80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#51 - Martin Gurri on the revolt of the public & crisis of authority in the information age

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

Politics in rich countries seems to be going nuts. What's the explanation? Rising inequality? The decline of manufacturing jobs? Excessive immigration?

Martin Gurri spent decades as a CIA analyst and in his 2014 book The Revolt of The Public and Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, predicted political turbulence for an entirely different reason: new communication technologies were flipping the balance of power between the public and traditional authorities.

In 1959 the President could control the narrative by leaning on his friends at four TV stations, who felt it was proper to present the nation's leader in a positive light, no matter their flaws. Today, it's impossible to prevent someone from broadcasting any grievance online, whether it's a contrarian insight or an insane conspiracy theory.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

According to Gurri, trust in society's institutions - police, journalists, scientists and more - has been undermined by constant criticism from outsiders, and exposed to a cacophony of conflicting opinions on every issue, the public takes fewer truths for granted. We are now free to see our leaders as the flawed human beings they always have been, and are not amused.

Suspicious they are being betrayed by elites, the public can also use technology to coordinate spontaneously and express its anger. Keen to 'throw the bastards out' protesters take to the streets, united by what they don't like, but without a shared agenda or the institutional infrastructure to figure out how to fix things. Some popular movements have come to view any attempt to exercise power over others as suspect.

If Gurri is to be believed, protest movements in Egypt, Spain, Greece and Israel in 2011 followed this script, while Brexit, Trump and the French yellow vests movement subsequently vindicated his theory.

In this model, politics won't return to its old equilibrium any time soon. The leaders of tomorrow will need a new message and style if they hope to maintain any legitimacy in this less hierarchical world. Otherwise, we're in for decades of grinding conflict between traditional centres of authority and the general public, who doubt both their loyalty and competence.

But how much should we believe this theory? Why do Canada and Australia remain pools of calm in the storm? Aren't some malcontents quite concrete in their demands? And are protest movements actually more common (or more nihilistic) than they were decades ago?

In today's episode we ask these questions and add an hour-long discussion with two of Rob's colleagues - Keiran Harris and Michelle Hutchinson - to further explore the ideas in the book.

The conversation covers:

* How do we know that the internet is driving this rather than some other phenomenon?
* How do technological changes enable social and political change?
* The historical role of television
* Are people also more disillusioned now with sports heroes and actors?
* Which countries are finding good ways to make politics work in this new era?
* What are the implications for the threat of totalitarianism?
* What is this is going to do to international relations? Will it make it harder for countries to cooperate and avoid conflict?

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The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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