China-US tech competition: J.D.Vance

Author J.D. Vance – yes, of Hillbilly Elegy fame – made a comment in an interview that neatly laid out the issue with China and technology, one that has ramifications for Australia.

J.D. Vance (CC City Club of Cleveland)

“One of the really worrying things that I think about from a macro perspective is, if you invest in a real technology enterprise, one of the things you have to be worried about is that, when that company hopefully goes global and scales, it may have the very thing that makes it a good investment just stolen by the Chinese.”

“And in that world where we’re worried about investing in real technology companies because we’re terrified that the Chinese are just going to steal it, we’re not going to have as much technology innovation.”

“That means we’re not going to have as much productivity growth.”

“And ultimately, that means we’re not going to have as many people with good American jobs who are building and creating those new technologies. So I think that China is the threat.”

Vance, who works in venture capital, hits on a point that really illuminates the nature of long term techno-competition with China. As it stands China’s technology policy can dissuade companies and investors from expanding into new areas or moving up the food-chain of innovation. Why do it, if it’s just going to be stolen by China?

One feature of the Cold War was the considerable ignorance of the rival bloc’s technology. Today, the arc of China’s modern rise is to use the internet to hack and download things that aren’t available through the open market or through forced-technology transfers. So the technology a Western company makes is likely to be stolen and sold right back to Western countries – partially or in full.

Of course, this effect alone doesn’t account for the lull in innovation the US and West has experienced. There has also been a laziness and lack of adventure, not to mention the effects of the seductive lure of free trade ideology in recent decades. But one of those effects in a globalized, free-trade market, is what Vance describes so well.

The US is just waking up from this. Joe Biden, while recently espousing industrial policy, observed that “we’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years than we saw in the last 50.”

The comment from Vance points to the long-term landscape of competition between free democracies and China. How do you plan and invest if at any time, you’re precious IP is swiped and copied? Western inventions, governments and investors must prepare for innovation in a world, where this thievery is the new normal. How can they be successful?

For Australia, the more it diversifies its economy away from commodities and education and into technology, the more this problem will emerge. In fact, the higher the food chain of tech development Australia’s goes, the more it will come into conflict with China’s privateering industrial policy.

Mark Zuckerberg like James Halliday from Ready Player One – and that’s the problem

The film Ready Player One portrays a future when the real-world is so unpalatable, people prefer to live in a virtual reality created by the late, all-powerful founder James Halliday.

The story, set in 2045, came to mind while watching Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testify before US Congress on Wednesday.

Who controls what you see? (Image: Pixabay)

As Senators asked questions about what exactly this platform – which gave Russia access to American hearts and minds – was doing to the country, Zuckerberg kept referencing the awesomely humble beginnings of the company.

Like in the film, questions of the platform’s merits were answered by the earnestness of the founder’s personality.

Swap Halliday for Zuckerberg and the concept of the inventor-god ruling over his subjects has eerie parallels. In the film and the real world, any political question is subsumed by the personal.

“I believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg assured. Facebook began in his dorm room at university, he said, a point he kept repeating.

The film is fun but the vision of one tech whiz lording over the imaginations of the masses is, from a political perspective, frightening and repulsive. It’s a world where users hand over their autonomy to a platform with no process for these people to come together and make their voices heard.

Ready Player One is just entertainment. But it’s telling that a depiction of a tech world is founded on such neo-feudalism.

Unfortunately, Facebook represents a kind of neo-feudalism built around Zuckerberg’s vision. And it appears to be running headlong into our shared reality, the one with rules, rights, and real-life consequences.

Read the rest here at The Age.

SXSW 2018: How the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West

I will be speaking about how the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West at the SXSW conference in Texas in March.

There is a lot to discuss.

The topic has many moving parts.

So please join me…

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The best offense is an existential defense

A new paper by Jolanta Darczewska and Piotr Żochowski, from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, offers some valuable insight into the mentality behind Russia’s active measures against the West.

'I blame society'
‘I blame society!’… or in Russia’s case, Western society (a scene from Repo Man)

One fundamental idea is that Russia is the victim of the West, which then gives Moscow the right to ‘defend’ itself by inherently subversive means.

As Darczewska and Żochowski write:

The narrative strategy imposed by Russia blurs the boundaries between war and peace, between the offensive and the defensive. A key ingredient of this strategy is shaping Russia’s image as the victim of the West’s cynical game, and enforcing the belief that this is a war between two sides. Meanwhile, the situation is actually inherently asymmetric: the aggressor is undertaking unilateral actions, while the party being attacked can only judge the scale of the devastation after the fact.

The paper, published in the Russian Analytical Digest, also makes an important point about the lack of fundamental ideology in Russian actions today (my emphasis added)…

Active measures were the subject of in-depth studies in the West during the Cold War. A cursory review of them leads to the conclusion that the contemporary repertoire is largely a continuation of the same ideas, although Russia has given up trying to change the world according to ideological preferences, which underpinned the conceptual Cold-War basis of its active measures in that period.

The doctrinal model justifying Russia’s present activity is similarly inflexible: it is based on a contrast between the worlds of Russia and the West, the basis for which is the civilisational distinctiveness of the ‘Russian world’, duly expanded to cover the ‘Eurasian world.’ The strategic narration based on this so-called geopolitical scientific conception, and the criteria of ‘truth’ deriving from it, is simplified, adapted to the specific nature of the target audience, and displays a diverse range of thematic and ideological concepts.

Moreover, this is a narrative free of the embarrassing burden of a system of values (which even today Russia has failed to create), and which in practice boils down to undermining the values of others. Geopolitics also determines the tone of the narrative, which is dominated by the rhetoric of confrontation. The United States and NATO have become a kind of ‘absolute enemy,’ which questions the role of Russia as a world power, abuses its trust and constantly humiliates it, shaping the global situation by means of ‘colour revolutions’.

The rivalry with the United States and NATO has become the most universal ‘argument’ of Russia’s domestic (the creation of an illusion of danger and of pervasive anti-Russian hysteria, or Russophobia) and foreign policy. Calling foreign values (such as the sovereign right of Georgia and Ukraine to determine their own paths of development and choice of alliances) into question presents this as an act of defence of Russia’s sovereignty, and as a mirror response to the cynical games of the West.

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