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In 1992, the chairman emeritus of Citibank, Walter Wriston, penned a book that I’ve been thinking about lately. “The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our World” was a short book with a simple but big message: Information technologies, such as fax machines, computers, and the coming internet, would empower individuals and disempower nations, corporations, and other big organizations and hierarchies. Wriston knew a little about info-tech. He was, among other things, the driving force behind the proliferation of ATMs in the 1980s.
His book seemed to predict or explain many of the following developments. The communist and socialist nations collapsed. Democracies mostly replaced them. Globalization shifted into high gear. Trade exploded, information flew across borders, and citizens of an increasingly cosmopolitan and urbanizing world traveled and built new global empires. European borders and currencies even melted into a common market and the euro.
Wriston did remarkably well in describing the first-order effects of the information explosion. But no one can see forever. And another book I’ve been thinking about seeks to explain some of the secondary and tertiary effects of Wriston’s twilight.
In “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millenium,” former CIA analyst Martin Gurri argues that the information explosion has fundamentally altered the relationship between the public and the elite. Gurri writes:
Against this citadel of the status quo, [is] the network: that is, the public in revolt, those despised amateurs now connected to one another by means of digital devices. Nothing within the bounds of human nature could be less like a hierarchy. Where the latter is slow and plodding, networked action is lightning quick but unsteady in purpose. Where hierarchy has evolved a hard exoskeleton to keep every part in place, the network is loose and pliable — it can swell into millions or dissipate in an instant.
Digital networks are egalitarian to the brink of dysfunction. Most would rather fail in an enterprise than acknowledge rank or leaders of any sort. . . . Networks succeed when held together by a single powerful point or reference — an issue, person, or event — which acts as a center of gravity and organizing principle for action.
Typically, this has meant being against. If hierarchy worships the established order, the network nurtures a streak of nihilism.
Nihilistic, maybe. But the public has much to revolt against. Information means that the public can now see, discuss, complain, and even avenge the serial failures of elite institutions — governments that can’t protect them from terrorists or financial panics, that go decades without fixing obvious problems such as runaway healthcare costs, a dysfunctional immigration system (whatever your view), universities that charge through the roof for miseducation, schools and churches that prioritize adults over children, and trillion-dollar bureaucratic corruption at the centers of world power.
Yes, in many important ways the twilight of sovereignty made the public far better off: smartphones, inexpensive goods, abundant information for Westerners, and newfound freedom and rapidly rising standards of living for more than two billion Chinese, Indians, Eastern Europeans and, more recently, Africans. Let’s not undersell these massive benefits.
But in other ways, which may have surprised Wriston, the elite benefited even more. In a seeming contradiction of the Coasian reduction in transactions costs offered by the internet, some big organizations got even bigger. Large conglomerates and hedge funds could harness globalization and immigration and parse information far more skillfully than workers in certain industrial firms and regions. Big Tech companies could leverage Moore’s law and cloud computing to grow at hyper scale and dominate many digital markets. Bureaucracies in Beijing, Brussels, and Washington could grow larger than ever before by exploiting the new complexities of the networked world.
The networked public, especially those who feel they’ve been ignored, now believe they’re on a similar information plane as the elite and are less willing to comply. In the Australia, France, the UK, the US, and elsewhere, the public fearlessly revolted, voting for uncouth people and referendums. But the elite don’t like their loss of control one bit.
And so, in a discussion with Arnold Kling, who has promoted Gurri’s thesis, Gurri describes what’s happening now:
I think the next phase in the revolt of the public will be just that: a reactionary moment, in which the elites seek to regain control over the information landscape. The proposals to break up or regulate Facebook and Google, to criminalize hate speech, and to impose strange new standards for ‘privacy’ all push in that direction.
I would add more: The apparent abuse of intelligence capabilities for domestic political surveillance, the government-sponsored manipulation of the news media, and big media’s complicity in that manipulation are other key facets of this elite reaction. Losing control of information terrifies them.
China’s retrogression over the past several years is another reactionary moment. For the previous three decades, China had been opening up. Economic freedom grew rapidly and political freedom followed at a somewhat slower pace, but in the same direction. In the past few years, however, the Xi Jinping government has halted and even reversed some of this progress.
The standoff in Hong Kong today is a good example of the clash between a revolting public and a newly reactionary elite, broadcast live on Twitter with smartphone videos and laser pointers aimed at the government’s facial recognition cameras. Neither popular revolts nor propaganda (nor periodic Chinese crackdowns) are new, yet the shifting balance of information does seem to be driving events.
The information industries themselves are ground zero for this public–elite clash. The New York Times, in the most recent example, changes a page-one headline in reaction to activists and journalists.
Google, which just a few years ago, was the disrupter of the media elite, now is the citadel itself, taking fire from all sides and even from within. Daily, conservative activists complain they are de-platformed, demonetized, and otherwise suppressed. Left-wing activists say just the opposite: that Google, in the most recent example, promoted right-wing YouTube videos that helped change politics in Brazil.
And in the most astonishing case, Google’s own employees — a newly confident public of sorts — seem to be running the company from below, revolting against Google’s proposed cooperation with the Pentagon. Or look at Whole Foods employees, who are demanding their parent company Amazon cease doing business with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
These are just the opening skirmishes and battles of what will be a long information war.
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