A parable of the absurdist bureaucratic state.
China’s Digital Return to Reality—and Ours
The Latest Development in the East-West Social Engineering Divide.
As if watching a science fiction movie unfold on a jumbo screen, Americans are bemusedly puzzling over the latest news out of China: Minors are now limited to three hours a week of online gaming, spread over the three days (generously counting Friday) of the weekend.
Just this past May, officials swung into action against what one top advisor called a “masculinity crisis” among Chinese boys, many of whom had fallen into danger of becoming “delicate, timid, and effeminate.” Proscribed policies included more gym teachers in the schools and more yang, the masculine spirit, in the curriculum.
Now China is extending their re-masculinization agenda into virtual space—a move throws into special relief Beijing’s broader crackdown on its own tech industry.
Like the turn against video games, that effort is unthinkable (for now) in the US. After taking down talkative Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma and his soon-to-IPO company Ant Financial, they have twisted the screws on their biggest social media and rideshare companies. Yet strategic companies like Huawei and digital infrastructure like AI remain well-supported and well-funded.
As Dan Wang observed in recent years, consumer technology has sharp limits when it comes to strategic technological development. “A large population of people who play games, buy household goods online, and order food delivery does not make a country a technological or scientific leader,” he cautioned. “The milestones of our technological civilization ought to be found in scientific and industrial achievements instead.”
These comments led Noah Smith to suggest last month that China’s leadership is trying to correct against consumerism in order to increase “geopolitical and military power for the People’s Republic of China, relative to its rival nations.” Of course, there’s something to this. It is indeed “easy for Americans to forget” there once “as a time when ‘ability to win wars’ was the driving goal of technological innovation,” as Smith writes.
In fact, America’s current technological industry, including consumer tech, is almost entirely derived from servicing the military and intelligence state or repurposing its decades of effectively limitless research and development in the long wake of the Manhattan Project and the establishment of Five Eyes. SpaceX owes its success in getting American defense and spy satellites back onto American launchpads. Apple owes its success to the military R&D behind the iPhone and the iPad. Google owes its success to mass surveillance grants from the intelligence community. Even cable television derived from spun-off Pentagon science.
The list trails on and on. If China is really looking to beat technological plowshares into swords, perhaps it has studied closely what has become of America after generations of turning military technology into an all-enclosing system of mass diversion and entertainment.
What makes China’s actions so odd to Americans, as if they are glimpsing for the first time a different future that can’t quite be real, is that we find ourselves at a soul-deep crossroads when it comes to our military-entertainment complex. On the one hand, we increasingly recognize that, beyond the perversity of turning weapons into toys, our government simultaneously has turned those toys back into weapons against us, using social credit and bone-deep surveillance to blur away the line completely between combatant and consumer, soldier and civilian—between communist and capitalist, some even say.
But on the other hand, we’re losing faith that America has a choice but to lunge forward into a world of what Wang calls a “technologically-acceleration civilization,” come what may. If that’s true, we can’t have much of a choice but to embrace the forms of technology that most comport with our contemporary lifeways and deepest convictions—which, at this late date, still correspond to the religion of imagination, playfulness, juvenility, escape, and indulgence that rose to cultural dominance during the pre-digital electric age. If we can’t center our lives around Xbox, Amazon, Postmates, and the rest, is there anything left we can center them around—without ripping ourselves, and our country, to pieces?
From a Chinese vantage point, such a dilemma has deep roots in the West. Our practice of social engineering through entertainment technology forged from Vulcan’s lab is, by Chinese lights, an existential threat—a virulent attack at the very roots of human and natural goodness, which destroys the harmony between them that’s cosmically necessary for healthy order.
And from the vantage of a growing share of Americans, that assessment sounds more and more spot on. This is one reason Catholic intellectuals are now having an outsized, if still minority, effect in the West. (Eastern Orthodox intellectuals, a virtually microscopic demographic, have, at least in this respect, some similar thoughts.) Under digital conditions, the schizophrenia and hostility to nature that arises from engineering society through fantasy-making and fantasy-consuming technology has been laid fully bare, its fruits now clearly damaging and self-negating. In this crisis of soul, natural law returns to the fore of consciousness.
As a result, a triple divide and debate has emerged at the heart of the digitized West: those who defend rights because they still think only fantasy can save us now battle those who reject rights as a delusion and embrace natural law, while both those factions rival and struggle for soul-share against those who see natural rights as a part of natural law itself. Prospects that this divide can be resolved through debate are increasingly slim. Contrary to the wishes of some, Western civilization will grow increasingly plural, as different regimes adopt rival wagers about natural law and natural right, and countenance different technological arrangements that accord with those wagers.
If a Western regime can no longer effectively secure healthy order, much less project power, on the basis of social engineering through technologies of entertainment, on what basis can it do so? One premodern answer, now returning to the fore, is a bracing one: on the basis of religious authority. Hence the head-snapping regime turn away from postmodern relativism toward premodern revelationism. Digital pressure re-forms “post-religious” liberal modern and postmoderns into theocrats of unnatural law—not simply of “mathocracy” but of technological posthumanism.
The god-term here is hostile to both nature and to humanity, despite often being presented as an avatar of “the environment” or of “society.” Its environment is an engineered simulacrum, its society a swarm of humanoid models the new priests believe their bots can be taught to control.
The idea that this Western faction could content itself with mastery over just its particular sliver of spacetime is self-refuting. This faction wants all spacetimes, and it wants them now. The technological transformation of America into a “magic” playground made possible by the rule of a secularized security state within a state worked to mainstream the very counterculture ostensibly opposed to that deep organization. It fueled the revolutionaries’ fanatical belief in the messianic power of technology to equalize humanity by emancipating all imaginations, by force when necessary. The final embrace now on display between the security superstate and the revolutionaries has thrown out into the open the engineering blueprint for communism American style: an institutionalized revolutionary simulacrum, one just as rooted in social credit as China’s, but founded on the collective hallucination and mass schizophrenia of social media’s queered wokes—arrayed against, not powered by, masculine competence or martial valor.
Sane, sufficient Western digital statecraft requires a complete and competent stop to the union of posthuman engineering and revolutionary fantasy ethics from socially terraforming America (and beyond). Their tantalizing but foredoomed wagers promise only staggering damage to our souls and our lives. There is no political or technological escape from the problem of rights in nature, from the errancy inextricable from the human good, or the necessity of the political life, warts and all. There is no eradicating the bad “other” from our selves or from our tools.
The problem for us is that after virtue we cannot yet rely for salvation on law. There is no human law immutable and deterministic enough to “program” our way out of spiritual collapse. For that reason, Americans of sufficient spirit must focus our energies on restoring a relation between entertainment and conflict that better reflects the demands of the age. Our most powerful effort is to find ways of commanding our bots and our data centers to serve our creation and exchange of real, natural, and human goods and services, not in pursuit of some utopia or in flight from some dystopia, but in the inescapably given dance of generation after generation of fully human selves and others.