Trump attacks Huawei and Reddit users rebel against Tencent investment, but Alfie Bown argues that talk of a tech Cold War is all a smokescreen for an intensifying platform capitalism.
It’s hard to believe it isn’t material from a comic sci-fi novel or an unmade episode of Futurama. Chinese tech giant Huawei sends secret agents to the T-Mobile factory in the US disguised as engineers. They take pictures on hidden cameras and steal a small part of a robot named Tappy before escaping with a view to re-build it across the Atlantic. Later caught, the employees are disowned as rogue agents. T-Mobile sues Huawei. The American president gets involved, accusing China of unfair trade and intellectual theft on his favorite social media platform. Simultaneously, China’s biggest tech firm Tencent, responsible for creating a censorship firewall for their own government, accidentally spend $150 million on American free-speech platform Reddit. Free speech advocates on Reddit protest against the investment, asking for the money to be sent back to China. China offers to return Tappy’s forearm but not the Reddit shares.
Far from humorous parody, this describes the events of the last week, and points us to an important political realization about the status of today’s technology wars and their representation in the media: this is not really about censorship and security at all. If it were, it could hardly have descended into narratives of such comic proportions.
What really lies behind these smokescreens of talk about international meddling and surveillance is a battle over the platforms on and through which our free labour and monetized leisure time, interactions and relationships are harvested and turned to corporate profit in a new era of “platform capitalism.” Commentators have likened the US-China tech situation to a new Iron Curtain or even a cold war, but this focus on differing ideologies is a distraction from the reality of a corporate battle for control over profitable populations in which both sides want more or less the same thing.
Having formerly produced only mobile accessories, Huawei now have a 15% share of the smartphone market (more than Apple). They are also a leader in the development of 5G, and are in partnership with a number of UK and US companies with regard to coming internet infrastructures. 5G means more clicks and more rapid connectivity between sites and devices. Huawei’s share of the 5G terrain would see them benefit financially from clicks in those countries it operates in, as well as giving them some power over those infrastructures themselves.
In the US, this advance is viewed with severe suspicion, with Senator Tom Cotton going as far as to say that Huawei is ‘effectively an intelligence-gathering arm of the Chinese Communist Party.’ With Tencent’s connections to Beijing and the recent revelations that Alibaba founder Jack Ma is a member of the CCP, these are hardly misplaced concerns, though they obfuscate the obvious parallels in the US in which former Google CEO Eric Schmidt heads up a Pentagon committee integrating Silicon Valley into the intelligence services.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is more willing to admit that this is really about the
ownership of platforms and digital space rather than an ideology war. Indeed, its own firewall against Facebook and Google is rooted at least as much in an economic protectionism as in wanting to censor dangerous content. The reality for most Chinese internet users is that they can easily access these sites if they want to (many regularly do) but that the inconvenience of doing so ensures that the bulk of their valuable clicks remains within platforms from whom Chinese corporations profit.
The prevailing neoliberal internet myth that still presides in the US prevents them from simply admitting that these are economic issues of space ownership and forces them to cast the tech wars as a defence of freedoms when they are in fact predicated on the absence of freedom in the first place. This ‘fear’ of the Chinese tech giant is less about whether corporations should exert power over the means of communication, exchange and labour and more about which ones do, a reality China seems more comfortable with.
The backdrop for all this is a new world of digital work and leisure that represents one of the most lucrative aspect of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Free labour and unpaid work have experienced a meteoric rise since platforms became central so the social fabric, from obvious examples like unpaid content creation on YouTube to grossly undervalued work outsourced via Amazon Mechanical Turk to more subtly monetized social media impressions which led Laurel Ptak to call for Facebook users to be paid. Christian Fuchs is among those to have pointed out that all of these forms of labour, whether ‘unpaid, precarious, crowdsourced, informal [or] casual are milieus of ongoing primitive accumulation that feature high levels of exploitation.’ Nevertheless, it’s the last form – the minutely monetizable click – which is at the centre of the new form of capitalism that Huawei and T-Mobile, and the US and China, are fighting over.
It’s this more indirect harvesting of valued-per-click leisure time by corporations which leads so many technocapitalists to support projects like the Universal Basic Income (UBI), which would free up users to generate valuable data and content for free on their own platforms. It’s end product is the Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising campaigns that have grown simultaneously with corporations like Google over the last 15 years. Now the value of the click is not based only on the likelihood of purchasing success – as AdWords previously functioned – but on the value of the click seen as a data-point that connects two or more actors in the network. The click is a recordable and sellable moment of connection that has value to any data-driven company, from corporate advertisers to election meddlers like Cambridge Analytica and policy influencers like Palantir.
The situation was prophetically predicted by one of the most historically influential Marxists still alive, author of Workers and Capital Mario Tronti. His 1966 book gave rise to the concept of ‘neocapitalism,’ which anticipates the environment in which the digital worker operates. For Tronti:
At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation is transformed into a moment of the relation of production.
In this environment, the data-point connecting two people, generated at the moment of every click between social media pages, connects the social relation itself to a relation of production in real time. Seeing this in his own future, Tronti worried that society itself would run by the logic of the factory.
The whole of society is turned into an articulation of production, that is, the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society.
It’s this new ‘social factory’ over which Huawei and T-Mobile are engaged in battle. For each share in the infrastructures being developed, in this specific case the 5G network, comes a greater portion of the profits of the factory of the future, which is now indistinguishable from society itself.
In his 2016 book The Stack, Benjamin Bratton shows that thinking cartographically about a two-dimensional international politics and technology fails to consider the complex networks of our digital architecture. He argues for six layers of terrain, rather than just one, of which ‘earth’ and ‘cloud’ are the lowest two (as shown). While traditional international relations take place on the layer of earth (talk of borders, etc), these corporate struggles operate at the level of cloud, and carry with them a rather different set of state and corporate politics. In short, it is a new kind of space over which we are fighting.
Perhaps we can say that in Bratton’s terms cloud politics are being hidden under the smokescreen of earth politics. That’s why the differences between Chinese and American internal affairs don’t stand in the way of Tencent wanting a piece of the Reddit cloud. Cold war and iron curtain talk is just an attempt to hide cloud politics beneath earth ones by asking us to visualise the situation two dimentionally.
That said, the trickiest issue here may be that most of those involved in this piece of international ‘trickery’ at least appear to be acting in ‘good faith.’ Trump convinces himself of a fear of Chinese surveillance and infiltration, and Jinping likewise sees everything in traditional cartographical terms, speaking of China’s expansion as if he’s the latest emperor in an episode of HBO’s Marco Polo. What’s needed here is some elementary psychoanalysis.
When a subject is structured – founded even – on the basis of exclusion or abjection (just think of the obvious – Trump’s wall or Jinping’s purge of the Uighur population) there is more excluded than the subject thinks, or rather, the unconscious excludes more than the conscious, whose exclusions have not really been excluded at all. Psychologically speaking, the language of earth and terrain excludes not only (or not even) those ‘others’ repelled from that physical space (those in fact who are needed for the subject to sustain itself) but also the other terrain not described by the conscious language of the subject. Cloud is excluded from earth.
The point is that Trump and Jingping are not only the architects of the confusion between earth and cloud – they are also the symptoms of it. The worst part of this realisation is that those suffering most at that hands of Trump’s foreign policy and Jingping’s eugenics might not be suffering if this confusion were to be ironed out in their respective psychologies, and those of their surrounding discourse. International ‘earth’ tensions themselves seem to serve the purpose of obscuring ‘cloud’ ones, which is the terrain over which the future is being fought. People are suffering on earth so that cloud battles can be obscured from the rest of us.
Alfie Bown is author of books including The Playstation Dreamworld (Polity) and writes for The Guardian, Paris Review, New Statesman and others. Tweets @leftist_gamer