The Revolt of the Public and Media Ecology

Marginal notes on Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2014)

Most Westerners would be surprised to learn that many Easterners consider Tahrir-type protests to be cunning plots by the West against objectionable Eastern regimes. That conspiracy theory looks plausible only until you observe similar protests happening in Western countries.

gurri cover 2No doubts, crafty conspirators will always seek to confuse evil regimes. But there is more to it than that: a common factor that relates to time rather than to place, as evidenced by how many protests in different corners of the world occurred in 2011. Something happened in multiple places at that time. This “something” appears to be somehow connected to the Internet and how it had affected society by the end of the 2000s.

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2014, available on Amazon) offers readers three things:

1) A scrupulous analysis of the sequence of protests occurring around 2011 and thereafter.

2) A very interesting and thought-provoking explanation of the protests positing a conflict between the newly informed public and the old institutions of authority.

3) Many keen insights shedding light on the changes in media, politics and social interactions.

Gurri marks out the common traits in many of the protests he analyses, starting with Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and moving on to Spain, Israel, USA, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, etc. These common traits are indisputable:

1) The demographic profile of the protesters. “They were young, many of them university students, nearly all from the well-educated and globally-connected middle class.” (Gurri, 2014, KL – for Kindle Locations – 4781-4782).

2) The Internet and social media played a crucial role in the inspiration, organization and spreading of these protests.

3) No traditional political leaders arose among the protesters. Politicians sometimes tried to engage this audience, but it has remained mostly deaf to organized political messages.

4) Protesters have been incapable of producing any positive program; all they can do is to negate the existing order and, with luck, to overthrow it.

We can now observe, and many have experienced, a new type of protest. The rebels are not motivated by oppression, or poverty, or class antagonism. They are not led by a new revolutionary ideology; they have no ideology in the conventional sense. So what causes and nurtures this new type of protest?

Gurri’s answer is: The Fifth Wave of information technology.

This is how he has counted these waves:

“The invention of writing, for example, was one such wave. It led to a form of government dependent on a mandarin or priestly caste. The development of the alphabet was another: the republics of the classical world would have been unable to function without literate citizens. A third wave, the arrival of the printing press and moveable type, was probably the most disruptive of all. The Reformation, modern science, and the American and French revolutions would scarcely have been possible without printed books and pamphlets. I was born in the waning years of the next wave, that of mass media – the industrial, I-talk-you-listen mode of information…

…we stand, everywhere, at the first moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technology.

Welcome, friend, to the Fifth Wave.” (Gurri, 2014, KL 239-247)

Here we see yet another version of that “technological determinism” of which Marshall McLuhan has often been accused. (See, for example: Logan, 2013, KL 1817-1818) However, the fact that media has become central to any research on contemporary social change highlights its current impact regardless of the interests of any one analyst. I would thus prefer to call it media determinism. Of course, technology predefines the state of media but it is media, not technology, that shapes social ties. There’s a good reason that Clay Shirky has called media “the connective tissue of society” (Shirky, 2010, P. 54)

The Fifth Wave increases the number of sources of information and decreases barriers to the spread of information. The new information sphere allows the public to learn more about its elites. This growing awareness makes the public much more challenging in relations with its elites. Knowing how authority really works makes it less sacred. Any person in charge is now vulnerable before the public:

“Every expert is surrounded by a horde of amateurs eager to pounce on every mistake and mock every unsuccessful prediction or policy.” (Gurri, 2014, KL 3779-3780)

Martin Gurri clarifies:

“When I say “authority,” I mean government – office-holders, regulators, the bureaucracy, the military, the police. But I also mean corporations, financial institutions, universities, mass media, politicians, the scientific research industry, think tanks and “nongovernmental organizations,” endowed foundations and other nonprofit organizations, the visual and performing arts business. Each of these institutions speaks as an authority in some domain. Each clings to a shrinking monopoly over its field of play.” (Ibid, KL 226-230).

The Fifth Wave thus catalyzes the public’s demands and dissolves the sanctity of authority. This gives rise to the revolt of the public.

In his analysis, Gurri uses a mass of factual data collected carefully from around the world. He cements these arrays of factual observations using Walter Lippmann’s definition of the public; Ortega y Gasset’s notion of the revolt of the masses (where Gurri borrowed his title); Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s concepts of the Center and the Border; Clay Shirky’s reflections on networked collaboration; as well as many other sources. This makes the ideas presented in the book very enriching and open for interpretations and development.

Reading Gurri’s book was for me a particularly fascinating experience, because of the many overlaps between his ideas and those presented in my book “Human as media. The emancipation of authorship.” (Miroshnichenko, 2013). Gurri and I were not familiar with each other’s work until I came across his book and wrote to him. Our understanding of the present moment is so strikingly similar that we both turned to the same, regretfully obscure, “mass man as a spoiled child” quotation taken from Ortega y Gasset (Ortega y Gasset, 1930).

We have since discussed this similarity in our analysis, and we agree that if two independent researchers can see and describe their subject so similarly, that subject in all likelihood has been correctly portrayed. I find this to be an exciting development, particularly since neither physics nor math are involved; there are no “objective” laws of nature applied… Or are there? In the age of accelerated information, the social-informational sphere is so mediated by technologies and so alienated from an observer that it can probably be caught by an inquisitive mind like something “physically given”.

Since, for the reasons given, I am not an ordinary reader of Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public, the divergences between our ideas seem more interesting for me to report and analyze than the many points of convergence. Here are my thoughts on these divergences.

1) While taking media as the focus of his research, Gurri mostly maintains the posture of a political analyst. He considers media as an important or even decisive factor of the political process.

Here I find the need for a methodological discussion. The new information sphere is not just an agglomeration, an ensemble of tools, new and old. It’s an environment that exists and evolves according to its own laws. This environment tends to seize everything around that needs to find expression. In my ecological approach to understanding media, I maintain that the media environment captures politics, rather than certain media being used for politically-charged ends.

Of course, some transitional efforts are required for any virtual activity to end up in the real world. Gurri has researched the manner in which the Fifth Wave influences politics. But at some point, with growing Internet penetration, media ceases to be just a factor of the political process; quite the reverse, political processes become internal parts of the media environment.

I consider the evolution of any media environment from idle talk to social and political activity to be unavoidable. For the sake of obtaining a response, people start to express themselves on the Internet the best way they can. Filters for the shared conversation emerge (I have called these filters the Viral Editor), which inevitably lead, sooner or later, to politically charged Internet conversations and then to social activity by the “former audience” (the term coined by Dan Gilmor; Gilmor, 2004, Chapter 7). This is not the political process in the conventional sense, this is purely the media process seen from an ecological angle.

The events discussed by Gurri demonstrate this point. For example, the Iranian blogosphere, Blogistan, appeared just because the Iranian “Blogfather,” Hoder, had adapted software for the Farsi script. Blogistan started with “trivial personal diaries” (Gurri, 2014, KL 288) and resulted in street protests. I describe the same process in the Russian blogosphere, Runet, in my book. (Gurri does not cover the Russian protests, which occurred in 2011-2012). Politicization of the media environment is inevitable and unfolds under its own logic, the logic of emancipated authorship. (Here is another example of how close our respective positions are: Gurri writes about “the practical political consequences of giving ordinary people the means of public expression.” (Gurri, 2014, KL 654)).

The methodological difference is that I see the protests as the inner evolution of the media environment under the conditions of emancipated authorship, while Gurri analyses the impact of media on politics and social interactions.

2) Gurri describes the public mindset created by the Fifth Wave as nihilism. Nihilism nurtures protests, though it is not a new type of revolutionary ideology. It is just pure negation. Gurri wittily connects this nihilism to Francis Fukuyama’s idea about the End of History:

Fukuyama, a Hegelian, argued that Western democracy had run out of “contradictions”: that is, of ideological alternatives. That was true in 1989 and remains true today. Fukuyama’s mistake was to infer that the absence of contradictions meant the end of history. There was another possibility he failed to consider.

History could well be driven by negation rather than contradiction. It could ride on the nihilistic rejection of the established order, regardless of alternatives or consequences. (Gurri, 2014, KL 4868-4872).

This is an interesting point. His substitution of nihilism in place of ideology allows us to detect, again, the political orientation of Gurri’s analysis. It works well, but I prefer another interpretation. Once we realize that the conflicts described by Gurri are unfolding in the media environment, not in politics, we can discern that the sides of the conflict oppose each other not in their content but in their shape and modus vivendi. This is not, therefore, a battle between hostile concepts. The conflict is morphological.

3) Here we approach the main question I wish to pose in this review: who are the participants in the conflict? Presumably, they are those marked out as “the public” and “authority” in the title.

From my point of view, the abstract notion of authority fits the object of analysis quite well. Martin Gurri develops this concept with discussions of institutions, the Center, hierarchy, the old established order, elites, etc. The notion of the public, however, looks less like a fit for this dichotomy.

In my work and research, I have found that the public is often split and that part of it tends to support the established order. In Russia, Putin’s support reaches 85%. People who support the established order are not necessarily united or blind in their motives, so they are not necessarily Ortega y Gasset’s masses (Gurri justifiably separates the notions of the public and the masses). It is still the public as Lippmann describes it:

“…the persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by supporting or opposing the actors.” (qtd. in Gurri, 2014, KL 208-210.)

Moreover, the public may even suffer as a result of networked attacks against established authority. The collapse of authority and the insulting of the “sanctity” of values often induce resentment and spark a backlash in traditionalist societies. This is an important source of radicalism. The public can become an ally of the institutions and the “grassroots” of authority. It is not necessarily locked in a duel with the status quo.

Being a shrewd observer, Gurri understands this and often supplements his notion of the public with additional characteristics, like “the sectarian public”, “a large segment of the public”, etc. For me, the most relevant is “the networked public.

The main elements beneath the conflict here described may be represented as

cloud vs. pyramid
horizontal vs. vertical
peer-to-peer vs. hierarchy
content vs. status
gravity vs. structure
amateurs vs. professionals
guerilla vs. regular army
engagement vs. broadcasting, and so on.

Which entities, as a pair, can embody all these characteristics? I would answer:

network vs. institutions.

This dichotomy works quite well not only with the traits given above but also with the morphological approach already mentioned, which allows us to see objects in their ecological deployment and evolutionary dynamics. The notion of the public is very helpful but it exists at a lower level of abstraction and does not form a dichotomy with the notion of institution (authority, authorities, etc.), because the public can be a part or an ally of it.

Again, Gurri and I are so nearly identical in so many assessments, that similar morphological ideas can also be found in Gurri’s book. For example, he writes: “…the slow-motion collision of two modes of organizing life: one hierarchical, industrial, and top-down, the other networked, egalitarian, bottom-up.” (Gurri, 2014, KL 180-181). I would make one correction to this. For me, the networked mode is not “bottom-up”, as it might be seen by a political analyst. It is horizontal. Morphologically, it is “horizontality”, not “bottom-up,” that creates an opposition to “top-down”. That would be the perspective of a media analyst.

However, I admit that the idea of the public works excellently for the title of the book, developing Ortega y Gasset’s concept of “the revolt of the masses”, which I consider completely underestimated in contemporary media studies, at least on the Western shores of the Atlantic. In my opinion, to understanding what is happening to the “former audience” or the public (Ortega wrote about “mass man”), Ortega must be treated on the same level as Lippmann. They both reflected on processes occurring in the same period, by the way.

Here is the last observation of this review: the factor of time. Many observers have been tempted to say that it is media that causes social turbulence ranging from peaceful protests to riots, revolutions, armed civil conflicts, and even wars. But this is not, in reality, the truth. What induces these conflicts is not the media but the tectonic shift in the prevailing media paradigm.

Societies accustomed to the conditions supported by broadcast-style, top-down media – i.e., the Fourth Wave, according to Gurri – including those societies that just recently began to experience those conditions, have suddenly found themselves sinking in the Fifth Wave, which is the environment of engaged media, where everyone has the technical capability to express publicly their personal reactions.

This new environment has thus far emancipated technical authorship for about 2.5 billion persons. Considering the spread of information technologies, the “normal” rate of Internet penetration, and population growth, we can predict that number of emancipated authors who can communicate reactions beyond their physical circle will reach 8-10 billion within the next 30 years.

We are at the moment in the middle of the explosion of mass authorship. Books like Gurri’s Revolt of the Public are extraordinarily helpful and necessary if we are to understand the present and prepare for what is to come. The next wave of turbulence caused by emancipated authorship is coming, and it will not be Tahrir-like. The likelihood is that it will develop the characteristics of the recent conflicts in Ukraine and Ferguson, Missouri, the first hints of which could be observed in the London riots of 2011. These future collisions should be analyzed in the context of media ecology as well as of political science.

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References

Gillmor, Dan. 2004. We the Media – Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People.

Gurri, Martin. 2014. The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Kindle Edition.

Logan, Robert K. 2013. McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight. The Key Publishing House Inc. Kindle Edition.

Miroshnichenko, Andrey. 2013. Human as media. The emancipation of authorship. Kindle Edition.

Ortega y Gasset, Jose. 1930. The rebellion of the masses.

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press HC.

Martin Gurri’s Blog – The Fifth Wave.

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Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon

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Categories: Emancipation of Authorship, Human as media book, Media ecology

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