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The Illusion of Freedom in the Digital Age

The biggest danger in the coming years is not that technology will put free and autocratic societies increasingly at odds with one another. It is that the dystopian visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley will become manifest in both types of system.

LONDON – Over the last few weeks, media around the world have been saturated with stories about how technology is destroying politics. In autocracies like China, the fear is of ultra-empowered Big Brother states, like that in George Orwell’s 1984. In democracies like the United States, the concern is that tech companies will continue to exacerbate political and social polarization by facilitating the spread of disinformation and creating ideological “filter bubbles,” leading to something resembling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

In fact, by bringing about a convergence between democracy and dictatorship, new technologies render both of these dystopian visions impossible. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to fear.

Much of the coverage of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) focused on President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. He is, observers warn, creating an information-age dictatorship, in which the technologies that were once expected to bring freedom to China’s 1.4 billion citizens have instead enabled him to entrench his own authority. By providing the government with highly detailed information on the needs, feelings, and aspirations of ordinary Chinese, the Internet allows China’s leaders to preempt discontent. In other words, they now use Big Data, rather than brute force, to ensure stability.

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