Digital Civilisation, Connected Cities and the ‘New’ Silk Roads



Presentation text:[1]

Michael Keane, Professor Curtin University, Australia. Program Leader Digital China Lab



The Power of Brand: Brand Building and National Image Communication in the New Age Grand Canal Culture Belt, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou, China, 18 May 2019.



People are talking about civilizations a lot recently, especially the values of civility that have made cultural exchange possible, including the respect for diversity of views that foster technological progress and innovation. Some call this cosmopolitanism. An example relevant to this forum is the Silk Roads of the past.


The “New” Silk Roads, including the Belt and Road (BRI) and the Digital Silk Roads, are contemporary symbols of technological progress and innovation. Although I will focus on digital connectivity, and explain what “digital civilisation” entails, I will mention some examples of material civilisation, including food and cultural sites, many of which are evident in the city of Yangzhou, and more broadly in Jiangsu Province. These material forms are in turn rendered in digital formats for promotion (branding), consumption (via e-commerce) and sharing (communication).


In China today people sometimes talk about the “four great new inventions”:  mobile payments, high speed rail, e-commerce and bike-sharing. While these are not new, their usage has expanded in China so much that they are part of peoples’ daily lives. It can be stated that they are all part of an “emerging digital civilisation”, which also includes Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Blockchain.


Historically Yangzhou illustrates examples of material civilization and shared learning. In the Tang Dynasty the city was connected to maritime trade routes; it was a meeting place of diverse cultures from the Silk Roads: Arab, Persian, Chinese. Later Yangzhou had a Muslim community, and even an Italian community.


With the BRI (一带一路) discussion now engaging with the European Union (EU) and various partners in the Muslim world, the expectations are high for a renewal of pan-civilizational discourses. Yangzhou has a key role to play here. The cosmopolitan image of the city is set for regeneration, and technology will undoubtedly play a key role in rebranding.




Connected cities


Yangzhou is famous for its role in connecting cities via its intricate canal system. The Cities are now being connected in a new model of “digital civilisation”. The Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) combine to make life better for people in crowded cities. Cities of the future will have “brains”, which will engage in Deep Learning.  


Algorithms will do a lot of the thinking. Self-driving cars may even solve problems of congestion; energy will be generated rather than lost; the environment will be protected. And criminal behaviour will be tracked efficiently via extensive social credit systems.


China’s “digital civilization” is likely to consolidate as cities, connected across the BRI region, become ever more dependent upon China’s technological platforms, expertise and algorithms, and as people take up Chinese apps, affordances and smart phones, particularly young consumers in these regions.


In this way Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) “afford” people the possibility to connect to other people and cultures in the region in real time; for instance, the take up of WeChat among non-Chinese or Alipay financial technologies, the use of Tik Tok, and SHAREit in parts of Asia, including BRI nation-states. As people in Eurasia use these services, they are likely to be drawn closer into a Chinese cultural universe. 


Digital civilization thus equates with a kind of digital cosmopolitanism, a “community of shared destiny”. This is the ideal future of humanity—as long as machines, corporations or governments don’t create new social divisions, which is the subject of much science fiction.



Digital civilisation: what is it?


To understand digital civilisation, it is worth looking at the various meanings of civilisation found both in the media and in the academy. The first is human civilisation (the species): this is the most general meaning of civilisation and includes all nations, all people.


Secondly, there is the idea of a universal civilisation: for instance, there are dominant civilisations, we might say Western civilisation, or Confucian civilisations, hence we have the “clash of civilisations” idea.


Third, civilisations are ethnographic constructs: i.e. varieties exist and all are good in their own way. This is the work of anthropologists.


Finally, there is an archaeological approach to the study of civilisations. Scholars can reconstruct the progress of civilisations and cultures from texts, relics and excavations; for instance, the caves at Dunhuang (Gansu), Kizil (Xinjiang), and Luoyang (Henan).


Digital civilisation is the latest addition. According to the strategist Parag Khanna, digital civilization is now expanding “along digital rivers and tributaries much as human civilization has grown along natural ones”. The Internet is constantly remapping the digital world, enabling new communities to emerge, some of which are fast-changing and even dangerous to the ideal of social harmony.


It is sometimes said that we live in a “global village”, a term coined by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was fascinated by the idea of the extended mind, which has come to be known as “external symbolic storage.” We outsource our thinking to machines and these machines have extended memory. The human brain by contrast has very limited memory.


If we allow smart machines (and apps), to do the work we can create more space in our minds. The best example is perhaps Google Maps. The machine will not forget. This is not without problems: we can be the object of digital surveillance. In order to work, the software needs to know where we are and we have to give permission. Many people accept this “invasion of privacy” for the benefits that accrue. We can call these “affordances”, a term that comes from ecological studies.


We are a hyper-connected species. Parag Khanna speaks of “connectivity as destiny”. The human species has certainly evolved rapidly. Our ancestors searched for recurring patterns and symbols, and found these in nature. The ancient tradition in China is evidence of this, particularly the use of symbols to represent reality. The Chinese written language recombined visual patterns, for instance, representations of trees, people, animals, objects. This recombination produced a great civilisation.  Now recombination proceeds at a rapid pace.


Ray Kurzweil, the Director of Engineering at Google, who has received 21 honorary doctorates, refers to the human neo-cortex (brain) as a large pattern recognizer. John Lent, author of the recent book, The Patterning Instinct, identifies pattern recognition as the basis of human culture, and civilisation. The Silicon Valley based virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier, argues that digital globalization “repatterns” the world, shifting our collective organizing protocols toward a new kind of network efficiency. The question is not whether this shift is happening, he says, “but rather the degree to which everyone participates.”


In China, it seems everyone is willing to participate.


Affordances and civility


One of the great benefits of mobile devices is that they “afford” greater decision-making certainty. For instance, if we are travelling overseas as tourists, to Yangzhou for instance, we might 打卡, that is, we can check in online that we have visited the most important sites, for instance, Daming Temple. In English we say that we have ‘ticked that box’. If we are looking for a place to eat in Yangzhou, we can check beforehand the menu, prices, and customer rankings to reassure ourselves that we will not be disappointed.


Two thousand years ago in China a person of authority would consult the Yijing, which perhaps we can say was a pre-modern algorithm? Should I have Yangzhou Fried rice (扬州炒饭) today or dazhu gansi (大煮干丝)? The Yijing provided a contextual or situational guide to an informed decision: the immediate consequences and the future results; perhaps it will be a fine occasion with friends but it may lead to gaining weight!


The Yijing is not the best way to make decisions today. We don’t have time for abstract commentaries. The restaurant app offers a lot more. We can book a table, order and pay for the meal using WeChat or Alipay; then we can share our experience with our friends all over the world, who will no doubt ‘like’ what they see.  The same applies to cultural artefacts like the Dunhuang Caves in Gansu. Digital technology and visualisation technologies makes these “wonders of civilisation” accessible to anyone. You don’t even need to go there.


This is how it should work. Clever machines should allow us to be more efficient, to make better use of available resources. But there is a problem that we are losing in danger of losing touch with real life. We see reality through the interface of devices that are monitored by third parties. In China users are locked into the WeChat ecosystem; are there any real alternatives? In the West there are multiple choices. You don’t have to be on a digital site like WeChat to pay for your purchase. When people visit China from abroad, they find that credit cards and paper money are inconvenient.


Digital civilisation has its downsides. Once we were called homo sapiens; now according to the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, we are homo digitalis. We use our thumbs more than our hands. We have online “profiles”, which can be easily curated; many people even have “avatars”. People use emojis instead of expressing our real thoughts in words; and ‘like’ a post on Facebook because they feel obliged to like it, because online friends have liked it. 


Alternatively, we should not forget ancient wisdom. In the Buddhist tradition of insight meditation, which is part of an ancient Asian civilisation, we deliberately free ourselves of such stuff, that is, we get rid of distractions. We recognize the “patterns of mind” as illusions. We try to be more “mindful”. But with our new digital lifestyles we use the accumulation of patterns to make our lives meaningful. We add more and more layers to our extended minds, our external symbolic storage. We multi-task, “liking” posts on Facebook while watching television, adding “friends” and connections.


In many respects this is an example of mimetic behaviour that has deep cultural roots. In primitive times before we had language, people (hominids) communicated with nods, grunts, facial gestures. Even when language developed people used rituals to convey respect, particularly in China. This is the fundamental basis of any “harmonious” civilisation.


The concept of civility is thus described by the Chinese word wen (文), which in the Warring States period came to refer to refined ethical behaviour. A similar connection between civility and refinement took place in Europe, almost two thousand years later, leading to the idea of cultural capital.  


At the same time, however, online behaviour is increasingly uncivil; much of the uncivil (trolling) behaviour is due to the politics of fear, that is fear of the other. This is the downside of digital civilisation.



Shared destiny: the view from Australia


Many people of Chinese descent identify with the concept of a great civilisation—some commentators call China a “civilizational state”, in contrast to a nation-state model that has characterised the rules-based global order for the last fifty years. China’s leaders call for a “community of shared destiny”, which entails a flexible concept of national sovereignty. The BRI with its historical legacy of trade and cultural exchange, seems like the best place to test this idea of shared destiny in practice.


Because I come from Australia, the “land down under”, I don’t naturally identify with the greater BRI project, although the BRI extends to Australia when one considers that Australia is a composite of European (western) civilisation, indigenous Australians, and many cultures from the Silk Roads. 70,000 years ago, homo sapiens moved “out of Africa”; many of our ancestors moved south and east. 10,000 year ago, the land mass now known as Australia was physically connected to Asia.


With modern communications we are even closer; we are also in the same time zone, compared with Europe and the US. So, we are truly connected. In the latest statistics of the Australian population (2019), more than 30% of people were born overseas; and 262 different nationalities were registered. In 2019, Australia has 557,690 people born in China, and 489, 410 born in India.


Significant numbers of resident migrants were born in countries (and regions) prominently listed in the BRI: South Africa (100,480), Zimbabwe (41,570), Afghanistan (53,670), Sri Lanka (124,500 ), Pakistan (69,660), Singapore (59,120), Philippines (252,690), Vietnam (243,220), Thailand (71,250), Hong Kong SAR (97,590), Mongolia (54,040), Malaysia (152,900), Iraq (74,680), and Indonesia (78,970). These numbers do not include children born of these parents: it does not account for the Diaspora as such.


Australia has relatively few large cities but most people live in cities contiguous to either the Indian or Pacific Ocean i.e. this is the (maritime) Road in the BRI construct. More than any other nation in the world we approximate a model of Eurasia. Australia might be a “European outpost” according to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir, but with respect to the population base Australia is increasingly “Asianized”. With respect to civilisations and intellectual traditions, Europe has a dualistic worldview. China, and much of Asia, has a holistic or integrated model. The former model celebrates a global rules-based order whereas the Chinese “community of shared destiny” privileges a degree of cultural respect.


So, in our national debates Australians are asking some difficult questions: how do we balance contending civilizational forces?  We already have a multi-cultural society model that works well. Could a “community of shared destiny” model apply to a liberal democratic nation like Australia? We hope that we can learn much from China’s experience and build new relationships.





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