In our age of digital connection and constantly online life, you might say that two political regimes are evolving, one Chinese and one Western, which offer two kinds of relationships between the privacy of ordinary citizens and the newfound power of central authorities to track, to supervise, to expose and to surveil.
The first regime is one in which your every transaction can be fed into a system of ratings and rankings, in which what seem like merely personal mistakes can cost you your livelihood and reputation, even your ability to hail a car or book a reservation. It’s one in which notionally private companies cooperate with the government to track dissidents and radicals and censor speech; one in which your fellow citizens act as enforcers of the ideological consensus, making an example of you for comments you intended only for your friends; one in which even the wealth and power of your overlords can’t buy privacy.
The second regime is the one they’re building in the People’s Republic of China.
This is a dark joke; it isn’t meant to minimize the horrors of China’s march into information-age totalitarianism. Beginning with its successful taming of the internet, Beijing has treated the darkest episodes of “Black Mirror” as a how-to guide for social control and subjugation — with “social credit” scores and official public shamings for people whose daily conduct disappoints, official Communist Party apps that you’d better use if you know what’s good for you, surveillance technologies and facial recognition software as boots on the back of nonapproved religions, and compulsory internet as part of the brutal, tech-enabled replay of the Cultural Revolution imposed in China’s Muslim west.
What’s happening in the West with privacy and authority is happily different. Unlike China’s system, our emerging post-privacy order is not (for now) totalitarian; its impositions are more decentralized and haphazard, more circumscribed and civilized, less designed and more evolved, more random in the punishments inflicted and the rules enforced.
This means that, for instance, there is no central party apparatus encouraging our corporations to create individual “trust scores” for every consumer (even if they’re still doing it), no official commissars organizing digital mobs (even if shaming for random wrongthink is now a commonplace), no political persecution involved in most cases where public figures have their secrets and selfies exposed on the internet. (Perhaps Jeff Bezos’ claims of Saudi involvement will pan out, but so far he mostly seems to have been the victim of his own stupidity and his mistress’s brother’s greed.) And it means that the radicals surveilled by corporate-government cooperation are mostly white nationalists and jihadis, not human rights advocates and Christian pastors, as in China.
But this list of real differences is still also a list of partial similarities, of ways in which the architecture of our system replicates certain features of the emergent Chinese panopticon, even if the life lived within our system is still blessedly freer than in theirs.
Indeed our system cannot help re-creating features of the Chinese order, because the way that we live on the internet leaves us naked before power in a radical new way. In the West that power is still decentralized, diffuse, divided and polarized, and therefore likely to be limited and checked. But to adapt Deng Xiaoping’s famous call for “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the Western order in the internet age might be usefully described as a “liberalism with some police-state characteristics.” Those characteristics are shaped and limited by our political heritage of rights and individualism. But there is still plainly an authoritarian edge, a gentle “pink police state” aspect, to the new world that online life creates.
And what’s striking is how easily we have come to tolerate it. Yes, there are moments when particular organs of surveillance get pushback — the NSA during the brief “libertarian moment” starring Rand Paul and Edward Snowden, the social media companies from liberals when it turned out that the Trump digital team no less than the Obama whiz kids could exploit their user data.
But apart from the high-minded and the paranoid, privacy per se is not a major issue in our politics. Most people want the convenience of the internet far more than they want the private spaces that older forms of communication protected. They shrug off the stalker-ish ways that corporations hurl their ads at you throughout your day. They put surveillance devices in their homes and pockets without a qualm. They accept hackings and online shamings the way a Californian shrugs off earthquakes. They assume that the extremists being surveilled and censored and sometimes arrested probably deserve it. And they welcome the possible advantages of panoptical living, hoping for less crime and less police misconduct, better public health, more exposure of corruption — plus, of course, the chance to see their favorite celebrities in the nude.
So for those who object inherently to our new nakedness, regard the earthquakes as too high a price for Amazon’s low prices, or fear what an Augustus or a Robespierre might someday do with all this architecture, the best hope for a partial restoration of privacy has to involve more than just an anxiety about privacy alone. It requires a more general turn against the virtual, in which fears of digital nakedness are just one motivator among many — the political piece of a cause that’s also psychological, intellectual, aesthetic and religious.
This is the hard truth suggested by our online experience so far: That a movement to restore privacy must be, at some level, a movement against the internet. Not a pure Luddism, but a movement for limits, for internet-free spaces, for zones of enforced previrtual reality (childhood and education above all), for social conventions that discourage career-destroying tweets and crotch shots by encouraging us to put away our iPhones.
Absent such a movement we may not join China in dystopia. But the dystopian elements in our own order will be here to stay.