A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

The Dangers of Herd Life


In the digital age, ideas of human nature posited by the European Enlightenment are confronted with a Chinese model in which the state uses data-driven conditioning. This alternative model is gaining ground globally.

© REUTERS/Umit Bektas

1. At its core, systemic competition with China consists of rival visions of human nature. The European ideal of the autonomous individual, responsible for its own actions, has come under severe threat by digitally-driven behavioral conditioning. However, from a Chinese point of view, the Enlightenment view of human nature is a transient historical phenomenon, a luxury that only a few wealthy societies can afford.

In our epoch of interactive digital media, gamification and artificial intelligence, the autonomous individual—capable of thinking, deciding and acting for itself—has been increasingly called into question. That individualistic figure had underpinned the Enlightenment’s optimistic vision of human nature. But today, vast quantities of data amassed by digital platforms and the gaming and advertising industries have proven the extent to which human desires and preferences can in fact be exploited and manipulated, as well as analyzed for their supra-individual properties. It is also increasingly clear how easily most “netizens” can be influenced by the targeted manipulation of information and human emotions. Networks of influencers and followers—in other words, digital thought leaders and acolytes—are by now a powerful vehicle to steer collective mimetic behavior.

To use a rather pointed metaphor: the ecosystems of interactive apps are a playground for modern herd behavior among humans. This herd behavior can be observed in the imitation of prefabricated lifestyles, fashions and looks, but it also extends to individual positions taken on divisive, in-or-out questions, and to forms of collective online denunciation, aggression, and hatred. What confronts us in social media, the gaming industry, and digital advertising are not images of self-aware, mature individuals. We are witnesses to a pandemic of herd behavior.

In a vast number of experimental studies, neuroscience and behavioral economics have demonstrated that herd and mimetic behavior remains a determining element of human nature, notwithstanding the great efforts made by state and society toward individual education, freedom of decision, and self-responsibility. The reestablishment of authoritarian and totalitarian modes of social order has its basis in collective needs for security and order and in herd behavior that is prompted by sheer terror or mass fear. In this way, the digital proliferation of herd behavior benefits the social engineering of the Chinese Communist Party, which it is now deploying with ever greater confidence and championing elsewhere in the world.

2. The CCP’s design for social order is based on a vision of human nature compatible with both Leninist principles and the digital age. Human beings are understood as herd creatures requiring guidance and steering. Under the guidance of a wise, strong Great Herdsman, the herd can be formed into a placid, productive, and technologically innovative society, but only as long as it is protected by vigilant herding dogs and has its agility maintained by loyal junior herdsmen.

China’s communist revolutionaries and the founders of the People’s Republic always rejected Western individualism as a bourgeois smokescreen; they thought close control of the “masses” by a political avantgarde to be essential. However, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping never had access to the digital technologies of power that Xi Jinping relies on today. China’s model for digital civilization consists of an agile hierarchical order, deploying targeted, seamless digital control technologies in order to steer a conflict-prone mass society down well-defined political paths. As it currently stands, this Chinese model offers a worryingly productive combination of political and commercial conditioning with economic and technological agility. This sort of social order appears particularly compatible with the possibilities inherent to our emerging digital civilization. It can potentially serve as an example for other governments and societies also in search of political stability and economic prosperity.

3. Platform corporations like Alibaba or Tencent and innovation champions like Huawei function as authorized “junior herdsmen.” Under close observation by central political authorities, they must pass on unlimited quantities of data to state bodies for evaluation and control.

The metaphor of herd behavior also applies to other specificities of the Chinese context. The system of herd control, which China quite deliberately brought into being, is led by wise herdsmen: the party leader and the central governing ranks of the CCP. For controlling the herd, the central authorities rely on a division of labor between “junior herdsmen” and “herding dogs.” This is necessary since herd society requires carefully-supported pioneers and role models, who for their part remain agile and innovative. Individual pioneering acts of innovation, in particular in the economy, technology, and science, are publicized in so far as they are socially and politically useful within officially-established parameters. In this context, popular online idols created by the system serve to popularize overarching regime goals, including unquestioned nationalism and unconstrained enthusiasm for technology.

From the perspective central authorities, China’s pioneers should on no account be independent, freewheeling thinkers. Instead, they should desire to emerge from the herd, ascending to high-ranking positions in the official order, while never calling political hierarchies into question. Status and rank within the herd are acceptable values; individual power or even political freedom are not. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and a model member of the Communist Party, exemplifies this behavioral pattern: a loyal idol for the digital age.

All of this takes place under the watchful eyes of powerful herding dogs (cyber-administrations at every governmental level, digitally-upgraded state security bodies, state-run cloud operating companies, etc.). When in doubt, the authorities will bite quickly and hard to enforce subordination and discipline. The overall guardians are under instruction to allow considerable freedom of action to junior herdsmen who function as pioneers. The search for new grazing grounds (markets) and new nutritional sources (raw materials, products, business models) is of paramount importance to the highest-ranking herders to make the herd system prosper and expand.

4. The Chinese state, well-equipped with digital technologies, is becoming an agile conditioning apparatus impacting both society and the economy.

The Communist Party has powerful instruments at its disposal: AI-based facial, voice and gait recognition and analytic cameras in public spaces, as well as the ubiquitous smartphone, providing a constant supply of data on individual mobility, communications, and transactions. In part, this can be seen as a matter of surveillance and of early recognition of actual or presumed aberrant behavior. This entails an ongoing analysis of the unending data streams produced by all human interactions. On this basis, individual and collective behavior is regulated. Incentives and sanctions are used to shift overall behavior in the desired direction. All individuals and all legal entities, including official bodies, generate permanently updated data sets, which can in turn be used to evaluate and regulate their conduct. Political, social, and economic trustworthiness is no longer generated through human interaction or formal laws and contracts. Rather it emerges from the data streams and evaluations of trustworthiness apps—in other words through state-organized “social scoring.”

“Big Brother” or “Sauron’s Eye” are inadequate metaphors for this system of control. China’s rulers are aiming to have people internalize the system to such a degree that they no longer even perceive how much the Party controls them. Thereafter, inner resistance will no longer exist. External regulation and control at a distance are meant to become a self-evident and accepted part of life. So if the planners in Beijing have their way, a self-operating surveillance system may come into being, eventually meaning almost no need for police. Breaches of the rules will be socially proscribed, with no active participation on the part of state authorities. Each and every person in society must conform and practice self-discipline, otherwise they lose their trustworthiness ranking and are automatically forced out of society. Used in China’s unconstrained way, digital technology allows for constantly intensifying and granular behavioral control not imposed by a superior authority, but rather anchored and executed within the social fabric.

5. AI is a perfect instrument in the hands of a communist party.

Artificial Intelligence offers the possibility of centralized analysis of huge quantities of data, allowing the recognition of patterns and deviations, and systems of centralized regulation, all without active human participation. The particular strength of AI consists of producing optimized regulatory results for the largest possible population—in other words, it can overcome the chaotic, self-seeking individual pursuit of happiness. These ambitions have been among the central goals of communist revolutionaries since the early 20th century. This is why the IT investor Peter Thiel has accurately characterized AI as “communist.”

But after an initial phase of testing and optimization, AI will also be able to function without the deficient human organization of a communist party. For this reason, China can arrange to have its model of social order installed in other countries and societies without having first to develop a local party-state machine. In its enhanced, 21st-century form, AI will reconstitute the communist agenda of a collectivized, conflict-free society, a vision that was an utter failure during the 20th century. Moreover, it will do so much more effectively than any authoritarian party-state, past or present. Thanks to AI, the original vision of early 20th-century communist revolutionaries will at last come within reach: centralized planning, control, and programming of economy and society, aimed at overcoming all social defects and conflicts, both contemporary and historical.

6. The Chinese panopticon currently emerging arose as the realization of a Leninist dream: at any time, anyone can be observed by the central authorities. This will make possible the formation of a “New Human Being.”
Jeremy Bentham first described the idea of the “panopticon,” a method for enabling the perfect surveillance of large numbers of people by a single overseer. In the industrial age, as a result of cumbersome, large organizations, mass deviance from the norm, and many observational blind spots, this vision could never be consistently realized. However, the fusion of new digital technologies with the more traditional control instruments of Communist Party rule is preparing the way for a substantially more effective Digital Leninism that is currently taking shape in China. In the Chinese system of surveillance and conditioning, the individual cannot know with certainty whether he is actually under observation. But he knows that he is visible at all times, always observable: he thus will have to adapt his behavior in a kind of preemptive obedience.

Behind the ambitions of the Chinese social credit system, we can discern the idea of the “New Human Being”: the dream of a civilization in which human behavior is changed to such an extent that it becomes a lasting collective form, entirely compatible with the broader aims of those in charge. The new trustworthiness system—unlike traditional power instruments like mass mobilization and state terror —is being sold to the Chinese people as technological progress, purported to make the individual’s life easier, safer, and more transparent. In fact, the new developments have been hailed by many, who wish to use, for example, a scoring app to find out whether the person they are meeting or the delivery company they are contracting is worthy of trust. In this assessment, however, one’s own judgment plays no further role. The grounds for evaluation now consist of ostensibly objective data profiles.

7. If we do not oppose the penetration of digital manipulation of preferences and behaviors more effectively than hitherto, time will bring the essence of Chinese developments to our own society: a politically and commercially fabricated and regulated herd organization.

With the pandemic of herd behavior in the digital age, the Chinese government’s vision of human nature has concrete potential to gain ground in many other societies. Systemic competition between China and the West—which first played out mainly in economic and technological realms—is now escalating in politics and ideology. That particular conflict focuses on fundamentally differing conceptions of human nature.
If, in the medium term, China turns out to be the superior economic and technological system, with China’s economy possibly double the size of the United States by 2050, it will have undoubted global consequences for 21st-century governance. Chinese views of society and economy as a herd order in need of surveillance and regulation may prove victorious around the world. And China will reveal itself to be the political and economic system that can make use of the whole range of possibilities within digital civilization the most effectively.

For these reasons, systemic competition with China turns on questions that are even more fundamental than political institutions, technological competition, and security threats. It is a question of the roles and rights of human beings in a future society. China is offering an alternative form of social order, aiming at omnipresent digital conditioning and granular behavioral control. This stands in radical contradiction to the vision of human nature dominant in liberal democracies and market economies.
However, the Chinese conception of ordering human beings, society, markets, and government is gaining attractiveness in many developing countries and emerging markets. China can promise comprehensive technological solutions for politically unstable, economically less productive and conflict-ridden societies, in particular in order to reorganize the wildly proliferating metropolitan areas, now often housing more than 15 million people. The tried and tested systemic solutions that China offers for managing megacities can address infrastructure, living conditions, mobility, energy, environment, and security. Chinese surveillance techniques for public spaces and for online communication have already been deployed in at least 18 separate countries.

Europeans criminally underestimate the strength of demand in many countries for Chinese “smart city” models, including infrastructure and security technology. We cannot rule out in advance that the Chinese-designed systems of authority may allow for peace, wellbeing, and even environmental sustainability in an increasingly densely populated and conflict-prone planet. But if current Chinese conceptions and practices of social engineering come to proliferate globally, the ideas of human freedom and self-determination will head for their digital demise.

8. What can freedom-loving societies do to counter the global advance of Chinese-style digital social engineering?

If we Europeans want to defend what we have struggled to achieve over centuries—individual freedom and choice—the digital transformation will prove an obstacle in many areas of life. European data protection regulations are an expression of this conflict. China’s social scoring system and surveillance state offer a counter-model. Even in China, it is not at all certain that social and political conformity can be implemented without resistance, as suggested by Chinese planners. The large-scale technical systems on which Digital Leninism is based are highly vulnerable. And the social reactions to omnipresent surveillance systems and behavior control will likely become manifest only when systems extend over all areas of life and offer no escape, not even within the most mundane scenes of daily life.
But it would be irresponsible to rely on a stumble, even a collapse, of the Chinese system. In the past, the CCP has repeatedly startled us with its capacity for learning and adaptation. For this reason, we cannot pin our hopes on a Chinese collapse. Rather, what we need to work hard at is a purposive and consistent separation between European and Chinese models of digital control in spite of possible economic costs and political conflicts in relations with China. The discussion on the role of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment supplier, in the development of European 5G networks is only the beginning. Subsequently, we must address the worldwide communications, transactions, and data analysis that are enabled in particular by Tencent’s app “WeChat” and Alibaba’s e-commerce empire. Alibaba and Tencent are dominant ecosystems, not only within China itself, but also for the million-strong Chinese diaspora who all send enormous quantities of data to state-controlled server systems in China.

The fight, however, must not only be fought against manipulative uses of data coming from abroad. On the domestic front, we need to take on the predominantly US-based platform enterprises and targeted data services that have come to dominate the markets. Europe can only achieve its much invoked “digital sovereignty” if it prevents unacceptable practices of data collection and behavior manipulation by suppliers inside and outside Europe. Perhaps most importantly, as a precondition to even think about “digital sovereignty,” Europe needs to nourish the emergence of digital business models for its large domestic market that offers competitive services without destroying free societies.

The decisive question is whether European people, societies, and political institutions can find the strength to at least defend and preserve the core areas of freedom of decision in the manipulative world of digital platforms. Many concrete practical measures are on offer and are ready for implementation. Parts of European society and official regulators are pushing back hard against behavioral conditioning and herd behavior. Because why would any rational person want to be reduced to the human equivalent of sheep, lemmings, or even insects?