Some phenomena occur and become highly visible in the wrong place, at the wrong time. TikTok, an app created in China, came into prominence as a major source of expression and entertainment for the youth of the United States only in the past two years but rose, in that short time, to the status of an app that could rival the mastodons Facebook and Twitter in popularity.
The NY Times: Liberal or Neoliberal?
In an article titled “TikTok Was a Wasted Opportunity,” New York Times technology columnist Shira Ovide sums up the impact of the company’s meteoric rise in these terms: “TikTok, an app for short videos that took off in the United States and other countries, is owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance. It’s one of the first popular global internet gathering spots to have originated in China, and that has caused consternation in the United States and some other countries.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The feeling of anxiety and incomprehension that spontaneously seizes Americans in the 21st century when they realize something that they get easily get hooked on comes from a place that doesn’t belong to their own heritage or conform to their own system of social control.
“Consternation” is a strange word in English. Words like “legislation” or “obliteration” are built from the verbs “legislate” and “obliterate.” Consternation, though visibly derived from a verb, seems to exist on its own. The verb “to consternate,” although it existed in the 17th century, has disappeared from linguistic use. And yet “consternation” remains an active part of everyone’s vocabulary. All literate native speakers understand the particular feeling it represents.
In another article this week concerning the latest skirmish in the conflict between the UK and the European Union, Business Words relates that “[Boris] Johnson’s UK government has caused consternation in the UK, Brussels, and Washington after revealing an explosive plan to unilaterally determine elements of Northern Ireland’s trade with Great Britain from January next year.”
These two examples could lead cultural analysts and even serious analytical linguists to wonder whether the fact that the word ends with the two syllables, “nation,” hasn’t subconsciously imposed the idea that consternation has come to be associated with threats to national identity. This may point to another historical truth: that the moment in history we are living in is propitious to the angst associated with the destabilizing of national identity in a globalized world.
The TikTok drama appears to reflect America’s well-ingrained sense of national privilege. Ovide acknowledges this feeling of privilege when she asks the question: “And what should the United States do about a future in which technology is becoming less American?” According to consumer society logic, it has never mattered where an article that gives joy to individual consumers comes from. But technology, especially social media technology, addresses vast groups of people, not just individual consumers. That some of that technology may be “less American” evokes not just concern but consternation. It’s perceived as an assault on American preeminence.
Americans have been conditioned to suppose that any popular innovative technology must be American. The fact that TikTok is Chinese automatically provokes consternation. This apparent paradox challenges Americans’ idea of what their nation is, what it owns and what others, and especially perceived adversaries, have the right to own. It calls into question a particular form of white American privilege, the privilege possessed by the leader and arbiter of everything that has to do with consumer electronic technology. The Danes can dominate the market for rectangular plastic toys (Lego), the French can master the marketing and distribution of wine and champagne, but no other nation has the right to dominate the technology behind social media toys.
Concerning the consternation in Britain, the reaction to Johnson’s extreme and downright illegal policy initiatives — justified by his absolute belief in Brexit as a divinely ordained fact of history — calls into question what in the golden age of nationalism many considered to be the divine right of a sovereign nation. The use of the word “consternation” in this example appears to convey an expression of the collective unconscious of a nation wondering who it is and who it will become in a period of historical transition.
Among the threats to the civilization of consumer capitalism developed in the 20th century, none has been greater than the ever-increasing destabilizing of the perception citizens have of their nation’s status in the world. For centuries, it has constituted the basis of their identity. The rise of nationalism in Europe since around the year 1500 and the consequent race for colonial domination provided the basis for a post-industrial culture of economic expansion sometimes called growthism. It led to the concept the marketers of capitalism perfected when they built the foundations of the consumer society. In economic and political circles, growthism has attained the level of religious dogma.
With GDP as the principal index for measuring a nation’s economic success, growthism has become directly associated with the status of national identity. Stimulating the growth of certain sectors has allowed nations to define their approach to the eternal problem of managing their competitive advantage. No nation can respectfully exist as a nation without having some form of competitive advantage to flaunt.
Because consumer technology is subject to the logic of growthism and at the same time provides the key to a nation’s ability to manage its population by controlling available data, Shira Ovide raises some serious questions that politicians, loath to acknowledge the tyranny of growthism, have refused to consider in the ongoing debate about TikTok, China and the American corporations (Microsoft and Oracle) put forward to Americanize the control of the technology.
Ovide writes: “Secret software formulas derived from databases of our behavior also drive Facebook, Google and many other internet companies. It appears that nowhere in the political fighting about TikTok did anyone in the U.S. government or industry take the opportunity to ask what should U.S. lawmakers, regulators and the public do about this software power of persuasion.”
As Vance Packard revealed 70 years ago, consumer society is built around the practice of hidden persuasion. Ovide has reminded us that the carefully obscured mechanics of persuasion are not only assumed to be a legitimate goal of markets as well as being essential to the growth of the consumer society, but they make up part of a nation’s strategy to define its power over other nations.
Furthermore, the nature of the power and the way it is used must remain hidden from sight. According to the rules of the technology-based consumer society we now live in, the easiest way to hide anything from sight is for governments to offer the technology and its management to corporations. They have no obligation to reveal to the public what they know and the secrets behind the power they wield. This has become the guiding principle for US legislators ever since the Reagan and Thatcher tandem in the 1980s rewrote the rulebook of democratic governance for the Western world.
Ovide concludes her article with this observation: “It should have been a moment for engaged debate about what Americans should expect out of our technology and our government. Instead, the big questions went unasked and unanswered.” That seems to worry her to the point of finding it contradictory. But there’s a simpler explanation. Big questions will always go unanswered when keeping the workings of the system hidden remains a crucial objective.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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