Scott Alexander vs. Martin Gurri
Scott Alexander, one of the top picks in Fantasy Intellectual Teams, writes a dismissive review of The Revolt of the Public, a book by another of my favorite intellectuals, Martin Gurri. Scott writes,
Certainly everything it says is true. Anyone who wrote it in 2000 would have been a prophet. Anyone who wrote it in 2020 would have been stating the obvious. Was writing it in 2014 a boring chronicle of clear truths, or an achievement for the ages? I find my memories are insufficiently precise to be sure.
. . .So buy this beautiful book to put on your coffee table, but don't worry about the content - you are already living in it.
I wrote a gushing preface to the edition that Scott thinks that you needn’t bother reading. So I have a different point of view.
Note that as of 2014, no one foresaw the Brexit referendum outcome or the Trump election. Even the day before each vote, mainstream observers expected different results. Afterward, elite explanations lacked insight, and instead merely expressed resentment at the outcomes. To this day, I would argue that the revolt of the public is widely misunderstood, and consequently is still underestimated.
The aftermath of the death of George Floyd seems to me to be another Martin Gurri moment. The pandemic was another example of the elite finding its flaws exposed to a public that lost trust. Compare the way that the public lined up to get the polio vaccine to the attitude today. If you have been following the meme stock phenomenon, you are seeing the revolt of the public manifested in financial markets.
On my blog, I once summarized Gurri’s thesis this way:
1. Starting around 2000, the amount of information on the Internet doubles in a year. If that goes on for ten years, there would have been one thousand times the information in 2010 as in 2000. Even if that number is imprecise (and it has to be imprecise), there is way more information out there than there used to be. The increase is staggering.
2. 20th-century elites and institutions relied on having a much less chaotic and engulfing information environment. Politicians, journalists, and academics now are overwhelmed by: (a) what they don’t know that others do know. Think of citizens using cell phones to cover events sooner and more completely than paid journalists; and (b) by the amount that others know about them that they used to able to keep secret. Think of President Kennedy trying to get away with his sexual escapades today.
3. The elites cannot accept the new reality that there is so much information that they cannot control. They see new competitors as illegitimate (“fake news”) and they blame others for elites’ loss of status and respect.
4. The general public is frustrated by the arrogance of the elites, and they have the means to assemble revolts. This has happened everywhere, from the Arab Spring to the Yellow Vests to the January 6 riot. These revolts have no organization and so they end up not accomplishing much.
5. Society requires authority. But the existing authorities can seemingly do nothing other than hope for a return to the 20th century when they had closer to a monopoly on information. And they seem to be completely incapable of dealing with the digital world. They cannot operate at Internet speed (it takes the bureaucracy too long to react to events) or at Internet scale (the Obamacare web site fiasco).
6. Maybe a new generation of elites and/or institutions will emerge that is more adept at dealing with technology and sufficiently humble to deal with a situation in which information is more dispersed than it was last century.
If you read over these six points and think “This seems obvious,” then good for you. I think you are in a minority.
If what Martin Gurri has observed is so obvious, why are the intellectual and political leaders of the world unable to see it? Instead, most people seem to expect a return to the 20th century, in which mainstream elites (think of the New York Times) are reliable and authoritative and perceived to be so.
Even if you agree with the six points I offered as a summary of Gurri’s general thesis, I still think that having these points reinforced, amplified, and supplemented with other ideas makes The Revolt of the Public worth reading.