The Digital Cold War: A Battle to Rule the Universe and Establish Data Dictatorships
In the Cold War countries developed nukes but never used them. In the Digital Cold War, though, AI will be used all the time.
In simple words, the Cold War was a battle between capitalism and communism. It was a battle for the fight of the next global system that would get established in the next century — which turned out to be capitalism.
Today we’re seeing the emergence of a new Cold War. And just like every war, this one is about control. It’s about using whatever means necessary in order to obtain that control. Being above others and ruling the world. But this new war is going one step further, because it’s taking advantage of the flaws of the system (maybe it’s not a bug, but a feature) and they’re making it work for them. This war is about a new form of colonialism in the 21st century: data colonialism.
China and the US are ahead in this battle. They’re leading the pack. But let’s not fool ourselves thinking that this is just about two countries. Because we’re all in this war — whether we want it or not. And this war, just like the Cold War, has global consequences. Consequences that last generations.
We might be under the illusion that today’s war is a fight between liberal democracy and data dictatorships. But the difference today is that this battle is not between these two models — this is a battle between a data dictatorship (China) versus another data dictatorship (USA) — liberal democracy’s players like Europe or the United Nations are not even in this battle, because they don’t have the right tools. They’re just not investing in them. And yes, I’m referring to the AI arms race.
The Cold War had its consequences. In fact, we’re still living the sequels. But the interesting thing to notice here is how the use of technology in the Cold War was different than it is in the Digital Cold War. In the Cold War countries developed nukes but never used them. In the Digital Cold War, though, AI will be used all the time.
Welcome to the Digital Cold War.
The Cold War And Its Sequels
When we think about the Cold War we do it by picturing Russia fighting against the US — or vice versa. But the truth is that it was a war with a global impact — it wasn’t a game of two. Yes, there were just two main characters in this plot, but there were a lot of secondary characters that took part in this story.
We all know what happened during the Cold War. But not everybody knows how it happened and the consequences that came out of it. The truth is bitter. It was a period where there were a lot of vile acts of depravity, illegal wars and human rights violations that, somehow, just vanished over time—crimes that haven’t been prosecuted.
And what worries me is that today these atrocities could take place again, but on a whole different scale.
When the Soviet Union fell, and the end of the Cold War gave way to a globalized (capitalist) world, everyone predicted we were entering a new era of peace. An era where all of the conflicts and wars of the past had been replaced by global peace and economic integration. However, today we’re seeing the birth of another Cold War: the Digital Cold War. But today isn’t about Russia against the US. It’s about China and the US fighting each other to see who rules the world in the 21st century. They’re the puppet masters in a world where whoever has more control over society, wins.
They’re playing a game where the rest of the world are their puppets. While we, the puppets, think that we’re getting huge benefits in return — such as 5G technology or surveillance networks.
If we analyze the fabrics of this war and compare it with the Cold War, we can easily spot some similarities. Without getting into too many details, decades after the Cold War “ended”, today we’re living the consequences. We’re in the sequels — and these sequels last decades. So the question that immediately pops up is that considering that the scope of the battle between the US and China is way bigger than it was in the Cold War, what kind of wars are going to emerge out of this war?
In Afghanistan, the 1978 civil war was really a war between US and USSR forces. Everything began with a military coup spearheaded by the USSR, which aimed to establish a socialist Arabic republic. The US saw Afghanistan as an important geostrategic point in the middle east — and as a wall of contention against the spread of communism. So they financed a nationalist Islamic movement of warriors, the Mujahideen, who fought against soviet domination. These fighters financed and trained by the US would then evolve to be the US’s biggest enemy: Al Qaeda.
The point I’m trying to make is that the Cold War ended, officially, in 1989 and we still keep living the sequels. So if today the scope of the Digital Cold War is way bigger with an unimaginable reach, for how many decades are we going to suffer its sequels? Let’s remember that there’s no good side on this battle — just like it wasn’t in the Cold War. The US and Russia did things they shouldn’t have done. They fought wars they shouldn’t have fought, and still, in Washington people praise what they did in Vietnam.
Investing in the right tools is critical in order to have a shot at winning this war. Most nations are not even in this battle, because they don’t have the right tools. They’re just not investing in them. And today very few countries are investing, properly, in AI.
During the Cold War, the USSR didn’t win because they didn’t invest in the right technology and research. Their industry was highly focused on steel. Actually, the Soviets had a chance at keeping on playing the Cold War game, because they had the opportunity of a lifetime when some American spies leaked the atomic bomb secret documents to the Russians.
Nonetheless, here nuclear technology is just the tip of the iceberg — in order to understand why the Soviets lost the Cold War we need to know how they failed at their core. They didn’t have the right technology to build an efficient system to centralize the flows of data — centralized power. The Soviets were using a system where all the information had to go to one place (Moscow), and individuals on their own couldn’t make any decision — they had to report to Moscow. That, of course, made it impossible to have an efficient centralized system. The US, on the other hand, had a distributed system that was efficient for the technology at the time — you didn’t have to wait from someone in Washington to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. The market told you.
The Soviet model didn’t work because it was extremely hard to process so much information quickly. Today centralized data processing is far more efficient than distributed data processing. Because the more data you have in one place, the better algorithms are going to get. Today the Soviet model could’ve worked. In fact, right now totalitarianism has the best chance to work, which leaves democracies on the hook.
So, as players of liberal democracies, are we going to lose this battle because we’re not investing in the right tools? Or are we doomed right off the bat just because we’re not playing on our own terrain?
Today nor the US or China are doing things they should do. We just don’t see it yet, but we’re going to be the ones paying for those consequences. They’re forcing us to adopt a model that’s basically two sides of the same coin. We might end up living in an eternal state of totalitarianism just because these countries want to rule the entire world.
The main hub.
Once we’ve gotten to this point it’s important to remark that there’s a big difference between the Cold War and the Digital Cold War.
Leaving aside all the virulent wars and terrible crimes, the big difference is that the use of the technology in the Cold War was different than it is in the Digital Cold War. And when I say technology, I’m referring to nuclear technology and AI. The difference is that countries developed nukes but never used them. On the other hand, AI will be used all the time. In fact, AI is being used all the time.
I’m well aware of all the benefits of AI technology. But whenever we talk about its dangers, AI experts try to close the debate by pointing out all the benefits of this amazing technology, but ignore the long tail of problems that come with it.
AI experts say that the information is out there, so everybody’s got a chance to work on AI… Seriously? Information is not out there. Do you really believe that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu or Tencent will share their knowledge in the open? And yes, I know there are some initiatives like OpenAI, but that’s not nearly enough if we’re comparing apples with apples.
In the Cold War, do you really believe that countries shared their discoveries in the open?
Let’s not be naïve about that.
What I’m saying is that because most of the discussion around AI follows the excuse of “the information is out there, everybody’s got a shot at this”, we’re totally missing the point. But let’s say that somehow that’s true. Let’s say that the information is out there. Even if that happens, you still need the data and infrastructure to make it work.
You need billions of data points in order to make it work. Because volume matters when it comes to AI — and right now there are only two countries (the US, and China way ahead) that are collecting the necessary amount of data.
And here’s where we need to talk about imperialism and the main hubs.
This is why, if countries decide (or are forced) to join a main hub, they will feed that system by renting their services. It’s going to be like a third country producing something in Vietnam and then selling the final product to the Vietnamese. This will make entire economies and political systems collapse.
We’re seeing a new form of colonialism. And the thing here is that even though this battle is between the US and China, it might not be in the pure sense of one country against the other — it could be a battle between corporations. Of course, it’s getting difficult to spot the difference between governments and private corporations, but it’s something we should keep in mind.
This is a battle about control. And the way to obtain more control in the 21st century is through massive data extraction (of all sorts) — gathering data is the key. And I just don’t mean digital data, but also biometric data and stuff from the offline world.
This is a technological battle. But of course most countries can’t develop the necessary technology, so they’re left with two choices: (1) Join one of the main hubs (China or the US or whoever that takes the lead); or (2) Regulate. Any third option would end up in a pretty f*cked up scenario — even our second choice is a complicated one.
So you can join them or regulate them. There’s no middle ground. And the thing is that this isn’t a future utopia. We’re starting to see early examples of this battle right now.
5G and facial recognition technology.
Right now we’re seeing two clear examples of how this system is going to work.
We’re witnessing one of the first proofs of countries joining the main hub: access to facial recognition databases and 5G infrastructures.
Basically, the Chinese are doing what Americans did in the Cold War: selling very cheap and good technology. But this time the roles have shifted. The Chinese are way ahead, technologically speaking, so countries are starting to adopt their technology — not American technology . Particularly 5G infrastructures and surveillance networks.
There are a lot of countries outsourcing their surveillance systems to Chinese companies. But one of my favorite examples (at the time of this writing) is how the UK is adopting Chinese tech. On one hand, they’re adopting cameras linked to the Chinese government through a company called Hikvision — that, of course, has stirred some alarms in the UK parliament. And on the other hand, there’s a big dispute over whether or not the UK should adopt 5G technology from Huawei.
The interesting thing here is to notice that we’re not just talking about CCTV cameras. We’re talking about a powerful centralized database of faces. That’s what they’re selling. In fact, if you go through Hikvision’s marketing materials, you’ll see how they’re offering software to “enhance safety”.
The fact of the matter is that the Chinese regime owns 40% of Hikvision (as of June 2018). That rings a bell. In fact, the Chinese company helped the authoritarian Communist Party regime of China develop a surveillance network named Skynet (just like in The Terminator movie). They’ve focused, heavily, on the Xinjiang region where the Chinese government is violently persecuting the Uighrs ethnicity, a Muslim minority, under the excuse of “countering terrorism”.
Judge for yourself. This is how the system Skynet works — they can locate anyone in under 7 minutes(!):
But this isn’t just about a database of faces. It goes further. Xinjiang authorities conduct, on a regular basis, a mass collection of biometric data so they can profile and track everyone in the Chinese region.
As Human Rights Watch said in a 2018 report:
Perhaps the most innovative — and disturbing — of the repressive measures in Xinjiang is the government’s use of high-tech mass surveillance systems. Xinjiang authorities conduct compulsory mass collection of biometric data, such as voice samples and DNA, and use artificial intelligence and big data to identify, profile, and track everyone in Xinjiang. The authorities have envisioned these systems as a series of “filters,” picking out people with certain behavior or characteristics that they believe indicate a threat to the Communist Party’s rule in Xinjiang. These systems have also enabled authorities to implement fine-grained control, subjecting people to differentiated restrictions depending on their perceived levels of “trustworthiness.”
I believe China is going to win the AI arms race. They’re just way ahead of the US and way way ahead of everyone else. As a matter of fact, with each deal they close they’re able to gather more data — and data is the fuel that feeds their system.
The US is, of course, envious of China because they want to do the same thing. But they can’t, because they can’t violate our privacy at the same pace China is doing (even though they’re pushing the envelope too far as well). So what do they do? Threaten European countries to not adopt Chinese technology.
It’s not coincidence that the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, went to the Munich Security Conference to “threaten” European countries to not buy Chinese technology —particularly Huawei.
The game has just started. And it’s starting with CCTV networks, but then it continues with 5G — and then it will continue with healthcare and everything that makes the main hub more powerful and, at the same time, offers “benefits” to their colonies. Maybe it will continue with some sort of brain interface network that uploads our thoughts directly to a main hub.
The thing is, all the countries who decide to join to a main hub will feed their system, and that will make them stronger.
And what happens if a country can’t afford to buy Chinese (or US) technology? The main hub will finance it. It’s in their best interest to do so. Just consider how China is financing Ecuador’s surveillance state.
What’s happening here is that there are a lot of people in power that govern like autocrats. And what they’ve realized is that technology can make their lives much easier.
Here’s the punchline: Want a surveillance network? Want 5G? Want [fill-in-the-blank]? Join the main hub or GTFO.
The game we’re all playing.
We’re seeing the truth in a platter, yet we can’t help ourselves but do nothing about it.
We’re still seeing the consequences of the Cold War. Because that’s what happens once you establish a model — you get what you asked for. And no model is perfect. Every model has flaws. Sometimes those flaws go against our best interests.
Right now we’re kind-of living the capitalist utopia. And when you follow that utopia to its extreme, then you get a company like Boeing which just wanted to increase their profits at all costs. And when you go to that extreme a plane crashes and people die — but hey, this is just about numbers, right?
They were just following the rules of the game.
Let’s not forget, not even for a second, that we’re all part of this game. It doesn’t matter whether we avoid their seductive tools. Yes, we can cut the strings from the puppet master, but still, we suffer the consequences.
You don’t need to be on Facebook to suffer its consequences. You just needed to be a Muslim on Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15th of 2019. Or belong to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. The sequels are real. This is not a game.
At this point I ask myself, what are the rules of this new game we’re playing?
So, coming back to the sequels of the Cold War: If we’re still suffering the terrible consequences from the Cold War, like Al Qaeda, ISIS and a string of failed states across the world that are the symptoms of US and USSR coups and interventionism — what will be the consequences we’ll live in the future with the Digital Cold War? Are these consequences going to be greater in scope because of its precision?
I can’t get my head around this. Back in the 1960s there was, clearly, a lack of information. Yet, people decided to occupy the streets of Washington and speak up. Because the Vietnam war was wrong.
When I went to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I visited the War Museum. I went through the tunnels where Vietnamese spent years living underground in a hole that wasn’t more than a foot tall. And I was terribly shocked at the massacre the US did in that country.
I’m picking on the US because I only visited Vietnam. But I can also pick on Russia. Because this is what happens when you force developing countries to adopt a model to rule the world. Russia was pushing the communist model in Vietnam and the US didn’t want that. So, what did they do? They sprayed the Vietnamese population with chemicals.
I’ve also seen the sequels of USA’s actions when they prompted coups throughout Latin America. I’ve seen really poor areas. Areas with lots of natural resources that could be rich, but once were corrupted and now live the consequences of someone else’s actions. People, like you and me, are the ones who suffer from these consequences — ones more than others. So it’s mind-blowing the fact that we’re seeing this happening, yet we decide to do nothing about it.
In the 1960s they had way less information than we have right now. They had way more restrictions than we have right now. Yet, people occupied the streets.
Right now we’re living in the longest period of peace in the history of the world. Maybe we’re just too comfortable. And maybe we’re going to lose it all for being lazy and screwing around with our freedom — something that took our ancestors real blood to gain.
“The true function of demonstrations is not to convince the existing state authority to any significant degree. Such an aim is only a convenient rationalization.
“The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness.”
— John Berger
We need a revolution. We need to occupy the streets.
Or they’re going to occupy us. Our minds.
What the f*ck are we thinking about?