The Digital Clash Of Cultures


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Our wired world is turning into a tangled web. Attempts to both exploit and regulate digital connectivity have revealed deeply rooted and distinctly different notions of where and how to draw the virtual boundaries of market access, citizen autonomy and privacy — even within the West.

The sheer weight of China’s global economic gravity is pulling others into the invasive maw of its digital orbit. Japan sees the vaunted new privacy rules that challenge big tech’s abuses in Europe as online protectionism against its global companies. The well-meaning effort to debureaucratize the delivery of social services through biometric e-administration in India threatens to erase privacy instead. Google’s corporate vision of a smart city in Toronto has sparked a techlash by a local community that resists being digitally managed.

In The WorldPost this week, we examine this digital clash of cultures emerging as the next terrain of future conflict.

“China’s digital privacy practices have sounded alarms in the West for years,” Tiffany Li writes. “Recent headlines about China highlight the growing use of facial recognition surveillance, the rise of the controversial social credit system and the development of other privacy-invasive technologies, including brain-scanning helmets that some employers use to try to evaluate how hard employees are working.”

The rest of us should worry about China’s practices, Li writes, because “its rapidly advancing technology industries and massive consumer market are already influencing norms around the world. China will likely impact the way privacy is understood and protected.”

The Yale scholar warns that the policy approaches to privacy that have worked across the West, where values are shared, won’t work in China, which has its own tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent that conform to the communitarian and authoritarian ethos of its long-enduring civilization.

Li concludes: “What is needed to influence the development of privacy norms in China is not American tech exceptionalism or European regulation but rather international, multi-stakeholder efforts that define the global values of privacy,” including through trade policies.

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama draws our attention to the conflict between commerce and personal privacy among trading partners. “Europe has often been hailed as a global leader when it comes to trade and privacy, particularly after its recent passage of the General Data Protection Regulation, the European Union’s privacy law that came into effect in May,” he writes from Brussels. “And while it is no doubt a worthwhile endeavor to protect European citizens from illicit online surveillance, the landmark bill comes at a cost: it is a form of digital protectionism. Like a rule straight out of President Trump’s protectionist playbook, the regulation uses steep fines and red tape to put pressure on foreign businesses to set up local servers within Europe.”

While Lee-Makiyama notes that this may not be an issue for Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants with subsidiaries and servers within the E.U., “companies that do not have the means to set up servers in every country where they operate — including major U.S. news sites such as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune as well as various mobile apps — have blocked E.U. citizens from accessing their services in order to avoid fines.”

Unlike Europe, he contends, “Japan recognizes there is no contradiction between its domestic policy (to strengthen citizens’ rights) and its foreign policy to ensure that multinationals are not facing discrimination on global markets and able to operate competitively in local markets.”

Reetika Khera worries that Aadhaar, the Indian national identification system that assigns a 12-digit number to citizens and verifies their identities through biometric scanning, has morphed from a transformative innovation for welfare delivery into an invasion of privacy.

“In our increasingly digitized lives,” she writes from Ahmedabad, India, “sensitive personal information is available in various data silos: travel, banking, insurance, health records, education, social security, mobile phones and so on. Data mining businesses use this information to profile us and facilitate targeted advertising, for example. But an important safeguard of our privacy is that each of these data silos remains unconnected.”

Her concern is that in India today, “both the government and businesses are pushing people to submit their unique number for nearly every aspect of their lives — to receive welfare benefits such as pension payments, to file taxes and register marriages, as well as to access mobile phone services and bank accounts. This turns Aadhaar into a dangerous bridge between these previously isolated silos. With each new data silo that gets linked, an important protection against 360-degree profiling gets weakened, leaving Indians vulnerable to data mining and identity theft.”

Brian Barth reports from Toronto on the efforts of a local advocacy group called Tech Reset Canada that is challenging a celebrated plan by the Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs to build a smart city. Endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the company plans to build “a testbed for new technologies” in a waterfront district, using widely dispersed sensors and data analytics.

“The smart city industry is a Trojan horse for technology companies,” a leader of the group, Bianca Wylie, told Barth. “They come in under the guise of environmentalism and improving quality of life, but they’re here for money.”

The Reset group, Barth relates, considers itself “pro-growth” and “pro-innovation” and is not opposed to the concept of smart cities. “Their concerns,” he writes, “revolve around the collection and commodification of urban data and whether that occurs through a democratic process or via corporate fiat.” He quotes Wylie: “‘This is a story about governance, not urban innovation. There is nothing innovative about partnering with a monopoly.’”

The deeper digital connectivity reaches into every aspect of society, the more diverse cultural underpinnings will rise to the surface to cope with the consequences, each on their own terms. Some differences can be reconciled, others not. In the end, the boundaries in virtual space will be rendered in the image of the real world.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.