I have only had one tech holiday since tech became a thing. It was an enforced tech holiday. In China. A state-sanctioned hiatus from the mindless scrolling activities I find myself involved in, given all this free access to the interwebs we have here at home. Apart from the times I borrowed a VPN, I could not get onto the internet in any real way. For three whole days. And let me tell you that despite the overwhelming sensation that I could be under observation anyway – given the particular nature of the Chinese state – the lack of access to all the other stuff was a peculiar relief.
When I landed back in Joburg after those tech-free days, I took to the office with my laptop. Opened it up and discovered it was now all in Chinese. After laughing both hysterically and nervously at this turn of events, while smiling and waving pleasantly into the camera in case I was really under observation by the Chinese state, I realised I had probably inadvertently swapped laptops in the horrible morass of contemporary airport security with some hapless Chinese person. I imagined this selfsame scene unfolding in some distant Chinese town, mirroring my bleak observations of the alien screensaver, and the halfhearted wave into the camera (just in case).
I immediately developed the plot line for some dystopian espionage novel – replete with international intrigue, spyware and a few gunfights – a natural response to this rather surprising turn of events, I think, and then forgot about it. Until this week when I listened to Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist for the UK’s Observer, explain to the “gods of Silicon Valley” (the Marks, Sheryls, Sergeis and Jacks of Facebook, Twitter and Google) that they had essentially killed democracy — during her TED Talk which has since gone viral. Her argument is cogent, convincing and deeply disturbing. It made my fantasy about my Chinese laptop look like amateur hour. We are living the dystopia and it is not a fantasy.
WATCH | Carole Cadwalladr's TED Talk: Facebook's role in Brexit — and the threat to democracy:
It did not help that without any prompting on my part Pinterest started feeding me pictures of puppies and puppy rearing information – because this week I adopted... you guessed it – a puppy! It was bizarre! I had googled the breed and now this entirely separate and discrete app was feeding me relevant information. Is Pinterest owned by Google? I still don’t know. Or is my phone listening to me? I mean, I know it’s listening to me, but this was totally weird. But eerily helpful, I won’t lie. Puppy poop is not a look.
Here, I was worrying about Chinese authoritarian tendencies when I have willingly and mindlessly handed over my entire person to a bunch of companies with absolutely no care about me. (Apart from the helpful puppy poop advice, that is). At least with a state there is a semblance of reciprocity in our relationship. Even in China! It is hard to reconcile with the fact that I am complicit in this situation.
I helpfully update my personal information daily for them, so that they can understand me better and make more money off me. I am now and have been working for “surveillance capitalism” – a term economist Shoshana Zuboff has coined to explain this terrifying moment: a nightmare scenario any way you look at it. I am googling ways to escape right now. Perhaps to China.