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Control doesn’t scale

I sometimes put up a Powerpoint (well, Keynote) slide that says “Control doesn’t scale.”The assumption that large projects only succeed if they’re centrally controls led and managed turns out to have been true because we limited the scope of what we we considered realistic. You can build a Britannica using a centrally controlled system, but you could not build a Wikipedia that way.

But I know that there are some important counter-examples, so I’ll frequently add, “Except at an huge cost in expense and freedom,” for we know all too well that some regimes have managed to maintain intense control over massive populations for generations.

Today there’s an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald with Isaac Mao, pioneering Chinese blogger and Berkman fellow, in which he says the Chinese authorities are unable to keep up with increasing volume of social communications the 108M bloggers, millions in social networks, and people texting and twittering away.

So, maybe control doesn’t scale after all.

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6 Responses to “Control doesn’t scale”

  1. More proof that 1.6 billion Muslims under the thrall of OBL. It don’t scale.

  2. Whoops. Are not under the control of OBL.

  3. David,

    Lets not forget that control can also be “social”. Lots of police states and dictatorships throughout history have relied on peers denouncing peers to keep people under an iron fist. The same principles that can be used to foster freedom can be “reversed” for the direct opposite results.

  4. Control scales really well – there’s lots of history that demonstrates this principle. Control scales either through direct coercion and threat, or it scales through hegemony and concertive control.

    In the former case, as the population to be controlled increases, the ratio of controllers to controllees approaches 1:1 (see East Germany under the Stazi as an example). The example of China you give demonstrates what happens when the number of controllers is insufficient to maintain this ratio. In the latter case (hegemony and concertive control, both of which are social and scale very effectively), the ratio is much lower, since coercion-wielding authorities only have to deal with those who effectively become social pariahs.

    The interesting situation occurs when a previously hegemonically controlled society begins to move away from accepting the hegemonic culture (e.g., as with the rise of the “organic intellectuals” according to Gramsci). That situation, viewed through the lens of complexity, describes many of the phenomena we’re observing that occur in the context of social networking environments, among those who have not been entirely socialized into the former cultural hegemony (ie. the so-called younger demographic).

  5. Interesting way of putting it but I have been saying the same thing for many years. But I wouldn’t agree that this statement is true on an absolute scale.

    When a social system is relatively homogenous because of i e the existence of one culture, religion, or a developed nationalism. In an abstract and far fetched meaning these kinds of structures can be regarded as lack freedom. When the control span reaches over a certain volume these are probably necessary components in the toolbox of the leaders. This exactly why the control of broadcasting media is so important if you wan’t to be in control.

    What is happening today is that centrally controlled broadcasting media is rapidly being replaced by a much more granular and distributed media structure.

    In some sense we are closer to global and individual telepathy than we have ever been. And when the social media technologies are helping all those individuals organize by providing simple but extremely powerful bottom-up organizing tools like efficient search engines lite Google and Technorati and collaborate tagging the speed of emergence of new bottom-up structures is accelerating quickly.

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