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The information tsunami that rolled over the elites
Martin Gurri / laif

The information tsunami that rolled over the elites

A digital earthquake has shaken up the relationship between traditional authorities and the public. They must be reconciled if democracy is to prevail.

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The threat to representative democracy in the 20th century came from predictable sources: war, economic failure, and the appeal of rival systems. A decade after the horrors of World War I, the Great Depression pauperized millions in democratic nations and seemed to mark the end of a long experiment that had yoked political freedom to the marketplace. Oppressive new systems of government arose that offered themselves as superior alternatives to the chaos of parties and parliaments: Marxism-Leninism in Russia, fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany. For half a century, in a continuous bloodbath, these totalitarian dictatorships fought a succession of global wars against democracy. But by 1991, the conflict was over. Fascism and Nazism had been defeated militarily, the Soviet Union had gone out of business, and the democratic principle had triumphed everywhere. In the tranquil prosperity of the post-Cold War years, Francis Fukuyama could discern “the end of history.”

Democracy in the 21st century confronts a new and unexpected threat. There are no rivals on the horizon. Fascism and Marxism-Leninism are museum relics. I doubt one could find a dozen Americans eccentric enough to seek the overthrow of the government on behalf of the “Chinese model” or Putinism. Democracy has survived so far in part because it’s the only game in town.

Similarly, the economies of the democratic world remain reasonably strong. For all the hardship, 2008 was never 1929 – and in any case recent moments of economic weakness, like 2008 and the present pandemic-inspired recession, saw the lowest levels of political turmoil.

There are no great political questions dividing us and no terrible foreign wars to be fought. Despite talk of a “new civil war” in the United States, few American citizens are willing to kill or die over the difference a few tens of thousands of immigrants would make or over banning Facebook and Twitter from posting fake news. That “nationalism” is currently embodied by Donald Trump is all one needs to say about its incoherence. That “socialism” is associated with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn makes it a form of senile dementia. As for foreign wars, the last major conflict fought by a democratic nation was Iraq in 2003. There continue to be ineffectual interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, the Levant, and elsewhere, and, given the tactics of terrorism and the amplifying effect of media, there is among the public the uneasy feeling that the world is an eternal struggle. Both the ineffectiveness and the uneasiness, however, are also surface symptoms rather than meaningful threats.

Democracy today is afflicted by an internal malady: a crisis of authority that has paralyzed not just democratic government but all the great institutions that organize modern life. The sickness is progressive and must be held responsible for the confusion and demoralization of the elite class, the fracturing of society into mutually hostile war-bands, the relentless anger of the public, and the constant eruption from below of protests fueled by a will to negation tipping over, at times, into nihilism. The causes of the crisis, let me suggest, are structural but arise from new modes of information and communication rather than from the effects of ideology, the economy, or war. A digital earthquake has shaken the institutions of representative democracy until faith in their integrity has virtually vanished.

Authority is the capacity to inspire acceptance and obedience without an appeal to brute force. The teacher and the priest must possess it, whereas the policeman can always reach for his club. Since this is the glue that binds together democratic social and political relations, its dissolution would be self-evidently catastrophic. But authority is also essential to the transmission of information. Contrary to received opinion, “truth” is not a Platonic form or a gift from science: it’s a statement from a source whose authority one respects. As the pandemic has demonstrated, that respect can be withheld from the claims of scientists and experts. A crisis of authority must necessarily become a crisis of uncertainty and an age of post-truth.

The triumph of sectarianism

Back in the 20th century, when I was a young analyst of global media at CIA, my task was relatively straightforward. The volume of open information was small. Then, around the turn of the new century, things suddenly went haywire. The digital earthquake propelled a tsunami of information in volumes that were unprecedented in human experience – and that’s not just a turn of phrase. According to scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, the amount of information produced in 2001 doubled the total of all previous history, going back to the dawn of culture. Again, 2002 doubled the information in 2001. The trend has continued; if you chart it, the line really does look like gigantic wave – a tsunami.

According to scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, the

amount of information produced in 2001 doubled the total

of all previous history, going back to the dawn of culture.

Information alters the stage and scenery of the human drama, and in this way changes human behavior. As the tsunami rolled around the world, it left a trail of ever-increasing turbulence behind it. Angry and mocking voices were heard where before there had been silence. New and eccentric opinions propagated where conformism had been the norm. This wave of trouble began to crest in January 2011, when a young Egyptian named Wael Ghonim posted on Facebook an invitation to a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. One million users saw that invitation; 100,000 said they would attend. Less than three weeks after that initial protest, the pharaonic Hosni Mubarak, dictator for 30 years, was gone.

Large spontaneous protests also struck democratic nations in that “phase change” year of 2011: the indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in the U.S., the social justice movement in Israel. The turmoil was not just an Arab affliction or a revolt against dictatorship in the style of 1989. The public’s anger was broader and seemed aimed at the structure of modern government as such, regardless of political or economic system. From Tahrir Square in 2011 to Black Lives Matter in 2020, this impulse has only intensified. In 2019 alone, I counted over 25 major street insurgencies across the world, disrupting affluent democracies like France and Chile but also impoverished, authoritarian-ruled nations like Sudan and Bolivia. Even the fear of Covid-19 hasn’t been enough to keep Black Lives Matter and anti-quarantine protesters at home.

What is going on? Evidently, digital platforms have allowed the public to leap on the political stage and become a leading actor there. But we are talking about a peculiar organism. The public is many, not one. The digital environment tends to fracture and divide. Somewhat like the Protestant Reformation, it begins by magnifying private opinion into communal action but ends with the triumph of sectarianism. What was once Right and Left, conservative and liberal, is now a chaos of war-bands that have escaped the party structure and must struggle with one another for attention.

The public is divided against itself at every point except one: the negation of the established order. To unite and mobilize in enormous numbers, as has transpired so often during the last decade, the public must remain eternally and unconditionally against. Positive demands or proposals would shatter unity and dissolve the protests into the component war-bands. Repudiation – of institutions, of the elites, of society – is a structural requirement of the public’s political existence. This conforms to the prejudices of the sectarian mind, which exalts purity and personal rectitude but abominates titles, leaders, hierarchies, organized programs, and coherent ideologies. Protesters today smash at “the system” with abandon yet feel no need to provide alternatives. The danger should be apparent. Street revolts in the 21st century always skate close to nihilism: the belief that mere destruction is a form of progress.

An angry public on the move is the starting-point of the crisis of authority. Beneath the surface normality of traditional politics, beneath the insufficient labels and antiquated rhetoric, a tectonic collision between the public and the institutional elites is transforming the landscape of democracy. This conflict, we have seen, is global and epochal. It defines our moment in history. From the first, the public has been on the offensive while the elites have retreated in confusion. The institutions that once bestowed credibility and prestige are collapsing under a burden of distrust. That is the nature of the crisis. Since, in the past, these structures empowered elected officials to govern the masses with a strong hand, the pertinent question is how and why this singular breakdown occurred.

Failure sets the agenda

The great institutions that sustain 21st-century society received their shape in the 20th. That was the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. The central dilemma of the industrial age was how to integrate mass labor so it could manufacture mass products for a mass audience. Not surprisingly, given the temper of the times, the preferred approach was to treat the entire process like a gigantic machine, calibrated, from the top, by a few “scientific” engineers. The prophet of industrialism was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who preached “scientific management”: with motion studies in hand, wise managers, like Platonic guardians, were to program the actions of workers minutely, as if they were robots. Henry Ford was a disciple. So, more significantly, was Lenin.

The mass movements that challenged democracy in the last century were erected on Taylorist principles. All appealed to science. All were controlled like machines from the top by a “vanguard” who represented the future. At the same time, however, the structures of representative democracy also experienced a transfiguration. The old system had been a gentlemen’s club. Industrial democracy resembled a Taylorist factory, with the millions of newly-affluent and better-educated citizens, entering history for the first time, safely absorbed into mass organizations like the political party. Most meaningful decisions were made by elites who surrounded themselves with experts. The masses were allowed to choose between two or three candidates who stood for slightly different versions of the same thing. Hierarchy appears to be baked into the DNA of our species, but the industrial age made the social pyramid steeper and more controlling – thus, in every sense, less democratic.

The political rhetoric of the time reflected a utopian faith. It was believed that with forceful enough applications of power and science the human condition would be cured. Mass movements called for revolution, the democracies preferred gradual reform, but the end-point, universally, was the perfection of society. Complex conditions like poverty and inequality were given a mathematical gloss: they were “problems” to be “solved.” To this purpose, monumental projects of physical and social engineering, worthy of the industrial mind, were attempted. Some succeeded – electrification and the eradication of disease, for example. But many failed at a terrible cost, not only of treasure but of human misery. Urban “renewal” projects became breeding-grounds of alienation and crime. Planned cities like Brasilia disintegrated into unplanned chaos. The government of the United States declared “war,” in succession, against poverty, cancer, crime, and drugs. In each case, the conflict ended with the enemy standing more or less where it had been at the start of hostilities.

Given the high rate of failure, the legitimacy of the institutions depended on a semi-monopoly over information in every domain. Recall that information was scarce. That made it extremely valuable. Political and media figures who dispensed it were wrapped in the mantle of authority. They controlled the agenda – the story told about the world and their place in it. Failure could be explained or ignored without compromising the stability of the system or the logic of the utopian ideal. The elites lectured from the top of the pyramid, mostly about subjects of interest to each other. The public could only listen and applaud politely. That it might talk back seemed beyond the range of possibility.

But that is precisely what happened when the information tsunami struck. Almost immediately, the elites in their institutions were overwhelmed by a flood of information beyond their control, wielded, in fact, by the public – those angry and mocking voices I first observed at CIA. Ordinary people intent on repudiation made their opinion known, not in whispers but in screams, because under conditions of information overabundance only the loudest, most enraged voices have a chance to be heard. As the public took possession of the strategic heights over the information landscape, the institutions began to hemorrhage legitimacy and authority, and lapsed into a state of crisis. Elite failure today sets the information agenda.

Strangely, utopian language has remained the mandatory rhetorical posture of democracy. Politicians to get elected still promise impossible “solutions” that will be revealed as hollow and false as soon as they assume high office. The old instruments of influence, like the political parties, are disintegrating, while populists exploit the mania for repudiation to their advantage. Mass media has been swallowed by the web like plankton by a whale. The people in charge are terrified to do or say anything that will bring the public’s rage down on their heads. They know that every mistake, every foolish statement, every unethical trick, every sexual escapade, will be exposed and ridiculed endlessly. By a process of Darwinian selection, we have evolved a species of electoral animal that can mouth the old heroic words while saying nothing.

Because legitimacy is no longer inherent to the system, politicians seek it à la carte, issue by issue, usually by opposing an unpopular structure or measure. The effect is to further dilute the authority of government. Boris Johnson, maximum leader of Brexit, is sustained by his opposition to the European Union, even as the Scottish Nationalist Party wins elections by opposing Johnson’s Britain. A populist like Donald Trump can rise to power by attacking “the deep state,” but states like California and New York, with large Democratic majorities, are defined by their opposition to Trump, even refusing to enforce federal laws legislated during his tenure. This obeys the rules of the digital universe, which have reversed a century of centralization and standardization: everything “disaggregates,” everything personalizes. The tendency has unbundled newspapers into “newsfeeds” and music albums into playlists. It now threatens to unbundle the state.

No demands, only slogans

On January 28, 2011, Hosni Mubarak, an aging dictator tormented by mostly young protesters, implemented what he must have believed was a clever stratagem. He cut off Egypt’s access to the internet – and for good measure, shut down much of the country’s cell phone service as well. It’s easy to imagine what the old man was thinking: he was depriving the rebels of their home base and plunging them into darkness. As a political tactic, the move turned out badly. More harm was done to the Egyptian economy than to the protesters, and the panic of the regime had been fatally revealed to the world. Access was restored within five days. A week later, Mubarak was compelled by the military to resign.

At a deeper level, Mubarak’s futile gesture exemplified the profoundly reactionary mindset of the governing elites. Presidents and prime ministers, right and left, live in perpetual fear of the digital storm. They loathe the 21st century. They wish desperately to turn back the clock and return to the comfortable elite supremacy of the industrial age, and they keep looking for some equivalent of the “Mubarak switch” to make it happen. The elites of our day live under the shadow of their towering predecessors. They blame the public for their diminution, and they blame the web for enabling the “deplorables” to tramp with muddy boots into the sacred precincts of authority.

Presidents and prime ministers, right and left,

live in perpetual fear of the digital storm.

Such sentiments are not restricted to octogenarian dictators. Barrack Obama recently expressed his conviction that the internet “is the single biggest threat to our democracy,” a remarkable statement for a politician of strong sectarian instincts who, in 2008, won the presidency in part because of a brilliant online campaign. In the same interview, Obama called for vague “regulations” to be imposed on the web. That’s his version of the Mubarak switch. Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed an equally vague “breakup” of giant technology corporations. That’s her version. The goal is to make the vast digital universe somehow resemble the front page of the New York Times around 1960 – but the time machine is missing, and the elites are filled with despair.

The task of mediating between distant reality and the public, of giving the flux of events some meaning, has always been the highest calling of true elites. In the 20th century, this task could be carried out from a position of authority. So, for example, the bombing of Pearl Harbor became a “day of infamy” rather than a day in which the U.S. navy in the Pacific was caught with its pants down. Events must be mediated and explained, and those who do the explaining must have the public’s trust. With the rise of the internet, the mediator class – politicians, intellectuals, journalists – is now gone with the wind. The election of Donald Trump convinced elite thinkers like Fukuyama that the internet was a kingdom of lies. Attacks on Trump involving conspiracies with Russia and fake news on Facebook have convinced much of the public that the old mediators are themselves fakers and liars. In the digital age, every word is contested, every event is a battleground; reality remains as hard as always, but when the number of perspectives approaches infinity, truth itself begins to unbundle.

Trapped emotionally and intellectually in the 20th century, the elite class confronts the new world agitated by bipolar swings of panic and despair. The purpose of elected office is to avoid the humiliation of a revolt from below. Inaction is the best policy; if action is unavoidable, it must be half-hearted at best. Examples of moral cowardice abound; I will cite only a few. In March 2011, the U.S., Britain, and France led the NATO alliance of powerful democratic nations into an intervention in Libya. The stated purpose was humanitarian, but the military campaign was so timid that the ramshackle dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi was able to fight on for more than seven months, during which time Qaddafi is known to have perpetrated multiple massacres of his opponents. The feeble means nullified the noble end, but the public’s rage for repudiation was never triggered and anti-war protests were averted at home. Afterwards, a broken Libya was abandoned to its fate.

The Black Lives Matter disorders that swept across the United States after the death of George Floyd were a theater of moral confusion. At Floyd’s funeral, the mayor of Minneapolis turned in an astonishing performance, weeping and groaning over the casket of a man he had never met in life. The tears were no doubt of compassion but also of self-pity for the part events had forced him to play. The governor of Minnesota wondered bizarrely how violence could consume a state that was “second in happiness to Hawaii.” The mayor of Seattle reacted to protesters’ occupation of several city blocks by declaring a “summer of love,” days before a gunfight in the “autonomous zone” left two young black men dead. The height of confusion was reached when the mayor of Portland made an unsuccessful attempt to join the protesters, in essence seeking to repudiate himself. He was, of course, repudiated.

Like all their predecessors in revolt, the BLM protesters were people of the web. To that extent, Hosni Mubarak’s intuition was correct. The disorders were pure negation, the physical equivalent of an online rant. They began with an anti-police and anti-racist orientation, but soon spread their hostility to the whole of American history, knocking down statues of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. There were no demands, only slogans. There were no leaders to negotiate with. For an unnerved political class that had lost the knack for playing the hero but wished, at least, to evade the role of supervillain, there wasn’t even the possibility of surrender.

Nonetheless, that was tried. In June 2020, Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, addressed the BLM protesters who, on the previous night, had devastated midtown Manhattan. “You don’t have to protest,” he said. “You won. You won. You accomplished your goal.” Then, clearly baffled, he added: “What do you want?” The public won’t take yes for an answer.

Do-it-yourself decadence

The supreme political task of our moment is to reconcile the public to authority. The continued success of democracy and science both depend on this. Unless trust is restored, the present sickness of the institutions must, at some indeterminate point, prove fatal. No rival ideologies are involved. Ours is a do-it-yourself decadence. Representative democracy could simply collapse into a moral black hole of nihilism and barbarism. We have watched this show before: when the Roman Empire fell, it was replaced by nothing.

Since the source of the crisis is structural, a reconfiguration of democratic politics is clearly in order, the reverse of what transpired during the industrial age. The public today lives online and moves at the speed of light. It can obtain a car, a home, and a spouse at the click of a mouse, but must wait weeks for a new passport and years for a building permit. The distance between the ordinary denizen of the digital environment and the governing elites in their immobile pyramids is too visible and too great. It can’t endure – and there’s no empirical reason why government can’t be made flatter and faster. Amazon is a large bureaucracy, but what the public experiences is fast service at reasonable prices. Democratic government is a massive dispenser of services, but what the public experiences is bureaucracy, disdain, and delay. The conversion of government into an internet service provider is not a fantasy: Estonia has already accomplished this transformation. Whether the Estonian experiment will scale to larger nations is a question that should be explored with some urgency.

On a basic principle of democratic equality, the public must be brought into closer proximity to the elites. This can be done both physically and virtually. In a time of instant communications, with a sizeable portion of the population working from home, there’s no need for government institutions to cluster around psychologically isolated capital cities. Boris Johnson currently plans to “unbundle” pieces of Britain’s national government and transfer them out of London to the rust-belt North. Whether power from the center can be grafted to the periphery is another experiment that deserves close attention.

Similarly, the 20th-century compulsion to impose a single “solution” from the center at every turn will only inspire revolt in a time of fractured loyalties. To the greatest extent possible, decisions should be made at the local level, where the public knows itself by name. Even national programs like health care should allow for local preferences and variations. In one possible future, therefore, every democratic country will be Switzerland. That will extend to the frequent appeal to direct votes and referendums. The wisdom of the procedure can be debated, but it’s a familiar decision path for digital natives, and the results will bind the public to the inevitable intrusions of the state.

Proximity is the soul of the web. We always stand face to face virtually, no matter where we are in the hierarchy. A populist like Trump can exploit this connection to create a sense of intimacy with his supporters. The institutional elites will have to abandon their nostalgia for the 20th century and compete with the populists on their own ground. If they can’t or won’t, they will be swept away and replaced by those who will. In part, this will be a generational change, as those born digital take over from those for whom the web is a second language.

More significantly, the transition will entail the development of a new democratic rhetoric adapted to the egalitarian spirit of “cyberspace.” I can imagine two important features of this rhetorical style. First, it will be plain. As politicians are forced to deal online with ordinary people, they will drop the distancing jargon and learn to speak like normal human beings. Second, it will discard the self-refuting utopian promises. There will be no more talk of problems and solutions, only a language of humility, an acceptance, openly confessed, of the severe limits of our knowledge. This will go a long way toward the restoration of truth.

These are mere possibilities. Reality will be more complex and more generous with surprises. The struggle to reconfigure venerable institutions so they can thrive in the face of the information tsunami will engender its own forms of turbulence and controversy. But we are in the very early stages of a mass migration away from the industrial age to a place on the map that doesn’t even have a name yet. Turbulence and controversy should be understood as the energy propelling the old into the new. The crisis of authority is structural but it is not determined: within the technology that is driving the change, a vast number of paths lie open. The vigor and success of democracy in the 21st century will not depend on technological imperatives or other impersonal forces, but on the all-too-human interactions of the public with the elites: which is to say, it will depend on us.

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