Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 14 April 2023

TikTok might be part of a plot to make us dumber

The icon for the video-sharing TikTok app is displayed on a smartphone. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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Palantir chief executive Alex Karp is best known for his artificial intelligence platform, but his biggest idea might be his insistence upon rescuing the West from influences that damage the nation’s intelligence.

I happened to catch Karp on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Thursday morning, talking to “Too Big to Fail” author Andrew Ross Sorkin about TikTok. When most people express concern about China’s most insidious export as a national security threat, they tend to think about the platform’s ability to retrieve massive amounts of data. They see TikTok as the ultimate spyware — a cartoonish medium that snatches our secrets while we’re distracted by the vanities.

Karp has a different take. He says China is deliberately and strategically using TikTok to make us, meaning the West, “dumber and slower.” It’s the ultimate sleeper agent and a weapon to weaken us from within. He isn’t alone in his thinking. National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone has warned that Chinese control of TikTok’s algorithm could allow China to deploy influence operations among Western populations.

Similar ideas have popped up in modern history. During the Cold War, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned that he didn’t need missiles to conquer America. “We will bury you from within,” he supposedly said, meaning that capitalism gradually would lose its luster as Americans grew accustomed to socialist policies spoon-fed to them in small bites.

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Notwithstanding academic quibbles about the accuracy of Khrushchev’s interpreter, the communist leader seems to have been prescient beyond his ken. Today, we can marvel at the Cold War era’s limited imagination. But back then, only science fiction writers could have foretold the tech revolution and the galaxies of social media platforms that formed a new universe of exhibitionist buffoons.

As Karp sees things, we will bury ourselves from within by becoming a nation of ignorant sloths. Those are my words, not his. I just happen to agree with him. Granted, this is a harsh assessment of something that millions of people view as innocuous self-indulgence and entertainment. Then again, the Trojan horse.

I confess that my TikTok exposure has been limited. I only recently signed on to see what all the fuss was about. My one previous brush was in a Lowe’s parking lot where I saw a young gal dancing in front of an iPhone perched against her car window and blasting music that plainly stimulated her. Mesmerized, I pulled up next to her and chirped, “What on earth are you doing?” She seemed delighted by the attention and skipped over to my open window.

She was making a video for TikTok, she said. Unable to resist the moment, I asked if I could film her. I’m a reporter, I told her, which is true, and she seemed a worthy subject — for purposes heretofore unrealized. Voilà. I only summarize her performance with a few adjectives: uninhibited, scanty, sexy. You get the picture. An exhibitionist gotta exhibit, I suppose. Who am I to judge?

She surely wasn’t worried about consorting with the enemy. But should we be worried that she’s one of 300 million people in the United States and Europe similarly preening for anonymous audiences while Chinese children are concocting fresh mathematical theorems and performing violin concertos barely post-utero?

Maybe. But then what? We don’t ban free speech in this country (except on Twitter), and we don’t cancel culture (except on college campuses). But Karp’s sense of things reminds me of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

In Huxley’s novel, people are addicted to entertainment and medicate themselves with the fictional drug “soma.” Their resulting stoned complacency allows the state to confiscate their rights. Postman, a professor and media critic, wrote about television news delivered by “talking hairdos” and explained how the medium alters our thought processes. By making even serious issues entertaining, with soundtracks and special effects, TV interferes with our ability to contemplate, he explained.

Postman died in 2003, one year before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, which triggered the Big Bang of social media. One can easily imagine what he would have thought about TikTok’s effect on our brains. Slower and dumber, is a safe guess.

Even so, that’s no argument for banning TikTok, as several countries would like to do. The White House has demanded that ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, sell the app or face a possible U.S. ban. On CNBC, Karp reduced that problem to a common-sense solution. Given that China is doing to us what we aren’t allowed to do to China, we should put an end to TikTok. Full stop. Inconveniently, ByteDance’s owners are 20 percent its founders and Chinese investors, 60 percent global investors and 20 percent employees, according to Politico.

Given market forces and our lust for dividends, I’m not sure we can expect TikTok to disappear even in exchange for faster, smarter teenagers. Besides, as Zachary Karabell recently wrote in Politico Magazine, wouldn’t banning the app make us like China? Yet again, America is hostage to its highest ideals. Nevertheless, Karp’s ideas are provocative. Ultimately, there’s no greater threat to our national security than a citizenry dedicated to its own images reflected in the bland gazes of strangers. 

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