Algorithms of Revolution and Control in Pyongyang and Guangzhou

An American entrepreneur arrives at the doorstep of a system that clearly sees digitization as a tool of social control.  North Korea is, as one wise man howled from the back of a long socialist queue, “hell bent on controlling the market and its digital trappings.” So what is Eric Schmidt doing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Firewall? And is it really obligatory for us to cheer him on like a bunch of digital Jacobins, positing the man as a paladin, “a champion of connectivity in the world’s most reclusive nation”? Perhaps North Korea is just looking for alternatives to its uncompetitive contract with the Egyptian communications firm Orascom, or, as Barbara Demick mused, seeking something interesting for Kim Jong-un to do on his birthday. Or perhaps policy is the point after all: the North Koreans have long sought the stripping away of draconian South Korean restrictions on North Korean content, and Schmidt would surely lend a sympathetic ear to the broad digital front in this suppressive conflict.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese-language press, the arrival of Eric Schmidt in East Asia is to be discussed lightly, if at all: Chinese journalists and netizens haven’t been this inflamed with anti-censorship emotion since, well, before the advent of the internet. Evoked on the streets of Guangzhou yesterday were two Chinese democracy movements (in 1979 and 1989, and their many forerunners) that did things the old-fashioned way, taking actions which weren’t live-tweeted at all, but that bristled with poetry, the cry of speech and song, the crinkling of paper and the swishing of the ink brush. A revolutionary movement without social media? Awfully bruising to the Menlo Park ego and its electronic tethers. Perhaps, since meticulous public documentation of social circles is damn near obligatory in the civilized world, it is Schmidt who should be lobbying the North Koreans to pressure their Chinese “friends” (status: it’s complicated) to finally leave Google alone and allow foreign journalists and businesspersons in Beijing the same access to Twitter and Facebook as they have today from high-rise hotels (and a few embassies, but not the Chinese!) in Pyongyang.

And let us not fail to mention the hostage, Kenneth Bae, for whom digital storage might have been his undoing. Note to future American tourists: Leave all your digital booty at the hostel in Beijing, stick to a notebook for once, and call the Swedish Embassy in Seoul before you go. But this is a topic better left alone: the last time Bill Richardson brought a prisoner released from North Korea back home to the Puget Sound, the young man (who was once an Icarus of the water, a drunken Yalu-swimmer) ended up killing himself with a handgun in a hotel room in Tacoma, Washington. How sad that he did not have the joy of writing an Oprah-approved memoir about his arrest and detention experience along with a famous sister who once visited the evil country.  How tragic that Evan Hunziker ended his life in the pre-Facebook era. In other words, there is more agony here than entertainment, and even a deux ex machina may not pixel over the welts, the destruction that may never be documented.

from “Googling North Korea: Technocratic Boost or Humanitarian Boondoggle?,” SINO-NK, January 8, 2013, [URL].

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