The theme of this blog is the revolt of the public and the crisis of established authority, very much including government, made possible by deep structural changes in the information landscape: what I have called the Fifth Wave. This secular shift is apparent to anyone with eyes to see. It is easy enough to describe in narrative fashion, and I have done so with obsessive frequency: see, for example, here.
The question now troubling me is whether it’s possible to quantify the transformation.
Take the situation in Egypt. Much has been made about the influence of Facebook and Al Jazeera on the revolution in that country. Yet is it possible to associate Egypt’s political turbulence with (say) a particular percentage of the population having access to Facebook or being able to receive Al Jazeera? If, as the theory of the Fifth Wave assumes, information determines behavior, there should be a way to correlate the flow and access of information to events on the street.
I am currently embarked on a research effort to test this proposition.
I have already learned a few things. The public, I’ve discovered, is easy. Its conquest of the means of information and communication is relatively simple to document. Reams of data are available on access to the web and use of social media, for example, and all of it conforms to the same shape over time: a birth in the obscure long tail of information, followed by a sharp spike upwards toward the light of universal awareness.
If I were to chart Google or Baidu searches, YouTube ingests, WordPress or blogger.com sites, photos and video posted to Facebook – not to mention channels and viewership for satellite TV – I am confident the trajectory would remain the same. Such measurements tell a story. Over the last decade, to the horror of accredited elites everywhere, the public has stormed the commanding heights of information and communication. From this unprecedented position of strength, it has proceeded to assault, weaken, and in some cases overthrow established institutions in every domain.
The problem, I find, comes in quantifying the flip side of the story: that is, in trying to identify measures of institutional authority and decline. One pillar of authority in the modern world, for example, is the academy. To enter requires a costly and laborious process of accreditation, but those inside the temple feel entitled to speak with oracular certainty about all sorts of subjects, and were once listened to with awe and respect.
How is the influence and authority of the academy to be measured empirically? I can only offer hints and signs. At the heart of the academy stands the system of tenure. Using two data points in time provided by the New York Times, I can draw the slope of decline for tenured professorship since its golden age around 1960:
This, however, smacks of the worst of intellectual sins: cherry-picking data. The number of students attending four-year schools, to my knowledge, continues to grow. The tuition charged to these would-be scholars has grown much faster than the rate of inflation and even the increase in medical costs, as can be seen here:
Is this evidence that the academy holds the keys to a highly valued commodity, or – as some have argued – of an “education bubble” ready to burst? I have no idea. Descriptively, I can make the case that pronouncements from famous professors and university studies are increasingly met with an indifference verging on contempt. Qualitatively, the academy appears to have lost much of its authority. But can this historical process even be translated into empirical measures?
If only because it has travelled farthest down the road to ruin, the news media provides the most satisfying measures of institutional standing. Newspaper subscriptions, TV audience, stock value – there are no ambivalent perspectives for journalism. All the available data points look like stepping-stones on the way to the graveyard.
Measures for government are toughest to identify. In some way, these should throw light on the relationship between political power and the public: who controls the agenda for public discussion, who commands attention and respect, who’s indispensable to a transaction, and so forth.
Opinion polls showing the degree of public trust in government are an important indicator – and, as might be expected in an “age of distrust,” they show an unprecedented revulsion against government (see here and here). However, such pulse-takings represent subjective assessments of objective conditions. The public’s disgust reflects a sense that government has failed in ways that should be empirically measurable. Yet I confess I’ve had a lot of difficulty conceptualizing measures of government authority and government failure, while avoiding the irresistible urge to cherry-pick.
One obvious measure is government debt. The numbers, which follow a trajectory similar to that of tuition, indicate a failure to cover the cost of the state’s social contract with the public. It is no exaggeration to say that the real-life consequences of the chart below have been seismic: they include the rise of the Tea Party, the overthrow of President Obama’s 2008 coalition, and greatly intensified scrutiny and conflict over the terms of the social contract itself.
Debt tells us nothing about the performance of government, a notoriously difficult activity to measure. Yet the public’s quarrel is at least as much about broken promises and failure to deliver the goods as it is about the inability to pay for the federal budget. The radical critique of the function of government begins with a perception that, relative to their stated mission, government bureaucracies function quite poorly.
On occasion, one catches an empirical glimpse of this performance problem. The chart below shows the decline, over the last decade, of first-class mail carried by the Post Office. Postal service was a foundational responsibility of the federal government – a powerful disseminator of subsidized information, including newspapers, as well as a centerpiece of the spoils system whereby jobs were handed out to political supporters of the party in power. Today, commercial carriers take care of a great deal of bulk mail; email and text messaging do the same for the written word. The Post Office serves mainly to deliver (still subsidized) junk mail. Even as a storehouse of prized federal jobs, it is failing. The Post Office’s untenable position, described by the drooping line in the chart, can be seen as an early warning to the government as a whole of the effects of the Fifth Wave.
The final chart is only in part meant as a joke. It compares the daily reach of USA.gov, which describes itself as “the U.S. Government’s Official Web Portal for all government transactions, services, and information” with the iconic cute-cat site, icanhascheezburgers.com. The result: when it comes to garnering online attention, cute cats trump the pomp and glory of the federal government. This won’t come as a surprise to Ethan Zuckerman, who many years ago propounded his “cute cat theory” of internet activity.
It might, however, serve as a warning to politicians and bureaucrats.