China Syndrome

Like many geeks who came of age in the 1990s, I've internalized the ethics of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's why, more than a decade after Captain Picard issued his last command to "engage" on UPN, concerns about tech companies collaborating with the Chinese government make me think about the Prime Directive.

Also known as Starfleet's General Order No. 1, the Prime Directive is the heart of morality in the Star Trek universe. It states simply that Federation representatives should not interfere with the development of other societies. Often this is interpreted to mean not giving sophisticated technology to "primitive" groups who can't handle it wisely.

This idea of "developing societies" -- so popular on Earth today -- suggests that all cultures are on the same path but some are just "behind." As a result, we've been treated to some embarrassing, paternalistic scenes that, at their worst, are rat holes of Jar Jar-ism, the sci-fi-inflected style of racism in which aliens stand in for human racial groups and are stereotyped accordingly.

Of course, the Prime Directive has its utopian side too. It prevents Federation ideologues from imposing their culture on alien species who may not want to fly around the universe in a box full of people who love hierarchy, repress their feelings, and always follow orders.

It's not surprising that the United States is currently struggling with similar principles, in the context of technology-sharing with China. The Star Trek universe has always been a fantasy projection of the United States universe -- sort of like The West Wing in space. And for most U.S. citizens, China is a nation whose inhabitants and cultures are as incomprehensible as those on the planet Vulcan. What most of us know about China is what we see on Google, or read in the New York Times. In fact, the Times just published an interesting story by Joseph Kahn about searching on "Tiananmen Square" via Google China versus Google U.S. The top five images U.S. visitors get are of tanks bearing down on protesting students. In China, the top five images are of regional landmarks and Chinese people visiting them. The point of Kahn's story is simple: Look, the Chinese government is suppressing political history. True enough, but the U.S. Google search is suppressing everything but one event in the long history of Tiananmen Square, whose towers date back to 1417.

Try Googling "Washington Mall," a site of many violent U.S. protests. Of the 20 top images, 19 are tourist shots. That's because U.S. residents view the Washington Mall as more than a place where Vietnam protesters were teargassed. It's also a tourist destination with a long political and cultural history.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not condoning censorship, nor am I questioning whether censorship is happening in China. Google has admitted that the Chinese government is suppressing images and search results, and Cisco has confessed to helping the Chinese build their "great firewall," a vast internet surveillance and censorship machine. But is the United States in any position to condemn Google and Cisco (along with other colluding companies like Yahoo!), given that it has asked companies like these to spy on U.S. citizens -- often in flagrant violation of the law? Congress and the media have been casting the debate over China in terms of the Prime Directive: Should we give this alien culture a technology they may not be wise enough to use? It's a comforting strategy, allowing the United States to think of itself as morally and technologically superior, while China is in the role of a "less developed" alien group who might misuse our transporters and replicators.

But China is not a bunch of "primitive" aliens -- it's the technological and moral equal of the United States. It was, after all, a Chinese cryptographer who found the first soft spots in the armor of SHA-1, an allegedly unbreakable cryptographic tool developed by the NSA. And you want to talk morals? The U.S. government has done everything it is currently accusing the Chinese government of doing, using the same technology from the same companies. It's time to stop watching Star Trek and get real. High-tech companies should absolutely be bargaining with China over human rights -- asking for less censorship in exchange for more goodies -- but they should be striking the same bargains with the U.S. government.

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