We all read Dr Seuss when we were younger. From ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ to ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ we took it all in enjoying the stories and internalising lessons about society and ourselves in the process.
The other day I read the article in the New York Times highlighting another aspect of censorship we’ve come to see as commonplace in China, and it made me think back to Seuss’s book ‘The Lorax”
When the age of social media came about years ago it was as if an entire area of woodland had been discovered, prime for capitalism’s “lumber industry,” and at a time when the monetization of the internet was still in its infancy. We each played the part as ‘The Once-ler,” growing businesses, gaining influence, and optimizing constantly based on how we harvested societies great woodland. Along the way smaller groups played the part of ‘The Lorax’ voicing concerns about how companies used data, putting control of the internet in the hands of a few large companies, even the ‘toxic nature’ of their existence, citing health effects of all manner web portals and their offshoots.
China, however, resisted. In an age of Facebook, they banned it — opting to give power to state-friendly channels such as Tencent and Weibo. They banned Google, giving power to Baidu who innovates in parallel with Google — yet resists the notion of paying for influence. Finally, they limited the ability for groups to swell dissent within the social ecosystem — by creating the same visible state control you see on the streets of China and embedding it into the ‘Great Firewall’ effort they now have in place. In Essence — They put a wall around their great woodland and slowly rolled out policy to create one true governmental ‘Once-ler’- pruning but not chopping.
This is in no way a tip of the cap to China’s moderation policies, or an endorsement of what they’ve done, but lets fastforward to today.
While the west is wrestling with big companies via regulation in the form of ‘right to be forgotten,’ ‘GDPR,’ ‘Russian meddling,’ and ‘troll farms,’ China is cherrypicking opportunities for big companies entry into their market by trickling opportunity to them. Apple has been forced to remove VPN’s from its appstore and has even gone so far as to move Chinese customers datastorage back to China. Google is bowing to China’s AI push by opening an AI lab on the Chinese mainland — and the universal truth for powers outside of china’s borders is they’ll have to ‘obey the Once-ler’ in order to access China’s ‘woodland’
As we sit in a post-election era with the social media landscape stripped bare by big companies harnessing every aspect of our data — We stare down the barrel of ‘chopping tree’s as usual’ instead of rethinking how we utilize resources in a mutually beneficial manner.
Am I the lorax? No. Is China’s ‘once-ler’ model the correct path? No. But should we rethink the ‘too big to be regulated’ model? To readdress who owns our data and how they use it? To reshape the way we build communities online? –Yes.
Technology is not slowing and the rise of autonomous technology, HealthTech, Wearable Tech, even new purchasing behaviours all warrant our rethinking how we allow big technology to rule all aspects of our lives.
So are we at that ‘final tree’ phase? Perhaps not– but how close are we?
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