As we barrel down Fury Road hoping to find that last barrel of gasoline or perhaps some additional shareholder value before unstoppable climate change finally kicks in, take time to consider the word “dystopia.” Coined in 1868 by John Stuart Mill, dystopia didn’t come into common parlance for another century – but once it took hold, it dug its claws deep into the hive mind of popular culture and won’t let go.
There are, of course, different dystopias. If you’re disinclined to subscribe to the Mad Max model of a resource-scarce bleak future, there’s always the technological model seen in People’s Republic of Desire, an unsettling documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 7. This is the dystopia of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a place where our actions are recorded, measured, and commodified by an unseen other watching over us.
Recent controversies surrounding Google’s willingness to develop a search engine that blocks access to certain words and phrases and the country’s desire to create a so-called ‘Social Credit System‘ suggest China’s government considers this techno-panopticon a positive development. People’s Republic of Desire examines one facet of this development: the popularity of “live streaming hosts,” a social media phenomenon that hasn’t arrived in the West – yet – but has proven massively popular in the PRC.
Here’s how the system works: desperate young Chinese (some of whom belong to a social class known as diaosi,“people of no means and no looks”) establish accounts on a popular social network and build an audience by singing, dancing, and otherwise entertaining the masses. If they’re lucky, their profile grows to the point where they begin to receive monetary ‘gifts’ from their diaosi audience, as well as from wealthy patrons known as “big bosses.”
According to People’s Republic, a successful host can earn upwards of $200,000 a month. Directed by former tech industry worker Hao Wu, the film focuses on two hosts trying to break through: former nurse Shen Man, an amateur singer who supports her entire family from her hosting gig proceeds, and Big Li, a gravel-voiced comedian willing to make an utter fool of himself in exchange for fame.
Ultimately, success is measured by an end-of-year online competition in which hosts in various categories vie for “votes” from the online audience. Votes are purchased with money: we meet ordinary Chinese who spend huge sums in order to show support for their favorite host, including a young woman who estimates she’ll spend over 10% of her annual wage on the competition.
And then there are the mysterious agencies that “employ” the most popular hosts, and the wealthy and secretive benefactors who can turn around the competition with the timely purchase of a large block of votes. Wu’s film makes it clear this a system ripe for corruption, double-dealing, and backstabbing: the hosts are unhappy, their fans are bilked out of their hard-earned wages, and only the agencies and the platform, YY.com, come out ahead.
People’s Republic of Desire raises one big, unanswered question: why hasn’t the model been replicated in the West? I’d posit that online hosting is just another variant on the gig economy model, in which ordinary people unable to survive on a single job are compelled to supplement their income by ‘selling’ their spare time. With capitalism, you can select the dystopia of your choice!