People’s Republic of Desire: A Distillation of Digital Dystopia in a Documentary

Thursday 22nd, November 2018 / 08:00
By Dayna Mahannah

If you knew the inner workings of your favourite social media platform, would you still risk using it? The inside knowledge Hao Wu gained during his days in Silicon Valley and in China’s tech industry has coloured his filmmaking career with a garish truth. His latest film, People’s Republic of Desire, force-feeds us the stark reality of what we give up when we give ourselves to the whims of an apathetic algorithm designed under capitalist ideals.

“For [those] that came from nothing, live streaming is one of the few ways in China for poor people to make it, for young people to make it,” Wu says over the phone from New York. “Most of the time they are looking for fame, fortune, and human connection.”

The effects of social media addiction that Wu highlights in People’s Republic of Desire is no mainstream media spoon-feed. Following two young “hosts” of China’s mega-popular live streaming platform,, we become close with their consuming relationships to the site—so close, in fact, one almost forgets the hyper-surreal film is a documentary.

“If you want to find happiness online, it’s almost impossible,” Wu says, who was originally trained as a molecular biologist. “Or it’s counterproductive.”

But it’s tempting. Technology is at our fingertips 24 hours a day. As the noise and inundation of information, work, and expenses shroud our daily lives, the outlets we use to decompress adapt to what those dominating factors allow. “All of these things that are supposedly making our lives easier stress us out in some way,” says Dr. Michael Kiraly, who has a PhD in neuroendocrinology and teaches biology at Capilano University in Vancouver, Canada. By deferring to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, people are distracting themselves rather than developing effective coping strategies. “Even social media itself raises cortisol levels.”

Hao Wu, who worked with Alibaba and Yahoo in China before becoming the country manager for TripAdvisor, wasn’t always aware of tech’s persuasive role in the human condition. “From the filmmaker’s side, I can see what the technologies are doing,” he says. “When I was on the other side, I thought I was doing something good. I was the one who tried to understand user needs and tried to satisfy them. I was trying to make them stay longer on the website.”

For the characters in People’s Republic of Desire, live streaming is lucrative. Shen Man sings for her followers; Li Xianliang is a comedian. Collectively, their income is $100,000 a year—sent by their fans and patrons via virtual gifts and donations. The triangular relationship appears beneficial for all, but the compromises they have to make surface quickly. “Is it worth it to work all these hours to make money and then you don’t have time for your family or personal friendships?” Wu questions. “It’s the same thing if you ask anybody… ask bankers, ask lawyers. Is that worth it?”

The characters’ internal and external lives change slowly, according the needs of the platform. Referring to a recent study based on people who used social media for two hours a day, Dr. Kiraly says their brains physically changed. “It was based on brain scans—people that were social media users had less-developed parts of the brain that were involved in regulating emotions and impulsivity.”

Hao Wu was astounded by the complexity of the framework behind the live streaming platform. “You can project onto the system. Whatever you want to have, the system will come up with a way to satisfy it.” Wu simplified the live streaming platform in the film to make the portrayal more digestible. “Once [the system] understands that the user needs are met, it can quickly develop some new way to meet it.” But can an organic desire bloom so quickly?

Wu discovered that the live streaming platform was “the biggest wizard of all”—an endless process of manufacturing desire. When our vulnerability is the product, this digital business is a dangerous concept to humanity. “The platform understands all these different users’ wants, what they’re looking for. They design the game in order to extract the maximum profit,” he says. “In that way, the platform is just like capitalism. Mentally, we can always be taken advantage of if we have those desires.”

Wu has gained a new perspective on the potential pitfalls of technology, and has since majorly decreased his own social media use. It’s this diligence that he believes will allow people to regain agency over the digital sphere; “The consumer has to be vigilant about what they are looking for.”

Dr. Kiraly recognizes basic instincts at play, too. “We’re social animals. We benefit from having a good social network—a real social network,” he says. “Not virtual friends, but real friends that we can actually feel.” He believes kids may be the answer to a potential digital dystopia—therein lies the opportunity to educate them now for a future that has hope of real human connection.

And Wu? “As a father, definitely no phones for my kids.” His tone is serious. “Other than when they are sooooo noisy I have to show them some cartoon videos. But other than that—definitely—they won’t touch my phone. For a long time.”

People’s Republic of Desire hits theatres on November 30 in the US. Help make this film available everywhere! Only two days left to contribute to Hao’s Kickstarter Campaign, which will help cover distribution costs. Ends Friday, November 23 at 9 p.m. PST.