This is the third in a series offering a normative evaluation of the radical changes brought about by the Fifth Wave of information – what is sometimes called the digital revolution. My method is simple: to examine specific attributes of this ongoing transformation, and to ask, in the style of Belinda the Good Witch, whether these attributes are good or bad for us. This, then, is an early-warning judgment of the change around us. My moral criteria, as I noted in the initial post, is wholly conventional – I believe in personal dignity, liberal democracy, free markets, and most (if not quite all) of the private and public virtues bequeathed to every American by history.
The first post identified impermanence and uncertainty as distinct attributes of our moment in time, and weighed their goodness or badness. The second post added fragmentation and connectedness. Let me conclude the series – or at least put it in pause – with two final attributes thrown out for evaluation.
Networked, or the War of the Worlds
Two irreconcilable forces contend for dominion of the world. One side is ancient and visibly powerful, the other so new as to be virtually undetectable by the keenest observers. The conflict is so asymmetrical, the disproportion in size and structure so great, that it seems impossible for the enemies actually to engage. But they do engage – and the battlefield is everywhere.
The incumbent power is hierarchy, and it represents established and accredited authority – governments first and foremost, with their politicians and bureaucrats (and military and police), but also corporations, universities, mass media, the scientific research industry, the visual and performing arts business, foundations, nonprofit organizations, NGOs. Hierarchy has ruled the world since the human race attained meaningful numbers. Its behavior follows a predictable pattern: top-down, centralizing, painfully deliberate in action, process-obsessed, mesmerized by grand strategies and five-year-plans, respectful of rank and order but contemptuous of the outsider, the amateur.
Against this mighty citadel of the status quo, the Fifth Wave has raised the network – that is, the public in revolt: those despised amateurs, 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 evolves a hard exoskeleton to keep every part in its 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 leaders or rank of any sort. Networks do at times succeed if held together by a single, powerful point of reference – an issue, person, or event – which acts as 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.
Another way to characterize the conflict is as an episode in the primordial struggle between the Center and the Border. The terms were employed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky long before the advent of the Fifth Wave, but they are singularly apt for our present condition. The Center, these authors write, is dominated by large, hierarchical institutions. It envisions the future in terms of the status quo, and churns out program after program to protect this vision. The Border, in contrast, is composed of “sects” (we would say “networks”) which are voluntary associations of equals. Sects exist to oppose the Center: they stand firmly against. Rather than articulate their own programs, sects aim to model the behaviors demanded from “the godly or good society.” To maintain unity, the sectarian requires “an image of threatening evil on a cosmic scale.” Hierarchy means conspiracy for the Border – and the future is always doomsday.
Sects resolve internal disputes by splintering. Their numbers must remain small. This may be the strategic difference between the face-to-face sect (as described by Douglas and Wildavsky) and the digital network: the latter can inflate into millions literally at the speed of light.
The first major engagement in this war of the worlds was precipitated by file-sharing networks whose members exchanged music without paying copyright fees. In response, rich corporations from the Center mobilized the power of government, law, and the police. At the end of the day, however, the music business lay in ruins.
This set a pattern. Whenever an institution thought it owned a document or file or domain of information, the networks swarmed in and took over. Newspapers lost subscribers and advertisers. The US government lost control of its own classified documents. Book publishers also tumbled off the cliff (but haven’t yet hit the jagged rocks below). TV and Hollywood, massively profitable today, are on the same slippery slope.
Because power isn’t a file that can be stolen or shared, the battle in the political front has tilted more in favor of hierarchy. Iran brutally repressed the protests of 2009. The Chinese government employs an “internet police.” Even the US government during this period has been allowed to operate on the assumption that its own people are the enemy – for example, at airports and federal buildings.
Still, networks have exploited their speed, near-invisibility, and command of the information sphere to inflict pain and confusion on the political Center. On 9/11, a miniscule network of violent men slaughtered thousands of Americans, while the government stood by, blind and helpless. In 2008 Barack Obama, propelled by online networks which generated funds, volunteers, and an effective anti-Center message, crushed the Democratic and Republican establishments. In February 2011, a series of protests organized on Facebook and orchestrated by text messaging ended the Pharaonic regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
With the equivocal exception of President Obama, these advances by the networks were soon reversed. Al Qaeda failed to terrorize the US into leaving the Middle East and to dislodge US-installed governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The secular protesters who overthrew Mubarak were almost immediately swept aside by the hierarchical forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. As for the president – as we shall see below, he has alternated his allegiance between program-churning institutions and the rebellious Border.
And this is the deeper pattern of the conflict. The programs of the Center fail, and are seen to fail: let the disastrous performance of the oversight agencies before the 2008 financial crisis, and of the Intelligence Community in Iraq, stand for many more examples. At the same time, the fracturing of the public along niche interests unleashes swarms of networks against every sacred precinct of authority. Failure is criticized, mocked, magnified. The result is paralysis by distrust. The Border, it is already clear, can neutralize but not replace the Center. Networks can protest and overthrow, but never govern. Bureaucratic inertia confronts utopian nihilism. The sum is zero.
It goes without saying that this is bad in every way imaginable. The great hierarchical organizations appear broken, crippled; the networks sow wild accusations to the wind and reap a whirlwind of distrust. There is, at present, no third alternative. But if I were asked to choose – to pass a normative judgment between one and the other – I would have to say, with Mercutio, “A plague on both your houses.”
Distrust, or the Emperor’s Naughty Bits
Ours, then, is an “age of distrust” – Pierre Rosanvallon’s phrase. Opinion surveys depict a deep contentious chasm between the public and the political sphere. The two have split asunder and assumed the characteristics of Border and Center. The consequences could well be toxic to democracy.
The malady preceded the Fifth Wave. Those in positions of power bore much of the initial blame: they asked for the benefit of every doubt, and took the enforced silence of the public as consent. When President Kennedy confronted failure after the Bay of Pigs incident, he gave a televised speech that was the political equivalent of Pontius Pilate washing his hands, and his popularity increased.
Other institutional players are responsible as well. The news media treats elected officials as inveterate liars: we read in Thomas Patterson’s Out of Order that journalists readily admit to the belief that politicians are frauds. “Nongovernmental organizations” have meanwhile built an industry based on condemnation of power without the slightest wish to share it. Transnational institutions like the UN and the EU for obvious reasons love to dwell on the failings of national governments. Popular culture long ago embraced government conspiracy as the default plot device.
Distrust first spawned among the elites, but has thoroughly infected the public. The revolt against authority – defining feature of the Fifth Wave – is a reflexive assault on the status quo only. There are no fresh ideas or ideals to insert in that battered space. “Digital democracy” is an empty phrase. Negation provides the revolutionary energy of the Fifth Wave.
In JFK’s time, we were told to avert our gaze from the emperor’s nakedness. In contrast, we paraded the failures of President Bush in Iraq and President Obama with the stimulus in the manner of defeated chieftains in a Roman triumph. On the surface this appears to be political justice – the cost of failed policies. But I find it perverse to treat elected officials as if they belong to some unclean but alien caste, with no connection to the public or its voting choices and demands for “solutions” to intractable conditions. With Bush and Obama, the public punished what it once applauded. This is not mere partisanship but a refusal to take responsibility for the democratic process. The voice of the people, digitally amplified, roared out cynicism and conspiracy-mongering.
At present, democratic life has been reduced to the exhibition and contemplation of the emperor’s naughty bits. We have confused civic duty with the urge to expose, denounce, refute, and reject the actions of officials we have elected to office. The hero of the day is not the lover or the doer but the accuser – the wily nihilist in the Bourne and Inception model who foils brutal conspiracies concealed behind the veil of democracy. Fantasies about tearing down the political system are accompanied by vagueness about what to put in its place.
All this has practical consequences. The first pertains to the public: it is powerful in opposition but feeble in pursuit of positive programs. It has already been said: the networked public can protest and overthrow, but seems unable to govern. Once negation attains some sort of climax, energy dissipates. This is the lesson of the protests in Egypt, Spain, Israel, and the US.
The second consequence pertains to democratic governance. Assured of the public’s wrath, elected governments are motivated by a terror of consequences. Officials equate legitimacy with the deflection of blame. The aim of governing, therefore, is to exhibit a lack of culpability. Rosanvallon calls this form of moral exhibitionism transparency. “Instead of seeking to achieve political objectives, people seek certain physical and moral qualities,” he writes. “Transparency, rather than truth or the general interest, has become the paramount virtue in an uncertain world.”
These deformities have produced a new kind of politician, of whom Barack Obama can be said to be the prototype. President Obama, though a man of the Border, came to office seeking to implement big programs in the tradition of FDR and LBJ. After his party’s defeat in the 2010 elections, however, he seems to have taken the measure of the changed landscape, and adjusted his ambitions accordingly. On a range of issues and episodes, the president became chief accuser to the nation. In the objections of Catholic hospitals to dispensing contraceptives, for example, he uncovered a Republican war on women. During the 2012 electoral campaign, the president ignored his own achievements in office and reassumed the demeanor of an outsider. He ran as a righteous voice from the Border, while portraying his opponent as a member of the millionaires’ cabal which, behind the veil of democracy, really rules the country.
President Obama is the first major political figure to choose negation over action. His personal success means there will be many more. The effect can only be a quantum leap in the public’s distrust of the political system. When that distrust is validated by the highest elected officials, rejection of democracy becomes a legitimate position.
None of this leaves us in a better place. None of it reflects well on the public or its political representatives. The public expects the democratic process to deliver equality, prosperity, peace, security, order, freedom, bipartisanship, and compassion. Crushed by the weight of these expectations, politicians either ignore the public in the old JFK mode or, Obama-like, join with it in flogging “the system.”
The Fifth Wave, which arose in a technological revolution, is big with the dream of a parallel transformation in the political sphere. I don’t think this is entirely utopian. Technology available today can radically shrink the distance between the public and government. However, in a landscape poisoned by distrust the give-and-take needed to achieve this goal must become a source of denunciations and paranoia – and the wish for change can all too easily be transformed into the nihilist’s urge to smash away without a thought for consequences.