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Communications of the ACM

Editor's letter

2021: Computing's Divided Future


Through the fog of headline-grabbing tweets and TikTok ban lawsuits, we can see the tectonic plates of China's and the West's computing ecosystems rapid movement apart. The growing importance of computing as a military and intelligence technology makes this inevitable; compounded by its pervasive presence in society, commerce, and government. At this writing, China continues aggressive actions to eliminate democracy in Hong Kong and military demonstrations to intimidate Taiwan and other nations in Southeast Asia.a China's government has reined in Chinese technology companies such as Ant Financial (Alibaba) and Tencent, overtly signaling its intent for full control.b These actions also affect foreign multinationals operating in China (for example, Apple and AirBnBc). The action is two-sided with the U.S. government acting to restrict exports based on critical technologies (semiconductors), disrupting visa programs for students and visitors, and increasing reporting requirements for foreign engagements. U.S. government prosecution of high-profile researchers for undisclosed ties and payments has had a chilling effect on collaboration with researchers in China.d And, the global COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated misinformation and conflict.

Recent events have framed starkly these concerns in a scope expanding from hardware technology to software (even algorithms in the case of TikTok) to user-data collection. As we enter a new year, China and the West's fundamental systemic differences and growing geopolitical competition are increasingly open. The new reality is pulling the computing community apart, and yes, spilling over into the academic and research communities. Some analysts project rapid evolution from one computing community to two Internets and then into two business and technology ecosystems, and ultimately "decoupling" into two largely disjoint technology bases.e The growing schism is far wider, but computing is unavoidably at ground zero. The fissures have grown over time, but their growth has definitely accelerated over the past two years.f Computing faces a growing divide, and the computing community confronts shifts from Open Collaboration to Coopetition and perhaps to pure Competition.


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