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The best analysis of January 2021 came from a book self-published in 2014. Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public is a cult classic that remains the essential description of how the internet changed politics. The former CIA analyst’s thesis now seems obvious, and yet the dominant narratives about “populism” and “disinformation” make it clear that many people still don’t understand what happened: The internet changed the public’s relationship to authority.
Gurri identified the underlying dynamics that explain why the Department of Justice is punishing an American citizen for making memes, shaman barbarians stand in the speaker’s chair, and sports fans bully hedge fund managers. The GameStop short squeeze in particular unfolded like a chapter in the book. Gurri’s work remains essential for understanding our world.
The Revolt of the Public tries to explain a phenomenon that had already swept the world by 2014. Why did the new information environment bring political turmoil? Why did regimes crumble in the face of the internet? Gurri wrote the book as a warning that liberal democracy would also need to weather the information age. His thesis is simple: “We are caught between an old world which is decreasingly able to sustain us intellectually, and spiritually, maybe even materially, and a new world that has not yet been born.”
The old world is the 20th century. The new world is defined by access to information and a public that can communicate without intermediaries. The 20th century industrial age was defined by top-down hierarchical bureaucracies that could obtain scale through size, whereas the new digital world is defined by interconnected networks. These two worlds are in constant conflict, yet each side is only dimly aware of what the other side represents. Every social upheaval over the past 20 years can be seen as a proxy conflict between hierarchies built in the 20th-century and 21st-century networks.
Gurri draws attention to this shift by comparing company names from the 20th century to today. The National Broadcasting Company and the General Electric Company versus Google and Yahoo. The change in naming conventions signals a deeper change in our relationship to authority. The 20th-century world is the “center,” while the digital world represents the “border.”
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