Culture in the time of global markets and the Internet

December 16, 2016

With the recent rise of populism and nationalism we increasingly experience a clash of cultures. This troubling development warrants a closer look at how culture is produced in the time of global markets and the Internet. The Internet has a strong value in itself, but it mainly intensifies an existing broader structure and historical development, which we need to take into consideration in the Internet governance debate.

UNESCO reminds us that cultural diversity and pluralism are the greatest achievement of our civilization. In our connected world, pluralism is the safeguard for cultural diversity. For us individuals, culture is existential. It provides identity, but without an open and reflective mind, cultural divergences also cause tension. 

Now, to understand why cultural diversity and pluralism are being at risk, let us first look at a particular culture, such as China’s, and highlight how culture has been produced within and outside China. 

Until recently, we were utterly surprised about China’s fast economic growth, because the dominant Western experience of capitalism presupposed that liberal values were required for capitalism to flourish. China did not plunge into “overnight democratization” and privatization, but still developed in an unprecedented way. To explain why a formerly socialist economy has become an even better manager of a capitalist one, China observers found answers in China’s traditional culture. Paradoxically, what once was perceived as backward and stagnant (i.e., China’s traditional culture) turned out to strike the biggest blow against Western values and principles since China’s reform and opining up.

Over the centuries, prominent Western philosophers have literally denounced Imperial China and made Confucianism – the dominant source of Chinese culture – primarily responsible for the country’s apparent “lack of progress, struggle, and reason,” which are the very cornerstones of Western enlightenment and modernization. It was argued that only the emperor and a few intellectuals were “free” and “self-conscious,” whereas the majority of people unreflectively obeyed cultural habits and the social hierarchy. Benevolence, or humaneness, which is a core virtue in Confucianism, lacked the “impulse of perfectibility” and instead made the moral demand that people should sustain a naturally occurring order. The written Chinese language was the ultimate manifestation of Imperial China’s stagnation. It apparently captured only the images of things, but it did not register the sound of the spoken word like the Western alphabet. Hence, Chinese characters were thought to insufficiently capture thoughts, making the language unsuitable for a proper philosophical and scientific discourse.

Now, bringing back to mind the speed of China’s modernization over the past four decades, it is needless to say that those past Western views of Chinese culture simply provided a reverse image of a dominant Western Self, seeking truth and even justifying Western imperialism and colonialism. Obviously, it never occurred to those prominent thinkers why China was capable of building an “agrarian empire” in the first place and why it was able to sustain a structural equilibrium in its economy for so long.

Today, we are primarily concerned with how China will continue to grow but in a sustainable way, how it will cope with the domestic disruptions of global markets, and contribute to geopolitical stability. The question is, what will be the moral or cultural basis for China’s actions? The answer reveals another twist in the perception of Chinese traditional culture and its ideological underpinning.

Modern China has a long history of negating its own cultural traditions for the sake of modernization. Chairman Mao’s goal was to “smash the four olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. The traditions were perceived as “anti-proletarian” and preventing change. Since the Cultural Revolution, Confucius had become a “wandering soul.”

Today, matters have reversed. The Chinese government is strongly promoting the teaching of Chinese classics and language not only within China, but also abroad. The new five-year plan has a dedicated section on culture work, promoting traditional Chinese culture. President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” is to reestablish China as a great world power, not only economically, but also culturally.

This recent turning back on Chinese traditional values serves a dual strategy and thereby reveals its ideological function. On the one hand, promoting the market economy over the past three to four decades and the rise of global markets have rendered socialist values meaningless. Traditional culture is supposed to fill that void and provide new meaning. On the other hand, promoting Chinese traditions counters the dominance of Western values that led to the rise of capitalism and prosperity in first instance, but also to our global imbalances. This strategy might help the government and the Communist Party to regain and strengthen its legitimacy.

To be fair, traditional Chinese virtues and moralities can be a viable source for justifying actions. What apparently prevented change in China’s imperial past is now supposed to help tame the excess of capitalism in the future. Benevolence teaches us how to restrain ourselves from selfishness and self-interest, material consumption, and higher social standing. If those virtues were violated in past, individual happiness and tranquillity were jeopardized and the social cohesion of society was in danger.

However, a key lesson about late capitalism is that it can adapt to any cultural values and principles and turn them into an ideology. The West, and the United States in particular, have practiced such a “soft culture power” approach for a long time. Domestically, Chinese traditions are certainly challenged by China’s own 200 million millennials. This young Chinese generation is the most individualized and Westernized one whose main concern is probably the “battery power of their smart phones.”

What is the role of the Internet

The Internet has an enormous capacity to facilitate human progress, and it has narrowed the cultural distance between us and the distant other. However, the Internet bears the risk of centralising information and manipulating our consciousness. As we are living on the brink on total digitalisation, this risk must be taken seriously.

Immanuel Kant called the fundamental process that allows us to develop our consciousness the “public use of reason.” Public means that we can reflect on and freely express our opinions without restriction – just like what we are doing here right now. The public sphere is necessary for developing and exchanging ideas, and constructing our cultural identities. By contrast, Kant’s “private use of reason” refers to individuals who are restricted from expressing their views because of their role.   

However, the development of our open, public consciousness is at risk. There is a separation between the free “public” use of the Internet and the increasingly “private” control of it. Such control and manipulation of our consciousness is achieved in two fundamental ways:

Firstly, through the technical, governmental, and commercial fragmentation of the Internet. If we are restricted only to a certain part of the Internet due to gatelands, censorship, filtering, blocking, geographic fencing, and other ways of limiting access such as business models that impede our abilities to freely create, distribute, and access information, then we are stifled and prevented from building our culturally rich identities – not just our online identities. Such fragmentation is not the result of the Internet, but of market forces and ideology – the power to sustain or alter our realities. 

Secondly, within those fragments the Internet becomes very efficient in controlling the public use of reason. For instances, social media robots automatically set up accounts, make friends, provide likes, and post and share information. These “social bots” have already strongly impacted the result of the recent U.S. presidential elections. It is estimated that more than four times as many tweets were made by social bots in favor of Donald Trump than by those supporting Hillary Clinton. This is not to say that Clinton was not supported by social bots either. Another example: in Germany, the public debate about the migration crisis has also been impacted by social bots, of which some were located even outside Germany and had an interest in supporting right-wing populism. The danger is that such automated information does not represent public opinion but primarily seeks to limit the public sphere of reason. To avoid misunderstanding, certain closedness is necessary to ensure privacy, security and stability.

In summary, the new global fault line is no longer between capitalism and socialism, but between openness and closedness. Openness is what brings progress, but capitalism tends to lead to closedness and the assimilation of new technologies, including those that originally promoted openness, such as the Internet.

We are on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Connectedness, big data, and artificial intelligence will help to automate our life and work, but they will also increasingly control our thoughts and beliefs. The existence of the UN’s Internet Government Forum demonstrates that fragmentation and manipulation are neither unexpected nor unprecedented, but the debate concerning network neutrality, cybersecurity, and the global public interest remains contested. To ensure openness and pluralism Internet governance policy must also take into account the very function of capitalism and ideology. Ideology can withhold progress and even undermine the newly emerging claim to openness.

On behalf of the Taihe Institute, this speech was presented at the United Nation’s Internet Governance Forum #IGF2016 during the session on China #OF23. Special thanks to the Cyberspace Administration of China and the Chinese Culture Institute of Internet Communication for hosting the session.



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