The fall of the house of Graham

wapo cover 2

The Washington Post is my hometown newspaper.  I read it for many years as part of my daily routine, and until the paywall came down I continued to read the sports pages in search of tidbits about my beloved Washington Nationals.  The Post’s self-image is that of a feisty challenger to the New York Times – and like all number twos, it loves to think that it tries harder.

The paper was always a rich man’s plaything.  It was owned by a wealthy family whose name changed several times in four generations, but which, for some reason, is always referred to as “the Grahams.”  They owned other, more valuable properties, but it was the Post that bought them a walk on the red carpet.  In the capital city of the world’s greatest democracy, the Grahams were treated like royalty.  And no wonder:  they controlled the image of the invertebrate political population.

On 2 August, 2013, the Grahams sold the Washington Post to an even wealthier individual – Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.  They kept their more profitable possessions:  only the newspaper was dumped.  In a hilarious journalistic moment, the Post itself reported the sale as “sudden and stunning,” and cited Donald Graham, the paper’s ex-CEO, as expressing “shock.”  It was as if the family had woken up in a strange bed with a $250 million check on the night table.  Not even the paper’s crusty beat reporters, whose gimlet-like eyes missed nothing, could account for this abrupt fall from grace.

The sale has stirred up the customary uproar about the future of newspapers and the merits of new media, as opposed to the more antiquated kind.  I will get back to that in a moment – briefly, which is all the subject deserves.  But first, a word about the Post’s place in the mythology of news

Newspapers like to tell a particular story about themselves.  In this tale, the public is helpless and ignorant, elected officials are cunning Machiavellians, and journalists serve as watchdogs to power while telling truth, like it or not, to the unwashed masses.  That this is false on all counts has never stopped people in the newspaper business from believing, on moral and political grounds, that the world will tumble into barbarism if they should ever lose their jobs.

The Post features in the only scrap of evidence ever produced in support of the story:  the paper’s role in the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from the presidency.  This is really a fable within a fable, one in which two cub reporters on the city beat, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, stumbled into a film noir of government conspiracies and, by following the money, saved the republic from an unspeakably Nixonian fate.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, became a popular movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

That was the worst of it.  Nobody in the city of Washington DC is now or has ever been as handsome as Robert Redford or as good at acting as Dustin Hoffman.  Nobody here has ever said “follow the money” – people in government speak in pungent paragraphs, not punchy phrases.  As it happened, the Post’s part in Watergate was minor, and the movie, like most Hollywood concoctions, bore little relation to reality.  Yet to this day newspaper types confuse themselves with movie stars, and young people get lured in large numbers to journalism schools hoping to land a leading role in a Washington scandal.

Instead, those who actually seek employment with newspapers will land among the ruins, in the informational equivalent of the city of Detroit.  Let’s get real:  for all the talk of new media, the problem with newspapers isn’t that they are old or pretentious, but that they can’t make money in the marketplace.  Donald Graham admitted as much, stating that, under his family, the Post “could have survived” but not exactly thrived.  He was shedding risk – bolting out the back door while Robert Redford look-alikes lined up for jobs in the HR office.

Two days before the sale of the Post, the New York Times Company had engaged in the kind of cold-hearted business calculation it usually criticizes in the opinion pages, unloading the Boston Globe at a loss of over $1 billion.  And yes:  that’s “billion.”  The buyer was the owner of the Red Sox, who holds several ballplayers under bigger contracts than the $70 million price tag for the Globe.

The usual suspects offered up for the near-fatal mugging of the daily newspaper are the loss of advertisement to websites like Craigslist, and the unbundling of content in the age of Google and Facebook.  Both are guilty as charged.  Newspapers operated within local monopolies, and the digital invasion of this marketplace wrecked their business model beyond the possibility of repair.

Not that repairs haven’t been tried.  In June of this year, the Post swallowed hard and imitated Number One, the New York Times, by getting itself a paywall.  Here we have the answer to the digital revolution by America’s two great dailies:  build a wall.  It places them in the same class with China, Iran, and other despotic governments worried about too much free stuff confusing the rudimentary mind of the public.

Hiding behind a wall has never been the best strategy, under any circumstances.  Hiding behind a wall in the age of Google and Facebook, when the currency is attention, starts to resemble an early symptom of senile dementia.

Much has been made of Bezos’ official standing as a conquistador in the mysterious domains of the web – whether he’ll seek to ravage the dowdy Post, whether such excitement would be the work of the devil or just what the old girl needs.  This may matter to politicians who love to see their names in genuine dead-tree newsprint, but for the rest of us it’s a discussion empty of content.  Newspapers today are small potatoes.  The Washington Post is small potatoes.  So, for that matter, is the New York Times.  Those who think otherwise are persons of a certain age who view the world through layers of memory, as if from the wrong end of a telescope.

Bezos is a billionaire who bought himself a plaything from a family of multi-millionaires.  That is the future of the daily newspaper:  the sugar daddy, and all the metered intimacies such a relationship entails.  Bezos’ new toy, I expect, will bring him much personal gratification, and maybe an invitation or two to the White House, but it will be of little consequence to the future of truth, justice, and the American way.

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President Obama and the joy of negation

angry obama

President Obama has been mocked for having “community organizer” on his resume, but that particular job experience aligns him with the self-image of a rebellious public.  As can be seen from this application, the community organizer is expected to denounce, accuse, and demand change.  The change itself is pushed off to some other responsible party – usually a government agency.  The organizer deals in negation.  And negation – from the online rant and the Hollywood blockbuster to the Occupy and Tea Party movements – sums up the spirit of the digital age.  We are all against.

Recent mobilizations by the public have exploited a new strategic advantage:  control of the information sphere provided by digital platforms.  But the public on the march has also faced a strategic problem:  having originated in a political vacuum, it lacked a unifying organization, ideology, program, or plan.  The solution has been an unrelenting focus on the particular wrong or injustice under assault at the moment.  Negation, digitally amplified, has been the glue holding together a multifarious public.

Thus the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square comprised many ideals and opinions, all united in hostility to the Mubarak regime.  The Tea Partiers opposed big government, exemplified by the stimulus and health care laws.  The Occupiers were against an economic system which favored the “one percent.”  Advocating a positive program would have shattered these groups:  participants felt energized by what they opposed, but were murky and divided about what they stood for.  Indeed, when circumstances demanded that they spell out an alternative to the status quo, all three faltered and splintered.

* * *

Barack Obama earned his political spurs as an opponent of the Iraq war, and was first elected to the presidency by running against the legacy of the Bush administration.  The moral vehemence of his condemnation, combined with his self-portrayal as a non-ideological, data-driven decider – rather than, say, the embodiment of a concrete program or philosophy – fit perfectly with the digital zeitgeist.  The 2008 Obama campaign enjoyed unparalleled success raising money and recruiting volunteers online.

The president ran as an insurgent from the Border, but it was clear that, initially, he wished to govern from the Center by implementing big programs in the tradition of FDR and LBJ.  This was a tricky pivot, and the president never managed to pull it off.  The programs he espoused became a drag on his popularity.  Those that were implemented into law, like the stimulus, sparked an uprising by the public which dismantled his ruling coalition in the 2010 midterm elections.

After the Democrat’s midterm disaster, President Obama reverted to form.  Whether by instinct or by plan, he resumed the posture of a righteous outsider calling out a corrupt establishment.  Few observers, then or now, grasped how deeply against the grain of history this approach was.  American presidents are expected to be doers and achievers – masters of legislation, policy, and politics.  President Obama seemed uninterested in fitting into that mold.  He had risen on a tidal wave of hostility against authority, and he had been smashed down when he, in turn, was perceived to be the authority.  The public was angry and disgusted with government.  He decided to be the voice of that anger and disgust – to embrace and reinforce the public’s distrust of the established order.

The president became chief accuser to the nation.  Liberated by the partisan divisions in Congress from the need to pursue a positive legislative program, he could wrap himself in the warm blanket of combative rhetoric, while ignoring the policy and political storms blowing outside the White House door.

The broad features of the Obama style can be identified in a recent address to Planned Parenthood.  The president first selects a divisive issue – in this case, abortion and birth control.  He then frames the question in terms of vague but powerful forces which wish to trample on the rights of ordinary citizens.  “Forty-two states,” he warns, “have introduced laws that would ban or severely restrict a woman’s right to choose.”  A new law in North Dakota he characterizes as “wrong, absurd… an assault on women’s rights.”  One would expect the president to argue at some length the case against this egregious injustice, name the culprits, and propose a fix.  But this is precisely where President Obama differs from his predecessors.  Despite the apparent severity of the assault on women’s rights, few specifics and no solutions are mentioned.

Here is how he concludes his remarks:  “I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s going to be right there with you fighting every step of the way.”  The battle and even the battleground appear to be rhetorical, but the implication seems to be that, without his accusatory voice, the anti-women forces would conspire in the shadows and triumph.

Between 2010 and the presidential elections in 2012, an astonishing number of circumstances earned President Obama’s condemnation.  I won’t dwell on them here, but all fit the same divisive “wedge” profile – the murder of Trayvon Martin, the inequities of the market system, the putative oppression of women, gays, illegal aliens.  In a remarkable maneuver, the president’s re-election campaign once again portrayed him as an insurgent battling the status quo.  His opponent, Mitt Romney, found that a successful career in business now condemned him to the sinister club which really ran the country.  The president, as accuser, could shrug off the burdens of incumbency.  He won re-election with relative ease.

* * *

That difficult time has now come for President Obama which many previous presidents endured in their second terms – what the news media loves to call “scandal.”  The Internal Revenue Service has admitted targeting, before the 2012 elections, the Tea Party groups which so tormented the Democrats in 2010.  The Department of Justice, in the pursuit of leaks, has been caught issuing subpoenas of unprecedented scope against journalists at AP and Fox News.  The killing of four American foreign service officers in our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, perpetrated under confused circumstances by Islamist attackers, still hovers like an uncertain rain cloud over the political landscape.

In each case, President Obama and his people have made a show of underlining the vast distance between the president’s chosen identity – Jeremiah chastising sinful Israel – and the dull machinery of government.  He was said to have learned about the IRS investigation on television news.  His senior staff supposedly had been informed earlier, but concluded that it was not a matter worthy of his attention.  A former aide blamed the misbehavior on “some folks down in the bureaucracy,” adding:  “Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you because government is so vast.”  The president himself asserted that he “certainly did not know anything” about the IRS report until it was “leaked to the press.”

In another politician, that would sound like an artful dodge.  With President Obama, if there is a dodge, it’s altogether on a grander scale.  Although the highest political authority in the land, he has won two presidential elections by his rhetorical separation from all authority.  He’s a man of negation:  a prophet in the wilderness.  For the president and his inner circle, the government exists an immense moral distance “underneath” them, and is staffed by grubby little people who often abuse their perquisites and thus deserve the mistrust of the public.

A critic of the president sees in his current predicament a crisis of authority.  But such a crisis preceded and will outlast this administration.  President Obama’s contribution has been an uncanny ability to de-legitimize authority from the top of the political pyramid.

Some of his supporters perceive in all the talk of scandal a crisis of democracy.  That may well be at hand, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the wins and losses scored by one president – and those who blame democracy for political setbacks aren’t exactly working to stave off the crisis.

Most surprising has been the shock President Obama’s detachment from the levers of government has caused among people generally friendly to his administration.  These people had believed the president to be a promoter of big programs and activist government – the Obama of 2008-2010 – and consider his present passivity something of an abdication.  Thus Dana Milbank chided “Obama, the uninterested president” in the Washington Post.  Calling him “President Passerby,” Milbank noted that he “wants no control over the actions of his administration.”  New Yorker made the same point in a brutally funny satire titled “Obama Denies Role in Government.”

President Obama used his weekly radio address on Saturday to reassure the American people that he has “played no role whatsoever” in the US government over the past four years.

“Right now, many of you are angry at the government, and no one is angrier than I am,” he said.  “Quite frankly, I am glad that I have had no involvement in such an organization.” [. . .]

Mr. Obama closed his address by indicating that beginning next week he would enforce what he called a “zero tolerance policy on governing.”

“If I find that any members of my Administration have had any intimate knowledge of, or participation in, the workings of the US government, they will be dealt with accordingly,” he said.

But it is precisely the divide between the accuser, wielding a rhetoric of denunciation, and the office-holder, stuck with decisions and revisions at the center of a paralytic bureaucracy, which has enabled President Obama to survive the public’s relentless assault against authority.  The cost to democracy and to government itself can be debated, but it seems contrived to ask that the president in his hour of trouble become something other than the rhetorical phantom he has so successfully represented for years.

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Henry Farrell and the politics of despair

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell

The great vectors of change today are technological and cultural rather than political.  Digital platforms give force to a mutinous public, which has trampled with muddy boots into the sacred precincts of authority.  The established order has reacted with fear and confusion.  Politics, ultimate form of authority, is now stuck in the muck.

In democratic countries, among people who believe that the good life can only be attained by means of political change, this has inspired a deep pessimism verging on despair.  In many, contempt for electoral politics has curdled into condemnation of democracy.  These critics come from every point of the ideological compass, though the loudest and most tortured, it seems to me, belong to the traditional left.  All share an obsession with politics and a peculiar blindness to the changes around them.

Exhibit one for the politics of despair is this lamentation in Aeon.  Its author, Irish-born Henry Farrell, is an academic, a blogger, and a man of the left:  and he thinks liberal democracy has failed.

The Public Can Be Up, Even When the Left Is Down

Farrell holds to an old-fashioned, party-mediated notion of how the public relates to power.  Specifically, only the parties of the left can defend the public’s interests against predatory private factions.  Thus the failure of democracy must be a consequence of the left’s defection from its historic mission.

At the heart of the problem is the utter paralysis of government.  Political authority, on which Farrell, as a good social democrat, counts to regulate many aspects of life, appears exhausted, almost brain dead.  The cause is obvious to him and standard to those who share his views.  Cozy relations with “business” and the “private sector,” always prevalent on the right, now supersede loyalty to the public among politicians of the left.  “As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another,” Farrell concludes, “elections have become exercises in branding rather than substantive choices.”

I take the crisis of government to be a fact beyond dispute.  Farrell, however, gets the arrow of causation exactly wrong:  it’s the revolt of the public – its strength rather than its weakness – that is responsible for political paralysis.  This is usually the case with democracies.  “The people have acquired power which they are incapable of exercising,” Walter Lippmann warned long ago, “and the governments they elect have lost powers they must recover if they are to govern.”  Evidence of the public’s muscular application of power can be found everywhere – Farrell even cites some instances of it, like the rise of the “Five Star” movement in Italy.

An antiquated conceptual apparatus can blind an observer to the reality around him.  By squeezing the turmoil of the digital age into an opposition of “left” and “right,” Farrell appears at times to be performing some inscrutable ritual:  to genuflect before a non-explanation.  Do left and right still have meaning today?  Consider the 2011 uprising in Egypt.  Mubarak, authoritarian and supposedly business friendly, might be tagged a ruler of the right.  Does that make the protesters who overthrew him people of the left?  Where, in the binary equation, does the Muslim Brotherhood fit?  What of the Salafi religious parties?  Like the old Latin mass, the rhetoric of the French Revolution may provide a sense of identity for some groups, but it is wholly inadequate to analyze current sociopolitical developments.

Beyond left and right, in democratic and authoritarian countries, the public is alienated, angry, and on the march.  The system of government matters little.  It is modern government as such that is on trial.  The rebellious public has no need for the traditional parties of the left, and in fact considers these, rightly, to be part of the authority structure it despises.  Movements like the Five Star in Italy and the Indignados in Spain have trapped the old left in a room with the walls closing in, Star Wars style.

These movements share a willful disregard of programmatic coherence.  Their rhetoric betrays distant socialist (or anarchist, or libertarian) origins, but their motive drive is negation:  anti-structure (government first of all, but also political parties and any form of organization), anti-ideology, anti-program.  The public opposes but will not propose.

Metaphor for the traditional left...

Metaphor for the traditional left…

Inclusion Can Mean Alienation If We Don’t Like Ourselves

In the story he tells about the failure of democratic politics, Farrell follows Colin Crouch, author of Post-Democracy.  I have not read the book, but according to Farrell it traces the history of democracy as an “arc.”  At first, most people were excluded from participation in government.  Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, popular power grew, reaching a zenith “at some point shortly after the end of the Second World War” – a time when, apparently, “ordinary people” were “able to determine their fate through the electoral process,” and markets “were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.”

Globalization, Crouch claims, destroyed this golden age.  Rather than control the power of corporations, governments now “ape” them, privatizing services.  The state has become dependent on, and ultimately indistinguishable from, the business world.  Individual politicians leverage corporate wealth to disconnect from their own parties and constituents.  Democratic politics bend to selfish interests.  The public is alienated precisely because it has lost control of its political destiny.

Concocting an “imagined past,” Fritz Stern once observed, is a sure manifestation of cultural despair.  Crouch’s arc of inclusion seems to climax during the era of Jim Crow in the US South and the ration card in Britain (not to mention the misery exemplified by The Bicycle Thieves in Italy).  Let me suggest that a far more persuasive trajectory for the history of democracy can be found in Pierre Rosanvallon’s Counter-Democracy.

The process of democratic inclusion didn’t mysteriously abort around 1945 – many notable advances, such as affirmative action and proportional representation, came much later.  Rosanvallon contends that inclusion and alienation have progressed in lockstep.  This is not a paradox, but cause and effect.  Implicit in the long struggle for universal suffrage was the promise that, once all the people were included, something magical would happen:  the good society.  But nothing remotely magical happened.  Nothing changed.  Instead, we were left with our own imperfect selves, muddling through the necessarily procedural and uninspiring machinery of representative government.

I believe with Rosanvallon that the “disenchantment” of self-recognition in the mirror of electoral politics gave rise to an “age of distrust” – the genesis of the public as such.

It is that age, with its ceaseless “vigilance” and “denunciation” of political authority, which we now inhabit.  A host of permanent informal structures, like NGOs, smother the institutions of liberal democracy.  Their message is entirely critical.  More spontaneous eruptions of the public into the political arena are inspired by hostility to specific regimes, policies, or events.  Such protests are fueled by negation and amplified digitally.  New technologies give the public new power over the information sphere, magnifying the din of oppositional voices and greatly increasing their reach.  This strategic reversal has frightened elected officials into a defensive crouch.  The most successful among them have decided, probably correctly, that governing in the age of distrust means avoiding culpability.  Hence the barrenness of politics and the paralysis of government.

The End of Revolution Can Cause Terminal Despair

Farrell saves his profoundest despair for the inability of the left to conceive new programs and policies.  He observes that Europe’s social democrats, when in opposition, “don’t know what to offer voters.  Where they are in power, they don’t know how to use it.”   Closer to home, the Democratic Party also has had “enormous difficulty in spelling out a new agenda.”  The reasons for this curious sterility he never directly addresses – corruption by capitalism, we are to assume, must be behind it.

Again, Rosanvallon has a more interesting thesis.  The ideological silence of the left, he suggests, can be traced to a drastic change in what it means to be “radical.”  A generation ago it meant faith in revolution.  All of the left’s programs and policies aimed at a transcendent purpose:  to make the world anew. The debate was whether revolution should be achieved violently, in “one long night” which transformed human relations, or by means of incremental reforms.

That faith is gone.  Revolution is neither believed in as a possibility nor desired as an outcome:  on this point, Farrell and Rosanvallon agree.  “The people are omnipresent and no longer content with making their voice heard only on election day,” the latter writes.  “Yet no one believes any longer in the idea of an alternative to the status quo.”  While communism’s fall from grace in 1989 is in part responsible for the demise of revolution as a political ideal, a more important reason, Rosanvallon maintains, is the character of the intrusive public.

The public suffers from a sort of attention deficit disorder:  it never perceives a big picture and will only mobilize on a “case by case” basis.  Rather than overthrow the established order, the public in revolt seeks to control the government’s actions toward the specific case which has engaged its energies.  And it does so by force of negation.  Left radicalism, which once aimed to transform society, now more modestly (but also more successfully) labors to browbeat democratic governments into acknowledging an endless string of failures in need of correction.  “To be radical,” Rosavallon affirms, “is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.  It is not to aim a cannon at the citadel of power in preparation for a final assault.”  For the radicals of the new millennium, it would be an embarrassment to be caught advocating positive programs or policies.

Revolution is an ideal grounded in utopian optimism.  Hopelessness drives prophets to the wilderness, to feed on locusts and wild honey and dream of a messiah.  Farrell’s portrayal of the “post-democratic” parties of the left shows them sickened by their own paralysis and self-betrayal, embracing vague messianic dreams.

The problem that the center-left now faces is not that it wants to make difficult or unpopular choices.  It is that no real choices remain.  It is lost in the maze, able neither to reach out to its traditional base (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose grand new initiatives, the state no longer having the tools to implement them.  When the important decisions are all made outside of democratic politics, the center-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.

Who or what will do the interceding so devoutly wished for is not a trivial question, particularly for those of us still clinging to a naïve faith in liberal democracy.  Wistfully to fantasize, as Farrell does, about a “collapse” in “the systems of unrule governing the world” and “some great reversal in the order of things,” is unthinking enough.  But longing for a world-historical redeemer – to drag Fritz Stern into this discussion one last time:  a fuehrer who will say to the body politic, “Arise and walk” – was always a symptom of terminal pathology in the politics of cultural despair.

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Is the Fifth Wave a good witch or a bad witch? (3)

witches question

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.

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Is the Fifth Wave a good witch or a bad witch? (2)


This is the second of a series of posts 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 moral 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.  Here I throw two additional attributes on the normative heap.

Fragmentation, or the Exodus of the Masses

Fragmentation is the dissolution of the “masses” into active communities of interest.  In principle, this is entirely a good thing.  The masses never existed.  Bundling the public into a single standardized category was an attempt – enforced by governments, but applauded by businessmen, advertisers, social scientists, and reformers of various stripes – to flatten out local knowledge and make the population legible (James C. Scott’s term) from the top.  This was not an intellectual exercise.  The goal was manipulation and social engineering.  The result was a gain in power by the top of the political pyramid, and a loss of freedom by the bottom.

Not surprisingly, then, the migration of the public toward its actual tastes and interests has been met with disfavor by the elites.  Fragmentation, as much as personalization, is central to arguments about a daily me.  The mini-communities in which the public now dwells are said to polarize attitudes and filter out discordant facts.  The problem, it now appears, is a daily we rather than a daily me.  This line of analysis is flawed for many reasons, but we need only concern ourselves with one:  the implications of the power law.

The outcomes of complex human interactions are universally defined by the power law:  that is, they are highly skewed.  In every country, the highest-paid person makes vastly more than the second highest, who makes much more than the next in a nonlinear march to the bottom.  Clay Shirky illustrates the power law with an economist’s joke:  When Bill Gates walks into a bar, everyone there becomes, on average, a millionaire – but everyone’s actual income drops below the average.  The same principle applies to an almost indefinite number of outcomes, from volunteer editing in Wikipedia to the popularity of rock stars.  Disproportion is king.

Digital interactions are subject to the power law.  A handful of blogs get millions of readers, for example, while millions of blogs get few or none.  In all digital platforms – whether search or social – disproportion is king.  Information cocooning becomes impossible under such skewed conditions.  The problem, we discover, isn’t remotely a daily we, but how to reconcile fragmentation with the power law.  Both are demonstrably real, yet one appears to nullify the other.

This isn’t quite the case.  Power law outcomes simply behave differently over a fractured space than they did in the flattened landscape of the masses.  The tail, as Chris Anderson observed some years ago, has grown infinitely longer.  The head is spikier and a much more turbulent place.  The messages which conquer the head – and thus win the rapt attention of the world – often come from obscure corners of the information sphere.  Niche voices dream of the mainstream, much like the band of violent men in Al Qaeda hallucinate the caliphate.  Such wild hopes are dashed usually, but not always.  A time of fragmentation turns out to be the golden age of the viral message.


Power law outcomes make a mockery of the anarchist pose so beloved of the web.  In fact, the digital revolution has brought forth a new class of mediators.  Most are associated with individual communities (think Daily Kos), but some are just free-lancers with a gift for self-promotion (think Drudge).  The new-model mediators face a far more ephemeral existence than did the Walter Cronkites of old.  They may go viral and then lose their touch or – like the Kony 2012 crowd – drown in the maelstrom at the head of the curve.  Before vanishing, they can crystallize the opinion of their public toward great events.

Wael Ghonim’s Facebook group forged a community of like-minded Egyptians, and initiated the protests which led to the fall of the Mubarak regime.  Syrian rebels won the sympathy of a global public with YouTube videos depicting government brutality and popular suffering.  A decade ago, videos of beheadings produced by Al Qaeda in Iraq spread virally in parts of the Middle East.  They were admired, and imitated, by an entirely different community:  Mexican drug gangs.

A great churning of voices and messages – trivial and profound, good and evil – characterizes the head of the power curve, much like a theater stage invaded by an articulate and opinionated audience.  Fragmentation under the conditions of impermanence and uncertainty must mean that the sense of community is experienced in a transient, possibly sequential manner.  The old authorities, from priests to presidents, still command attention, but must compete with new mediators representing non-elite perspectives.  Loyalty must be earned by persuasion; it is no longer given at birth.  The public’s identity is multifarious, but can cohere and leap into action in an instant.

There is a danger that evil will go viral, that democracy will be swept aside in a flood of enthusiasm, that unscrupulous persuaders will exploit the human hunger for belonging to gain power or wealth.  These risks must be acknowledged.  But in the old world of the masses, all but authority were aliens in an alien land.  I am old enough to remember being talked to by “authoritative” voices which, from the distant podium of the public sphere, could indulge in error and prejudice without fear of contradiction.  I can’t decide, even now, whether they were shepherds or wolves.  The distrust poisoning democratic politics today can be traced to this sort of intellectual corruption among public officials and the expert class.  And I can’t find it in myself to consider the fragmentation of the masses, or the confounding of such false prophets, as anything other than good.

Connectedness, or Being There

The most remarked-upon attribute of the Fifth Wave is the connection – by means of PCs, laptops, smart phones, game consoles, satellite TV – of billions of persons to a global information sphere.  The result is a sense of immediacy.  We have access to people and places beyond our reach and our imagining a generation ago.  In January 2011 I was in Davos, Switzerland, where – along with a horde of astonished conference-goers – I witnessed the Egyptian revolution, streamed live to my laptop.  The experience wasn’t physical but neither was it “virtual” in any sense.  It was real.

Connectedness appears to contradict our previous attribute – the fragmentation of the public into communities of interest.  In reality, fragmentation provides the gateway to immediacy.  We can’t simply parachute anywhere we wish.  We identify new mediators and leap from community to community in the manner of Little Liza on the ice floes.

The power to achieve immediacy feels universal, but is of course selective.  The vast majority of human events will always remain unconnected to the information sphere.  Thus there will always be a fierce battle to control “the agenda” – those issues and events selected for public consideration.  In the past, the high priests of mass media chose a trickle of reports for our consumption.  They dictated the information agenda.  Today, the situation is more muddled:  we seem to stand as on a darkling plain, where mediators, old and new, clash by night.

In the age of viral messaging, the public’s attention is up for grabs.  All things being equal, mass media retains a significant advantage – but under the attributes of the Fifth Wave things are rarely equal, and the ability to command the agenda has become less structurally determined, more dependent on the specifics of place and event.  During the recent US presidential elections, the news media remained a culturally established player in the ritual – still a force in setting the agenda.  In the Arab revolts of 2011, however, national and international news outlets lacked a comfortably scripted part – and the agenda was largely determined by media mavericks like Al Jazeera and cell phone videos produced by the public.

Barring a drastic reorganization of mass media, the authority to set the agenda – let’s be clear:  to decide what is interesting, what is “news,” what is an important person or a meaningful event – will tend to flow away from old mediators to the new, as the public satisfies the craving for immediacy with products of its own devising.  A consequence of this transition will be the triumph of the image – still and video – over the printed word.  Messages will therefore grow more ambiguous and dependent on community and cultural clues for interpretation.  Future historians, parsing the ruins of reddit and 4chan and viral memes, will ponder the implications of our love affair with the inside joke.

The cultural fragmentation of content is limited by the imperatives of the power law and, more specific to our day, by the turbulence at the head of the attention spike.  Mass media won’t disappear, but will endure savage competition from non-elites with different interests.  An unseemly tussle for control of the agenda, involving established players but also wild outliers, may well be a permanent condition of life under the Fifth Wave.

If, as some insist, the consumption of news produces an “informed citizen” who is a bulwark of democracy, then the long twilight struggle over the agenda will be a disaster for American political and social life.  But the informed citizen thesis has never been proven, and I follow N.N. Taleb in thinking that the evidence points in the opposite direction.  News reports don’t much try to teach or inform.  Their function is to find an audience and hold its attention indefinitely.  To confuse news-watching with political wisdom – or democratic virtue – is thus a dangerous form of ignorance.

A churning agenda bursting with loud, discordant voices exposes the spectator sport nature of our public discussions.  An admittedly optimistic view is that this is the first step in raising the tone of such discussions above the level of professional wrestling:  and this, I believe, is a good thing.

*  *  *

Production of information must be selective, but consumption is of course elective.  We choose our theaters of immediacy.  We engage as intimately as we desire.  We do this at two overlapping but distinct levels.  The first is the small world of family, friends, work, and community.  Thanks to Facebook, for example, I share a sense of immediacy with a son who lives in New York City, and with a friend living in Japan.  Thanks to Amazon and the great online bazaar, I can purchase items of interest to me, however rare or obscure, and have them delivered to my doorstep.  My wife, who works from home, can at any given moment be “meeting” with people in Ireland, Texas, California, or China.  The conquest of distance at the small-world level is a wonderful boon bestowed by the Fifth Wave.

The second level is the larger world of governments and nations, politics and geopolitics.  Here we arrive at the bloodiest battleground of the Fifth Wave, where the public has turned connectedness into an effective weapon against authority.  This confrontation between networks of rebels and established hierarchies is impossible to evaluate in a paragraph or two.  Its merits and vices must be considered on their own terms.

And that is a topic for a future post.

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Is the Fifth Wave a good witch or a bad witch? (1)

good witch My concern in writing this blog is to understand the effects of the Fifth Wave of information across various domains.  This has seemed sufficiently ambitious.  Tossing out cosmic judgments would be fun but self-indulgent.  Marx’s scorn for interpreting the world in his zeal to change it has always struck me as a piece of monstrous irresponsibility – like sending a five-year-old to perform brain surgery.

Still:  we interpret so we can judge, and we judge so we can act.  A preliminary normative evaluation of the effects of the Fifth Wave might be a useful early-warning data point, like a thermometer reading of a person in uncertain health.  That’s my assumption here, in any case.  In this post, I begin to examine the attributes of the Fifth Wave and, like the gauzy Belinda in The Wizard of Oz, I will ask whether these are good or bad for us.  My standards are wholly conventional:  I believe in liberal democracy, the free market, and the dignity of the individual.  These are the fixed points of the moral compass against which I will map good and bad.

Impermanence, or Trouble in the City of Man

There is a belief that digital is forever – that naked photos of one’s youth will haunt one to the grave.  The opposite is closer to the truth.  Digital means ephemeral.  Online authority, influence, and attention fluctuate rapidly.  Websites go up, have their brief moment on the speaker’s platform, then turn mute.  Their words and images sometimes remain, fossilized, but just as often disappear.  Old links point to nothing.  Old platforms like AOL or Friendster are worthless today.  Vast volumes of email, text messages, same-time chats have vanished as if they never were.

Impermanence characterizes the erosive effect of the Fifth Wave on technology, business, and government.  It is a fact that new devices and media replace one another at a dizzying pace, compared to the spread of innovations in the past.  It is a fact that companies rise and fall at a much faster rate than a century ago.  Government is more speculative, but we have witnessed wild tumbles of the political wheel of fortune:  Barack Obama crushed the Democratic and Republican establishments in 2008, saw his ruling coalition swept away at the mid-term elections of 2010, then was comfortably reelected in 2012.  Regimes frozen solid for decades, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, suddenly melt into air.

The lack of a stable existence on earth drives some to search for fixity in a higher sphere.  Hence the appeal of religious fundamentalism:  in Egypt, the old regime was succeeded not by democratic secularism but by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Among US religions, evangelicals and Mormons have grown in numbers, while “mainline” Protestants and Catholics declined. The spread of Christianity in China is among today’s best-kept secrets.  For the governing classes and articulate elites of the world, the turn to religion is both appalling and incomprehensible – but this is a denial of human nature.  If the City of Man becomes a passing shadow, people will look to the City of God.

At the violent extreme we come to groups like Al Qaeda, whose nihilism both strikes at and embodies the spirit of the age:  there’s no more searing image of impermanence than that of the collapse, in fire and smoke, of the World Trade towers.  If such atrocities define our future, the effects of Fifth Wave will be very bad indeed.  So far, violence associated with religious fanaticism doesn’t remotely match the slaughter perpetrated by the secular fundamentalisms of the twentieth century, which arose out of the wreckage of a tradition-bound, agrarian way of life banished forever by the industrial revolution.

Our zealots are fewer and less murderous than those in our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation.  That’s something, but not much.

It may be that the next generation – the digital natives – will be able to discern the Platonic form beneath the existential transience of our times.  They may find a home where older folks see chaos, fixity and community where their parents experience mostly disorientation and loss.  This is a hope, not a prediction.  Impermanence is not in itself a bad thing, but its effects are unsettling to the human spirit – a condition which has nothing good to recommend it, and which, in extremis, spawns the cult of death.

Uncertainty, or the Absence of Authority

Certainty depends on authority – and the defining feature of the Fifth Wave is the profaning of the temples of authority by an unruly public.  Thirty years ago, Walter Cronkite every day told us “the way it is” and the New York Times delivered “all the news that’s fit to print.”  Scientists spoke with the voice of God.  Economists uttered magic formulas to ensure prosperity.  Disputes were settled by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The world of information was shaped like a pyramid.  Those at the top decided signal from noise, knowledge from fraud, certainty from uncertainty.

That world is dead.  Today we drown in data, yet thirst for meaning.  According to a study cited by Nate Silver, we now generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day.  Who can make sense of this deluge?  Not journalists, objects of the public’s contempt.  Not scientists, suspected by the public of advocacy and self-promotion.  And certainly not economists:  if the fall of the Twin Towers symbolizes impermanence, our emblem of uncertainty is the financial crisis of 2008, which saw rating agencies like Moody’s miss their risk predictions by 20,000 percent (Silver’s estimate).

The Encyclopedia Britannica?  Gone the way of the dodo.

Lack of certainty is not ignorance:  it’s a splinter of doubt festering in all we know, a loss of faith in our once-infallible sources of authority.  One worry, often voiced by the articulate elites, is that uncertainty will stampede the masses into self-referential “filter bubbles” of information, where personal biases will never be challenged:  a “daily me.”  I find no evidence to support this notion.  Rather than waste precious space debunking it, I point the reader to Yoachim Benkler’s Wealth of Networks (and to this).  It’s just not in the cards for us to remain informationally pure while navigating 2.5 quintillion data bytes each day. 

Fretting about a daily me, however, is itself an interesting symptom.

We should expect two developments to attend a time of uncertainty.  One is counter-revolution by the old institutions of authority.  In subject after subject, cloaked in moral judgments and predictions of doom, we witness attempts by accredited experts to regain mastery over the levers of epistemic closure.  Journalists warn us that democracy is impossible unless their profession thrives:  it’s the daily us, they cry, or the daily me.  Climatologists, who in private show a high degree of uncertainty about the data, in public promote the idea that “the science is settled.”  Such tricks are self-defeating.  The counter-revolution of the expert class will fail, because the experts – politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, scientists, businessmen, economists, academics – are themselves tormented by that terrible splinter of doubt.

The second development is a proliferation of honest frauds who sell certainty where none exists.  Our lives today are crowded with digital happiness peddlers, magic app solutions, online matchmakers, TV herb doctors, and talk radio Aristotles.  These fantasies fall in the “mostly harmless” category.  The majority of people dismiss them without a thought.  For the rest, faith in frauds is an expensive coping mechanism in an uncertain world.

Political polarization is probably a function of these two developments.  The “talking head sphere” tends to be dominated by members of the political class – who rightly feel disrespected – and by political shysters who pretend to knowledge they don’t possess.  To keep an audience, each must shout louder and take more aggressive positions than the other.  Uncertain life thus gets scripted into a neat partisan drama.  Every topic – fast food, the climate, a random shooting – is sharpened to inflict a political wound.  Whether US public opinion, by historic standards, has indeed become polarized remains an open question – but the noise surrounding public debate is unquestionably more brutish and dogmatic, and such posturing might be expected to have some impact on the public.

Impermanence relates to how we live, uncertainty to what we know.  Human nature rebels, sometimes violently, against a rootless existence, but it can embrace with humility the true dimensions of our ignorance.  The reality is that we don’t know very much – not with certainty.  This is not just a matter of volume or authority:  thinkers like Nassim Taleb, Paul Ormerod, and Duncan Watts have made a persuasive case about the humbling limits of human cognition in a massively complex world.

Like all strong medicine, uncertainty has side effects.  If in response we become either dogmatically partisan or radically skeptical about knowledge – and thus incurious – uncertainty will make us stupid.  If, however, we make our decisions and debate our differences knowing that we are fallible, then the splinter of doubt implanted by the Fifth Wave will turn out to be a good and healthy condition.

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The economic implications of the Fifth Wave


Enter Tyson’s Galleria, a golden temple of consumption for upscale shoppers.  Built in 1988, it was expanded in 1997 and made to appear – so the designers thought – like a “European streetscape.”   In reality, it looks a bit like a hallucination by M. C. Escher.

I experience Tyson’s Galleria, which I occasionally visit on rainy days, as a problem and a possible falsification of the propositions inherent to the Fifth Wave.  The latter predict traumatic assaults on the centers of authority in every domain.  Meanwhile, Tyson’s Galleria rolls on, imperturbably ostentatious.  Stores come and go, but the system remains untouched.  A top-down, hierarchical structure – the shopping mall – seems to be surviving, in fact thriving, in a networked age.

So I am driven to reflect on how business and economics must function under the conditions of the Fifth Wave, and whether this theoretical model coincides with reality: that is, whether the hypothesis animating this blog can be falsified.

Let’s begin, as the king in Alice in Wonderland urged, at the beginning.

A Revolution Without Revolutionaries

Crudely put, the Fifth Wave is the revolt of the public.  Interested amateurs – for that’s what the public is – have rebelled against being treated like a “mass,” and against the established hierarchies which “massed” them for convenience.  The public is no mass, but an archipelago of tastes and predilections only rarely integrated along shared points of reference:  with opposition to the established order, in recent times, becoming a powerful integrative force.

In such an environment, we should expect persistent attacks on the legitimacy of the economic system and the power of dominant corporations.  This secular tendency should have been reinforced by the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed the system’s official administrators as helpless and, in the perception of many, corrupt.  If ever there was a time to challenge the economic status quo, this should be it.

Yet the challenges have been mostly confused and rhetorical, empty of conviction and utterly ineffective.  The indignado movement in Spain complained in its manifesto that the country’s “obsolete and unnatural economic system” had enriched a few and plunged the majority into “poverty and scarcity.”  One would expect a call for radical action to follow:  instead, the manifesto timidly suggested an “ethical revolution.”

The indignado movement could muster large protests and attract global attention, but was an unmitigated disaster for the Spanish left – the only political force which could be expected to feel sympathy for the protesters’ anti-capitalist ideals.  In elections held under the shadow of huge demonstrations, Spain’s socialist party was essentially destroyed, and the conservative Popular Party won big enough to rule uncontested for years into the future.  Similarly, despite their clever slogan about the “99 percent” taking action against the economic elites, the various “Occupy” protests in the US soon fizzled into political irrelevance.

The evidence of the indignados and the occupiers (and other such groups) appears pretty conclusive:  when it comes to economics, the public in revolt is not particularly anti-capitalist, anti-business, or even anti- any specific corporation, no matter how unpopular or powerful.  GoDaddy endured public outrage because of its position on SOPA, but that was a transient episode:  when GoDaddy changed its stand, the protests ended.  No significant protests at all took place against BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Google and Microsoft inspire anxiety in Europe’s political class, but the European public is happy to exploit these platforms to evade and abuse their elites.  Similarly, the campaign against Walmart in the US has been conducted by organized pressure groups and elected officials, and is not the result of a revolt from below.

This is a revolution without revolutionaries, without an ideology, without mass movements or political parties.  Top-down organization and formulaic imperatives are precisely what the public is rebelling against.

A Marketplace Massacre

The public imposes a single all-important demand on business, the same as it does on government, politicians, educators, media, and service providers:  that every transaction treat the customer as a person, with active tastes and interests, rather than as a passive and undifferentiated member of a mass.  The disaggregation of the masses is a revolutionary event.  It marks the passing of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “new industrial state,” in which big business and big labor divided the spoils of the modern economy at the consumer’s expense.  Today, big business is baffled, big labor is in full retreat, and the consumer – the mutinous public – is in command.

Companies which cater to idiosyncratic tastes have thrived.  The standard example is Amazon, with its vast inventory and “people like you” algorithm, though a host of online stores fit the bill as well.  (The trajectory of the commercial web betrays the public’s lack of interest in anti-capitalist jihad.)  For a success story in brick and mortar I would nominate Starbucks, where you can linger as long as you wish, sipping “latte” with cinnamon and caramel but no trace of milk, if that’s what you crave.

But these are momentary victors, who may be – many certainly will be – defeated and replaced tomorrow.  The revolutionary economic impact of the demand for subjectivized treatment is not to be found in long tail effects or the growth of the digital bazaar, but rather in the marketplace turbulence such a demand must cause – in the churning of innovation and production, of corporate organization and corporate extinction.  Industrial behemoths which imposed on the public the inflexibilities of their production systems will be toppled:  the economic equivalent of the Mubarak regime is surely GM.  Their successors, however, will lead an impermanent existence in a landscape swept by contradictory impulses.

The mass consumer was an invention of the industrial age:  “one size fits all” followed the logic of the assembly line.  The conversion of the masses into a networked public only became possible with the arrival of digital technologies.  A very different logic now seems to be at work – innovation has caused an atomization of demand, and atomized demand has driven ever faster rates of innovation in nearly all fields of economic activity.  It is not an illusion that life today feels like a sequential wrestling with one new thing after another, in a vertiginous cycle of change.

speed of innovations chart

Nor is it just speculation that this churning of new things must be disastrous for companies which specialized in producing the old things.  Half the firms listed on the Fortune 500 in 1999 had dropped out by 2009.  According to Richard Foster, the average lifespan of a company in the S&P 500 has declined from 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years today.

s&p index lifespan

If the information in both charts is integrated, the story that jumps out needs no words for the telling.  And the reality behind this story of change and pain is wholly consistent with the predicted effects of the Fifth Wave on the marketplace.

speed of innovations company lifespan chart

Individual shops at Tyson’s Galleria do indeed come and go.  Shopping malls rise and fall.  It’s been Tyson’s good luck (so far) to count among the risers.

A Corporate Bum’s Rush

The public is perfectly indifferent to this rolling massacre of corporations.  And so it should be:  out of the carnage, it gets what it wants.  Some company delivers the goods.  That others tried and failed – and died – is of little consequence.  The first are now last, and the consumer is in command.

We come here to a great paradox and final explanation why the new-model public, so destructive of the status quo, has tolerated and to some extent embraced the standing economic system.  The market is pure trial and error.  In business, most new trials fail.  That is also true in nature.  More to the point, it is true of every sphere of human activity.  Most new government policies fail.  Most educational reforms fail.  Most hypotheses fail.  The trial part of trial and error entails mostly error, unless the set of trials is large and competitive enough to produce a possible success, and the system is smart and agile enough to recognize success and reward it.

Many of the structures battered by the Fifth Wave are captives of single-trial processes, and seek to define success and failure hierarchically, from authority.  It should not come as a surprise that new initiatives typically fail – and that failure is typically explained away and doubled down on.  Governments, for example, tend to explain the failure of policies to achieve economic equality as a matter of insufficient rigor and comprehensiveness.  Such arguments persuade only while they are unquestioned, which is why governments around the world, democratic as well as authoritarian, have lost their public’s trust.  Right now the public always questions.

In business, an immense variety of trials gets conducted in parallel for every potentially profitable outcome, and success or failure is determined from below, by the consumer.  If a company fails badly enough, it’s gone.  The void is filled by a more successful company.  Speeding up this process obviously benefits the consumer, who receives more and more varied products.  Such a quickening of the rate of change represents the remarkable adaptation of the market, as a system, to the hostile conditions of the Fifth Wave, including the pervasive anti-authority sentiment:  but for the individual company, it’s a bum’s rush – an unmitigated disaster.

The problem is structural.  Today’s companies are organized for the industrial age.  Beyond a minimal size, each company is a little bureaucracy set up to do one thing – or a few things – well.  It may do its thing better or worse than competitors, but if asked to do something different, or keep changing what it does, it will perform terribly.  Bureaucracies are good at conservation, dismally bad at change.

The corporate world is aware of the problem, and is presently engaged in a frenzied tinkering on the margins of the status quo in the hope of finding a solution.  Calls for “changing the culture,” for implanting a “culture of innovation,” for “thinking like a start-up,” have become the background noise of doing business.  Unfortunately, the malady isn’t cultural or psychological.  It’s structural, and it threatens the authority of powerful persons and groups within each corporation.  Few of them can be expected to embrace the threat.  Attempts have been made to replace hierarchy with “councils,” and bureaucracy with a more networked approach.  I don’t know of any signal successes from these experiments, which run up against the spirit of bureaucracy – and, I suspect, against the grain of human nature.

Beyond the intrusion of business consultants earning billions, little has changed structurally since Henry Ford’s day.  If change does arrive – if the speed of networking can somehow be wedded to the decisiveness and stability of hierarchy – it will represent a transformation in human relations as radical as any in history.  Until that happy moment, however, the chaotic churning of company births and deaths will probably continue to accelerate.


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