The Age of Digital Utopianism is Over

For the first time in 250 years, an Asian power is vying for long-term technological leadership with the West.

Information as a factor of production is becoming consistently cheaper, yet, at the same time, its increasing centrality means artificial scarcity is progressively required to maintain profit. We see this in a range of areas, from intellectual property rights (think pharmaceutical drugs), to monopolies and forms of excludability.

Yet even those critical few who grasped this contradiction, just like Brand and his cavalcade of disciples, did so in a broader context. Not only was the ‘end of history’ an operative presumption both shared – Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks, was published only a year before the global financial crisis – but the geopolitical dominance of the US was viewed as permanent. Thus the ‘digital revolution’ was, in many ways, relatively apolitical, primarily because the economic, technological and military hegemony of the world’s hyperpower was not in question.

The rise of China has shattered that presumption, with Asia’s largest economy ascending ‘value chains’ more quickly than the think-tankers and policy wonks of Westminster and Washington’s Dupont Circle ever imagined. A juggernaut based on exporting consumer durables, while buying trillions in US treasury bills, is one thing; a rival inching ahead in areas like AI and synthetic biology quite another. Just as with self-regulating markets, neoliberal gurus drank their own Kool-Aid, pronouncing that an ‘embourgeoised’ China would gradually adopt liberal democratic norms and defer to Washington. Neither is happening.

Which is where TikTok and Huawei come in. What both stories distill is how China’s rise is not solely economic and political, but also technological.

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