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.