The fifth wave of information is the one we are currently experiencing: a digital tsunami. Its most apparent feature is an overabundance of stuff, but its most significant consequence involves the radically changed relationship between information producers and consumers.
A silent mass audience has become a public that talks back.
Most of that tsunami of information isn’t produced by large state or industrial entities with global staffs at their command, but by ordinary people sitting at home in their pajamas. In the fourth wave – that of mass media – such people lacked any individuality, any real existence. They were expected to be passive consumers of printed or broadcast material.
Now, as in a biblical miracle, the mute have begun to speak, and the individual voices of the public have taken on governments, businesses, news conglomerates, and each other.
Only a decade ago, the giant organizations which are now being challenged owned a monopoly over information. They spoke, everyone else listened. We should not be surprised if they aren’t happy about this sudden reversal of fortune: about being treated by the public as they had treated the public.
Least happy of all are authoritarian governments which found mass media ideal to their purposes. Where, before, public messengers were few and sang in perfectly controlled harmony, now a babble of voices drown out the government’s pretense that there is only one side to every story. Fifteen years ago, for example, there were four TV broadcasters in Egypt, all state-owned and on message; today literally hundreds of satellite channels are available, not to mention YouTube and Google Video, ranging in content from the profane to the subversive.
Authoritarians have reacted like they always do: with fear and repression. The most despotic, like Kim Jong Il of North Korea and the Castros in Cuba, simply pulled the plug on the digital age. This has devastated the economies of their countries, but they don’t seem to mind. Better to rule undisturbed in the seventeenth century, they figure, than answer the troubling voices of the twenty-first.
This is a minority position. Most authoritarian rulers wish to grow rich from the fifth wave while somehow taming the beast. A common response among this group – the path followed by China, Iran, Egypt, and many others – has been to migrate censorship regimes erected for mass media to the digital world. The point is to identify and suppress dangerous information, but allow the rest.
To this end, China has invested massively in an “internet police” said to number 40,000. Iran, less impressively, has a Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Sites. Both countries, together with Saudi Arabia and other unsavory regimes, have tried to turn technology against itself by applying broad filters against the web.
Can authoritarians, so successful in controlling mass media, stop the uppity fifth-wave public from talking back? While acknowledging that many experts believe they can and have, my own reply would be “In part, yes.” Sites can be blocked. Bloggers have been thrown in prison. Online behavior can, in part, be intimidated into self-censorship.
But everywhere one finds leaks in the dike. Even in China a large number of critical voices slip through the filters. The rising volume of information is too huge for any government to command, Canute-like.
Can partial censorship be an effective censorship? This, to me, is the right question to ask about authoritarian efforts to tame the fifth wave. And I find the answer surprisingly difficult to arrive at.
A student of history would observe that nearly all censorship regimes have been partial and ineffective. Old regime France, a typical example, erected an intrusive censorship bureaucracy yet was penetrated by illegal publications from abroad. With the revolution, the political system was overthrown by another which worshipped the content of the banned books: hard to imagine a clearer indication of failure.
The difficulty pertains to causation. It’s impossible to prove that a lot of books, journals, and images caused a revolution. The relation between structured information and human behavior appears to be, at best, indirect.
Here I return to the psychology of censorship, subject of an earlier post. The censor makes a double act of faith: in the power of information, and in the foolishness and gullibility of the people. To his way of thinking, the greater the volume of available information, the more people will be misled.
The censor is fully aware that his work must be partial, and is resigned to his own tactical ineffectiveness. He draws red lines around the strategic danger: the “snares” which, he believes, will turn an ordinary person into a deviant or a subversive. In this context, a “snare” is a contradiction of the shared story which explains and justifies the moral order.
Censorship, from the censor’s perspective, is a blunt instrument wielded against perturbations of the moral order. It’s the violent face of propaganda: the imposition of a ruling narrative not by persuasion but by amputation and trauma. Because it implies inadequacy, the authorities detest it almost as much as the public. They have always preferred the propagation of the faith on which their legitimacy rests:
The Committee of Public Safety calls upon poets to celebrate the principal events of the French Revolution, to compose hymns and poems and republican dramas, to publish the heroic actions of the soldiers of liberty, the courage and devotion of republicans, and the victories won by French arms. . .
Present-day despots share the same preference. Contemplating the fifth wave’s ease of communication, they dream of propagating their stories across the web, in this way confounding their enemies and becoming heroes to a global audience.
While authoritarian governments continue to censor the Web and crack down on bloggers . . . they are also increasingly using the Internet for their own propaganda. Officials are pouring resources into social media and hitting the blogs to disseminate pro-government views and undermine their critics. And they’re succeeding: The decentralized nature of online conversations often makes it easier to manipulate public opinion, both domestically and globally. Regimes that once relied on centralized systems of media control can now deliver ideological messages more subtly, with the help of little-known intermediaries like anonymous commenters on websites.
Authoritarians prefer propaganda to censorship, just as they prefer the public’s peaceful acceptance of their legitimacy over having to impose their will in blood and bullets. But they will apply either option to achieve their end: the preservation of the moral order, and of the master narrative on which it rests.
The problem, I believe, is that the censors may be right in this sense: when more people have greater access to more information, as consumers and producers, it becomes increasingly difficult for a single narrative to receive the unquestioned acceptance of the public. This problem, I might add, isn’t new. The printing press – the third wave of information – helped Balkanize Christendom into dozens of competing sects and ideologies. Mass media – the fourth wave – was a factor in the shattering of the world into hostile ethnicities and nationalities.
The more information, the smaller the narrative: if this precept is true, the fragmentation brought about by the fifth wave will be many orders of magnitude more catastrophic than anything recorded in history.
Chinese party members and Iranian mullahs can filter out categories of discussion on the web, and punish those – like Hoder – who are perceived to have torn away at the “sanctities” of the master narrative. But they can’t keep out the tidal wave.
Equally, the North Koreans and the Russians may win little propaganda victories by manipulating the digital environment – but they will be drowned out by the gigantic sound of billions of voices trying to do the same.
The more information, the smaller the narrative: this is fatal to any moral order claiming perfect knowledge, because it will be shown to be, in many instances, mistaken. It’s corrosive of any moral order based on compulsion, because it will be seen, all too clearly, to favor those with guns over those who are merely good.
The fifth wave won’t overthrow Putin, Chavez, Castro, or the political mafias lording it in Beijing and Teheran. Information can’t do that – not even an argumentative public can. But both can and will erode the legitimacy of despots and totalitarians, who will no longer be able to occupy the high moral ground in their disputes with democrats. Their rule will thus become that much more brutal and precarious.
Dictators won’t be the only ones stripped naked before the people. Our own “sanctities” will be profaned. I can’t predict what damage the revolt of the public will inflict on the moral order of liberal democracy, but I suspect it won’t be trivial.
The age of the book produced revolutions, the age of mass media the totalitarian tyrannies of the last century: and what rough beasts, I wonder, will be engendered by the digital age?