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The Myth of Data-Driven Authoritarianism in Asia

Cindy Lin & Yuchen Chen

July 2022

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AI in Asia is not simply a technology for totalitarian control over society; rather they have been mobilized and campaigned by its users for contesting, negotiating, and even resisting authoritarian values and/or for ideals of social justice.


Artificial intelligence (AI) in Asia is not simply a duel between superpowers and the production of top-down, state-controlled technology. In this chapter, we show how AI systems in Asia are produced through careful negotiations of familial and kin relations between state and society. Moreover, AI and data-driven technologies are not solely mandated by the state to control and regulate citizens but are also a place to work out the future of politics in the region of Asia. In this chapter, we show how citizens and junior government engineers retool AI and data-driven technologies to both contest and leverage long-standing “Asian values” and familial relations held between state and society to achieve democratic ideals and address social problems. Through long-term ethnographic fieldwork and archival research in Indonesia and China, we argue that AI and data-driven technologies are not simply tools to enact authoritarian governance in Asia as often-depicted in Western media but also techniques to intervene in oppressive social, political, and economic conditions and ideologies. We propose methodological recommendations that move beyond typecasting Asian societies as democratic and/or authoritarian in order to seek out a “situated ethics” that can regulate the negative implications of a data-driven world.

Cindy Lin

Dr. Cindy Lin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the Department of Information Science at Cornell University. In August 2022, she will be an assistant professor at the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University. For her dissertation, Cindy studies racial politics and environmental governance through the building and deployment of cloud computing architectures and data science for peatland fire management in Southeast Asia. More recently, she has begun ethnographic and archival fieldwork on how air underpins colonial ideas of race, containment, and the senses through three lenses: air as contagion, air as an artificial climate, and air as toxicity.

Yuchen Chen

Yuchen Chen is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan. She is interested in Chinese platforms and their materialities and politics of scale-making in a transnational context.