A Problem with Revolution in the Internet Era

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For a more-timely-than-they-could-have-known podcast, give a listen to Russ Roberts’s interview of Martin Gurri on the latter’s book, The Revolt of the Public.  The idea, basically, is that a “digital tsunami” is overwhelming the old institutions that held things together because information isn’t collated and protected by a clerisy. Here’s an interesting portion of the interview transcribed on the podcast’s site:

Martin Gurri: A major difference in the age of the tsunami when you have these revolts–these revolts of the public–from what I experienced when I was a younger man is that: the public avoids organization, disdains ideology, has no interest in programs. And, in fact, if you look at what the public is–and that’s probably an important thing to get down to the table–I grew up in the era of mass media when there was a mass audience, and I was part of that mass. And, to me, it was always kind of like a gigantic mirror which, all of us in America, you could see ourselves in there. And, we knew that everybody else was there, too.

That mirror has fallen and shattered. And the public now inhabits the broken pieces on the floor. There is no real public. There are many. Just saying ‘public’ sounds stupid.

So, I’m going to keep talking about the public, but understand many. Many, and mutually hostile.

So, how do you get people to essentially sacrifice their lives in a place like Tahrir Square on behalf of an anti-Mubarak protest? How do you get people in Tel Aviv–and there are hundreds of thousands–to protest for social justice, they thought?

Well, you basically focus on what you are against. You focused, laser-like, on what you are against. And you are against the status quo. And, once the status quo turns to you and says, ‘You got me. I’m ready to negotiate. What do you want?’ Silence. Because the public has no organization. It has no ideology, it has no programs, no leadership.

So, the public can only–I think somebody called it a tactical freeze. I forget who it was who said that. Once you start this protest, whatever you are protesting, that’s what you’re stuck on. All right? I don’t remember who said that, but that is not original with me.

And, so you, in the end, have a situation in Egypt, for example, where the protestors managed to engineer the overthrow of Mubarak. I think really the army stepped in and said, ‘You got to go, old man.’

But, in the end, the landscape wants to happen, nothing. Because there was no program. There was some assumption of democracy was going to happen. So, two big institutions, the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood, fought it out for the next five years or so. So, it was the opposite of what the crowd in Tahrir Square, the protesters, had intended.

The two go on to discuss examples of the past which seem like they might contradict Curri’s theory because they were “public revolts” in the era before the Internet.  His response was that those (think 1968 radicals) actually surrounded small hierarchical cores.

This makes sense.  Technology may be allowing revolutions to organize too quickly for any sort of organization or coherent thought to develop.  So, they overthrow a status quo with no plan or, as in Egypt, simply get co-opted by another power base.

This is a risk of technology that appears all over the place.  Fifteen years or so ago, document layout and website design became so simple that any secretary could do it, but that meant things were often designed without any background in design.

Alternately, think of software that helps with management of anything, whether relationships (as with customers) or ideas (as with writing).  Often in such processes, the seemingly excess time handling the thing being managed is key.  If you automate everything, you can lose touch with it, meaning intimate knowledge.  You think about it and plan around it once and then step away.

The more automatically things can happen, the more thoughtful you have to be, and as an organization or a society, we need to develop processes to make sure that isn’t lost.  In social terms, that means a reluctance to throw out institutions and principles simply because there is objection to them.

If you’re taking a building apart stud by stud, you have plenty of opportunity to come across features or qualities that you don’t want to lose, and you have plenty of time to make sure you really want to destroy the whole thing.  When you can simply blow it up, that opportunity for consideration is gone.