Book Notes: “The Revolt of the Public”

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority
By Martin Gurri
Stripe Press, 2018

As someone who cares deeply about society’s long-term well-being, I was disturbed by the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The attack on the nation’s symbolic (and actual) center of political power was the latest manifestation of an illness that has afflicted our body politic. It’s a complex situation, and the causes are hard to diagnose. In my search to understand what’s going on, I came across The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst.

The book argues that the internet ushered a “fifth wave” in how we relate to information and each other. (The fourth wave was broadcast media, which were a product of the industrial era.) Societies washed over by this fifth wave show symptoms of a “uncertainty and impermanence.” These symptoms, in turn, manifest a breakdown in information hierarchies. (I.e., how authorities have traditionally kept the public informed.)

The book’s central distinction is between this networked public and the elites in charge of governance and cultural institutions. These elites and the institutions they represent have proven incapable of effectively using digital media to serve society’s needs. As Mr. Gurri puts it,

Hierarchy, as a structure, has proven transcendentally inept in dealing with digital platforms. Despite a lot of brave modernizing talk, social media and the new communication technologies remain a profound mystery to government, while those at the top of the pyramid continue to detest the intrusion of amateurs and the rude informality of the web.

This newly mobilized (literally) public’s default stance isn’t towards reform or revolution, but a nihilistic drive to destroy existing systems without proposing workable alternatives. The situation came to a head in 2011, a year of turmoil that included the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement in the U.S., the Indignados protests in Spain, and more. These movements sought to undo the status quo (in the case of Egypt, toppling the long-standing Mubarak regime), with no viable suggestions for what to put in their place. “The public opposes,” Mr. Gurri tells us, “but does not propose.”

The result is an impasse in which old governance systems are breaking down, and new alternatives haven’t yet emerged — and perhaps can’t. As Mr. Gurri puts it, the story “concerns the tectonic collision between a public which will not rule and institutions of authority progressively less able to do so.” It’s a situation not unlike that of Europe during the Religious Wars of the 16th-18th Centuries — a crisis wrought by another revolution in information technology.

The Revolt of the Public was written in the mid-2010s, before the election of Donald Trump. I read the Stripe Press edition from 2018, which adds a chapter on the Trump presidency and Brexit, clear manifestations of the fifth wave in action. This chapter also suggests what we should look for as we set to right things:

The qualities I would look for among elites to get politics off this treadmill are honesty and humility: old-school virtues, long accepted to be the living spirit behind the machinery of the democratic republic, though now almost lost from sight.

How might we recover these values? Is it possible to do so under current conditions? I’m not sure, and The Revolt of the Public isn’t prescriptive. Its contribution is a compelling analysis of the current socio-political environment — an informative and distressing lens through which you will gain a new perspective on the current zeitgeist.

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