My co-blogger Adam Gurri reviews his father’s new book over at the Umlaut. I haven’t read the book myself yet, so this is response is based on AG’s review (which I assume is honest and fair). I’m sure the book is great throughout and everyone should read it in its entirety, but today we are just sticking to the topic’s raised by AG.
[In this piece I’m going to refer to Adam’s dad as “Martin” in order to avoid confusion over usage of the name Gurri, and I’m going to refer to Adam as “AG” in order to avoid confusion with myself]
I want to posit that I agree with Martin that the Internet generally (and “social media” specifically, which is a term I use broadly to include wherever online identity has persistence – Twitter and Facebook of course, but also WhatsApp, message boards of all sorts, AIM, Second Life, etc.) has an erosive effect on all kinds of pre-Internet power structures. What we are seeing is a two-fold change in the rate of information flow, both of the changes feeding on each other to multiply the rate of social change. In respect, we are seeing more information flowing from “what institutions do” to “what the public knows” at a faster rate and from more directions compared to any historical free press (limited by the technology of a previous era). And second we are seeing an increase of information among the public, both on public forums like Twitter and in private peer-to-peer technologies like WhatsApp or the humble SMS message. Together these flows both increase the incentives and lower the costs to act collectively.
I further agree with Martin and AG’s belief that this is related to the soft power of “legitimacy”. It is my belief that all revolutions and wars for independence, at least since the invention of the modern firearm, are a crisis of legitimacy in the previous regime. Just look at what is going on this last week in Iraq, where a fairly small force (7,000) of ISIS fighters was able to route a force forty times its size and take over the second-largest city in Iraq. Neither the Iraqi army nor the Iraqi people in Mosul were able to organize an effective response. Does anyone believe that ISIS would have similar luck in Tel Aviv? Not in a million years, because even if the Israeli army was unable to intervene for some reason, the Israeli people themselves would resist ISIS violently and effectively. And I have no doubt the same would be true in Rome or Dallas-Forth Worth. There can be no stronger proof that the Iraqi people (both its army and its citizens) just don’t believe that their current collection of institutions is worth fighting for.
Note however that two paragraphs above I use the term erosive, rather than corrosive, and this is where I start to disagree with the tone of Martin’s book (as far as I can tell from AG’s review). Corrosive implies an acidic, damaging, eating away of useful things. Erosion is what happens when inflexible objects are caught between water and water’s desired destination. Water flows downhill, and not even the greatest mountain can stand in its way forever.
I think the effect that Martin is describing is real, but see it as very good for humanity in the long run. I also disagree that the unrest seen in places like Egypt or Tunisia (or even the United States) is united solely by a wish to negate the current regime. When that poor man in Tunisia lit himself on fire (a very impressive bit of rhetoric-by-action), the people rallied around a cause to make things better. They weren’t just against the institutions in place, they were for economic opportunity and a “better deal” than the one they had. Likewise, the protesters in Tahrir Square are not just for “anyone but Mubarak” – a fragmented majority of them were aware of the human rights available in Europe, and wanted them, while another plurality of protesters were aware of the orthodox Islamic governance available in other parts of the world, and wanted that (like ISIS does).
Are these goals vague? Some of them. But we will also see that as the process of revolution and reassessment continues to iterate, we should expect people to learn from their success or lack thereof. Another Occupy Wall St. (OWS) is incredibly unlikely precisely because the first one produced no lasting results. The lessons of OWS are also archived for anyone to read going forward, available globally, so that the lessons will spread further and remain with us longer.
Globally, egalitarian society is now moving, learning, and changing inside the OODA Loop of every pre-Internet institution, and this is the test that will reveal every reason for desertion. Only institutions with fundamentally sound practices, that genuinely meet the needs of the people within its writ, will not suffer a crisis of legitimacy in the near future. And this is a good thing indeed, as the bad passes through the meat grinder into history and only the institutions which genuinely meet our needs remain.
Just be thankful that if you’re reading this, you (probably) live in a country that will (probably) go through this process democratically.