Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Martin Gurri on the Destabilizing Impact of Information

Summary by Virginia Postrel of the ideas of former CIA analyst Martin Gurri:
Information used to be scarce. Now it’s overwhelming. In his book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Gurri considers the political implications of this change. He argues that the shift from information scarcity to abundance has destroyed the public’s established trust in institutional authorities, including media, science, religion, and government.

“Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust,” Gurri writes. Someone somewhere will expose every error, every falsehood, every biased assessment, every overstated certainty, every prejudice, every omission -- and likely offer a contrary and equally refutable version of their own.

The result is the pervasive distrust that the columnist Anne Applebaum recently decried as “the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media to democratic debate and civilized discussion all over the world.” . . .

Over history, Gurri argues, information has grown “in great pulses or waves” as technologies have changed -- from writing to the alphabet to the printing press to mass media to today’s digital networks. Each of these great waves has brought with it new institutions and sometimes great political and social upheavals, most notably in the case of the printing press.

We are in the very early days of what he calls the Fifth Wave. Institutions that developed in the age of industrialized, top-down mass media are losing legitimacy while new arrangements have yet to evolve. The challenge is to manage the hazardous transition to a new stage without falling into nihilistic chaos and destruction.
To Gurri the  Arab Spring, the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, and the Sanders and Trump campaigns have all sprung from this new information ecosystem. Government failures can no longer be covered up or explained away, so the people learn about them, discuss them, and then demand they be fixed.

This has led to a crisis of legitimacy for particular governments, but not for government in general. On the contrary, Gurri says, contemporary protesters have great faith in government:
The public now takes it for granted that government could solve any problem, change any undesirable condition, if only it tried. The late modernist urge to intervene, with its aimless meandering, has been interpreted by the public as either tyranny or corruption -- never, somehow, as the ineffectual pose of a kindly uncle.
Trump's success has come from recognizing and capitalizing on on this dynamic:
By stoking magical thinking about what government can do, elite distrust of what the public wants, and sectarian rage at government failures, Trump feeds the nihilism that makes this period of transition so perilous.
Which I would say is not quite right. Trump's followers are anything but nihilists; as Gurri says, they believe that the government can fix their problems if it will only focus on them in a non-corrupt way. I worry that real nihilism might come later, after those hopes are dashed.

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