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February 22-28, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Directive China

By Annalee Newitz

LIKE MANY GEEKS who came of age in the 1990s, I have internalized the ethics of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's why, more than a decade after Capt. 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 idea is interpreted to mean that Starfleet shouldn't be giving sophisticated technology to "primitive" groups who cannot handle it wisely. (You know: Don't give lasers to guys with spears.)

This idea of "developing societies"—so popular on Earth today—suggests that all cultures are on the same path but that some are just "behind." As a result, we've been treated to several embarrassing, paternalistic moments in the Star Trek universe where the crew worries that tribal groups will think that they're gods if they reveal the Enterprise. At their worst, these moments are rat holes of JarJarism, 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 struggling with principles similar to those articulated in the Prime Directive right now in the context of sharing technology with China.

The Star Trek universe has always been a fantasy projection of the U.S. universe—sort of like The West Wing in space. For most U.S. citizens, who are encouraged to neither learn Chinese nor visit this vast country across the Pacific from us, 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 New York Times just published an interesting story by Joseph Kahn about the difference between searching on "Tiananmen Square" via Google China vs. Google U.S. The top five images U.S. visitors get are all of tanks bearing down on protesting students. In China, the top five images are of landmarks in the region and Chinese people visiting them.

The point of Kahn's story is simple enough: 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—possibly because most U.S. citizens know next to nothing about Tiananmen Square other than what they read in The New York Times.

Try Googling on "Washington Mall," a site of many violent U.S. protests. Nineteen out of the 20 top images 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.

What I'm questioning is whether the United States is in any position to condemn Google and Cisco (along with other colluding companies like Yahoo!), given that it has also asked these same companies 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, and not just because Star Trek is lodged deep in the U.S. political unconscious. It also allows 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 cipher developed by the NSA. And you want to talk morals? The U.S. government has done everything it accuses 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, too.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is sick of hearing people rant about China when all they know is what they learned from Hong Kong action movies.

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