As Chinese authorities and tech companies work together to create a “social credit system” in which some see dystopian possibilities, and as Beijing-based censors celebrate their effective quarantine of undesirable ideas about the recently concluded 19th Party Congress, WeChat essayist YouShanDaBu (游山打捕) asks what conditions would be needed to enable an effective nationwide thought control campaign. The WeChat post has since been deleted, but is archived at CDT Chinese and translated in full below:
Please remain calm.
Monitoring and censoring an individual’s thinking has always been technically achievable, if enough manpower is spent to thoroughly investigate. The worst that can happen is the person can be driven to insanity, in which case a specialized review panel can conduct a point-by-point analysis which will knit together a verdict.
The experiences of many prisoners of conscience and thought criminals can help to explain this.
If you don’t need such professionalism, a bunch of spies should do it, hurling their accusations and violence. You can call this a “low-end thought monitoring and censorship” which can be applied to a relatively wide extent. For example, as it was by East German informers and those who reported during the Cultural Revolution.
Of course, specialized thought investigators look down on this. They are concerned with building ideology and optimizing algorithms.
Large-scale thought monitoring and censorship—in particular those applied to an entire national population—depend on two conditions: can thought be presented in a relatively clear manner; and can it be acquired and analyzed on a wide scale.
These days, thoughts can be digitized and the data can be processed and analyzed; artificial intelligence can conduct thought control.
Yes, but please remain calm. These are already our current circumstances.
What is “thought”?
Newborn infants very quickly begin reflecting, because they are fully equipped to absorb the world’s information and respond to it.
Thought follows a combination of learning, communication, information import and export, choice, judgement, and determination, all together. Put simply, if you have a data storehouse for each person, you can work with a lot of data falling into two categories: expression, and behavior.
1) First is all expression. From the point of view of today, it is all the words and symbols used by an individual.
Lets first consider symbols.
I saw in the news yesterday that we can tell if a person has depression based on their Instagram record—after data on your daily pictures are delivered to the AI, people can then begin trying to judge your “thoughts.”
The same goes for emoticons which are also ideas, ellipses, and the clothes we dress up in too (if you go back to the 80s and 90s, visual analysis AI will grab bell-bottoms, jeans, hair dye, tattoos—back in those days they all signified improper thinking).
We use writing/language/symbols to ponder, so much that according to some theories, “thinking” is itself a language. Expression is type of external reflection, mainly relying on text/language/symbols. Any type of online expression leaves a record of symbols, mainly text. We also use “text” to carry out the discussion.
Come, let’s take a look at expression.
There are two dimensions of expression, internal and external, the boundaries of which are today fuzzy. Previously, thinking was an internal method of expression, while writing was done to remember (diary), write yourself a letter, or otherwise interact with the self—people often use writing to organize their thoughts or conduct their thinking.
Today’s diary utensils and coordination tools are precisely instruments of ideology. Their distinctive features are:
- More and more tools that can publish or share with a single key, throwing to the public domain or friend circle episodes of interaction.
- More and more tools rely on cloud storage where the data can be subject to examination, especially when authorities are involved.
- Writing is become a bigger part of the social internet, including self-writing platforms such as Twitter or WeChat Moments—this trend is intensified by the social conduct inherent in human nature.
What I want to say is: the type of reflective behavior that is internal personal expression, if it occurs on the internet, than it immediately becomes data, and can be subject to the same monitoring. For example, on WeChat there are dialogues, applets, and other public functions with recording capabilities; for instance, start a private circle and talk to yourself. It’ll just be more “data” in the cloud.
This is the major change of the new era: it has become easier for narrowly defined personal thoughts to be digitized and analyzed.
The second major change of the new era is, all social interactions and dialogues are now digitized. People have innate social needs, that we used to meet with face-to-face interaction—this type of conversation was difficult to record and easy to forget. But today, society is completely dependent on the internet, and all conversations, words, and symbols become saved data.
If you have more intimate relationships and real friendships, your social needs will be better satisfied. But, the internet is reducing intimacy and true friendship by pulling you into the screen, and as a further consequence, people are incessantly communicating online, incessantly speaking, incessantly expressing, and giving rise to enormous amounts of data—far more than we have computational power to process, which allows individuals engaging in “social expression” more adequate data to describe and be examined.
2) Next is all conduct.
Conduct is related to “information,” whose value in an “ideological review” is more clear cut. These are mainly information processing behaviors such as reading, liking, collecting, and so on. On one hand, these embody “thinking trends”; but on the other hand, ideas are not dehydrated, and these information behaviors are not directly “assimilated” into one’s ideology.
People think that if they just don’t speak they can avoid everything, but in reality, there is nowhere to hide. Those who you follow on Weibo or on WeChat, the books you buy… They all give additional information on your way of “thinking,” and moreover provide clear data which can be further analyzed.
This data and calculations aren’t difficult in theory, especially if each person or public account is the “information origin” and is the “idea source” that is given a “reactionary” rating. If you contact a “reactionary” idea your will quickly see a police cordon, and the thought police will invite you for a talk, in the same was as if you bought illegal material on Taobao.
Another thing is that your behavior becomes data that can be recorded. Your consumption record, for example. We are digitizing everything into behavioral data, from the count on your morning run, to your heart rate, to your body weight, to your travel record, and your consumption… This provides a great amount of “clues”. We will continue to cooperate with identification cards and surveillance cameras until there are HD cameras and visual AI everywhere, and people can be more sharply reduced and monitored.
So, what is thinking? Thinking is data—symbolic data, behavioral data—existing in a database in the cloud, structured, algorithmically analyzed, and fulling capable of supplying an API.
China is becoming an artificial intelligence superpower, investing huge sums, huge volumes of data, concentrated manpower, enormous talent, government policy support and advocacy to accelerate the development of “artificial intelligence.”
Authorities can directly enter the cloud, enter giant internet companies, and make demands on smaller and medium sized enterprises. In this way, the algorithmic evolution needed for examination is evolving faster than ever imagined—everyone’s algorithm can be exchanged based on the central needs of authorities, mutually studied, and a huge number of companies and talented individuals can actively participate in obtaining more “resources”.
Maximize data collection, minimize data storage costs, rapidly expand the development of intelligent algorithms, exceed computing capabilities. In this way, the “ideological examination of an entire country’s population” has become reality… Nobody has a place to run and hide.
This era is beautiful.
The only choices that remain are: there is only one “main thought,” otherwise abandon all other thinking. Of course, these choices are one and the same.
See also CDT’s recent translation of YouShanDaBu (游山打捕) expressing reservations about the rampant use of using online humor in response to current events, which he sees as having widely “jettisoned ‘resistance’” and descended into empty, hopeless cynicism.