New Clay Shirky book on how China challenges western Internet firms and vice-versa


Clay Shirky writes, "I wrote about the mobile phone manufacturing powerhouse and tech innovator, Xiaomi, for Columbia Global Reports, looking at both what makes Xiaomi so successful (they were founded when it was possible to take ecommerce and social media for granted, basically), and at the challenge internet services firms face operating in China."

I will read anything Clay writes, but when he's writing about the intersection of Chinese manufacturing and the Western Internet, man, is that ever in my zone.

Many observers, including me, believed that of the two categories on offer under the Westphalian system--the free movement of money, and the restricted movement of people--that information would behave more like money. (This was an easy belief to hold, since money is increasingly made of information.) China, remarkably, has managed to create an alternate path, building a country where information moves like people, in highly identified and constrained ways, with the government always reserving the right to refuse entry from elsewhere, along with the ability to apprehend rogue information locally. They have achieved this in part through deep technical competence, in part through consistent national investment, and in part because schemes that sound daft in an American context--hire an army of people to flood social media with positive comments about the government--are achievable given the availability of cheap labor. Here again the scale staggers; bathing in decades of sweat after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese spend more on internal security than on their military, and they have the largest standing army in the world.

For a long time--up until this decade, in fact--the Chinese didn't have much trouble keeping computers under control. Citizens didn't own many, telecom providers were state-owned, and the cost of hardware and bandwidth meant that many young men (the principal source of any government's internal worries) had to use the internet in cybercafes (big business in China until a couple of years ago), which simplified surveillance. As long as computers were pricy and rare, government oversight was relatively manageable. This sort of surveillance only worked so long as most citizens didn't have computers, which in turn meant that it only worked so long as mobile phones were just phones. That too remained true up through the end of the last decade. Up to about 2009, phones only came with two communicative features--calling and texting. Smartphones change that calculation.

Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
[Clay Shirky/Global Reports]

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