portrait by Katia Sobolski
“Sometimes, by sheer luck, you are in a high place and can see the shape and character of the approaching trouble, while those in the flatlands have no idea of what’s coming. That was me at the global media analysis section of CIA. And I was not alone. A group of us were obsessed with the same drama. We watched the digital tsunami tear its way around the world, and we observed, amazed, a tremendous spike in social and political turbulence behind it. We all asked the same question: Why? What does information technology have to do with politics?
That was the seed out of which The Revolt of the Public grew.”
Martin Gurri was formerly a member of CIA’s global media analysis team, and in 2014 he self-published a book that feels like it was written last week. Republished by Stripe Press in 2018, it soon became a must-read inside Silicon Valley, particularly among those astonished at how they themselves had become the central story to the central challenges in the West. This spy from the Beltway made a victory lap in Silicon Valley, where I met him at a book launch dinner. Aside from the usual Cuban-exile plotting, we’ve been kibbitzing about tech and media ever since.
This Q&A was conducted over email, and Gurri’s answers are unedited.
'Revolt of the Public' is an obvious play on Ortega y Gassett's 'Revolt of the Masses' (which I think you credit). In a sense, it's an updated version of Ortega's book, but this time the 'mass man' has smartphones and an even bigger entitlement chip on their shoulder.
That said, I find the eponymous reference here to be Lasch's 'The Revolt of the Elites'. Your book seems a closing parenthetical bookend to that classic work. To very briefly summarize, Lasch predicted that the formerly aristocratic WASP elites, who considered the US their personal political project which they took on with a considerable sense of duty and noblesse oblige, would be replaced by a grasping and transactional neoliberal elite utterly indifferent to the plight of those outside the new economic order. In short, he predicted the Whole Foods-buying, Zoom-using class that we now take for granted, but who at the time were still an odd bird.
(I'm old enough to remember the mass-market, middle-class post-Eisenhower, pre-Summer-of-Love America, at least as transmitted by my parents who very agilely acclimated to it from the pre-revolutionary, bourgeois Cuba they fled.)
The relationship is causal: We wouldn't have had the Revolt of the Public in the 2010s without the Revolt of the Elites in the 80s. What do you make of the generational juxtaposition?
Well, when my parents brought me to the United States from Cuba, Eisenhower was president. I remember the Summer of Love – hazily. That’s how old I am. So enough of that nonsense, young Antonio.
I began The Revolt of the Public in media res, at the point in which I and a circle of analysts in CIA became aware that the information landscape was being torn to shreds. I began with the digital tsunami. I hadn’t read the Lasch book at the time, though I have since. I agree with you that it’s a brilliant work of analysis and that it connects directly with my framework.
The great political conflict of our century, I believe, is that between a networked public and the elites who inhabit the great hierarchical institutions that organize modern life. The Revolt of the Public opens with this tectonic collision already rattling the world. The first edition of the book was published in 2014, and I desperately wanted to make readers aware that behind the rituals of our partisan politics a much more profound struggle was battering and changing the society we had inherited from the 20th century. I used words like “negation” and “nihilism” – it makes me smile to recall how much I agonized whether these terms were too sensational for an analyst to use. Since 2016 and the advent of Donald Trump, of course, everybody wants to talk about nihilism. (Trump’s election gave book sales a big boost, BTW – I sort of place myself in the same category as the New York Times, as a Trump profiteer.)
But the book left open a number of fundamental questions. For example, the public appears as a leading political actor on center stage already in an angry and rejectionist mood. The public is driven to the streets – and to vote for populists – by a need to repudiate the established order that sometimes tips into nihilism. But why? The usual economic explanations explain nothing, in my opinion. Revolts have happened in poor countries like Somalia and affluent countries like France, Chile, and the US – and the public in revolt, when looked at closely, consists mostly of middle class and college-educated people. That’s true everywhere.
Similarly, the book shows the elites to be in a state of confusion bordering on panic. They are baffled by anything digital and utterly clueless about where all the nonentities shouting angrily outside their windows come from. But why? In the last century, two generations of elites tackled the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, and came ahead on every count. They built the great dams and nuclear plants that electrified the country, and threw in the interstate highway grid for good measure. What has changed?
That is where Lasch and Revolt of the Elites make a significant contribution to understanding our present moment. He describes the movement from Jefferson’s “aristocracy of talent” to a “meritocracy” that justifies itself by definition and by opposition. If you are an elite, you must deserve to be one. Why else would you be in your important perch in the hierarchy? After all, you went to the best schools, travelled widely, and speak a few words of French! And of course, every Brahmin class needs a thick wall to keep out the lower castes. Those are the people who went to community college, speak Southern, and on the rare occasion they travel end up (like Mr. Bean) saying “gracias” at the Louvre.
Here is Lasch on this subject: “The new elites are in revolt against ‘Middle America,’ as they imagine it; a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in it sexual morality, middlebrow in tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.”
The public, which swims comfortably in the digital sea, knows far more than elites trapped in obsolete structures. The public knows when the elites fail to deliver their promised “solutions,” when they tell falsehoods or misspeak, when they are caught in sexual escapades, and when they indulge in astonishing levels of smugness and hypocrisy. The public is disenchanted in the elites and their institutions, much in the way science disenchanted the world of fairies and goblins. The natural reaction is cynicism. The elites aren’t seen as fallible humans doing their best, but as corrupt and arrogant jerks.
In other words, the elites had abandoned the idea of serving the public before the arrival of the digital tsunami. What that catastrophe did was to reverse the polarities of power: it was the public that was now technologically adept, politically restless, and in revolt against the perplexed elites. The vast gap remained, and the elites have no wish to cross it – to do so would mean breaking that wall that protects the pure soul of the Brahmin.
We have no way of knowing whether a more talented elite class could have avoided the current anger mobilizing the public or the hair-trigger impulse to revolt. There are no laboratories that run parallel versions of history. I will say this: the struggle today is structural, not personality-dependent. Even an FDR or a Reagan would have difficulty preserving institutions whose authority has collapsed because of a radical reversal in the information environment.
"Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority. Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust. Every presidential statement, every CIA assessment, every investigative report by a great newspaper, suddenly acquired an arbitrary aspect, and seemed grounded in moral predilection rather than intellectual rigor. When proof for and against approaches infinity, a cloud of suspicion about cherry-picking data will hang over every authoritative judgment."
Your assertion, developed eloquently and at length, is that elites are no longer able to mediate reality via mass media, therefore convulsing into feckless inertia as a clamorous public picks apart every institutional shortfall.
What I couldn't quite discern was whether you thought this was purely a narrative failing, or indeed a competency one?
In other words, the news has always been fake and the histories at least partly (if not wholly) contrived. Read a French history of Napoleon and compare it to an Anglo one. Or for that matter, read your typical (lefty) English-language take on Cuba, vs. a Spanish language one. But they were self-consistent narratives maintained within meaningful political and linguistic borders. As flawed as these narratives were and are--the map was very definitely not the territory--they were coherent worldviews that helped that society navigate reality. Now those guiding (but also blinding) narratives are gone. Social media has served as a sort of society-wide bodycam: the institutional abuse was always there, now we're simply seeing it.
Or is your entire argument that institutions are really mired in a period of secular incompetence and decline?
The highest calling of true elites is to translate the flux of reality into a coherent story. To most Americans, who believe reality must be approached “scientifically,” this sounds like spin or propaganda – but it’s much more essential than that. Every society is organized around specific ideals and habits of behavior. The institutions of government, information, commerce, even science, are erected on the basis of those ideals and habits. That’s how they attain the authorizing magic of legitimacy. It’s the reason people listen to them.
Now reality is messy. Events are unpredictable, and the human response to them rarely matches any ideal. To maintain the authority of the institutions, an explanation must be provided to the public that connects events to the ideal. The moments of defeat are always instructive. George Washington at Valley Forge became a symbol of courage and endurance, and a source of shame to the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.” FDR told us that Pearl Harbor was “a day of infamy,” not an episode in which the US Navy was caught with its pants down.
Perspectives on reality of course vary according to the ideals and institutions involved. It doesn’t matter to the French what the Anglo-Saxons think of Napoleon. The events of the Napoleonic era have been conformed to the ideals and institutions of French republicanism in a way that frankly seems strange to me (as an honorary Anglo-Saxon) but works for them.
The stories are not necessarily false and not necessarily propaganda, but they are partial and perspectival – and they can be picked apart. That is true of every explanation, including those provided by scientists. Human knowledge is much more limited than we like to admit. To shape the flux of events into a story that will persuade the public, therefore, the elites must control the means of communication. When that control slips, the elite class lapses into a state of crisis. Every major transformation in information technology has brought in train widespread chaos and disruption, often accompanied by bloodshed, as the old elites – wedded to obsolete forms of communication – were chased up their castle towers and heaved out the window. The most disruptive innovation of this nature was surely the printing press. It inspired revolutions in religion, politics, and science.
At the present time, we are in the first stages of a gigantic transformation from the industrial mode of information and communication to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. It’s an extinction event for the narratives.
At the present time, we are in the first stages of a gigantic transformation from the industrial mode of information and communication to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. It’s an extinction event for the narratives. The ideal of representative democracy is in trouble, for example, and the institutions around that ideal will have to be reformed if they wish to retain any sort of legitimacy. But every possible ideology that might challenge representative democracy is even more discredited. Putting aside old threats like fascism or Marxism-Leninism, which are museum relics, there is no great cry among the global public for the “Chinese model” or Putinism, and Islamism seems to have sputtered out.
The causes, I repeat, are structural, and not dependent on the creativity of the elites. Today, even George Washington and FDR would be roasted alive over the fires of social media. Not surprisingly, the people in charge of running things are terrified of saying anything at all – it might come back to bite them. In a Darwinian sense, they are selected for the ability to use words that have no meaning.
The sterility of the ruling class in the production of meaning, in turn, has paradoxical consequences. Crude and incoherent versions of worn-out ideals like socialism and nationalism briefly regain currency, and are said to be the next big thing: amid the panicked babble of the elites, we watch these rough dreams slouch towards Bethlehem to be born again. But there is no second coming. History has never sponsored reruns of dead ideals, even as sitcoms. The appeal to the corpses of once-powerful ideologies itself is evidence of our exhausted powers of explanation, and these dusty mummies, dragged up by the swirl of surface effects, will almost certainly be swept away in the great transformation.
I would not say that our institutions are mired in a period of secular incompetence and decline. That is actually true, but I wouldn’t use those words. I would say that our institutions are structurally (and, I believe, catastrophically) mal-adapted to the new information environment, and that the people who run them are both unable and unwilling to reform them.
I was about to mention the pandemic – but having peeked at the next question, I think I’ll wait.
The great explanatory narratives demand our trust, and trust, in my framework, is a specific relationship to the available information. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out why distrust is so prevalent today. The story-tellers – public officials, the media, scientists: the elites – live in an entirely different information universe from the rest of us. They behave as if we were still in the 20th century, and information is still their monopoly, which they dispense as they see fit and which we will accept on authority. They pretend that they alone have escaped Plato’s cave: they know.
As I often Tweet, we live in a Rashomon reality where every event, no matter how grand nor mundane nor how well-livestreamed, is interpreted (and judged) in mutually-exclusive ways. Is there a way back to truth? Or a serviceable truth enough to build a national narrative for 300 million people? Or are we doomed to no longer have institutions such as what existed in the Before Times? This is obviously related to question number two, as institutions derive their power to awe and motivate via displays of competence and justice. If we can't agree on what happened, we'll never agree on what was a defeat or a victory.
Look, as human beings we are doomed to a Rashomon reality. My perceptions of the same object or event are different from yours, sometimes radically so. I have been married forever, but I still can’t tell what my wife is thinking. We are together but apart. That is the human condition. It keeps personal life interesting, but it makes social life hard.
We are fractured creatures, trapped in a subjective perspective, but we are also symbolic animals, viscerally craving a meaning for our individual lives that is universally acknowledged and so transcends individuality. The purpose of the stories I mentioned before is to meld personal experience with social existence, and in this way make possible the production of shared meaning. The obvious question is why anyone should believe such stories. Well, William James, one of my favorite thinkers, and a psychologist, spoke of a “will to believe.” We are programmed to accept those stories that connect us, and our society, with the cosmic order. If you visit Jerusalem, you’ll find large crowds by the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Mosque of the Dome. That’s 2,500 years of belief guiding billions of individuals. And if you ask most Americans, myself included, they will tell you they believe all persons are created equal. Jefferson found that proposition “self-evident,” but really it’s a powerful act of faith in the face of a lot of contradictory evidence.
Belief is the default. What needs to be explained is systematic cynicism or unbelief: it’s a pathological state that makes individuals miserable and society untenable.
The great explanatory narratives demand our trust, and trust, in my framework, is a specific relationship to the available information. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out why distrust is so prevalent today. The story-tellers – public officials, the media, scientists: the elites – live in an entirely different information universe from the rest of us. They behave as if we were still in the 20th century, and information is still their monopoly, which they dispense as they see fit and which we will accept on authority. They pretend that they alone have escaped Plato’s cave: they know. So their stories strike a mathematical pose, and seek to explain, from on high, how they will apply their expertise to “solve” political, social, or health “problems.”
In fact, the public, which swims comfortably in the digital sea, knows far more than elites trapped in obsolete structures. The public knows when the elites fail to deliver their promised “solutions,” when they tell falsehoods or misspeak, when they are caught in sexual escapades, and when they indulge in astonishing levels of smugness and hypocrisy. The public is disenchanted in the elites and their institutions, much in the way science disenchanted the world of fairies and goblins. The natural reaction is cynicism. The elites aren’t seen as fallible humans doing their best but as corrupt and arrogant jerks. The public, I said, is mired in negation.
The pandemic crisis has been a striking illustration of all this. Information about the virus moved at the speed of light, but the institutions that were supposed to protect public health moved ponderously and were always playing catch-up, while the experts contradicted each other and sometimes themselves. In the US, the CDC kept changing its mind about surgical masks. The FDA seemed to think its mission was to throw out regulatory obstacles to treatment and cure. Given that lives were at stake, these were not trivial confusions.
Elites like Fauci might become more credible if they admitted that they, too, are dwellers in Plato’s cave, like everyone else, even people with multiple PhDs who are awarded long titles by federal agencies. We are all trying to make sense of the flitting shadows. A little humility would go a long way.
To answer your question directly: there will be, at some point, new stories that take into account the new environment and ensure a return of trust in rulers and institutions. The will to believe is real. The question, for me, is how much damage will be inflicted before that civilizational turning, and whether liberal democracy will still exist on the other side.
When you organize online, you don’t need any of the trappings of 20th century radicalism – a revolutionary command and control organization, a maximum leader, a program, even a coherent ideology. All you need is a smart phone and a sufficient measure of anger against. But the digital path to revolt suffers from a congenital, and probably fatal, strategic defect. Without a leader or a program…you can’t negotiate with power.
Surprisingly often, governments have caved in and offered to meet the protesters’ demands; this happened in Israel in 2011 and France in 2019. In both cases – in every case I am aware of – the protesters showed little interest in figuring out what their demands were. They wouldn’t take yes for an answer.
One of the themes you touch on heavily is that of nihilism. You define it as 'the will to destruction, including self-destruction, for its own sake. I mean, specifically, the negation of democracy and capitalism, with a frivolous disregard for the consequences.'
What's remarkable about so many of the movements you describe, such as Occupy Wall Street or the Israel tents protest, is that their ideologies never rise above shouted slogans, barely even filling a single tweet. What are the Gilets Jaunes even about? Or for that matter Antifa? Unlike the various revolutionary movements of the past, such as the PLO, ETA, IRA, Muslim Brotherhood, the 26th of July, etc., there is no intellectual progenitor, cogent politics, formal policy program, organized political wing as adjunct to the violent one, nor even a quickly-mutating platform used for propaganda. There's simply a violent and photogenic rejection of the status quo. Does this actually lead to anything or, as you put it, "the consequence wasn’t revolution but the threat of perpetual turbulence"?
When you organize online, you don’t need any of the trappings of 20th century radicalism – a revolutionary command and control organization, a maximum leader, a program, even a coherent ideology. All you need is a smart phone and a sufficient measure of anger against. This carries tremendous tactical advantages. The street insurgents will invariably catch the authorities by surprise, because institutionally they don’t exist. They are a crowd from the cloud: people from nowhere that suddenly materialize everywhere.
But the digital path to revolt suffers from a congenital, and probably fatal, strategic defect. Without a leader or a program, you can’t maneuver. You can’t adjust your tactics. You can’t negotiate with power, for example. Surprisingly often, governments have caved in and offered to meet the protesters’ demands; this happened in Israel in 2011 and France in 2019. In both cases – in every case I am aware of – the protesters showed little interest in figuring out what their demands were. They wouldn’t take yes for an answer.
Negation is the public’s mobilizing and unifying impulse, so everywhere the protests are mired in a stance against. Zeynep Tufekci calls this a “tactical freeze,” but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. The revolts in question aren’t necessarily frozen: they can always turn more deeply and completely against. Black Lives Matter, for example, began as a protest against police racism and abuse of power, but has ended by knocking over statues of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, as the movement turned against the entire reach of American history.
If you are deeply and completely against the established order, you can come to believe that smashing all its institutions to bits is a form of progress, even if you have no alternative to offer. That’s my definition of the nihilist. He is negation made flesh, a destroyer of worlds. People seem to worry a lot today about the rise of authoritarianism or the return of fascism. I honestly don’t get that. The digital tsunami has produced a crisis of authority for all forms of power. How a Mussolini could arise in the age of social media, and overthrow democracy without an organization, a program, an ideology, or even a Mussolini, is something I’d like to have explained to me. (And if the answer is Trump, forgive me if I snicker.) Under present conditions, the march on Rome would have devolved to a bunch of selfies on a Facebook page.
Liberal democracy is still the only game in town. You can’t compete with it – but you can destroy it. You can smash it to bits and put nothing in its place. You can bring down an avenging chaos on a corrupt world. We don’t have to imagine people like that – we have seen them, again and again. At the individual level, the nihilist is the random shooter who stalks into a gay bar or a mosque and slaughters dozens of innocent strangers. Why does that happen? The horror of such atrocities always (and understandably) overwhelms their weirdness. However, the perpetrators often leave thick manifestos behind. They are eager to explain themselves. Whatever their turgid beliefs, they speak in the language of the rant. Invariably, they portray a society that is rotten beyond redemption, and must be purified in blood. In this dismal landscape, nobody is innocent but the shooter. The nihilist, that moral monster, considers himself to be the last righteous human being on earth.
There is no Party of Nihilism that can storm to the barricades and conquer power. That’s what makes the second coming of Mussolini such a tough proposition. Nonetheless, we have seen what nihilism looks like at the level of whole societies: it looks like ISIS, which entailed slaughter and destruction on a viral scale. ISIS wasn’t a caliphate or a government of any kind. It was a series of shifting networks of young, web-savvy persons intent on obliterating modern society, including whole populations they happened to dislike. Islamism was a pretext and justification for bloodshed. What mattered was power, and the only use for power was to smash away at every aspect of the established order. Although hundreds of thousands were killed in gruesomely inventive ways, the supreme ISIS moment, in my opinion, was the sledge-hammering of ancient statues in Mosul Museum by burly young thugs, celebrated on video and posted online. The most detested enemy of the nihilist, it appears, is the consequential force of memory and history.
So when you ask whether today’s protests will ever lead to anything, the answer is probably not. They have little positive content. My concern is that they might lead to nothing – to a politics of righteous annihilation and a society lobotomized of all memory. The lust for destruction, rather than fascism or some “successor ideology,” looms as the great threat to democracy today.
Liberal democracy is still the only game in town. You can’t compete with it – but you can destroy it. You can smash it to bits and put nothing in its place. You can bring down an avenging chaos on a corrupt world. So when you ask whether today’s protests will ever lead to anything, the answer is probably not. They have little positive content. My concern is that they might lead to nothing – to a politics of righteous annihilation and a society lobotomized of all memory. The lust for destruction, rather than fascism or some “successor ideology,” looms as the great threat to democracy today.
One of my current obsessions is something you (obliquely) touch on: information now flows freely, unencumbered by either geography or monopoly power, which means what we experience and think has nothing to do with the legacy polities--nation-state, supra-national alliance, municipality--that have defined Western life for three centuries. How do we reconcile the world of bits with that of atoms? Your typical bien-pensant Bay Area techie has more in common with the lefty bourgeoisie in Paris than the red-county working-class town just 50 miles east of the Bay Area. Ditto, the closet Bay Area Trumper shares more views with a Brexiteer than someone down the street. We can't even have a civil war, as it's impossible to draw the lines. How do we reconcile that seismic tension between the intangible borders of our intellects and values with the very tangible borders that define political and economic realities? Is this part of why these revolts haven't (largely) congealing into effective movements? Is that a tragedy, or is such intello-geographic tension in fact a saving grace preventing Civil War II?
That’s some question. I’ll take the easy part first. I agree that we aren’t facing a civil war, as so many serious people seem to think, but it’s for reasons other than the conflict between the digital and the real or between hipsters and hillbillies. You need at least two preconditions for civil war. One is a potent issue that divides the population. In 1930s Spain it was Communism versus Catholicism. In our own Civil War it was union/freedom versus states’ rights/slavery. Today the big issue is… what? Wearing MAGA hats? Racism certainly isn’t a divisive issue. Everybody’s against it. Capitalism isn’t much of an issue. Nobody even talks about class or poverty any more. Identity’s too diffuse and dispersed – if identitarians started fighting, it would look more like a scrum than a civil war.
For all the anger, we live pretty comfortably within this evil old system.
The second precondition is an inexhaustible supply of young men. To die willingly in appalling numbers as soldiers did both in Spain and here you need a lot of testosterone. We just haven’t produced enough young men to get there.
Now to the tough question about bits and atoms. The urban educated classes have always had more in common with each other around the globe than with the unlettered masses swarming in their own countries. The internet didn’t create this divide. To the extent that these classes coincide with what I have called “the elites,” we can agree with Lasch that the divorce with the public began long before the advent of the digital tsunami. The latter has caused a structural disaster among the institutions of the modern world, which, as I said before, would have baffled the most talented elites by historical standards. But the dismal quality of our present elites, which is reflected in their bizarre behavior during the structural crisis, should probably be considered a pre-existing condition.
What has changed in the new information landscape is that it has given a voice to the deplorables who are the majority in every country, but also to marginal actors who would have been shut out under the old industrial model. Fifty years ago, the mass audience could only sit and listen. Today the public talks back – hipsters, rednecks, it doesn’t matter, everyone talks back in loud, rude tones. The uproar around every public conversation is a new and startling development. It fills the elites with fear and loathing, so that they start hallucinating a civil war.
The great political conflict of our century, I believe, is that between a networked public and the elites who inhabit the great hierarchical institutions that organize modern life. The Revolt of the Public opens with this tectonic collision already rattling the world. The first edition of the book was published in 2014, and I desperately wanted to make readers aware that behind the rituals of our partisan politics a much more profound struggle was battering and changing the society we had inherited from the 20th century.
I am uncertain about how much of this noise should be treated as signal. The collision between the elites and the public is real. The fragmentation of the public is also a fact. Political polarization, on the other hand, is partly an artifice of the new media environment. Websites must compete for attention and so practice the art of the rant. For many, the shrieking anger is merely a rhetorical pose. The same is true for the old mass media. Having lost their fat advertising incomes, the New York Times and the Washington Post must now depend on subscribers who are, in effect, asked to join a cause: nobody goes to a newspaper for news, but if you don’t subscribe democracy will die in darkness. Newspapers are trying to survive by selling polarization. Andrey Mir, one of the smartest media scholars around, calls this “post-journalism.” It’s open ideological advocacy attached to a hidden business model.
As I said, it’s early days in the digital transformation of society. I’m not ready to call it a miracle or a tragedy. It’s mostly confusion. My clever plan, as an analyst, is to wait and see…
While you avoid taking political positions in your book, you do express a taste for democratic governance. What post-industrial democratic model do you see here? A sort of post-Roman medieval patchwork of increasing federalism? Something else?
The honest answer is that I don’t have a clue. In my opinion, nobody does: the gift of prophecy seems to have died out with the old Israelites of 500 BC. CIA, which considers prophecy its mission, has a terrible track record. I have learned that the best way to be wrong in public is to make a prediction.
On the other hand, speculation is free and easy, so why not go for it?
I think we have come to the end of an age of administrative centralization. The high modern ideal was to reduce all of society, including humanity, to pieces on a board that could be moved by political power as it reached for utopia. That ideal died when the Soviet Union went out of business in 1991. The digital ideal is personalization, the invention of ephemeral identities and communities that overlap and collide with one another in a weird quantum manner. The structures of the modern world are tottering from the shock. Things fall apart.
In a fractured age, moving authority to the lowest possible level will be not just sensible but necessary. I wrote somewhere that the future of democracy may be Switzerland. In that country, for example, an immigrant doesn’t apply to the central government for citizenship – he must apply to the little valley in which he lives. Whatever the decision, nobody can say afterwards that it was determined by the political correctness of bureaucrats or the racism of the public. It’s direct democracy at work. The people who decide know who you are.
Another way of looking at this is to say that Athenian democracy will to some degree begin to supersede Roman republicanism. On the web, you can vote on anything, at any time. I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing, but it’s the purest form of democracy, and explanations about why it’s not a good thing always start with the assumption that the elites are smarter than the voters. In a time of revolt, that argument won’t fly. We should expect a new populism by the populus rather than by Trump-like politicians. The consequences will probably be no less outrageous.
I think we have come to the end of an age of administrative centralization. The high modern ideal was to reduce all of society, including humanity, to pieces on a board that could be moved by political power as it reached for utopia. The digital ideal is personalization, the invention of ephemeral identities and communities that overlap and collide with one another in a weird quantum manner. The structures of the modern world are tottering from the shock. Things fall apart.
Technology should allow the dismantling of many layers of bureaucracy, and a commensurate improvement in the delivery of services. The structures of government and politics can be reformed and adapted to move at the speed of light. The political parties can host websites in which users vote issues up or down, as in reddit. Democratic government can evolve into a civic-minded version of Amazon. That company is, in fact, a huge bureaucracy, but that’s not what customers experience. They experience fast service at the best prices. Central governments, on the other hand, deliver a vast number of essential services – but that’s not what ordinary citizens experience. They experience arrogance, bureaucracy, and delay.
Will any of these changes happen? I have no idea: the future is hidden behind a veil of uncertainty. But in a very real sense, the future of democracy will depend on how soon and how well we can effect its reformation. By the time I was 10, I had lived through a dictatorship of the right and a dictatorship of the left. I learned early in my life that the worst democracy is infinitely better than the best-performing tyranny. So I’m happy to make a leap of faith and say that liberal democracy will still be with us, but with new and interesting permutations, at the turn of the 22nd century.
Do you feel vindicated, having essentially called everything that's happened in social media for the greater part of the last decade? Your book came out years ago now, and in many ways predicted even Trump. How's it feel to have gotten it so right?
Do I feel vindicated? Not particularly. Would I prefer to have been wrong and now bask in a golden age of brotherhood and toleration? Well, of course. Like I said, I’m really old, and one of the few things one learns with age, young Antonio, is that there are many more important things than personal vanity.
I don’t think I got it right. I missed how fast the storm was descending upon us, and I certainly didn’t predict Trump (see “prophecy,” above). Sometimes, by sheer luck, you are in a high place and can see the shape and character of the approaching trouble, while those in the flatlands have no idea of what’s coming. That was me at the global media analysis section of CIA. And I was not alone. A group of us were obsessed with the same drama. We watched the digital tsunami tear its way around the world, and we observed, amazed, a tremendous spike in social and political turbulence behind it. We all asked the same question: Why? What does information technology have to do with politics?
That was the seed out of which The Revolt of the Public grew.
As I said before, the answer has not yet been fully revealed. It’s early days. So my parting advice remains what it has been for a while now: fasten your seatbelts, friends, it’s going to be a bumpy ride ahead…