The Race Between Complexity and Control

The Race Between Complexity and Control

A networked world is a less predictable world. There are ways to make it more predictable. But you're not going to like them.

A networked world is a less predictable world. There are ways to make it more predictable. But you're not going to like them.

In 2017, Alyssa Milano urged her social media followers to post the words "me too" alongside their personal experiences of sexual harassment. Within days, millions of women shared or commented on such posts. The #MeToo hashtag was trending on Twitter. A new movement was born, carried on the wings of a social media meme.

The American #MeToo movement inspired Luo Qianqian, a Chinese citizen, to share her own story of sexual assault by a professor in Beijing, first on an online forum and later in an open letter that circulated online. Thousands of Chinese women followed in Luo's footsteps, sharing their stories of university and workplace harassment on platforms such as Weibo and Wechat, using the hashtags #MeToo, #MeToo在中国# ("MeToo in China") and #我也是 ("Me Too," in Chinese).

Within weeks, Beihang University in Beijing removed Luo's assailant, Professor Chan Xiaowu, from his post and "revoked his teaching credentials." The university did so after an internal investigation "had established that Chen had sexually harassed students." Several institutions took similar action against those accused of similar acts.

Change was in the air. But not for long. Sexual harassment is not a political issue per se, but the Chinese Communist Party is wary of all mass movements, whether they focus on politics, music, or gender. Soon enough, authorities began blocking the #MeToo hashtags and posts from China's social media platforms.

But internet users found clever ways to work around the ban. They started posting an emoji of a rice bowl and a rabbit — #🍚🐰. Rice in Chinese is pronounced "mi" and rabbit is pronounced "tu"; together, the two emojis were a clever way to write "me too" without alerting the censors.

Innovations of this kind are common in China, a country that employs tens of thousands of internet "cops," bans foreign-owned social media, and requires its own giants to censor an ever-changing list of topics. But doing so in practice is hard, even for the world's most formidable surveillance state.

Controlling the internet is not enough. Ideas can slip through the cracks or hit the country from the outside. In November 2021, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted on her Weibo account a lengthy account of a forced sexual affair with Zhang Gaoli, a retired Chinese vice-premier and member of the country's powerful Politburo Standing Committee. The post was quickly deleted, but it was online long enough for multiple people and media organizations to notice.

Following the post, Peng disappeared. But the story was already out. Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and other tennis stars used Twitter and Instagram to call for Peng's release and an investigation into her allegations. The posts were shared, liked, and seen by millions of people, and the hashtag #whereispengshuai was trending. Following the uproar, the Women's Tennis Association suspended all events in China.

As for Peng, she resurfaced two weeks after her initial disappearance, sitting for an interview with state-owned media. A year after she made her accusations, she has not left China and does not seem to be in direct (and free) contact with anyone on the outside.

Meanwhile, Peng's alleged abuser, Zhang Gaoli, was recently honored with a front-row seat at China's most important (and most televised) political meeting. Zhang appeared alongside the country's current and former leaders. His appearance was perceived as an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to flaunt its power and defy international criticism.  

But the party is terrified of the flow of ideas, and rightfully so. A single meme can start a revolution or finance an army. When Chinese athletes, students, and business people travel the world, censoring domestic media is not enough. And even figuring out what to censor seems like an increasingly difficult task.  

Earlier this year, Chinese netizens started posting about events in the Netherlands, calling on the people of Amsterdam to rise up and take what's theirs. The Chinese word for the Netherlands, Helan (荷兰), sounds a lot like Henan (河南), the name of a Chinese province. The netizens were expressing support for protesters in Henan province who were trying to retrieve funds frozen by China's state-owned banks.

How do you censor such a story? Do you delete all posts that mention the word "Netherlands"? And then ban the word that netizens use next. Ultimately, you have to restrict or drastically slow down all communication.

What is the price of slowing down all communication? How does it affect business and innovation? How does it impact economic growth? An economy cannot function without some flow of reliable signals. On the other hand, social media spread information at a scale and speed that can trigger cascades that disrupt social order and can even topple whole governments.

This challenge is not unique to China. All governments are caught in what I call the race between complexity and control. Prosperity is contingent on embracing technologies that make the world too complex to manage or comprehend. But further growth only makes the world harder to govern and more prone to large, unpredictable events.

More connectivity results in more volatility, at least up to a point. Those in power must constantly come up with new ways to keep things under control.

The challenge is most acute for governments, but it also applies to businesses. Even managing a group of employees is not as simple as it once was. Not only are employees better informed and better distracted. But the work itself is no longer clear. In a world of abundance, attention is the critical component of a product's success, more important than its objective qualities or usefulness.

The complex dynamics that govern the flow of memes on social networks are the kingmakers of the 21st Century. But no one is in charge, and it is in no one's power to determine which ideas end up spreading fast and wide.

There are ways to manipulate the flow of information or to slow it down. But these come at a cost. And, when dealing with an adaptive environment, any successful strategy will likely have diminishing returns. It will work for a while, get imitated, and lose efficacy.

Ultimately, we all participate in the race between complexity and control. We are trying to survive and thrive and stand out and find a stable footing. We must play the game, facing more opportunities and more uncertainty than ever.

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