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Under The Radar – 30 July

Stiven Sanchez on Unsplash

This week, we discuss:

  1. Whether Britain’s “tilt” to Asia will actually counter an assertive China

  2. Plans to transition Facebook from a social media company to a “metaverse” company

  3. Black Mirror-style surveillance being deployed in the UK

Should Britain sit this one out?

What happened?

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies on Tuesday, laying out the Biden administration’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region.

Following the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China Sea this week, Austin argued that Britain might be more helpful as an ally if it did not focus on Asia due to the UK’s “scarce” military resources. He concluded that Britain could be more useful closer to home and in other parts of the world.

What does it mean?

The UK government’s recent security and defence review unveiled a “tilt” to Asia. And the arrival of a new aircraft carrier to the hotly contested South China Sea was intended to send a message to the UK’s allies, as well as her adversaries, that post-Brexit Britain has the will and the resources to establish a presence in the region.

But now the UK has been undermined by its closest ally. Secretary Austin’s remarks in Singapore emphasised how Britain would simply be getting in the way whilst doing little to tilt the balance of power in the West’s favour.

Lloyd has a point – Britain’s modest fleet means that it does make more sense for the U.S. to go it alone. And more importantly, Lloyd has also perceived a more pressing threat to Britain in the North Sea and the English Channel, where the Royal Navy is having to monitor the activities of Russian ships more frequently.

With conflict in Ukraine likely to escalate after last month’s incident off the coast of Crimea, Russia must demand the full attention of the MoD.

It’s the end of the (real) world as we know it 

What happened?

Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to transition Facebook from a social media company to a “metaverse” company. In an interview with The Verge, he outlined several applications of the metaverse, including an “infinite office” that lets users create and experience their ideal workplace through virtual reality.

What does it mean?

First coined in the 1994 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, the term “metaverse” describes an online world where people communicate in a virtual environment, often using VR headsets. As Zuckerberg phrased it: “instead of just viewing content, you are in it.”

The metaverse’s advocates envision an enhanced reality, built up collaboratively by individuals who are liberated from the limitations of their own circumstances. Zuckerberg heralded the added opportunities it would bring to people who live in places where opportunities for education or recreation are more limited: “it’s the next best thing to a working teleportation device”.

But Zuckerberg’s cyberutopianism is at best naïve, and at worst extremely sinister. As a society, we’re barely able to get to grips with 2-D social media platforms – there is still no consensus on how they should be governed, how their content should be moderated, and what impact they have on our shared sense of reality. Navigating the 3-D version will be immeasurably harder.

And Zuckerberg failed to mention one of the biggest benefits that it would provide for his company: namely, access to an even more granular level of information about users’ habits. Facebook is already able to harvest information on what we choose to click and to share. In the metaverse, it will be able to record how and where we move, how long we look at certain things and how we react to certain stimuli. In other words, it’s a data capitalist’s dream.

Is a Black Mirror-style surveillance society becoming a reality?

What happened?

A recent report published by the campaign group Big Brother Watch has revealed that millions of British citizens are being profiled without their knowledge by “welfare-focused algorithms”.

What does it mean?

Some may argue that profiling for the purpose of identifying a person’s vulnerability to abuse, unemployment, or homelessness is a beneficial preventative measure. However, when surveillance becomes a prerequisite for universal credit and social housing, it’s clear that these methods disproportionately impact the poorest in society.

Whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have made us more aware of the everyday surveillance mass populations face. With the proliferation of technology in every facet of our lives, we are constantly being monitored and watched through our phones, home speakers, street cameras and public wifi networks.

But by extending these methods to social welfare, it increasingly resembles the Chinese social credit system – where deductions are made for ‘bad behaviour’, including debt and traffic violations, which results in the loss of certain privileges.

The Chinese model is designed to create incentives that are directly linked to behaviour, which supposedly results in a better civil society. In theory, it sounds well-meaning, but we must then ask the question of who safeguards populations from those doing the watching.

Despite the work done by whistleblowers to alert us to abuse of power and infringements on basic rights of privacy, apathy is allowing the surveillance state to cross more red lines. 

This Week’s Must Reads

  1. ‘Lebanon’s year from hell: a diary’ by Chloe Cornish for the Financial Times

  2. ‘Why is China smashing its tech industry?’ by Noah Smith for Noahpinion

  3. ‘Mapping the advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan’ by The Visual Journalism Team for BBC News

  4. ‘Man v food: is lab-grown meat really going to solve our nasty agriculture problem?’ by Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N Rosenberg for The Guardian

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