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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