WHILE the UK Government bans the use of TikTok by government officials, and the Scottish Government considers following suit – both regarding the app as potential “spyware” for the Chinese state – I went to see what their top-25 best watched videos were.

It’s not immediately obvious exactly what information the CCP would want to harvest, as a consequence of their legal right to take data from private Chinese companies (like ByteDance, who own TikTok, and its Chinese version, Douyin). It seems like a cliche of what social media is used for, by its younger audiences.

I count two lip-synchs, one laughing baby, two cute kittens, two friendly chipmunks eating nuts out of human hands, a frog and a dog startled and then going crazy (another dog “paints” a flower). There are six videos from a guy called Khaby Lame, all of which make clownish satires of ham-fisted stupidity by other users.

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A chef flirts with a big girl; there’s a kinetic animation inspired by the Japanese movie Spirited Away; one guy dances with his drone camera flying around him. So there’s the TikTok content: it was like hanging out in a fifth-year common room, as people gathered around someone’s gigglesome material. And, of course, generated their own too.

Most commentators look at TikTok’s data rules, compare them to Facebook, Twitter and the like, and don’t really see any difference between the level of intimate detail that each harvests. A smoking memo dug up in June 2022 revealed that TikTok takes your faceprints and voiceprints, your browsing history, even your keystroke patterns and rhythms – but all within the current constraints of US law, which their competitors also test to the limit. There should be as much anxiety about Western surveillance capitalism, and the data-pictures of us that corporations possess, as any “Chinese trojan horse” like TikTok.

Which is not to say that there shouldn’t be anxiety about the Chinese state’s agenda here. Cyberterrorism is endemic, and enabled by an internet that we’re not going to get rid of any time soon. Our devices, in what’s been called the internet of things, are ever more networked and steerable by far-off forces.

I don’t think it was acceptable to make large chunks of the UK’s 5G internet infrastructure the responsibility of the Chinese tech giant Huawei (now scheduled to be legally removed by 2027). And there was already a case to be made that the procurement should have been from industries on these islands anyway.

The National: 5g mast

We are surrounded with existential risks these days. But we haven’t really had the total systems-attack on our information networks that the technology is clearly vulnerable to.

I can imagine such a meltdown coming from rogue terror groups and super-powered blackmailers. But it could also come from aggressive states seeking to display their power – and I include the US as well as China in that grim scenario.

Yet there’s no need to make the susceptibility easier.

I wonder whether we should be worrying much less about explicit cyber-attack, by means of social media apps, and much more about TikTok’s cultural strategies. They are not alone in this. But what drives the vast infantilisation, the recourse to sensation, in all our social media?

Profit, we know, in the West: the more that “captology” is applied, producing both pleasure and polarisation in users, the happier advertisers are with these devices – and the more fractious and discontented the rest of us are. It’s a generally understood process these days. If you’re getting it for free, then you are the product, your interactions with platforms a rich seedbed for business strategy.

I don’t think quite the same, brute quarterly-return imperatives predominate in the Chinese tech world. There are other priorities.

For example, take Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok in China. By all reports it has a completely different character. Former Googler and social media ethicist Tristan Harris described the difference last year, on the American news program 60 Minutes.

“It’s almost like they recognise that technology is influencing kids’ development”, reported Harris. “And they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world”.

“If you’re under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos. And children in China are limited to only 40 minutes a day on the app.”

“There’s a survey of pre-teens in the U.S. and China asking, ‘what is the most aspirational career that you want to have?’, concludes Harris. “In the US, the No 1 was a social media influencer, and in China, the No 1 was astronaut,” Harris said.“You allow those two societies to play out for a few generations and I can tell you what your world is going to look like.”

I assume a heavy degree of irony in the Harris quip about opium, given Western powers (including Britain) fought victorious wars to legitimate the export of opium to China. (Or maybe it’s just Zoomer ill-informedness). But Harris’s point is worth dwelling on. Could one imagine a deep-play strategy, where the Chinese State is happy to enable the stupefaction of western audiences through weapons of mass distraction, while controlling cultural education through these same devices in their homeland?

You could only imagine it if you blanked out the truth that we’ve been doing that to ourselves since the early 2000s. We’ve hardly needed a digital kulturkampf from beyond our borders to lose ourselves in yawning cats and dancing dudes.

My own preference is that we step up, as digital citizens, and start to assert our rights – particularly over the rich data profiles we are generating by being lost in social media.

There’s some brilliant algorithms, and hugely sensitive AI, sitting behind the TikTok app. It takes me down wormholes for many minutes, to places I am glad to go for a while. And I let it take me there. I was lost in blues guitar on the device the other day.

I deliberately lingered on a Stevie Ray Vaughan clip (a searing version of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child) hoping it would trigger the TikTok software to send me more. It delivered: I ended up with a sublime four-minute clip of James Brown, Bobby Bland and B.B. King jamming joyful on the American music show Soul Train.

I don’t want any massive commercial or state force having their 360 degree pictures of me and my life. I would want an independent Scotland to exercise its jurisdiction, and give citizens some of the same access to our data lives as the corporates and officials have. Why shouldn’t we also see who we are, in the digital round?

But radical technology—as we’ve been seeing with the explosion of AI chatbots in the last few months—can also turn us into hobbyists, empathisers and aesthetes, amplifying our enthusiasms and tastes. In these tough, mind-shredding years, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone some much-needed, precisely-targeted leisure time.

Reform the back-end, yes.

But the front-end of TikTok does what is suggested by its name – it helps us bear these troubled times.