Something sinister is going on with cuteness. Over the last five years, we’ve seen the sudden appearance of cute Facial ID Recognition surveillance, cute government health messaging, cute military propaganda, cute identity wars and even cute robotic elder care. Beneath all the smiling imagery is a growing phenomenon I call cute authoritarianism.
How could authoritarianism ever be cute? Surely, it is “a boot stamping on a human face, forever,” as Orwell writes in 1984. We associate the aesthetics of authoritarianism with Stalinism, Maoism and Nazism: soldiers and superhuman workers brandishing fists and flags, chanting slogans about political solidarity and the need to annihilate their enemies.
However, there is a much more insidious authoritarianism that is predicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The novel depicts a thoroughly positivist and hedonistic high-tech society, which constantly reinforces cheerful messages and pacifies its citizens with daily doses of the addictive happiness drug Soma. Whenever the controllers of this dystopia want to force people to do something, they couch the command in happy language: it is “for the good of all.”
The technocratic societies of today are closer to Huxley’s dystopia than to Orwell’s boot. Our cute authoritarians communicate in brightly coloured cartoons, smiling faces and childish fonts. The paternalism of 1984 has been replaced by maternal soft totalitarianism. Big Mother is watching you.
Cute, Fun, Facial Recognition Surveillance
I first came across cute authoritarianism in the imagery used to promote the adoption of facial recognition CCTV, which has been in use throughout the UK since 2019. This technology was pioneered at scale by Chinese Big Tech, in the so-called sharp eyes scheme, under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, which has placed the inhabitants of the smart cities of Taiyuan, Chongquin, Shenzhen, Wuxi, Beijing, Shanghai and ten others under constant AI surveillance and mandated the use of digital ID. China is home to around half of the 1,000 smart city projects that are currently being set up worldwide. The country has an estimated 626 million CCTV cameras, some of which have been placed outside citizens’ front doors and even inside their homes.
Facial recognition software was first developed in the US and financed by an “unnamed intelligence agency” and later the military (DARPA). The big tech firms involved then developed programmes designed to introduce it into the civilian population. In 2019, Microsoft even attempted to encourage people to use facial recognition software in their homes. The cutesy advertising for its Azure Face product depicts facial recognition tech as “fun for all the family.”
But surveillance of civilians for data-gathering purposes is far from cute.
In 2019, biometric facial recognition data-gathering technologies were introduced into the UK, first in Glasgow and one year later in London, allegedly to help control the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK now has more surveillance cameras per capita than any other country except for China.
The UK supermarket chains Co-op, Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi and Asda have already implemented AI facial recognition customer surveillance. Thirty-five Co-op stores use “novel technology and highly invasive processing of personal data,” to create “a biometric profile of every visitor to stores where its cameras are installed.” The technology uses cameras made by Hikvision, a state-owned Chinese company which also supplied equipment used in the surveillance of the genocidal Uyghur concentration campus in Xinjiang. The pretext for using this technology in the UK is that it will protect customers from fraud and businesses from theft, automate age confirmation for alcohol purchases and further the goal of eventually introducing cardless forms of shopping, like China’s smile to pay system. But meanwhile these supermarkets are harvesting biometric, financial and behavioural data without our consent. Their SOI (suspect of interest) databases violate privacy laws and promote pre-crime bias. They may also be hoarding customer data for the purpose of creating illegal databases (as other facial recognition companies have already done). How cute is that? No wonder the Co-op is now facing legal pushback.
Adverts for this technology usually employ cute authoritarian graphics, featuring the two-dimensional art used by every Silicon Valley tech company from Google and Facebook to Hinge: a generic cartoonish style that disguises the technology’s authoritarian purposes.
We are lured in with cute face alteration and face swap apps, which can make us look older or younger, add bunny ears or cat whiskers, etc. But this is just a strategy to covertly promote mass adoption of the facial recognition technology and to allow companies like TikTok to gather biometric data on us.
During the Covid pandemic, the UK’s National Health Service also employed these cute graphics and messaging. Whether or not you support mass vaccination or lockdowns is not the point—these are exercises in population control, and their designers chose cuteness as a way to nudge the public towards desired behaviours.
I suffer from severe depression and have been accessing mental healthcare services for most of my life. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed the same trend towards cute imagery and lingo in this area—cuteness that feels condescending and out of touch and sends the implicit message that the mentally ill are to be treated like children.
Cute authoritarian imagery, then, is all around us: it is used in public health, tech, corporate communication, quangos, NGOs and even the military. But is there a broader agenda connecting all these uses?
Fluffy Dollars and the Survival of the Cutest
In his 2019 book The Power of Cute, philosopher Simon May explains how “the power of cute is colonising our world.” Research shows that the things we find cute are remarkably universal and all feature attributes that are typical of babies: a large head in proportion to the body, shorter limbs, smaller dimensions, rounded shapes, smaller noses and—above all—huge eyes. Marketing specialist Douglas Van Praet speculates that “our brains have evolved a cuteness code” so that our evolved response to human babies “does not discriminate across species [and] leaks onto virtually all other baby animals. It even spills over onto inanimate objects that tend to share [babylike] attributes.”
The results of a study of the effects of Disney films and “cute webpages,” such as Lolcats and Cute Overload, suggest that humans have a hardwired biological response to cuteness. Communications expert Julia Möller argues that “the sensitivity to cuteness is directly connected to the reproductive phase of the recipient.” Some other research suggests that “gazing at cute babies releases dopamine”—the neurotransmitter that also plays a crucial role in drug addiction.
Many corporations have learned to capitalize on this in advertisements that feature images of puppies, kittens and children. Möller describes this strategy as “fluffy dollars.” This strategic use of cuteness is also used to sell non-cute items, such as AI. According to a Chinese study, customers are more willing to adopt AI applications with “high perceived cuteness.”
Over the decades, many multinational corporations have deliberately increased the cuteness of their products. In the 1990s, Apple reinvigorated its failing brand by adopting rainbow colours and rounded designs; Monsanto and BP have more recently gone cute with brightly coloured logos and nature motifs. Companies that sell distinctly uncute products like insurance are also cutefying themselves by featuring pictures of adorable animals—like meerkats and dogs—on their websites.
Nudged by Cuteness
Most citizens of modern democracies are resistant to being forced to do things against their will. To combat this, social engineers have developed the psychological tool of nudging. Pioneered by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, nudge theory draws on the reductive science of behaviourism and advocates the practice of operant conditioning through indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement through “rewards.” Specialist Natasha Burton argues, “a mere nudge can be used to help people make better choices for themselves.” The message here is: we know what’s best for you, but we won’t tell you that or let you know when we’re influencing your choices.
Nudge theory became influential in around 2009, when it was adopted by both UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who established a Nudge Unit, and by the Obama administration. Nudges used in business have included adding arrows to workplace floors; reducing plate sizes in canteens; reducing the size of office bins to disincentivize the use of printers; offering renewable energy as a default; putting unhealthy foods out of reach; and decorating offices with cute “inspirational photos.”
Nudging is the opposite of direct advertising. During the old World War One recruitment drive, posters featured the UK’s top general pointing straight at the viewer and the slogan BRITONS—Lord Kitchener Wants You. Join Your Country’s Army. Today, the US army tries to nudge recruitment by using cute childlike animations and “feelies” in its ads.
This form of gentle coercion is the main mechanism of cute authoritarianism.
We’ll be talking about this nonsense for generations. pic.twitter.com/JkKEJdFzYh
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) March 14, 2023
There are parallels with positive parenting, with its recommendations that parents use affirmations and positive reinforcement. For example, a positive parent wouldn’t say “No, you can’t eat that. It will make you fat, so stop asking!” but “Hey, why don’t we go over here and look at those other super yummy [healthy] things, won’t that be fun?”
Instead of Get vaccinated now or others will get ill and die! a political nudge will read A shot of love for Valentine’s Day—show how much you care by protecting the people you love from Covid in pink lettering, using the font of international happiness—literally called Alegria (“joy”) style. The public nudge message won’t say Wear a mask now by order of government mandate! but Thank you for masking up. Thanking you for your compliance in advance is an attempt to embarrass you into taking the desired action.
In the near future, we will probably be subjected to digitally personalised nudges which may be tied to the implementation of the kind of social credit system that is already being implemented in twelve cities in China. Here, nudging and facial recognition technology go hand in hand. Facial recognition tech allows the government to identify you and you are then nudged towards the behaviours that government finds acceptable through penalties and rewards—including restrictions on freedom of movement and credit for those with “low trustworthiness” scores.
When Boston Dynamics got three of its robots to do a coordinated dance to the Motown classic “Do You Love Me?” the social media world thought it was very cute indeed. The resulting YouTube videos and GIFs garnered hundreds of millions of views.
This is all very cute—but the cuteness conceals the fact that Boston Dynamics worked with DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) for over a decade and still works with the US military and is involved in the manufacture of robots like the LSR pack mule—a large dog-like AI-powered legged squad support system. Robotic dogs that resemble Spot the dancing robot have been developed by tech companies like Ghost Robotics for explicitly military use and their role within the military has been expanding. One such robotic dog was used to enforce lockdown curfews in Shanghai. It issued commands like Your behaviour has violated anti-pandemic rules. Please go home immediately, or you will be punished in accordance with the law. What a cute doggie!
It is only one step up from this to the autonomous weapons (i.e., combat bots) that were first utilized in ground combat during the 2002 war in Afghanistan. One of the ten available models is known as THeMIS and its weaponry includes “heavy machine guns, 40mm grenade launchers, 30mm autocannons, and anti-tank missile systems.” Since 2005, the US military has spent upwards of $2 billion on such weaponised AI drones. The international campaign Stop Killer Robots has prompted some robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, to publicly pledge not to weaponize their bots. To recoup their reputation, some of them have been concealing their history of military involvement—focusing instead on cute, dancing robots.
The Cute Army
Japan’s cute army is a strange example of this fusion between military weapons and cuteness. Fighter jets have been painted with anime figures and soldiers often pose with fluffy toys in social media posts. On one fighter ship, a decoy rocket launcher has even been “anthropomorphized into a bunny rabbit, complete with mortar tubes for ears.”
Kawaii (the “cult of cute”) has been an integral part of Japanese culture since the post WW1 years and includes curly handwriting, shy and childlike manga and anime characters and cute monsters and animals like Hello Kitty and Pikachu. Matt Alt has argued that its strange adaptation to military use “could reflect a deep-seated discomfort with the nation’s military history,” a form of denial.
Japan’s outsized role in the tech world may be part of the reason why cuteness became so widespread in first Californian Big Tech and then around the world.
Cute Robot Carers
There are currently nine types of robots being used in elder care and they have cutesy names like BUDDY (“the emotional robot”), ZORA, SAM, ROBEAR, Care-O-bot and PARO (“the cute baby seal robot.”)
Such care-bots can lift heavy objects, help older people get exercise and provide home security. They can also sing, dance and chat and the companies that sell them often claim that they will make elderly people “feel … less alone” because they are “powerful and also cute.” This seems dubious.
The cute cartoon faces of care-bots function as a nudge to consumers, who might otherwise feel guilty about placing their elderly parents into robot-assisted facilities. Because the robots have faces like teddy bears or big eyes like children, or are covered in fur or resemble cartoon characters, we can delude ourselves into believing that we’re not abandoning our aged family members to the cold care of machines. But really this is about replacing human contact with technical “problem management.” No robot can substitute for real life-face-to face human care and compassion.
Cuteness offers us a comforting retreat into childishness in the face of the inhuman technological future that we fear. It also gives us permission to be as passive and powerless as children in the face of threats.
And if cuteness can be used to conceal coercive power, it can also be weaponized as a tool of mass psychological manipulation.
In the twentieth century, two regimes attempted to mandate enforced happiness: Mao Zedong’s China and post-war America, with its ubiquitous message that things have never been so good. These two opposed political ideologies shared a belief in the crude behaviourism popular among psychiatrists and scientists of the 1950s–70s: the belief that you can force people to be happy by subjecting them to massive doses of cuteness.
The American version is more familiar: grinning housewives in pinafores, fawning over kitchen units, blenders and hoovers and men becoming aroused by barbecues and sports cars; the beaming sunlit faces of children expressing a joy previously unknown to mankind at the sight of products such as Fig Newtons and Ovaltine. But America’s bitterest ideological enemy was also conducting a vast behaviouralist experiment to manipulate the Chinese population into becoming childlike, ultra-conformist and sentimental by using happy imagery. Stalin and Hitler had their propaganda images of smiling children too, but it was the regime of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) that pioneered happy totalitarianism—a form of kitsch later aped by the dictatorship in North Korea.
The use of cuteness in Maoist aesthetics was based on the Soviet science of operant conditioning (for an example, consider Ivan Pavlov’s experiments on salivating dogs). The idea was to force people to believe that they had never been happier by bombarding them with uplifting stimuli like anthems, children’s parades, mantras from Mao’s Little Red Book and feel-good phrases, while banishing words and images of bad, sad and old things such as “old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.” Coupled with the belief that children were born as blank slates, this idea led to a utopian behaviourist fantasy that one could rebuild a communist paradise from the ruins of capitalism if only adults could regain the innocence and malleability of children.
As scholar Fengyuan Ji has explained, an idealised image of childhood was used as a model to recondition Chinese adults. Mao compared both children and workers to “a blank sheet of paper free from any mark,” on which “the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.” The process of erasing what was already written on those blackboards was forced on China’s entire population of six hundred million for a decade, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76.
In his 1963 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton has shown how China made public expressions of joy and happiness mandatory, enforced by rewards and punishments. The populace had to repeat song lyrics and phrases such as Long live Chairman Mao for ten thousand years and Anyone who sees Chairman Mao is the happiest person in the world. This mandatory performative cuteness heightened the sense of inescapable oppression. Fengyuan Ji reports that, by the mid 1970s, there were 141 million radio loudspeakers around the nation, blaring out joy-filled anthems and propaganda to 95% of workers and 65% percent of rural households. As one joyous CCP poster announced: Red loudspeakers are sounding through every home.
In an attempt to make the populace childlike and compliant, Mao unleashed an army of school-aged children, teenagers and students: the Red Guards, staffed by children as young as twelve. During their two-year reign of terror, the Red Guard children and youths became the policers of Mao’s enforced-positivity state, rooting out all negative elements and forcing older people to perform humiliating struggle sessions—public confessions that sometimes led to prison, torture and even death.
To live under the cultural revolution was to be constantly afraid of becoming the victim of false accusations, of being interrogated, starved and beaten for failing to meet impossible quotas and standards. But perhaps the most terrible humiliation of all was having to make daily public displays of ecstatic positive feelings about the future under communism. People were forced to join in with the totalitarian displays of childlike celebration, beneath images of an impossibly cute and joyous life that was ever more distant from the oppressive reality.
As Theodore Adorno, Clement Greenberg and Milan Kundera have argued, in dictatorships, kitsch is more than just an aesthetic: it is essential to the exercise of totalitarian power, which relies on the superposition of an entirely false world upon the real. As Kundera says, “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit.” It is a lie about a perfect, cute world which you are forced to treat as true—and that itself quickly becomes a daily torture. Smile and say that you are happy ten times—or we will shoot you.
Today, the behaviourist science on which Maoism relied has been mostly debunked. We know now that if you force people to repeat, we are happy, we are happy, we have never been so happy it only makes them miserable, resentful and unproductive. We also know that attempting to centrally plan every aspect of a nation’s social and economic life is unworkable. At least 40 million people died during Mao’s attempts to control and brainwash his populace. But while we no longer live in times of such genocide, Mao’s happy totalitarianism has much in common with today’s cute authoritarianism. Julia Lovell has argued that Maoism is “the revolutionary idea that still shapes the world,” even in the west. And it is also making a comeback among China’s Gen Z.
Corporate Joy Art
In 1996, John Perry Barlow (of the Grateful Dead) published a manifesto directly linking the collapse of the communist utopia with the rise of a digital utopia. He called it A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
The new utopia was supposed to be a fenced-off virtual space, a metaverse in which Big Tech corporations could create a better world. Facebook, Google and Microsoft together would save the planet. Do No Evil is Google’s motto. And, like all utopians, the Silicon Valley giants have their kitsch, just as Mao and Stalin did. It features racially nondescript young people in flat primary colours, in states of exuberant happiness. Once again, the art is about enforcing a view of life as cute and fun—though only this time it’s in service to a global tech utopia.
This graphic style is variously known as Memphis corporate, Big Tech art, flat art and Alegria art (Spanish for “joy”). The Alegria art style was created for Facebook by a design company called Buck, in 2017. It features cutesy, smiling figures drawn in a minimalistic 2D style, with skin in bright, non-naturalistic shades of pink, pastel green or blue. The figures have disproportionately large arms and legs and very often lack facial features altogether. These perpetually joyful cartoon people of the idealised tech future are always depicted in motion: dancing, running or hugging one another. Sometimes they carry cutely outsized objects—giant phones, hairbrushes or potted plants that express their happy energy. This is cuteness as a philosophy. The message here is that if we are super-duper nice and use Big Tech products, we will literally save the world.
Once again, there is a crude behaviourism at work here. As Amber Van Loo has argued, these bland flat Alegria figures with their non-realistic skin colours—”not specific in their ethnicity”—are an anti-racist, anti-discriminatory gesture. These are the perfect global citizens of the future: with no history, belonging everywhere and nowhere, without human depth, endlessly manipulable. The style is often pejoratively referred to as globohomo art: meaning that it involves globalized homogenization. The characters have no distinctive facial features because—like the human beings in all utopian imaginings—they are generic, bland, interchangeable and possess no real human qualities. Many faceless versions of Alegria exist in almost identical styles and are favoured by global corporations like Google, Slack, Lyft, YouTube, Hinge and Airtable. The facelessness of the figures accidentally reveals their purpose: to uphold faceless technocracy.
The cuteness of corporate Alegria art is often used to obscure agendas and conceal corporate malpractice. It distracts from the way in which Big Tech steals our personal data and shares it with government agencies and the military and coerces us into behavioural experiments to make us more addicted to its products. It keeps us from thinking about the billions it is investing in bio tech and Big Pharma and in promoting the transhumanist agenda. We know that Big Tech is guilty of both suppressing and boosting news stories for partisan political aims, that it profits from the spread of the global industry of hardcore pornography, that its search engines display political bias and suppress freedom of speech.
As with Maoism, the cuteness of Silicon Valley’s art is a means of concealing its power.
There are a few striking parallels between Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Rainbow Rebellion of identity activism in the 2020s. Both ideologies deploy kitsch for political purposes. In the case of rainbow identity politics, this has evolved from the gay camp that Susan Sontag explored back in the swinging 60s, but also from kawaii, cosplay and drag, which stress-test the limits of the acceptable. The cute is here an ironic rebellion against social norms, argues Simon May in his book The Power of Cute. “Cuteness is queer,” writes May. Through hybrid mythical figures like the hermaphrodite and the sphinx, the cute “beguiles us” by “distorting the values of gender, age, morality, and even species into something playfully indeterminate.”
There are some other similarities between these movements that even rainbow activists might agree with—especially since many of them are sympathetic to communism. (I say this as a bisexual man who was once a member of a Revolutionary Communist party). Both rainbow activism and Maoism share a strong belief in behaviourist linguistic engineering: in the designation of some words as good and others as bad, in the censorship of words, the cancellation of people and the imposition of compelled speech. The very Maoist idea has re-emerged that we can build a new egalitarian, queer, tolerant society, if we simply police all language, images and behaviours and force the populace to use the new rainbow-coloured lingo.
This involves using correct and affirmative words, chants and slogans like mantras, to repel political enemies. This new revolutionary language is based on tearing down the old language of history and discrimination, on the basis that all prescribed forms of identity are oppressive social constructs, bearing the dead weight of history. New pronouns are needed for a new rainbow youth that is free from the past, new forms for a reborn Red Guard.
Both rainbow identity politics and Maoist Communism share a belief in the child born without the taint of history, identity or—today—even gender: an idealised child, a blank page that can have revolutionary purpose written upon it. The important thing is to get to the children early, so that the new revolutionary message becomes engrained before the old order has a chance to instil its outdated, oppressive hegemonic values.
The rainbow flag itself is an expression of this idealisation of childhood innocence, of hope for all the world, in much the same way as the Red Flag stood for a new world rising from the blood of the old. Mao too was depicted using a sky metaphor—as the rising sun.
As in communist kitsch, rainbow identity activism’s deliberate use of cuteness blurs the distinction between childhood and adulthood. This can be valuable when consenting adults do this in order to play with identity and challenge the predetermined rules of adulthood. But it is more sinister when the purpose is to influence children. Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the rainbow radicalism of today both recruit children for political purposes in public arenas. Today it is done through infant exposure to rainbow ideology, performers and texts. As with Maoism, children are celebrated as agents of radical change. Their cuteness is a strategic political tool.
Rainbow identity activism has been championed by both Big Tech and big government. It is used by these increasingly interconnected powers as a way to institute greater hi-tech civilian surveillance, restrict freedom of speech and mandate compelled speech. Since 2000, new hate speech laws have been introduced in over twenty countries, including my own, under the excuse of protecting LGBT individuals, along with other protected groups. The rainbow flag is waved, care, kindness and protection are invoked, and then we are treated like children in a behaviourist experiment whose every word has to be monitored.
Dissident Milan Kundera, who fled communist Czechoslovakia in 1969, once heard a speech in which a communist leader declared, “Children, you are the future.” He comments:
today I realise he did not mean it the way it sounded. The reason children are the future is not that one day they will be grownups. No, the reason is that mankind is moving more and more in the direction of infancy and childhood is the image of the future.
Whether it is done by activist groups, nudge units, advertisers, the transhumanists of Big Tech, the military or big government, cuteness is no longer innocent: it has become strategic and coercive. It is the attempt to compel us into being as malleable as little children. New forms of power are now evolving, and they are using cuteness to mask their real purposes. We need to confront their real agendas directly. It’s high time we stripped away the veneer of cuteness from the authoritarianism that is on the rise, all around us.