seen as a kind of testing phase to see what Google could make people do. Predictive analytics tools look at “training data” (everything you have done and said) and use algorithms to predict an outcome. While certain kinds of decision-making algorithms have been ubiquitous for some time now, the difference with these ones is that it is the user’s own data that is used to make the decision rather than wider publicly collected data, so each individual has their own personalized decision-making algorithm. The important point, straightforward but with huge implications, is that some of these predicted outcomes were not destined to happen before the algorithm predicted them. In short, phones will soon make personal decisions for each individual.

Freud remarked that “man has become a god with artificial limbs,” and these individualized algorithms may be one of the more important of such cyborg features.The situation can be considered in relation to Freud’s concept of the “preconscious,” a kind of interim space between conscious and unconscious thought. The preconscious describes thoughts and desires that are unknown at the particular moment in question, but are easily capable of becoming conscious. It is impossible for unconscious drives to enter the preconscious without transformation, so we should be clear that a mobile phone cannot give us access to our unconscious except in the way that all media may relate to unconscious thoughts. However, when it comes to the preconscious, mobile phones may bring into consciousness desires and drives which might otherwise have remained in the preconscious. Yes, they were part of the individual’s history and potentiality (their metadata) but they may never have emerged into conscious desire. As such, we are handing over an important part of our decision-making skills to a device designed to map our actions in state and corporate interest.

While speculative scientists and sci-fi enthusiasts tirelessly consider whether human consciousness could ever be uploaded, the scariest thought may be that from a certain perspective elements of consciousness are already being outsourced to our mobiles, devices with a particular bias in favor of corporate expenditure and state control. While the West seems intent on obscuring this realization to preserve the feeling of full individual choice, China seems to embrace or at least acknowledge these increases in corporate and state control. On the one hand, this might even suggest that China’s reactions are the healthier of the two, but on the other hand there is an acceptance of inevitability of such developments in China, whereas there may still be space for their resistance in the West.


Alfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and the author of two books on the politics of technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and The Playstation Dreamworld (Polity, forthcoming). He is co-editor of the HKRB.

The featured image on this post is by Jeremy Simmons. Jeremy is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others. He is also the editor of the Cincinnati Book Review.

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3 thoughts on “HKRB Essays: The SuperApp Dystopias – London, New York, Beijing

  1. Great analysis, perfectly captures the tensions and incongruities in mutual perception that I see as an American living in BJ. I also find interesting the differing tactics of social media control in China (censorship/GFW blockage) vs the West (obfuscation via information overabundance/virulent “fake news”), and how opaque the latter is to people living there, most of whom uncritically accept the alarmist Orwellian narrative of State control of social media/apps in China that you outline. I really don’t know whether it’s better for these mechanisms of control to be overt, as in China, or occulted behind a smokescreen of techno-utopian capitalist optimism, as in the West, but I am doubtful that short of a major ecological catastrophe there is any “space for their resistance”, in either context…

    Liked by 1 person

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