Information expands in great waves which sweep over the human landscape and leave little untouched. We stand at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technologies: the fifth wave.
Much of the old dispensation still remains. Because it has been useful to people in authority, it will die hard. In Cuba, bloggers are beaten. In Iran, Facebook and Twitter get shut down while regime thugs shoot protesters. Violence and bloodshed will accompany the agony of top-down, I-speak-you-listen modes of information.
The fourth wave, now nearly spent, was that of mass media. Its organization was industrial, its orientation commercial or propagandistic, but its most radical innovation – the difference between what transpired before and after – was the demand for a silent public. Whether print, radio, or TV, the mass media is always in broadcast mode, one voice speaking to many. This has been true in the US no less than in North Korea.
Governments and mass media shared in God’s work: telling the public what to think and how to behave. Yet the partnership was wholly unequal, with governments easily controlling or manipulating the media, in many cases turning it into a department of state. Mass media everywhere has thus assisted the rise of powerful, intrusive governments: the silence of the public, for both, signified consent.
The Fidel Castro regime could run his speeches endlessly on TV, and praise his ideas in newspaper and magazine articles: and the people could be said to have spoken. Even in the US, in the heyday of mass media, a president needed access to only three TV networks and a pair of newspapers to command the electorate’s attention.
That has changed forever. New technologies and dissemination platforms are the necessary cause, but the change itself pertains to the public. It has largely stopped listening, and it has started talking back.
The mass public, in the view of the media and government elites, was just that: an undifferentiated mass, a monstrous lump brimming with appetites. Public opinion was what the public was told on CBS Evening News and the front page of the New York Times. Silence implied consent.
The question is what happens to the public as such – to public opinion and to the governments which brandish it for validation – when the monster acquires a human face and a subjective voice.
Part of the answer is fragmentation, leading almost to disintegration. The mass public was an invention of the mass media. What actually exists is a variegated patchwork of people and groups with a long list of motivations: specific beliefs, interests, ambitions, hobbies, fears, hatreds, sympathies, fantasies, physical and emotional needs. Once crushed into the shapeless lump of mass humanity, these motivations have reappeared at the center of gravity in niche, mostly online, information communities. The content can range from baseball to pornography, legal or economic blogs to LOL Cats, fan fiction to jihad: the old hierarchies of information, with formal politics always at the top, are meaningless to a public able to choose for itself.
There are exceptions. Under despotic regimes, the process of disintegration aborts at an early stage. When the public talks back – as was done, for example, by Egyptian bloggers – rulers respond with a show of brute force. In the short run, I imagine, power trumps information, but despotic power, which has no stomach for niche tastes, must force the public into a binary choice: with us or against us. In this way, unofficial voices in countries like Cuba and Venezuela, which might have been happy talking baseball, are driven together in political opposition.
Countries not burdened by the despot’s choice have seen the public assume a fractured shape consistent with its actual preferences. In the US, it is probably more accurate to speak of the public in the plural: many publics, speaking with many voices.
The fragmentation of the public has caused a shattering of opinion along many planes, which, like an animated cubist painting, cohere into a complete but puzzling whole. Presidents and other government figures, used to requisitioning mass attention from a few sources, can only stumble awkwardly through this strange new landscape, uncertain of who is listening to them, and to what effect.
Every niche – every plane in the dynamic painting – is a contested space, for obvious reasons. Established authority, by definition, is satisfied with the status quo. Marginal players have seized on the new technologies to increase their audience and influence – only to collide with political and professional hierarchies horrified by such barbarian invasions into their proprietary fiefs.
Confronted by insurgencies from the long tail of information, established elites in government and mass media often scream some version of the despot’s choice. Fidel Castro, a true despot, has labeled the most popular Cuban blogger a treasonous agent of US imperialism. Similarly, a CNN commentator – Castro-like in extremis – recently cried out for laws muzzling US bloggers. Lamentations about a “daily me” also find their source in the offended professionalism of the media.
Such conflicts now play out in every niche and specialized field – even pornography, I would suppose, has an established hierarchy capable of outrage. The end can only be the discrediting of authoritative elites, again for obvious reasons. When the Nobel laureate economics commentator of the New York Times feels compelled to debate an obscure professor, a judgment has been rendered independent of the argument itself.
Fifth wave insurgents inhabit the long populous tail of the information chart. They can rely on support from the loud new voices of public opinion: Glenn Reynolds’ “army of Davids” taking down establishment Goliaths. Thus the altered US information environment, cubistic in content, is nonetheless suffused with oppositional, anti-authority sentiment.
The rebellious character of the articulate public has encouraged some to see, in the enabling technologies, a democratization of information. If democratization means anything like universal access, however, this is surely wrong. Barriers of literacy, education, and leisure keep billions in primordial silence.
Rather, the new technologies have given the power of speech to a silent public, to players marginalized by the media monopoly over the information space. To a large extent, these players aren’t peasants or street revolutionaries but talented and affluent amateurs like Reynolds, a law professor. In Egypt, the tech-savvy opposition which helped organize the uprising against the Mubarak regime was mainly urban and well-educated – personified by Wael Ghonim, a Google computer engineer and moderator of a dissident Facebook group.
And not all the new voices are anti-despotic or benign. The young assassins who terrorized Mumbai in November 2008 employed GPS navigators, Google earth, satellite phones, and anonymous email: their voice was heard in the blood of innocents.
This isn’t a trend toward democracy, informational or otherwise. It’s an often-deadly struggle over attention, influence, and political power. Those elites who always had a voice wish to deny outsiders theirs. In many countries, the elites also have the guns, and are willing to use them. Eventually, however, the despot’s choice must raise oppositional pressure to the point at which an explosion becomes inevitable.
Power trumps information in the short run: but winning political arguments with the rhetoric of violence will, in time, strangle despotic regimes in the coils of their own falsehoods. That was the fate of Russia’s Leninists and Spain’s Franquistas – and, more recently, of Egypt’s Mubarakists. Reality, long term, can’t be pummeled into submission.
In liberal democratic nations, the struggle will favor whoever can reintegrate the fractured public along common terms of reference which endure beyond the reach of information flows. Culture generates many such terms of reference: religion, morality, and the Declaration of Independence, for example. Popular culture generates even more.
Hierarchies of information value will vary wildly from moment to moment, and from group to group. Laws and policies discussed at the highest levels of government, once the great recurring drama of mass media, will constitute but one of many forums – by no means the most interesting – in the multiple deliberations of the newly articulate public.
It’s early days. The transformation has barely begun, as many from the old generation, accustomed to silence, linger on the sidelines of the struggle. Before long, they will be gone. A little after, their children will inherit. Digital natives, riding the fifth wave, will then burst upon the world as breakers of governments and overturners of elites – a problem and a threat to every claim of authority on earth.