The main idea is that developments of the information age broke government and elite stronghold on information flow. It resulted in the dissolution of trust in authority and the ability of people to organize by using the social network, sometimes so effectively that the popular revolt with no straightforward program or effective organization could overthrow established authoritarian governments. The author supports this idea by presenting details of such processes as they occurred in the Arab revolution and then provides a warning that it could also happen in established western democracies in which authorities and the elite are currently losing the support of the public. The author also provides recommendations on preventing the unraveling of democracy, which comes down to protecting the private sphere, increasing government transparency, and avoiding big unrealistic projects that usually fail, undermining whatever is left of public trust in government.
1 PRELUDE TO A TURBULENT AGE
The author begins by making a connection between online universities and Arab insurgencies. He then links it to the crisis of governments, financial systems, and overall cultures in developed countries. He also concludes that the present is turbulent, and the future is unknown and unpredictable. The explanation for all this was in information explosion when its abundance deprived it of authoritativeness that it used to have. Here is an excellent illustration:
And here is the author’s formulation:” 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.”
In short, the author sees the dissolution of authority and fears that it would crash everything he holds dear, which are institutions of the contemporary western world.
2 HODER AND WAEL GHONIM
In this chapter author looks at two Internet personalities: Hoder – a very popular Iranian blogger who caused the wrath of Iranian ayatollahs, ran away, but then unreasonably came back to Iran and winded up in prison with 20 years sentence. Another one Ghonim – the Facebook executive who provided effective media support for Arab Revolution that removed Mubarak in Egypt and a few other dictators in other places from power. The author uses these examples to observe the strange embrace between information and power when information and disinformation could be saturated to such an extent that it changes people’s minds not only on the side of the oppressed but also on the side of oppressors. Hence, tanks and guns are not enough to keep power if people who sit inside and hold these guns stop complying with orders because their minds are changed.
3 MY THESIS
Here is how the author defines his main point:” My thesis is a simple one. We are caught between an old world which is decreasingly able to sustain us intellectually and spiritually, maybe even materially, and a new world that has not yet been born. Given the character of the forces of change, we may be stuck for decades in this ungainly posture. You who are young today may not live to see its resolution.”
And here is how the author defines forces fighting in this conflict:” Each side in the struggle has a standard-bearer: authority for the old industrial scheme that has dominated globally for a century and a half, the public for the uncertain dispensation striving to become manifest. The two protagonists share little in common, other than humanity—and each probably doubts the humanity of the other. They have arrayed themselves in contrary modes of organization which require mutually hostile ideals of right behavior. The conflict is so asymmetrical that it seems impossible for the two sides actually to engage. But they do engage, and the battlefield is everywhere.”
The author then describes methods and tools used in this fight, mainly in information and networks. He also discusses polarization, the weakening of the Center, and the resulting threat to democracy:” That democracy became hierarchical, organizational, an institution of the Center, is less a paradox or a conspiracy theory than a historical accident. The consequences are beyond dispute. Many aspects of representative democracy have become less democratic, and are so perceived by the public. The defection of citizens from the voting booth and party membership give evidence to a souring mood with the established structures. Many have been moved to a sectarian condemnation of the entire system as ungodly and unjust. The more assertive political networks today proclaim our current procedures to be the tyranny of Big Government or a farce manipulated by Big Business.”
The author then reviews the positions and ideas of some well-known theorists of the information age and generally finds them lacking. The last part of the chapter demonstrates how people in control of information flow between individual and political regimes mediate this flow and how this process is changing. The author presents it in a series of graphs, starting with individuals accepting status quo situations mainly based on exclusive control over information by the political regime. Then, increasingly doubting the validity of status quo based on additional information from other sources and ending with the rejection of status quo based on acceptance of some alternative source as more valid than existing political regime:
At the end of the chapter author presents his position as believing that control over information flow can influence political power and offers his hypothesis in the form of three specific claims:
4 WHAT THE PUBLIC IS NOT
In this chapter, the author discusses the nature of the public by using the method of exclusion in analyzing complex questions. Here are the author’s points:
- The public is not the people but likes to pretend that it is
The public is not, and never can be, identical to the people: this is true in all circumstances, everywhere. Since, on any given question, the public is composed of those self-selected persons interested in the affair, it possesses no legitimate authority whatever, and lacks the structure to enforce any authority that might fall its way. The public has no executive, no law, no jails. It can only express an opinion, in words and in actions—in its own flesh and blood.
- The public is not the masses but was once buried alive under them
It seems to the author that the public is at least somewhat educated, informed, and definitely thinking part of the population that has constantly been increasing from the beginning of the industrial age and had been applying democratic political forms. Eventually, the small numbers of members of the Republic of Letters back in the XVIII century turned into millions. These people wanted control over their lives, and political regimes had to manage this via controlling information, propaganda, and public relations. If these tools failed, the public could become so upset and unsettled that it would incite the masses to action.
- The public is not the crowd, but the two are in a relationship (it’s complicated)
Here are the author’s definitions:
“The relationship between the public and the crowd is not transparent. Though closely associated with one another, the two are never identical. The public, we know, is composed of private persons welded together by a shared point of reference: what Lippmann called an interest in an affair, which can mean a love of computer games or a political disposition. Members of the public tend to be dispersed, and typically influence events from a distance only, by means of “soft” persuasion: by voicing and communicating an opinion.
A crowd, on the contrary, is always manifest, and capable of great physical destructiveness and ferocity. It is a form of action which submerges the desires of many individuals under a single rough-hewn will. In direct democracies like ancient Athens, it could be said to represent the will of the sovereign people. Everywhere else, the crowd can represent nothing but itself. Yet the persons who integrate a crowd invariably make larger claims of identity: with political crowds, such claims often reflect the more emotive aspects of the public’s agenda. A crowd can thus perceive itself, and be perceived by others, as the public in the flesh, “the people” or “the proletariat” or “the community” in action.”
At the end of the chapter author characterizes the current situation in such a way:” In the worldwide political collision between the new public and established authority, the image of the crowd has assumed a decisive importance. A willingness to face down power, even to die, in front of cell phone cameras, has equalized the asymmetry of this conflict to a surprising extent. A government can respond with old-fashioned brute force, as it did in Syria, but at the cost of tearing to shreds the social contract and becoming a global pariah. Every beating and every shooting will be recorded on video and displayed to the world. Every young man killed will rise again on the information sphere, transformed, in the manner of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Said, into a potent argument for revolt.”
5 PHASE CHANGE 2011
The author begins this chapter with a discussion of distrust and fear that increasingly dominates the public and the elite relationship. Then, he specifically reviewed events of 2011 when mass demonstrations occurred in many western countries. Finally, he describes events in Spain, UK, Israel, and the USA and notices how little is needed to initiate mass protests against the elite.
6 A CRISIS OF AUTHORITY
The author begins with defining the meaning of authority:” authority, as I use the term, flows from legitimacy, derived from monopoly. To some indeterminate degree, the public must trust and heed authority, or it is no authority at all. An important social function of authority is to deliver certainty in an uncertain world. It explains reality in the context of the shared story of the group. For this it must rely on persuasion rather than compulsion, since naked force is a destroyer of trust and faith. The need to persuade in turn explains the institutional propensity for visible symbols of authority—the patrician’s toga, the doctor’s white frock, the financier’s Armani suit. Authority being an intangible quality, those who wield it wish to be recognized for what they are.”
Then he describes how various branches of authority in western societies: science, experts, financiers, and politicians, lost the public’s trust by overpromising and underdelivering in a great many areas of life, consistently being caught lying just about everything and distorting reality. He then describes symptoms of life without authority: uncertainty and impermanence.
7 THE FAILURE OF GOVERNMENT
In this chapter, the author extends the discussion of loss of authority to the government. He compares public attitudes to many failures of JFK, which the press covered up and quickly forgave and forgot, with the mass movement of Tea Parties against Obama for his Obamacare. Here is the author’s point:” The claims of competence made by the government over which Barack Obama presided were as extraordinary and improbable as those asserted in JFK’s time. Everything had been diminished except the talk. The radical disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of government was apparent to anyone with eyes to see, and, amplified by the information sphere, was itself a major vector for the contagion of distrust.”
The author retells the story of the city of Brasilia: an excellent example of the disconnect between government experts and reality, which typically cost a lot of lives and treasure to the public. The author completes the chapter with a discussion of “why most things fail.” The last part of the chapter is about the negativity of Obama and his attempts to be on the side of the public against out-of-control authority despite the simple fact that he, Obama, was this authority.
8 NIHILISM AND DEMOCRACY
Here, the author discusses what could substitute for the declining grand hierarchy of the industrial age and could find nothing except for nihilism. Everything around is getting worse: climate, economy, and international politics. He concludes that:” The crisis of authority was a crisis of democracy. The public’s assault on the institutions was often an assault on the democratic process.” And it is not only a loss of belief in democracy, and it is even a loss of faith in revolution. It looks like the massive rise of nihilism caused by obsolesces of industrial mode, and the author is afraid that:” To the extent that the institutions of democracy remain lashed to the industrial mode of organization, they risk becoming part of an immense cultural extinction event.”
9 CHOICES AND SYSTEMS
In this chapter author moves from analysis to recommendations, which are: Protect the personal sphere from political interference and use the diversity of available options for everything. “The failure of government isn’t a failure of democracy, but a consequence of the heroic claims of modern government, and of the constantly frustrated expectations these claims have aroused. Industrial organization, with its cult of the expert and top-down interventionism, stands far removed from the democratic spirit, and has proven disastrous to the actual practice of representative democracy. It has failed in its own terms, and has been seen to fail, and it has infected democratic governments with a paralyzing fear of the public and with the despair of decadence.” The author then discusses that a great many people do just that: ignore the government. He even presents a nice graph demonstrating that cute cats beat government hands down as an object of the public interest:
The author’s to-do list then has the requirement to change that by improving government transparency and a more realistic approach to claims and objectives. The author seems to believe this is imperative because:” Tremendous energies have been released by people from nowhere, networked, self-assembled, from below. That is the structural destiny of the Fifth Wave—the central theme of my story. Democratic government in societies of distrust can choose to ride the tsunami or to be swamped by it. The latter choice will leave government mired in failure and drained of legitimacy. It will leave democracy, I fear, at the mercy of the first persuasive political alternative.
10 FINALE FOR SKEPTICS
The author begins here with another precise formulation of his central thesis:” My thesis, again, is a simple one. The information technologies of the twenty-first century have enabled the public, composed of amateurs, people from nowhere, to break the power of the political hierarchies of the industrial age. The result hasn’t been a completed revolution in the manner of 1789 and 1917, or utter collapse as in 1991, but more like the prolonged period of instability that preceded the settlement of Westphalia in 1648. Neither side can wipe out the other. A resolution, when it comes, may well defy the terms of the struggle. None is remotely visible as I write these lines.”
After that author discusses failures of democracy in various places such as Venezuela, Ukraine, and Turkey, then makes the point that history demonstrated unpredictability of the future. Therefore, the author ends with this:” The failure of democracy plays no part in the null hypothesis, but becomes a possibility in the framework of my thesis. A rebellious public, sectarian in temper and utopian in expectations, collides everywhere with institutions that rule by default and blunder, it seems, by habit. Industrial hierarchies are no longer able to govern successfully in a world swept to the horizon by a tsunami of information. An egalitarian public is unwilling to assume responsibility under any terms. The muddled half-steps and compromises necessary to democracy may become untenable under the pressure applied by these irreconcilable forces.
Democracy isn’t doomed. As an analyst, I have rejected prophecy and destiny as tools of the trade. I see the future with no greater clarity than you, reader. But processes at play today, right now, if continued, could well lead to the crumbling of what has always been a fragile system of government.”
— TRUMP, BREXIT, AND FAREWELL TO ALL THAT
The original book was published in 2014 before Brexit and Trump, a supplement for the new edition. The author is bitching about this authentic expression of populism and, while clearly understanding the decay of the elite, he has a tough time accepting this reality. It shows in his description of events of 2017.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I agree with the author that new information technology opened access to the public forum to all kinds of amateurs. It undermined and practically destroyed old forms of authoritarian governments based on limited access to information. It also seriously damaged traditional forms of democracy when the elite controls narrative and consequently obtains legitimacy in the ballot box mainly by minimizing access to alternative narratives and, if needed, just falsifying election results. However, I think that this does not mean that either authoritarianism or democracy became unviable. On the contrary, they will have to change and include new information processing functionality in their corresponding systems. For example, AI and networks would allow authoritarian governments much stronger control over people’s behavior and thoughts than had ever been possible before.
In contrast, applying such technology in a real democracy would allow the removal of intermediary information repackaging by the elite and open direct and unlimited flows of data to support the interests of non-elite members of society. So, in the short run, the authoritarian regime could become more stable, while democracy less so because the reconciliation of many often conflicting interests without elite control would become more complex. However, the authoritarian regime could become increasingly unstable in the long run due to the fights for power at the top with periodic massive leaks in the interests of one faction or another, made possible by the instant distribution of information to the population. The traditional solid beliefs in the god-given legitimacy of top leaders are gone and will never come back. So one bunch of authoritarian crooks could use a sudden leak of negative news to push the currently incumbent bunch of crooks out of power.
Democracy, on the other hand, could become much more robust because massive access to information from a multitude of sources would disqualify anybody who would pretend to be the Demos and will eliminate the ability of the elite to make large-scale decisions for all. The massive distrust of the elite would eventually push most decisions down to the private sphere, leaving for the government a minimal role as envisioned in the American Constitution.