Revolt of the Public

February 01, 2024 [books] #political-theory #the-internet

Book: Revolt of the Public
Author: Martin Gurri

No book predicted the present moment like this one did, when it was published in 2014. How did we get here, where there is general distate for liberal democracy widely across the world, and even more contempt for the elites and experts who our parents and those before them trusted?

This is Martin Gurri's thesis: “An affluent, well-educated, hyper-connected public is in revolt against the system that has bestowed all of this bounty upon it. The great motive power of the revolt isn’t economic resentment but outrage over distance and failure. Everyday life is increasingly digital and networked. From dating to hailing a cab, most social and commercial transactions occur at the speed of light. This mode of life incessantly collides with the lumbering hierarchies we have inherited from the industrial age. Modern government, above all, is institutionally unable to grasp that it has lost its monopoly over political reality."

The answer, in short, is the Internet. When information is scarce, as it was for most of human history, the structures that control the flow of information retain and exercise their power. This includes not just governments and governmental organizations, but also news institutions in the 20th century. Thus, the New York Times was a news paper of record, and only the internet could reveal how often they are wrong, and consistently at that. Same goes for Washington Post. By offering many alternating narratives chaining the same facts, they bleed legitimacy from these storied institutions. Similar afflictions ail democratic institutions. Politicians overstretch and overpromise what they can never fulfill. As long as the people are kept entertained and information flow curtailed, no one had to think about ever replacing it. That world no longer exists. So it is that Hillary Clinton’s email server, a story that could have been buried in another era, took most of the news space. No matter how hard the Times, Post, or Twitter tried to bury the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop, it refused to die and lives on, yet another representation of the elite’s control of the information they don’t like.

Growth in information has historically been slow and additive. It’s exponential now. This is new territory for human beings. This has made uncertainty a part of life. Once monopoly on information is lost, so is trust.

Every presidential statement, every CIA assessment, every investigative report by a great newspaper, suddenly acquired an arbitrary aspect, and seemed grounded in moral predilection rather than intellectual rigor. When proof for and against approaches infinity, a cloud of suspicion about cherry-picking data will hang over every authoritative judgment.

Authority and the Public

Gurri presents his thesis via one singular frame: that of authority versus the public. Authority is a source. We believe a report, obey a command, or accept a judgment because of the standing of the originator. These have always been institutions because institutions transcend generations. Individuals confer prestige to such institutions, but also vice versa. Thus Walter Cronkite made CBS news, but he is gone now and CBS is here in other forms. Authority is government office-holders, regulators, the bureaucracy, the military, the police, corporations, financial institutions, universities, mass media, politicians, the scientific research industry, think tanks and "nongovernmental organizations," endowed foundations and other nonprofit organizations, the visual and performing arts business. Each of these institutions speaks as an authority in some domain.

Public is everything that’s not authority. It’s not just a fixed body of individuals, but different vital communities, organized on the internet over affairs of interest. The public, defined against authority, took shape in the early days of 21st century in the figure of the blogger. They speak when there should be silence, and utter what should never be said. They trample on the sanctities, in the judgment of the great hierarchical institutions which for a century and half have controlled, from the top down, authoritatively, the content of every public conversation. Thus we have Hossein Derakhshan, an American-Iranian blogger who was imprisoned in Iran from 2008 to 2014 because he became a nuisance to powers that be. We also have Steve McIntyre, who persistently made FOIA requests for datasets used in papers from Climate Research Institute, East Anglia. Emails exchanged show how tribal even the practitioners of the scientific method could get. Here’s Mann, head of CRU, when another peer-reviewed paper that did not toe the official line, was published in the magazine Climate Research:

So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.

Disgusted by the “crap science” in Climate Research, Tom Wigley, a senior figure at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, proposed going “direct to the publishers and point out the fact that their journal is being perceived as a medium for disseminating disinformation under the guise of refereed work.” This was revealed in 2009. We see similar attitude now, with COVID, its origins, vaccines and so on.

Gurri is far too humble to entirely credit the above framing when talking about the Green Revolution, or the Orange one in Ukraine, or the ones in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. He understands that even the simplest human events constitute complex systems ruled by nonlinearities. As with all models of the world, his is just very useful.

It is important to note that the public is not the majority of people, it’s an amorphous something that aims for speak for them. Thus in Egypt, when 13 million people voted for Morsi in 2013, the people were spoken for. But there were protests and he had to step down. The public is not the crowd, it mediates the transformation of the crowd into a symbolic force. It can seize on a event, like demonstrations in Istanbul against the demolition of a park, then mobilize its organs of opinion on behalf of the demonstrators, in the process adding sentiment and meaning that may not have been present in the actual event. Used in this manner, the crowd becomes an instrument to communicate public opinion. The “Occupy” groups in the US, with tiny numbers on the street compared to Egypt’s protesters, still claimed to represent the “99 percent” against the predations of the elite.

Nihilism all the way down

So here we are: we know democratic governments are failing, when politicians speak, we do not believe them, when experts in a domain speak as authority, we most definitely do not trust them. This is a nihilist’s world. While our news papers of record and the governments are obsessed with social media and fake news, what they are really conveying to us is their lack of narrative control and disappearing legitimacy.

So what is to be done? Gurri has an addendum. But it’s a wish more than a concrete plan of action. He says, “When it comes to economic questions, politicians should be rewarded for the modesty of their claims rather than the heroic ambition of their rhetoric. Sitting presidents should be applauded for discarding the pose of papal infallibility, and speaking about uncertainty, risk, and trade-offs. The more people we elect to office who grasp the concept of trial and error, which means nothing more than learning from mistakes, the happier we should be.”

Do you imagine there ever will such a world? I don’t. The best thing a book can do for you is give you different ways of thinking about the world. By that standard, I have not read anything that explains the present moment as well as this one.

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