Computing Profession Editor's Letter

Computing Divided: How Wide the Chasm?

  1. Article
  2. References
Andrew A. Chien, past Editor-in-Chief of CACM

In January 2019, I described the computing community on the cusp of a new era of growing division.2 The prognostication proved accurate. Four years have seen accelerating division and growing real fissures, driven by international geopolitics, dramatic spy cases—incarceration and increasing technology and trade restrictions. Examples include:

  1. Trade restrictions,3
  2. China's crackdown on tech and covert suppression of opinion abroad,1,4 and
  3. China's threatened invasion of Taiwan and bullying of Lithuania.6

If you are not concerned yet, in February 2022 we saw an outbreak of a regional conflict akin to that which caused World War I;7 Russia invaded Ukraine with no justification. The invasion created overt alignment of warring alliances: China in a no-limits partnership with Russia, Iran, Belarus, and Syria, and the U.S., Europe, and the West joining to support Ukraine. China, the economic leader of Asia and major regional military power, spread a chill across Asia by siding with an imperialist "might makes right" alliance. All nations are now rethinking defense, investment, trade, and technology policies toward China.

The world is at an inflection point. These are indeed times for caution and careful reflection on where are we going. There are three major possibilities:

Catastrophe! (Future #1). Open hostility, fully separate trade (and travel and technology) partitions. Unthinkable? Recall this was the world order from 1950–1980 (Soviet Block—USSR and Eastern Europe, the Western Alliance—U.S and Europe, and China), disjointed ecosystems with little trade or travel. This isolation was self-imposed by both the Soviet Block and China, out of weakness to maintain control over their citizenry. Such division would be a terrible outcome. Tragic individually for billions of citizens of the closed systems, a painful quandary for those with ties spanning, and it would impoverish all culturally.

It is undeniable that Russia has gone into such isolation in just 12 months (trade and travel have stopped). China's no-limits alliance, actions against its tech companies, and overt international belligerence, suggest little commitment to a rules-based international order. Is China ready to undertake isolation? Unthinkable? Such isolation might make China's rulers feel more secure.

The Dream (Future #2). Since 1972, the West has worked on integrating China as an open trade partner into the world's ecosystem. This dream persists despite violent actions by China signaling different intent—the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, construction of the Great Firewall, and violent crushing of Hong Kong's open society. To a realist, the dream is impossible. China's government continues a policy of "victimhood," demanding favorable treatment as a developing country, despite being the world's second-largest economy and a technology leader. It continues to undermine open trade via spying, government-led industrial espionage, global intimidation, and military threats. China appears interested in power—to control its people and nations around it, not in mutual prosperity. The only hope for an open, globalized China is a radical change in its foreign and domestic policy. The chances of that? You can make your own assessment.

The Muddle in the Middle (Future #3). As an optimist, I am hoping for this outcome. The Muddle means a continued devolution of the current system with export bans and creative work-arounds resulting in growing friction in trade (for example, controls on GPU chips of certain speed and bandwidth5); regionalization of supply chains for critical technologies (chips, electric vehicles, batteries, rare earths, …); and the rise of digital sovereignty for services and data. This future world of computing is one of increasing balkanization.

What should ACM do?

  1. Fight for Future #2, trying to hold the world together despite power-ful geopolitical forces fracturing the world?
  2. Lean into Future #3, circle the wagons amongst friendly parties and build leading technologies to win the competition of ecosystems?

Remember that China treats ACM as an NGO, a threat to national sovereignty, restricting its activities in China.

What do you think? What will you do?


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