Two competing visions of our digital future have emerged from China and Silicon Valley. But are they really so different?
On one side sits the system used in China, which produces vast amounts of personal data and blurs into a huge apparatus of state surveillance and censorship. This model is centred on two online behemoths, whose dominance partly comes down to the fact that Chinese consumerism is all about paying via your smartphone, rather than an old-fashioned plastic card. There’s the e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, and Tencent, which owns WeChat, the platform used by more than 1 billion people every day. It does so many things – payments, social networking, messaging, travel booking, gaming – that participating in society without it seems all but impossible.
On the other side of the modern digital divide is the version of the internet pioneered in the west and now spreading around the planet, which revolves around Google and Facebook. These giants also feast on a mountain of personal information, but present themselves as a contrasting embodiment of personal freedom and liberal values, even as they embed the social model now known as surveillance capitalism.