China's Game Controllers Ignore Emergent Order

from the emergent-order-is-important dept

Last week, China restricted children under 18 to three weekend hours of video games per week. If you’re a parent of a Minecraft- or Fortnite-obsessed child, you may be wondering why the U.S. doesn’t do something similar. But China’s move against juvenile gaming is just the Chinese government’s latest salvo in their barrage of attempts to control internet technology. Their centralized approach is one that we in the U.S. have historically rejected and should continue to reject.

China’s Great Firewall has long cut off the Chinese people’s access to much of the global internet. But recent actions in China focus on its own tech companies. These moves include passing a stringent new privacy law (which offers no protection from government spying) and tough new antitrust restrictions. China also blocked internet finance company Ant’s I.P.O., fined e-commerce company Alibaba 18.2 billion yuan and has heavily regulated online lenders, rapidly reducing their numbers from 5,000 to six as of September 2020. One prominent financial tycoon was abducted in Hong Kong, taken to China, and is apparently under house arrest while Chinese regulators seize and dismantle his companies. The crackdown expands beyond tech companies to users – Chinese police have arrested social media stars for on-camera eating as part of a campaign against food waste. It is, according to commentary circulated by Chinese state media, a “profound revolution” against “the chaos of big capital” and “a return to the Communist Party of China’s initial aspirations, a return to people as the center, and a return to the essence of socialism.”

In short, China’s leaders are grasping to centralize control. And their method is to label individualism as a vice rather than a virtue.

China’s leaders fear that they are losing control of markets and society, especially in the digital age.

They are right. But as I argue in my forthcoming book, Getting Out of Control: Emergent Leadership in a Complex World, control is overrated – and often it is counterproductive. Complex systems like markets are characterized by emergent order, with robust and productive patterns forming from the interactions of many individual participants following relatively simple rules. These patterns cannot be anticipated or centrally designed, because the knowledge they embody is produced by the individuals grappling with the situations in front of them.

Attempts to centrally control such systems eliminate much of the nuance and knowledge contained within them. The result is a simplistic, centralized system that leaves most participants worse off than they were under the emergent order produced by the complex, decentralized system. Unsurprisingly, those who are better off under centralized systems tend to be those at the center – those in control. Their control comes at the expense of everyone else’s welfare.

I don’t expect this argument to persuade China’s leaders to change their path, although for their citizens’ sake I wish they would. But it might help guide our path here in the U.S. The U.S. character – and our Constitution – would never permit the kind of full-bore government centralization that China has undertaken. Yet the technocratic desire to be in control, especially in times of rapid change, is alive and well here. 

Indeed, many of the ideas China has adopted are floating around U.S. academia and even Capitol Hill. Breaking up big tech, regulating new technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, regulating what kind of speech cannot or must be allowed on social media sites, limiting the use of encryption – these are increasingly common sentiments across the U.S. political spectrum. Sen. Josh Hawley’s proposed bill to ban “infinite scroll” on phone apps would fit in seamlessly with the Chinese government’s diktats.

It’s as if China is taking the most precautionary policies from US academics, advocates, and lawmakers and implementing them via boot, truncheon, and machine gun. In fact, China’s commercial privacy law – created by a government that surveilles its citizens relentlessly – has drawn praise from some U.S. tech policy leaders who seem to wish we in the U.S. could ram through such onerous laws without the inconveniences of the democratic process.

But America’s strengths include our embrace of individualism, couched appropriately within functioning institutions (themselves artifacts of emergent order), and our willingness to participate in complex systems where no one seems to be in control. These strengths have made the U.S. an economic powerhouse, home to many great innovators in technology and businesses, and the source of creative expression that entertains and educates the world.

As tech analyst Ben Thompson has argued, let’s not do a pale imitation of China’s attempt to stamp out individualism and centralize control. Instead, let’s double down on freeing the individual to create solutions to the problems they and others face.

Even if that means you, not the government, has to tell your kid to put down the game controller.

Neil Chilson is a senior technology and innovation research fellow at Stand Together and former Chief Technologist at the Federal Trade Commission. His new book, “Getting Out of Control: Emergent Leadership in a Complex World,” will be released on September 23.

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Comments on “China's Game Controllers Ignore Emergent Order”

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Anonymous Coward says:

One of the reason the soviet union collapsed is top down central control was grossly ineffecient and mainly helped top level government officials and cronys rather than ordinary citizens , it turns out the free market with light touch regulation provides more goods for consumers and chances for startups to grow and thrive rather than central government control
But China has an advantage in that it has millions of techies and engineers who work 9 hours a day 6 days a week with no union to
ask for higher wages or to ask for lower working hours
The Chinese are clamping down on gamers and celebs and tech company’s because they
do not want any sector to have more power or influence than the government eg if the consumer has too much choice or sources of entertainment they might start to ask why do we need the communist party

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One of the reason the soviet union collapsed is top down central control was grossly ineffecient and mainly helped top level government officials and cronys rather than ordinary citizens

Though a far larger one was the western religious crusade that turned the union into a boogeymen and cut off all western flow of money.
If not for that it’s unlikely the hoarding methodology would have been a factor in the republics. It’s yet to collapse the US despite a century of the same activity by politicians.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Though a far larger one was the western religious crusade that turned the union into a boogeymen and cut off all western flow of money."

Well, no…the sanctions did cause issues but what truly broke the USSR was the fact that by the time they finally gained an enlightened chairman in Gorbachev the country had been collapsing for well over two generations. The total absence of a free market, the reliance on ideology as the sole incentive for workers, state-sponsored research being the only focus of research topics, massive information blackouts and government censorship, ideological quacks being allowed to design the plan of research, agriculture and economy (Stalin’s ape-man supersoldier research, the always-failing five year plans, Kruschev virtually eradicating their farmers, etc)…

Countries as a whole generally have massive resilience against fiscal collapse, a crippled economy mainly meaning the living conditions of the citizenry slowly erodes until revolution finally happens. But eventually, after generations, break point happens.

Sanctions do absolutely nothing except hit the country in question right in the citizenry – which the leadership of such nations generally don’t give a single solitary fsck about.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"One of the reason the soviet union collapsed is top down central control was grossly ineffecient and mainly helped top level government officials and cronys rather than ordinary citizens"

True enough but the USSR isn’t China – China’s marketplace is still, all government control notwithstanding, rivaling that of the US. The USSR believed the market an unnecessary evil and tried to do completely without. That, in the end, was what broke them.

"it turns out the free market with light touch regulation provides more goods for consumers and chances for startups to grow and thrive rather than central government control…"

Which is still what China has. What we’re currently seeing is a very old traditional mechanism in action – the chinese bureaucracy cracking down on any non-government entity becoming too influential at home. Like the crackdowns on buddhism and shaolin sects a thousand years ago, the various triad purges, the suppression of Falun Gong, etc…this is just the latest iteration of "oh, entity X is becoming too big and influential, and isn’t part of the imperial doctrine. Let’s drop the hammer".

"…if the consumer has too much choice or sources of entertainment they might start to ask why do we need the communist party"

Not quite true. Imperial China will gladly see to it that the populace is well provided with a plentitude of choices and sources of entertainment – as long as those choices are all directly linked to the government. A happy, prosperous and complacent population is the recipe for stability they’ve adhered to for the last three thousand years.

It strikes me that almost every political analyst looking at China keeps missing the point by viewing their actions from a western political perspective, tossing around keywords like "communism" and comparisons to the USSR when what really has happened is that a thoroughly capitalistic feudalist oligarchy is simply handing a smackdown on business entities who’ve grown influential enough to begin undermining the power of Emperor Xi.

China was never communist, or even striving for that state, as even the basic tenets of Maoism will tell you – because you don’t get to communism by lauding the righteous borgoisie, landowners and capitalists as a "vital part of society". Communism is where you want to rid yourself of those concepts.
Marx has no traction in a nation whose core politics and values have remained a sort of enlightened feudalism polished through pragmatism for thousands of years.

China has done this exact sort of thing many times; At worst it means China’s pendulum swings between decadent complacency and resurgence. Currently they’re in the resurgent phase, emerging from what they term "the century of humiliation". They aren’t going to collapse like the USSR.

Anonymous Coward says:

Did you really publish a 'Pro Hyper-Individualist' rant now?

No, seriously. Did Tech Dirt just publish a ‘Pro Hyper-Individualist’ rant in the middle of a pandemic where thousands are dying by the day and more and more of those are people dying are because they are being denied care due to the ‘Individualists’ in the US are taking up all the hospital bed space because they wont get vaccinated and wont properly wear masks?

And you’re running an article encouraging people to be -more- individualist like the United States!?

Are you out of your minds or just high on your own supply?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Did you really publish a 'Pro Hyper-Individualist' rant

The article didn’t mention selfishness, but it seems pretty obvious to me that it is a virtue when you’re up against a state trying to deprive you of nice things. Nothing noble about being walked all over. Without workers selfishly wanting better conditions, we wouldn’t have the 8 hour day/40 hour week.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Did you really publish a 'Pro Hyper-Individualist' rant

"Only US Americans believe that!"

A case can be made that "enlightened self-interest" is a virtue – that’s where the european middle class worker pays their taxes knowing it pays for the education, law enforcement, public services and health care for themselves and their children…

…but as far as I know the US stands alone in adopting Ayn Rand’s philosophy of "greed and avarice über alles" as a religious tenet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Did you really publish a 'Pro Hyper-Individualist' rant now?

I could ask you the same question given your black and white thinking for matters clearly peripheral to the issue in question and on a case by case basis at best. A collectivist bad response to a pandemic is basically a suicide pact. Funeral rituals of a more collectivist culture spread spread ebola for one (tribal oriented identities certainly qualify as collectivist, just on a smaller scale).

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"So… the workers control the means of production?"

China has always been socialist – as in, every enlightened emperor has strived to keep their citizenry happy, prosperous and complacent, in order to nurture stability.

It’s also always been extremely capitalistic. And the recent experiment in having the empire lack a single figurehead notwithstanding that hasn’t changed.

Communism, however, was always a talking point about as serious as the Snake Oil sold by 18th century quacks in the wild west.

The recipe aimed for has always been to keep 90% of the populace happy enough not to want to see the government gone. By any means. Along that road any non-government entity becoming big enough to undermine the writ of the emperor – buddhism, falun gong, triads and sects, shaolin temples, or Alibaba – will be cracked down upon.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

America saddles their youth with student debt and no jobs, even the shitty ones.

China wants more warm bodies to die in their future forever wars.

Both sides hate their youth. They just express their hate differently. The only difference is that in the US, it’s not a crime to talk about the social issues affecting the youth.

I await China’s paid harassment army to jump on and harass us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Realistically, you could swap the countries around in the first two sentences and it’d still be pretty accurate. The US is not going to stop adding warm bodies to its armed forces; if not the armed forces, then the local police to keep the proles in line. As for China, you’d only need to look at how families pool their money together just so Junior can afford expensive preparatory tuition to ace the imperial exams, or get a third property to woo a prospective spouse, ruining their own finances as a result while China sacks its own overworked, underpaid tech sector.

Hatred of youth follows the same patterns no matter where you are. You toss youth into jobs that can’t support them based on current costs of living, doing menial tasks that previous generations shun, lecture them for not being successful enough "because you’ve been borne into a world of increased opportunity", and insist on keeping the status quo, rejecting all possibility for change by insinuating that any suffering on part of the youth is due to their moral failure.

China punishes the discussion of social issues affecting the youth because to them, it’s an opportunity to show off to the rest of the world how they’ve succeed where Western ideologies of democracy and citizen-level freedom have failed. The rest of the developed world doesn’t really bother. They’re not in a position to shift the needle, nor do they have any desire to besides the usual vague cries of "Something must be done", probably followed by a "meh" and shrug at this point.

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