Revolt of the Public

Published: 2022-08-26

Impressions

I didn't have many impressions before reading this book, other than being excited by the beautiful design and color theory. I also assumed it to be of some importance because Stripe Press was the publisher. I'm happy to say it did not disappoint.

I wrote about this in my summary/review of this book, but Gurri's writing helped me navigate the world as I see it today, which will be invaluable for navigating the world in the future. It combines geopolitics, social phenomena, and historical events into a cohesive narrative about the world. It also gave me language to talk about certain political situations.

Key Learnings

Under conditions of scarcity, sources of information become authoritative. Increase the access to information and you decrease the authority of any one person on that topic.

There are two groups going head to head right now, The Public and The Authorities. The Public, from Walter Lippmann: "is not a fixed body of individuals. It is merely the persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only be supporting or opposing the actors." Guru agrees with this, but thinks the public today has become an actor: "It is composed of amateurs, and it had fractured into vital communities, each clustered around an affair of interest to the group." Authority pertains to the source. We believe something because of who said it. At an individual level, this standing is achieved by a professionalization. The person in authority is trained in a certain way and has access to hidden knowledge. But at an institutional level, there is lasting authority. This authority doesn't waiver with people. They have a certain connection to monopoly conditions on their field. These are government, corporations, research institutes, foundations, and so on.

Gurri's thesis is that a revolution in the nature and content of communication ended the top-down control elites exerted on the public during the industrial age. This is only true though, if we can show that information can actually influence the arrangement of power and create real-life effects and those effects have to be big enough to create a real crisis of authority.

We are, what Gurri calls, homo informaticus (HI), or information man. HI is literate and has access to newspapers, radio, movies, and TV. This is a new threat to the regime, because the public "with a longer reach may gain access to information that subverts its story of legitimacy." That story of legitimacy is currently the only thing holding the "public" to obeying/following the authorities power. The regime would try to control this new form of media, and can do so to a current extent, but the sheer volume of channels prohibits it from doing so completely. "As messages and images proliferate, it becomes progressively hard to determine exactly what their relationship is to the regime's justifying story." This new channel of information broadens HI's field of vision to think about different worldviews. No longer is there one idea or opinion. "When judging his government, HI can then do so in light of alternative possibilities–different views of the same policy or event, different values invoked for an action or inaction, different performance by other governments, real or imagined." Since HI can't absorb all of the new information, he has to be selective. So he picks and chooses, as do other members of the public, who they listen to, what they watch, and inevitably, what they believe. Since all information has to either be mediated or recieved directly, the mass media mediators no longer can persuade the public to think one way about the regime.

The two groups came to a head in 2011, a period Gurri refers to as the "Phase Change." Most of the people, in each of the phase change events of 2011 were young, middle class, educated. "Sectarian ideals propelled them into politics." Neither, did any of the movements insist in a new way of governing, new policies or plans to move forward. They made no demands, but felt free to accuse.

Though the Occupy Wall Street movements didn't have large numbers compared to Tel Aviv or Egypt, it somehow tipped the scales for the public to distrust government institutions and with it, democracy. Their message was that the 1% tyrannized the other 99%, who was supposedly part of the march, but they didn't actually represent that 99%, only a small subset of people within that 99%. Somehow though, their message became interpreted as: "This is how the American public is feeling."

Thanks to the information sphere, the public sees their unmet expectations daily of the Center-based institutions. The public uses that information to attack the legitimacy of the institutions. Sometimes they're right in attacking the corruption, but other times they go to far. This all stems from the fact that the Center can't say "we don't know" and they're too busy making sure "bad science" from amateur's doesn't spread. This supposed confidence of certainty is received by the public as legit, until it isn't and they say something that isn't true or something happens that they said wasn't going to, because inevitably it will because they can't be certain of every little thing.

For a government to fail, two things must occur:

  1. First some empirical event must occur that is perceived as a failure.
  2. Second, The relationship between the government and the governed must somehow be ruptured. Trust must be broken for failure to have lasting consequences.

If the industrial age hierarchies of contemporary democracy are suffering a crisis of authority (they are), and if the public is on the move and expecting impossibilities (yes), then all things being equal, the system will continue to bleed away legitimacy–and there will be those who argue it should be put out of its misery. Gurri explains the road we're on leads to nihilism. The Nihilist heard George W. Bush say the war in Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, but none were found there. He heard Obama say unemployment would be capped, only for millions to lose their job. But he doesn't see these as failures. He assumes the government are liars and cheaters. Without his digital devices, the nihilist would be nothing. Instead, he is overly informed about those few odd topics that obsess him, "and he produces a torrent of hard-core negations posted about about the world around him."

Quotes

"When proof for and against approaches infinity, a cloud of suspicion about cherry-picking data will hang over authoritative judgement."

"Even the simplest human events constitute complex systems ruled by nonlinearities. Within such systems, teasing out a single episode and proclaiming it the prime mover makes as much sense as picking a grain of sand and calling it 'the beach'."

"The anxiety to control information in those who already controlled the guns should alert us that political power may be less "hard""

"Propaganda was the totalitarian's admission that his power wasn't total."