China is rapidly building out a Total Surveillance State on a scale that far surpasses any government surveillance program in the West. The scope of this surveillance is so broad and pervasive that it borders on science fiction:
Life Inside China’s Total Surveillance State (8 min video)
China Aims For Near-Total Surveillance, Including in People’s Homes (“Sharp Eyes” nationwide surveillance network)
It’s well known that the intelligence agencies in America seek what’s known as Total Information Awareness, the goal being to identify and disrupt terrorists before they can strike.
This level of surveillance has run partly aground on civil liberties concerns, which still have a fragile hold on the American psyche and culture.
The implicit goal of China’s Total Surveillance State is to control the citizenry and root out any dissent before it threatens The Communist Party’s hold on power, but the explicit goal is a behavioral psychologist’s dream: to reward “positive social behaviors” and punish “negative social behaviors” via a “Social Credit Score.”
There is something breathtakingly appealing to anyone in a position of power about this goal: imagine being able to catch miscreants who smoke in no-smoking zones, who jaywalk, who cheat people online, and of course, who say something negative about those in power.
But let’s ask a simple question of China’s vast surveillance system: what happens when it’s wrong? What if one of those thousands of cameras mis-identifies a citizen breaking some minor social code, and over time, does so enough times to trigger negative consequences for the innocent citizen?
What recourse does the citizen have? It appears the answer is none, as the process is not strictly speaking judicial; the system appears to be largely automated.
Here’s a second question: is the scoring system truly transparent, or can insiders place their thumbs on the scale, so to speak, to exact revenge on personal enemies?
Question #3: Who have the power to change the weightings within the automated software? Will criticizing the government online generate 1 negative point this month but 10 points next month? How can citizens with a handful of negative points, some perhaps incorrect mis-identifications, avoid crossing the dreaded threshold if they don’t know how the system is truly ranking various violations?
This aligns perfectly with the world envisioned by Kafka in his novels The Trial and The Castle.
Kafka’s fictional accounts of power manifesting through an impenetrable bureaucracy describe a world with two primary features:
1. The rules guiding the system are opaque to those enmeshed in the system
2. There is no recourse for those unjustly persecuted or convicted by the system
What is it like to inhabit such a world? I’ve assembled some insightful comments on Kafka’s works from online resources.
Critic Michiko Kakutani: “(his novels share)…the same paranoid awareness of shifting balances of power; the same atmosphere of emotional suffocation.”
The Trial is “the story of a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader.”
“The law in Kafka’s works, rather than being representative of any particular legal or political entity, is usually interpreted to represent a collection of anonymous, incomprehensible forces. These are hidden from the individual but control the lives of the people, who are innocent victims of systems beyond their control.”
“For Kafka, law ‘has no meaning outside its fact of being a pure force of domination and determination.'”
Kafka’s novel The Castle explores “the motif of an oppressive and intangible system” and “the seemingly endless frustrations of man’s attempts to stand against the system.”
China is creating Kafka’s nightmare world as the perfection of centralized control of its citizenry. The question is: will the Chinese people tolerate this as long as the current artificial financialized “prosperity” reigns? What will happen to their perception and tolerance when the debt-fueled “prosperity” blows away like the sands of the Taklimakan Desert?
Gordon Long and I discuss the conceptual framework and implementation of Social Control in a two-part video series:
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