Book Review and Summary: Revolt of the Public
Revolt of the Public helped clarify my thoughts, expand my worldview, and enlarge my vocabulary with certain societal phenomena. While reading, I could recognize patterns in our political system and acquire language to describe the actors playing in said patterns.
I learned how to understand the world as I see it today, which will be invaluable to navigating the world in the future. This book combines a multitude of factors including geopolitics, social media, protests, and more into a simple explanation of what has happened in the world and what might be around the corner. For context, it was originally written in 2014 with a revised chapter added in 2017. Let's begin.
Under the conditions of scarcity, sources of information become authoritative. In the 1960s, CBS and Walter Cronkite were a credible source of information about what was happening around the world, because they were one of the few sources of information. However, as soon as information became more abundant, the authority of any one source declined; information scarcity and authority are inversely correlated.
When information becomes as abundant as it has in the past, thanks to the adoption of the internet and subsequent social media services, two groups begin to clash: The Public and The Authority. Gurri focuses on the results of this clashing--and what that means for democracy--throughout the book. They are, you could say, the protagonist and antagonist of the past 20 years.
The Public, according to Gurri, are "amateurs, fractured into vital communities, each clustered around an affair of interest to the group." If you follow this logic, The Public, as Gurri defined it, cannot be equated with the people of a country. The Public is interested in a specific event or circumstance: climate change, abortion, police, and so on.
The Authority are the elites. Usually, they have some sort of "special expertise" or knowledge that make others believe what they say is credible. At an individual level, this standing is achieved by a professionalization. However, at an institutional level, their lasting authority doesn't waiver with people.
Though The Public has always been around, it's much more active and able to make a lasting change during this specific period of information overload, a period Gurri refers to as "The Fifth Wave." The invention of writing, the development of the alphabet, the printing press, and the rise of traditional media (local newspapers, three-channel broadcast television) were the previous four waves. The Fifth Wave has gotten rid of, or is in the process of getting rid of, the previous "I-talk-you-listen" pattern of traditional media--an environment where few people in authority have access to hidden knowledge and decide what and what not to feed to the public.
When the Fifth Wave emerged, players and pundits didn't think increasing access to information would make any important changes. No one thought the "soft" information of the online world--strangers interacting, incoherent ramblings, and so on--would initiate real change on "hard politics"--the actual policies enacted and how governments govern. The virtual world could not cross the chasm to reality. A group of online anarchists would never transpire to a real group of anarchists.
Before we go on, it's important to note, as Gurri does in the book, that the internet is not the sole driving force of the Fifth Wave. Rather, it's the entire information sphere: the internet, social media, TV, and anything else that increases the information available to the public and decreases the authority of top-down hierarchies from controlling what the public knows. "You can shut down the internet," Gurri explains, "as Egyptian authorities did when they faced their own uprising--but you can't shut down the information sphere."
The "old world" is ruled by authority. These are top-down hierarchical organizations and they are represented by established institutions like Bank of America, National Broadcasting Corporation, and New York Times.
The "new world" is being debuted by the public. Instead of the top-down structure of the old, the new world's institutions, if you could even call them that, are networked. There isn't any hierarchy or established governing system.
Gurri also describes the dichotomy between The Public and The Authority in terms of being Centers and Borders. These were terms established by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky where they identified two archetypes that perform a dance with each other; when one side moves, the other follows.
The Center envisions the future to be a continuation of what has already been. It creates programs, people, and structures to maintain the stability of "what once was," and does everything it can to ensure it will still be.
The Border, on the other hand, is composed of networks that directly oppose the Center. They stand against it but, and here's the catch, they have no intention to govern or exercise new power. The Border will loudly oppose what the Center is doing, but refuses to provide an alternative. They'll gladly tell the Center how they're wrong, but won't make any proposals on how to make it right.
Naturally, the dance between the Center and the Borders has a pattern. Whenever the Center thought it had control of a domain or information, Borders swept in and took control. But since power isn't something that can easily be copied and shared, like a document on a computer, power has always favored a return to the Center. As Gurri eloquently declares, "Networks can overthrow, but can never govern."
So, what's going to happen? How does this dance get out of the stalemate?
Interestingly, these are the questions Gurri is hesitant to prophesy--he doesn't know better than anyone else--but he does attempt to reconcile the questions eventually. For now, he likens what is happening today to the religious wars of the 17th Century. Everyone was anxiously waiting for either the Protestants or the Catholics to win, and although at times each side held a more dominant position , they both ended up winning in their own way. Gurri predicts this will be the outcome between the hierarchies (the old world) and the networks (the new worlds).
Now that we fully understand The Authority, The Public, and their battle, let's establish Gurri's thesis. Gurri believes a revolution in the nature of content and communication ended the top-down control that the hierarchical institutions exerted on the public. However, this can only be true if soft information actually influences the arrangement of power and creates real-life effects in the world of hard politics.
The abundance of information created a new species whom Gurri called homo informaticus, or, information man. But, before we can examine that new species, we first have to understand its opposite, whom Gurri called the "Unmediated Man (UM)."
The Unmediated Man lived and died within a political system governed by an authoritative regime. The problem this regime faced wasn't control of the people, but control of communication. If it wanted to impose its will on the Unmediated Man, it had to find a way to convey that will to him. For the regime to communicate its will upon the Unmediated Man, it needed to control the community, because that's where UM got its information from. Every person UM came in contact with believed the same thing about the regime: they were legit. In UM's world, the Public became whatever the government told it to be.
Now, let's introduce homo informaticus (HI) to the scene.
HI is literate and has access to newspapers, radio, movies, and TV. This is a new threat to the regime, because now the public may gain access to information that undermines the regime's legitimacy; and that reputation is currently the only thing keeping the public from obeying their authority. The regime can try to control this new form of media, and will succeed to a certain extent, but the sheer volume of channels prohibits it from doing so in totality.
The new channels of information broadens HI's field of vision to think about different worldviews. No longer is there one idea or opinion. "When judging its government," Gurri explains, "homo informaticus can do so in light of alternative possibilities--different views of the same policy or event, different values invoked for action or inaction, different performances by other governments, real or imagined."
But HI succumbs to the same challenge the regime faced: the unimaginable abundance of things to consume. Therefore, he picks and chooses, as other members of the public pick and choose who they listen to and what they watch. This inevitably leads to what they believe. "The consequences are predicted and irreversible," Gurri warns, "The regime accumulates pain points and botched responses to disaster. These problems can no longer be concealed or explained away. Instead, they are seized by the newly empowered public, and placed front--and--center in open discussions. In essence, government failure now sets the agenda."
The regime can no longer hide when they mess up or do something they're not supposed to, because the various channels of information spread news like wildfire. The public, now armed with newfound information that the regime messed up, decided to trust the regime less and less. As the public's trust with the regime deteriorates, so does the ability for the regime to govern. The public gathers to oppose the regime and voice their concern. Information absorbed by the public has now spurred change in the regime.
Those events are how homo informaticus, armed with new information, can sway political powers:
First, information conflicts with the government's prior story.
The greater the diffusion of information to the public, the more illegitimate a political status quo will appear.
Homo informaticus, network builder and wielder of the information sphere, poses an existential challenge to the legitimacy of the government.
With more information available to the public, failures, accidents, and contradictions from the government become much more widespread. No longer can they influence what the public thinks by controlling just three channels of news or a few newspapers. Anyone with a Twitter or Instagram account can post a video or image of something, immediately creating a swath of reactions from the public as they blatantly see the failure of their government. When this happens so many times, the public begins to realize how illegitimate the government actually is, encouraging them to rise up and take their own stand.
Gurri's thesis concerns the tectonic collision between a public that will not rule and institutions of authority that continue to be less able to do so. Through this stress, he fears democracy will be shred to pieces as an "immense psychological distance separates the two sides, even as they come together in conflict." What fills the gap between these? Distrust.
The elites and authority have never really trusted the public, and they still don't. So, what's changed? Two things.
First is the public's increased lack of trust for the authority it has relied on for so long. Now made aware of its ever present faults and failures, the public has come to the realization that, maybe the government isn't all knowing and good like they've thought it to be.
The second thing that has changed is the ever increasing power the public now has to actually do something about this growing mistrust; which is a direct effect of the arrival of the Fifth Wave.
All of this: Gurri's thesis, the clash between the authority and the public, the desire to overthrow but not rule, and more, all come to a head in 2011. Citing the Arab Spring revolutions, the Indignado protests, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party, Gurri goes in-depth into each event. He identifies the key players, explains what the problems were, lays out how increased information was one of the causes, and how each event influenced the others. Gurri's thesis is nearly a play-by-play of what happens in each of the "revolutions." Everything began to change in 2011.
As mentioned previously, it's important to note that the public as Gurri defines it and the people are not identical groups. Let's look at Occupy Wall Street for an example.
The protestors during the Occupy Wall Street movement were The Public--they believed that the top 1% tyrannized the other 99%. What's interesting though, is that the 99% wasn't actually the 99%. There wasn't 99% of the population of the United States in Manhattan, there was just a small subset of that 99%. Their message, however, became interpreted as "This is how the rest of America is feeling, you dirty sleaze bags.", which was clearly not the case. The Public was in attendance at the protests and The People were worried about their own financial troubles.
When Occupy Wall Street is examined further, Gurri notes that no one who attended those protests had any idea what to actually do next. You may think this is specific to Occupy Wall Street and that surely the other events of 2011 had a plan for the future, but that's not the case. "Revolution in 2011," Gurri exclaims, "means denunciation. Actual change was left for someone else."
So if Occupy Wall Street, the Tea party, or the other movements didn't have a plan for future change, what was the actual "phase change" part of 2011? According to Gurri, it sowed the seeds of distrust in the democratic process. It also showed that, in a matter of an instant, The Public can mobilize itself and command the attention of all political players. What the government realized after 2011 was that The Public was now someone that genuinely had to be taken into account. No longer could they control the narrative. No longer could they hide their faults and failures. The Public knew about everything, and they could be pretty annoying if they didn't get their answers.
Authority must be heeded by the public, and the best way to get The Public to do that is through persuasion, not bribery or force. Therefore, as The Public's distrust in authority grew, authorities' power decreased more and more. Gurri maintains that this gap had always been there, what changed was just the public's awareness of it. Gurri writes:
In the industrial age, the pratfalls of authority had been managed discreetly, camouflaged by the mystique of the expert at the top of his game. Today, failure happens out in the open, in public, where everyone can see.
The crisis of authority, Gurri demands, is rooted in the public's unmet expectations from those in authority. The Center tries to paint a grandiose picture of progress and achievement to the public, and the public bought this picture for awhile. But, as soon as those expectations go unmet, the public attacks. What's interesting is that those in authority have total control over the expectations the public assumes, because they're the ones casting the vision. If they want to bring down the expectations of the public, they need to reduce the "grandiose-ness" of their claims, lest they succumb to the inevitable failure.
Gurri contrasts John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion with Obama's stimulus act and the rise of the Tea Party Caucus in 2010. Both initiatives from the president were failures: the Bay of Pigs did not go as Kennedy intended it to and Obama's stimulus act did not meaningfully affect the economy. But the reaction to each of these failures were opposites.
For a government to fail, Gurri explains two things must occur: First, some empirical event has to be perceived as a failure. Second, the relationship between the government and the governed must somehow be ruptured. Trust has to be broken in order for failure to have lasting consequences.
The Public, in Kennedy's day, saw him as a young president trying to achieve greatness. Sure he failed, but no one achieved anything great without trying. The Public perceived this as a loss/win. Things didn't go as planned, but the presidency learned something from it.
On the other hand, The Public rose up in radical revolt to the failure of Obama's stimulus plan. They had access to all the intricate details about the stimulus plan, but after nothing changed in the economy, they revolted.
You might be thinking, if The Public revolted, why didn't anything change? Remember, The Public seeks to overthrow, not to govern. In each of the examples cited in the book, The Public's revolts were composed of different groups of people with unclear ideals held together by the glue of what they hated, but lacked clarity on what they stood for. Therefore, creating any sort of plan for the future would be off the table.
What comes after this crisis of authority and failure of government is not good, and is exemplified through Obama's change of tone in office during his second term.
After the failure of the stimulus during Obama's first term, he took a different approach with America. Instead of being the problem solver, he became the negater. Rather than aligning himself with the governing bodies and the institutions of America, he aligned himself with The Public and their anger on any given issue. However, he failed to create a plan to actually do something about it. Gurri states, "For the president and his inner circle, the federal government existed an immense moral distance 'underneath' them, and was staffed by grubby bureaucrats who fully deserved the distrust of the public." It was the President and The Public against the government.
If we continue on this route, Gurri exclaims, we are headed towards one thing: increased nihilism and the desire to rid democracy. For how many failures in a system must we have before we realize the failure is the system? (Not my words, I'm voicing the nihilist public here).
Gurri explains the nihilist heard George W. Bush say the war in Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, but none were found. They heard Obama say unemployment would be capped, only to watch millions lose their jobs. But after a while, the nihilist no longer sees these acts as failures, but starts accepting that the government and all authority are liars and cheats.
In some sense, the unmet expectations are the fault of the elites casting the vision and plan for the future. In another, The Public creates unmet expectations itself. After a century of continued progress and innovation, The Public wants more. When it doesn't get more, or get more quick enough, they make sure everyone knows how they feel.
Reading Revolt of the Public in 2022 isn't too enlightening, because much of what Gurri predicted would happen, happened. As Scott Alexander dutifully notes:
Anyone who wrote it in 2000 would have been a prophet. Anyone who wrote it in 2020 would have been stating the obvious. Was writing it in 2014 a boring chronicle of clear truths, or an achievement for the ages?
I was just twelve during the phase change events of 2011, so I can't speak much to how America and the world has changed since then. I will, however, note that since the increase in cancellations of professors and celebrities who go against The Public's views and the "abolish the police" movements of 2020, it does seem that two things are still true.
First, The Public has yet to provide any alternative to things they wish to destroy.
Second, it does seem that more and more people have given up on "the system" and wish all of it would just disappear. I'm not convinced that's the answer. I think it's much more admirable to work on a solution than to just grumble about the faults of the current one. But working on a solution and working on the right solution are not the same thing. Question is: what's the right solution?