Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Today’s guest is out to explain why the internet is changing who wields power in society, and how that’s changing our politics.
At the end we’ve added a discussion of the episode and its implications between me, my producer Keiran Harris, and one of 80,000 Hours’ career advisors, Michelle Hutchinson. It’s a bit of an experiment, and one we might continue if it seems useful.
As always, you should never finish listening to an episode if you’re not finding it entertaining or useful. Just turn it off and listen to something better rather than get dissatisfied and unsubscribe. Obviously that also goes for our conversation at the end of the show.
In my view it’s how you should approach all books, movies, TV shows, newspaper articles and so on. The opportunity cost of listening to one thing is not listening to another, and having started something gives you no particular reason to finish it. Completionism makes no sense to me.
If you like this conversation though, you should definitely look out for my interview with economist Glen Weyl about his book Radical Markets, which touches on many of the same political themes that come up today. That should go out to subscribers in the next few weeks.
Alright, here’s Martin.
Robert Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Martin Gurri. Martin is a geopolitical analyst and follower of neo media and information dynamics. He spent many years working in a small part of the CIA dedicated to the analysis of openly available media such as television and newspapers. After leaving work in government, Gurri focused his research on the impact that a networked public with access to a wide range of competing information sources has had on politics and culture, writing actively on his blog, The Fifth Wave. He co-authored Our Visual Persuasion Gap in 2010 before in 2014 self-publishing The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.
Robert Wiblin: Many people have come to see the insights in that book as key to explaining changes in politics that have become highly visible in the last few years. As we record this interview, rioters in Paris seem to be acting out more or less the dynamic Martin outlines in his book. In reference to Trump and Brexit, economist Arnold Kling commented, “Martin Gurri saw it coming.” As a result, the book was officially published by Stripe Press this December with a new series of chapters dedicated to recent events. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Martin.
Martin Gurri: Well happy to be here, happy to talk to you, happy to be hocking my book to your audience.
Robert Wiblin: I think they’re going to enjoy it. I hope to get to talking about candor arguments to the ideas you’re putting forward and perhaps the implications that it might have for listeners who are trying to improve the world. First, I almost always start these interviews by asking what are you working on at the moment and why do you think it’s really important?
Martin Gurri: Well I’m working on getting the ideas in the book out as widely as possible obviously. I wrote the book for a very particular reason, which is I thought that there was a misunderstanding or at least a lack of understanding of the kind of world we leave in. People kind of tend to look backwards in a rear view mirror, and I thought things had happened to our technology and our social life that profoundly changed the way we interact that had impacted politics as well, and yet that most people were not aware of and confusing the old terminologies of politics and the old ideologies of politics that seemed to blind them to what was happening.
Martin Gurri: The idea is trying to write articles, trying to write posts on my blogs, trying to do things like I’m doing right here, to disseminate the ideas and like I said, hock the book.
Robert Wiblin: Well let’s dive into it. I’m going to try to move fairly swiftly through outlining the ideas in the book, because listeners, I guess they can listen to the audiobook or they can buy the book. I’ll link to some MP3s where there’s already good explanations. I guess you’ve given some talks in some other interviews. Nonetheless, let’s start at the beginning. What is the core argument that you’re making?
Martin Gurri: The book is called The Revolt of the Public. Boldly stated, The Revolt of the Public is a conflict, a collision between information wielded by ordinary people and power represented by the elites who run the institutions of modern society. That’s the basic one line description. I can go on a little bit if you want.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What’s changed about the public’s relationship to information and authority?
Martin Gurri: Well I believe you mentioned what was happening in France recently with the Yellow Vests, and I hope before this is done, we have a chance to talk about Europe. Let’s turn to the United States for a minute. Every institution we have inherited from that industrial age is in crisis. The elites I think who run these institutions are disgusted and despised. When you think back on John F. Kennedy’s day, people would be asked whether they trusted government, and the answers would range between 70% and 80% yes, we trust government. When you ask people today, it’s below 30%, invariably. For congress, it’s in the teens. This isn’t an American predicament, I just mentioned Europe, and it isn’t just about government either.
Martin Gurri: For example, journalism, the news when you ask people whether they ask the news, they also get 30% or less. The days when a journalist, an anchorman could be voted the most trusted man in America, those days are long gone. Something has changed. Many things you can say have changed. One obvious change is between JFK’s time and ours, the amount of information available to ordinary people has multiplied I mean virtually to infinity. From the time of the cave paintings until about the year 2000, information grew in this slow, stately manner. Then things started to go crazy. In the year 2002, the amount of information doubled the previous total from all of history. 2003, it doubled 2002. That pattern has more or less continued.
Martin Gurri: If you chart this trend, it looks like a gigantic wave, a tsunami. If you read the book, you know that I have that chart in the book. If you look at it hard enough, you can find almost anything that is happening now and that has followed. Revolts, repudiation, the Yellow Vests, the disintegration of institutions and almost of countries. Even if you look hard enough, you can probably find Donald Trump in there somewhere. You can’t look on that chart without thinking how can human relations and institutions that are based on that old industrial model survive a battering from this monster.
Martin Gurri: This came to me gradually as I worked at CIA. I don’t know if you want to talk about that for a bit, because it was an interesting process as it happened.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Kind of the core argument is that the public now has access to so many more points of view, so much more evidence, so much more information that they’re able to challenge authorities that previously they just had to take their word for what they were saying. How did you develop this theory, or did you have these ideas back when you were working at the CIA and then developed them after you left?
Martin Gurri: I worked at CIA, as you probably have already mentioned, and I had what was probably the least glamorous, but it turned out to be the most significant corner to myself of that organization. I never had my 00 license to kill, but I had access to all of global media, if necessary with translations. Let me tell you, I’m old enough that when I started doing that, even for a developed country, even for a Britain for example, if you wanted to find what there was in open media that was of interest to the government, to the United States, you could every day say, “Well here’s a very discreet package that this is what’s going on in this particular country.”
Martin Gurri: At a certain moment, again, things started to go haywire. After, of course, the digital explosion hit, it became that even very underdeveloped countries with very little formal media suddenly were awash with information. What we noticed was as this wave was going around the world, politics started to go into turbulence. There was a very distinct correlation between the wave of information, the tsunami hitting these countries, and their politics going crazy. Some of them had been countries that had been, if you think of Egypt for example, the Hosni Mubarak regime, he was called a Pharaoh. It had been there for 30 years. It was immovable and his son was supposed to inherit when he died. He was gone in three weeks.
Martin Gurri: There were a core of us there that thought this has completely radically changed the way the world works. The old world, the institutions owned the information. We trusted them because we had no alternative but to trust them. They were, for example, they were the media and they told us this is the event you need to look at. The fact that there were many other events that were not being discussed wasn’t obvious to anybody because they chose the same narrow set, or you were the government and you’d say, “Well this is what’s important.” You explained why it was important and you explained how it should be interpreted.
Martin Gurri: If it was 9/11, for example, even as close as that, you can say, “Well they hate us because of our freedom and not necessarily because of our foreign politics.” The people from the government, the elites that ran the government could have the authority to provide the information, frame it and explain the world. That’s gone. That’s completely gone. With that gone, there’s been a bleeding away of authority for government and for these institutions, and a public has been created that is essentially very angry and we can discuss the reasons why, and they’re all speculative. We can say without question that the public is not happy with the status quo. Why that is is very debatable, but it is essentially mired in what I call negation. It is against.
Martin Gurri: The public, if you want to unify a movement like for example the Yellow Vests in Europe or the anti-Mubarak movement in Egypt or the Indignados in Spain or the Occupiers here in the U.S., they were people from very different backgrounds, they were people from very different ideologies. They unified against. The more against you could be and the more you could build on that negation, the more powerful these movements became. The problem with that of course is at some point you need a positive programme. These transitions are some kind of alternative to the status quo. The public does not seem to be interested in that.
Robert Wiblin: Basically it’s a lot easier now for just random members of public, you or me or anyone else, to challenge what scientists are saying, what journalists are saying, what politicians are saying.
Martin Gurri: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: Just through rocks at them and say, “You guys are full of shit” basically. Basically people are taking up this opportunity. They’re challenging all these authorities, and basically their credibility is being whittled away.
Martin Gurri: I would say a lot of the times they’re right. That’s the unfortunate part. If you said this is all fake news and this is all people who don’t know what they’re talking about, challenging experts who do know what they’re talking about, but I think part of the mode of being of the old way, that by the way I lived a sizeable chunk of my life under so I understand very well, was there were people who knew and there were problems. The word problem is a big word in the industrial market because then you can build almost a mathematical solution to it. Every political situation, every political condition that people feel unhappy about is a problem that has a solution.
Martin Gurri: If you are running, for example, for president, you have the solution. Let me give you my solution. What’s happened now of course is whatever anybody says in terms of running for office or I’ll do this or I’ll do that can be easily exposed for we don’t really know. It turns out we know a lot less than the old model, the industrial model pretended to know. I think those are all sincere. I don’t think these people were lying. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I would say I probably missed a few conspiracies, but on the other hand, I see the world a lot more clearly than powerful forces shaping these events.
Martin Gurri: I think in the industrial era, I think Stalin probably believed very sincerely that by killing hundreds of thousands, millions of people in the Ukraine he could improve agriculture and bring social justice in a mode that hadn’t been known before. These were sincere people, they were just wrong. What’s happening now is a lot of the pretense to knowledge has been exposed, and that of course has contributed to their bleeding away of authority to the institutions.
Robert Wiblin: I’m inclined to somewhat defend authorities and institutions, at least relative to the current zeitgeist, but there’s no question that scientists often overstated how much they knew, that journalists just get things wrong all the time, that politicians sometimes are absolute hypocrites. It’s a question of balance between yeah, you need to … Institutions are trying to make the best of what are often very tricky situations, but also they need to be perhaps more honest with the public about what they can and can’t do.
Martin Gurri: I would say in a sense, public and then we can talk about what the public is because that’s not an easy answer for that one, but the public, as I define it is, as I say, mired in negation, almost sometimes to nihilism. On the other hand, who is it in a democratic country that you can say is responsible for these politicians. If a person comes to us running for president and says, “I think I have something that may improve the situation, but let’s try trial and error and see whether it works or not.” That guy would never get anywhere. Nobody would vote for that person. If a person says, “I’ll build a wall, or I’ll do this, I’ll do that, and that will solve all our problems,” suddenly everybody votes for that person, but then you have a created a situation where whatever he does, even if he succeeds in what he says he’s going to do, it’s probably not going to address that situation.
Martin Gurri: Then, again, the negation flows in.
Robert Wiblin: Talk a little bit more about this negation issue.
Martin Gurri: Well the public today is very different, and I like, you sent me a list of counterfactuals to The Revolt of the Public. I loved them. I love counterfactuals. One of them was well what about 1968? 1968 I remember it, by the way. You don’t but I do, was a year of turbulence worldwide. You had it in China. You had it in the U.S. you had it in France, you had it in Czechoslovakia — all over. I would say there’s a couple of things there. History, interpretation of events, can never rise to the level of a science because you can’t control for it. I can’t run a version of the Arab Spring, in which I take away Al Jazeera and the internet and see what happens.
Martin Gurri: All we have is the instance that actually did happen. There may be very well some kind of deep connection between these turbulent moments in history — that’s a subject of research for young people like yourselves. I’m more interested in the differences, and the differences of course are that when you look back at what a radical or a revolutionary or a person who made trouble was in those days, they were like a little mirror image of the establishment themselves. In fact, the more revolutionary that you were, the more disciplined and hierarchical that your organization was and you had an ideology, a very hard ideology and you had programs that you wanted to impose, and of course you wanted to impose, so therefore you wanted to run the government.
Martin Gurri: There were all these accepted ambitions of the turbulence of 1968 that is very different from today. Today the public has no program. It has no ideology or many ideologies. You look at a movement like the Yellow Vests today or like the Indignados in Spain, and literally they would say everybody could talk for themselves, but somehow having a general ideology was considered to be taboo. They do not want to seize the government. They’re not storming the palaces of power. They have no interest in that. What you have today is a public that is mired in negation in the sense that it wants the government and the status quo to be completely different and yet wants not to be involved in that change other than to stand from outside and say “we don’t like what’s going on”. That’s pretty unique in history as far as I can tell.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying information technology has made it so easy to challenge and to question and to criticize any actual concrete proposals that are put forward such that these revolutionary movements or these political movements today, much more than in the past are just focused on opposing things and complaining about the problems that the current political system is producing rather than putting forward concrete policies that would fix it, or running for office and trying to gain power themselves. They’re much less interested in that than protest movements used to be.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, when you look at all these movements, there always seems to be a dribble of individuals that eventually migrate over to electoral politics, and immediately are excommunicated by the original radicals because joining even democratic politics, these are all democratic countries I’m talking about, somehow is selling out. You’ve now joined the status quo, and that’s not what people want. Another aspect of that too though is what Clay Shirky, whose book I think is a truly anticipatory document because he wrote it before all these things happened. I had the privilege of having them happen in CIA. He was just looking into the future and predicting and projecting, and got it right. He calls it “self-assembling.”
Martin Gurri: What you had before was before you could put a crowd on the streets, you needed an organization, you needed a plan, you needed printing presses to have little handouts, a mimeograph machine. That was what I … 1968, anti-war. It was a very deeply organized thing. Today you all meet on Facebook. Nobody knows you’re there. These are mainly, in France for example, these are closed Facebook groups. You need to be able to ask to get in there. At a certain moment, they say, “Let’s go on the streets.” Suddenly, out of nowhere, for the elites, out of nowhere comes tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people angry and burning cars and vandalizing banks and so forth. That couldn’t be done. To organize, self-assemble a crowd, in Clay Shirky’s terms, in the old days. You needed a lot of footwork.
Robert Wiblin: What sorts of people are participating in these new movements?
Martin Gurri: Every sort pretty much. If there is a typical, and I hate to use that because there many, many counterfactuals there, it tends to be relatively young people, by which I mean mid-30s and under, tends to be very educated people, college educated mostly. Tends to be relatively affluent people. Hardly ever has there been, in fact I can’t think of a single instance where economically marginalized groups or racial or ethnic minorities led one of these groups. Maybe Black Lives Matter would be the exception. Almost none of these groups, and Black Lives Matter, when you look at the people who began it, they were these educated, they were not marginalized human beings.
Martin Gurri: There is a strain of thought that this is all the product of globalisation, and it’s a question that when you look at Trump voters, for example, there’s a strain of that. When you look at the Yellow Vests in France, there is a deep strain of that. It’s fun to look at their postings. I mean you see this nice looking, gray haired, sort of grandmotherly lady on YouTube basically yelling at Macron for his policies, and you realize that the power of this digital instrument through which we are communicating right now is amazing. It’s an amazing thing. How did this woman, and she’s famous, I mean she got millions of hits, become a star in this particular public for articulating exactly what everybody was feeling, even though she was just somebody from the provinces in France.
Robert Wiblin: I think something that you dwell on a bit in the book is that it is somewhat surprising that often that people who are leading these strident protest movements, are themselves people who are doing quite well. They’re quite wealthy. They’re not necessarily unemployed at all. They’re potentially very educated, living a lot longer than their parents. Is that a difference from the past or is it just the case that typically protest movements have always been led by people who have the resources and the time to dedicate to political organization?
Martin Gurri: That’s a good question. Probably you’re right. I don’t know how to research that. I think you’re probably right. Lenin was essentially a bureaucratic aristocrat, his family was. But I think the differences are that all of this has tended to be done in the past on behalf of the disadvantaged, so yes, and with participation from those groups. Yes, when you look at the Civil Rights Movement, it was obviously not the downtrodden sharecroppers that were doing the sit-ins and stuff like that, but the leading edge of it were the black churches. They were the people who were most intimately concerned with attaining justice in that moment.
Martin Gurri: Whereas now, there is very little of that. There’s mainly a sense that the government and the status quo in general is wrong and is distant and is not responsive and is corrupt. Every time something is promised and it doesn’t work out, it’s never interpreted as incompetence, it’s always interpreted as corruption. That adds to the sense that these people pretend to have authority and knowledge, but have none. They’re just there for their own benefit, but on the other hand, the public is not putting forward, “Hey, well if we do plan A, plan B or plan C, we’ll achieve utopia.” Industrial model in the end, whether you were in Russia or the United States, had this long utopian view. In the end we were going to solve all the problems and all human relationships were going to be somehow smoothed out if we did all the right things, and we were going to achieve utopia.
Martin Gurri: That’s been lost. That’s not there in the thought of the public today. All there is is anger at what people in power are doing and the wish to kind of change that or erase that in some way, sometimes just to batter it, just to smash at it. I thought it very symbolic that the Yellow Vests in France were smashing at the Arc de Triomphe. Gain nothing by that except a sense of it just stands for the system as I know it, I’m just going to smash this statue and vandalize it.
Robert Wiblin: I think something that’s interesting is in as much as these protest movements are being led by people who on paper seem to be doing quite well. Potentially that they have jobs, their income is okay, they’re not in ill health, they’re not being discriminated against per se. Is it just that it’s quite a bit harder to solve, because if it was being led by people who were unemployed and had low incomes, then perhaps we could just hope to have social programs that could fix these things, but in as much as its people who are actually already doing quite well, it’s going to be a lot harder to satisfy them because perhaps their hopes and aspirations are beyond what society can provide just given current technology.
Martin Gurri: Well I guess you have to ask yourself what is it. You look at the economy right now and the economy since 2008, I think 2008 was a wake-up moment for a lot of people, and I think it was less, and this is speculation, it was less people being thrown out of work. Well that was some of that, but there was, for example, no political backlash from that for years, and more a sense of these people in charge have no clue what they’re doing, which was what it looked like in 2008. I think that has percolated down. If you want to look at how you go about changing the situation, turning it around to a more positive direction, you have to ask yourself well how do you reconcile the public with the system?
Martin Gurri: I would say a really good way not to do it would be to assume that if you are against the system, you are racist, you are homophobic, you are xenophobic, you’re this, you’re that and the other, which seems to be the way the elites respond almost reflexively when they have movements, they see movements that contradict their piety. Just like the public never sees incompetence, always sees vile corruption at the top, this is people who are bad people. The elites never see people with genuine grievances, they see bad people who are almost deranged in their passions, I would say.
Martin Gurri: How do you reconcile them? Well again, we go back to I think part of what the public does not like about the current situation is the distance between themselves and their rulers. By that I mean the social distance. I mean it’s a really strange thing Rob when you think about it. We elect these individuals who were, most of them, normal human beings when they got elected. It is the case that they go away to Washington, start acting strangely, speaking a language that nobody speaks like. I mean they speak ‘politicise’ I guess you could say. Start hiding behind bodyguards and metal detecting machines. Have you ever been to Washington?
Robert Wiblin: I have, yeah. It’s imposing. It feels like the Imperial Capital, no question.
Martin Gurri: Well I mean I’ve lived here most of my life. I used to be able to walk into the State Department, “Hi, how are you,” and I would walk right in. Right now, they stop you a block away from the State Department. Even if you are, as I was, a member of the government, they would stop you a block away from the State Department and “Who are you? Why are you here?” You are almost the enemy by being the public almost by default. There’s a sense that people have retreated back there, and okay, if they delivered a society that is one that I am happy with, I might let them get away with it, but people are very unhappy about various things that are happening and they speak out.
Martin Gurri: Then that distance just basically drowns out their voices. The elites don’t hear the public. It’s very, very strange. You’re always surprised when the public appears on the street. This has happened again and again. You think they’d expect it by now. They don’t. They just don’t see any legitimacy, any existence to the public. When you have that distance …
Robert Wiblin: Distrust becomes pretty natural.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. You want to cure that, it becomes a question of what is a legitimate elite? How do you arrive a legitimate elite? That’s a question, a very complicated question and probably you and I could talk about it for hours and not get to an end of it, but a very simple way of looking at it is a truly healthy genuine elite, the people in it have attributes that everybody else aspire to have. That’s not that rare. In my lifetime, people would say, “You have to be honest like George Washington was, or you have to persevere like Thomas Edison persevered.” Washington and Edison were part of those pretty thorny characters, and you could pick out their flaws if you want to, but in those days people preferred to look at that in them that was admirable.
Martin Gurri: I think we need, and by we I mean the public, the public selects the elites by turning to them and saying, “Okay, you do things for us.” Basically live out, are embedded in the narratives that we find to be acceptable. People who are not distant. People who are like us and don’t lose themselves in the environment when they get elected, as seems to happen now.
Robert Wiblin: I want to show some degree of self-awareness here by asking where do I fall in this picture and where do perhaps listeners fall? I was thinking I probably identify as an authority or part of the establishment to a surprising degree given that I’m not American and not especially wealthy and don’t really have that much political power either. I feel like I’m part of this group to some extent, and that might seem natural, so of course I’m going to be defensive about these movements challenging whether I really know what I’m talking about. But I also wonder … when I thought about this some more, I was like is it actually the case that me and the listeners to this show are kind of part of the establishment, because so many of these people who are part of these movements that are against the existing establishment are kind of young people or very educated people or people who are potentially doing quite well and want to change the world and create a much better world.
Robert Wiblin: It might be that it’s a much more mixed picture that we’re partly part of the establishment but partly not. On the other hand, it does seem that I think that the effective altruism community is very inclined to try to come up with very specific policy, concrete policy proposals to how they would change things, which is perhaps one way in which we wouldn’t really fit into these new protests movements very naturally.
Martin Gurri: Right. I get that a lot. Who am I? That’s a good question. I was in the U.S. government, not like I was there a mover and a shaker. Like I said, I never got my 00 license, but I saw it from inside, and let me tell you that a lot of, I mean just a very brief example. There is in CIA when you walk in a wall that has stars on it. No names, just stars. These are the people who have died serving their country in CIA. Between the time I joined CIA and the time I left, at least the number of stars had doubled. At least had doubled. I found them to be, the people I dealt with, brilliant, dedicated, hardworking.
Martin Gurri: I’ve seen the swamp, so to speak, from the inside, and it’s composed of good people, well meaning people. I suspect the public, when you look at them, it’s the same thing. These are people who are good people, well meaning people. Structurally they are positioned such that they cannot seem to understand one another. The elites, honestly, when you get to the high reaches at least, seem to like that industrial distance. The industrial model was everything happens from the top down. “I have accredited expertise. I probably have gone to very many famous universities and gotten a lot of degrees. I therefore speak in a pseudo scientific language that makes me sound like I really know what I’m talking about. You, by the way, have none of those attributes. Therefore, why are you even talking to me? You’re kind of a deplorable person.” That’s what the one side sees.
Martin Gurri: The public structurally seems to be saying, “We elected you. You have disappeared into the clouds. You seem to be chasing women or men or whatever, spending your time doing things that would shame a Hollywood star. You are playing with our money and not doing very well with that, and we want to erase that. We want to batter that. We want to take those institutions that have lifted you so high up and break them down so you can come closer to where we are.” Between these two points of view, bridges need to be built. We can discuss how that might happen, but it’s not the individuals involved necessarily who are villainous. I started the book, by the way, thinking I had a side. I started the book thinking that I was on the side of the public, and the more I wrote the book, the more I researched the book, I’m sorry, the more I researched the book the more I realized that there were very many aspects about these movements.
Martin Gurri: I was very uncomfortable with it. I don’t have a side on this struggle. I’m just kind of diagnosing it. I feel like if you see what’s going on in these terms, a lot of the words that we use, like liberal and conservative, that started in 19th century British, English politics, or right and left. For God’s sake, that’s 18th century French politics. These terms put a veil in front of our eyes that prevents us from seeing the reality of what’s going on, which is not right or left, conservative or liberal, but there is a structural collision between a digitalized public and industrialized elites.
Robert Wiblin: Want to get onto hitting you with some potential counter-arguments. Just before we get there, just so that the audience has in mind lots of concrete examples that they can have at their fingertips, I guess we’ve got the protest movements and France and Spain and I guess Greece. We’ve got Brexit. We’ve got the Trump thing. I guess also Bernie Sanders. We’ve got the whole Arab Spring. Are there any others that people should have in mind as we go on discussing this?
Martin Gurri: Yeah, well I mean this just happened in Brazil.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, Brazil.
Martin Gurri: Venezuela hasn’t won, so it doesn’t get the big splash, but the Venezuelans have been trying, and they have a big online presence, the opposition there does. There is of course in Europe from Sweden down to Spain there have been movements that have been particularly energized about immigration policies for example. And Germany as well, Angela Merkel pretty much is a shadow of herself. Angela Merkel, probably her tenure is to be counted now in months and not years. You look at what’s happening in Britain with Theresa May, and I mean they just rung her through the ringer of a party no confidence vote. She won that but she still has to get the Brexit vote and who knows, right?
Martin Gurri: These European leaders, almost everywhere, the popular ones right now, what is the most popular government in the EU right now? Let me ask you.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s tricky. I guess Angela Merkel is moderately popular.
Martin Gurri: It is.
Robert Wiblin: Moderately popular, so I guess that’s maybe the best you can do at the moment.
Martin Gurri: It’s tricky. I’d say probably the Italian government. The Italian government are two populist parties that are as different as a cat and a dog. They have somehow coalesced into a government and they are of course very anti status quo, very anti everything that’s happened before, anti the EU. So far they have not been irresponsible about it. They just have been pushing back on the EU, pushing back on immigration. They don’t want immigration. They have a 68% approval rating, which is pretty astounding in this day and age. Probably won’t last because these things tend not to last, but it’s pretty amazing.
Martin Gurri: I was in Italy recently, and I had my Thomas Friedman moment. I don’t know if you ever read Thomas …
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’m familiar.
Martin Gurri: I have to admit, I’ve stopped, but his articles tend to invariably begin with, “Well I took a taxicab in Yemen” or something. The cabby pretty much explains the situation to you. Well I had my Thomas Friedman moment in Rome where the taxicab driver was playing political radio basically and it was left wing political radio. I asked him what he felt like, and he gave me kind of a mushy answer. I said, “Well so are you optimistic or pessimistic?” He said, “I’m Italian.” He says, “I’m disgusted.” That is the public.
Martin Gurri: For our government to have 68% approval rating when the default is disgusted is pretty amazing. I would say this is something that is happening. I mean you mentioned in your counterfactuals places like Canada and so forth where it hasn’t happened, but it’s happening in more places than we even talked about here.
Robert Wiblin: There’s the Five Star Movement in Italy. What do you say about countries like Canada or Australia or New Zealand or I guess Japan, China maybe even where people seem at least moderately satisfied with their governments and there haven’t been large protest movements? Is it just a matter of time or is it the case that there’s different dynamics in different places?
Martin Gurri: China let’s put aside.
Robert Wiblin: That’s just kind of its own thing.
Martin Gurri: Very inscrutable country. The others, well here’s what I believe. What I believe is each country has its own culture and its own traditions and its own history and its own habits and its own default modes of dealing with events and crises and situations. My framework gets overlaid on that. I am not like Karl Marx who believes that the class struggle is inevitable and the rise of the proletarian is inevitable, revolution is inevitable. I believe quite the opposite of that. I have come to believe that nothing is inevitable. Nothing can be predicted in human events.
Martin Gurri: There may well be local reasons for why a Canada or an Australia hasn’t seen a movement like Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party or the Brexit crowd in Britain or the Yellow Vests in France. It could also mean that tomorrow it might happen there. I don’t know. If their local situation, the dial is turned in a certain way. All that I’m saying is this framework is there in every country. Every country that has access to the digital world, that’s almost every country today with maybe four exceptions, where if there is a problem … I mean there was no problem in France until suddenly there was. That literally happened within weeks. For all we know, there are people in Canada who are meeting on Facebook right now and saying, “Damn, we’re going to have to get together and do whatever, get those SOBs in the government, show them what they need to be shown,” or not.
Robert Wiblin: Do we actually know whether the number of street protests and the level of dissatisfaction with governments is higher than before? Because of course there’s been lots of protests, lots of somewhat revolutionary movements throughout history. There was more communists and anarchists in the past than there are typically today. It’s not entirely obvious that things are more turbulent than they were 1950 through 1990.
Martin Gurri: I 100% agree. I 100% agree. In the olden days, there were groups that were dedicated. There were tiny little hierarchies whose job it was to create disturbances. That doesn’t really happen anymore. These things really are as close to being unplanned as you can be. I think that number-wise, no, probably not. I haven’t studied that, I haven’t seen any study that has countered those things, but my gut feeling is that it probably in numbers, no.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. You’re not necessarily saying that there’s more protest movements in the past. It’s just that their nature has changed. They’re more spontaneous. They’re more just against things rather than putting things forward. Yeah, they can appear and disappear very rapidly because the public can organize itself and develop its own ideas very fast.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. With the speed of light literally. You look at the digital world, you can create a Facebook page, as happened in Egypt, that is an oppositional Facebook page. You can say, “Let’s have a meeting, let’s get together in Tahrir Square on 25 January of 2011,” and several pages did that. Tens of thousands of people showed up and the rest is history literally. That couldn’t happen before.
Robert Wiblin: This whole kind of model you have of what’s going on, sounds very plausible when I was reading the book. It seems like it could be right, but I worry that it’s quite easy to spin a narrative that seems to explain what’s going on just given that there’s not that many data points and it’s so hard to understand the whole world, so lots of different things can sound plausible. I’m curious to just push on this a little bit. How do we know that it is the internet which is kind of driving this rather than some other phenomenon? I think sometimes people can be a little bit too credulous at just accepting arguments that the internet has changed things.
Robert Wiblin: For example, there’s this whole idea of filter bubbles that people, they just end up reading their own extremist content again and again, and only getting exposed to articles that they agree with, but I’ve read decent evidence that this is kind of a myth, that by and large people actually mostly get … they get more dissonant, more conflicting information on the internet than they do in real life and that they used to get before the internet. How do we really know that it’s the internet or social media that that’s doing these things rather than some other phenomenon?
Martin Gurri: Well let’s put it in a laboratory, take out the internet and see what happens. We can’t.
Robert Wiblin: No, we can’t, yeah.
Martin Gurri: We can’t. I would say that if the framework that I provide, you can give ideas and projections of what would happen if it was not the way that my thesis seems to be indicating and you can say, “Well if the thesis is really what I think it is, then these other things would happen.” The book has taken off in essence because those things that the thesis seemed to be indicating have come to pass. The real big moment for my book, my best friend is Donald Trump because when he got elected everybody said, “Oh my God, Martin Gurri predicted this.” Well I didn’t. There was no mention of him in the book, although there is now because I wrote an essay for the new edition. But there were those projections of what would happen if this my thesis really was the case.
Martin Gurri: Now whether underneath my thesis it’s the internet, well I mean human events are very complex. It’s not just the internet. That’s a pretty obvious thing. It’s the fact that we are coming down from an industrial model that pretended to knowledge that it didn’t have, that had command and control systems that were probably the most efficient and therefore the most controlling and most hierarchical that we have ever known in history, and probably any number of other events, 2008 being one for example, the big economic crisis, and any number of others that play into this. Human events are by nature complex. I only feel like there is, if you tease out one aspect of what is happening now, that is different from anything that’s happened in history before, it’s that tsunami chart.
Martin Gurri: When you think about institutions that are based in my tinier pots of information, each controlled by some elite institution and the fact that this tsunami has just swept over and just basically bashed them, that strikes me as the most significant change from the past. Is it the only one? Obviously not. Can I positively prove? Only when, I mean eventually it will be disproven. Every assertion you make about an event, any interpretation of human events eventually is disproven. It’s a hypothesis, it’s a thesis. I think it explains the world we live in. It clarifies it. I think people live right now in a state of confusion and frustration because there is so much noise, so much turbulence and they go back then to their, “Well I’m a republican, I’m a democrat.” It doesn’t seem to somehow explain anything.
Martin Gurri: I hope anyway that the thesis in my book can shed some light as to what is actually happening. Then you can still go back to being a republican or a democrat, a liberal or a conservative, but you have to add the added dimension to it.
Robert Wiblin: People might be skeptical that new communications technology could really revolutionize society and politics, but I think that the standard view is that past changes in communications technology have had revolutionary impacts. Like the alphabet made it possible to have big social structures in a way that was much more difficult before. We’ve got the printing press. People think that that caused potentially a lot of conflict within Europe and the Protestant reformation. Then you’ve got radio people I think supported kind of totalitarian social structures because it was kind of from one point you could broadcast to everyone. Do you want to talk a little bit about the history here and why we should maybe expect that the internet could have really revolutionary implications?
Martin Gurri: Yeah. Implications is good. I don’t use the word ‘cause’ because of course every human transition has many, many causes. These are technological changes that enable social and political change. May do it, may not, but the cause obviously may be political, social. It could come from many different directions. At a certain point, it occurred to me that once you look at the many books that have been written on this, the history of communications, there was a certain kind of society that depended on the hieroglyph. China was kind on the same model. You needed mandarins for them or people who have been trained very deeply in how to write this very complex set of symbols so you could actually keep records that then a very top down government, which was not possible until then, could use to maintain order.
Martin Gurri: The alphabet made possible the classical republics, Greece and Rome. You could not have had those republics without a fairly literate public, and you couldn’t have had that without an alphabet. Did the alphabet cause democracy in Athens? No. It just made it possible. It was a technical breakthrough. It was seized by these very brilliant people at that moment in Athens, and turned it to their advantage in the invention of democracy.
Martin Gurri: The printing press, honestly I think was a bigger thing than the internet, than the digital revolution. I think the printing press may have been the biggest because suddenly what had been a very small trickle of written materials became a flood, and if you read a lot of the elites of those days, they sound even more hysterical than the elites of our days. It’s like, what the heck, why are these people writing these books? They don’t know anything about anything, and yet they can publish a book. Well who’s going to stop that? Of course, governments set up these very elaborate censorship mechanisms, but there was always another country somewhere outside that wanted to stick it to that country, and they would set up the printing presses and the material would still make it there.
Martin Gurri: As you say, it didn’t create the scientific revolution. You think about trying to maintain information being conveyed about scientific experiments with handwritten scrolls. That’s just entirely different order of problem than with being published. It enabled that. It enabled the French Revolution. It enabled the American Revolution. It didn’t create any of those things, but it enabled them. It was probably, in my mind, the most revolutionarily turbulent technology change. After that, you had mass media. Mass media came at a moment when, that moment in the industrial age that I keep talking about, hundreds of millions of people entered basically history. What I mean by that is they had lived in their little valleys and their little pockets, and not changed dramatically since the Middle Ages.
Martin Gurri: Suddenly the ideal of equality was made very important, the idea that, there’s several books about this as well, where people from the countryside and from the lower parts of the economic range were made into citizens. They had to be educated. They had to taught certain ideals about who they were or what their politics were supposed to be like, but mass media was a very top down method. It was a very top down method. In the end, it was a “I’m going to educate you” method. I, the expert, will tell you how to behave, and here’s a newspaper with this published in one little place somewhere, but that’s all the news that’s fit to print. You don’t need to look at anything else, here it is.
Martin Gurri: Then you have our current digital model, which is very flat, very fast, very transient. People think that everything, young people who worry that their naked pictures are going to last forever and haunt them in their careers, the things that’s most remarkable about digital information is how transient it is. A lot of it just goes away. The formats change, and when the formats change, whole reams of information goes away. Look around my house and I have disks that look like nothing on earth. I don’t know what would play those disks any more. I have no idea what’s on those disks, it’s gone.
Martin Gurri: This very fast, very transient, allows you to give vent to your opinions in a very fast and very immediate way that now collides with that old mass media, mass industrial way of basically commanding society. Where this is going to go, it’s very early days. I mean the web was late 90s. It seems like it’s been here forever. For you it has been, but for me not so. History works even today when it seems like everything is sped up. I think actually there is some data to show that it really has sped up. Even so, social and political changes work slowly. They work slowly. Where we’re headed with this, I don’t know, but it’s going to be … already I can tell fasten your seat belts, there’s turbulence ahead.
Robert Wiblin: One piece of evidence that you could potentially … use to bolster your argument might be to look at, at the individual level, is that people who are using these new information technologies and absorbing these new sources of information, who are the ones who are most likely to be dissatisfied and distrustful and part of these new political movements? For example, you might sound that say low income people are less likely to use the internet, and perhaps they’re also the least likely to be disillusioned, which would be paradoxical, but would be potentially explained by your thesis.
Martin Gurri: What you just said there is 100% the case. Whether that necessarily … that supports the thesis I think somewhat, but there’s no question that these movements are begun by individuals who are masters of the digital conversation. You don’t get to be that way if you don’t go on a computer, if you don’t have a connectivity. Usually that comes along with some kind of higher education because some of these movements, like Occupy Wall Street, which are really in terms of individuals who joined, it was a very tiny movement. It was huge because it had this online presence, this clever way of 99% versus the 1%. They had a big campaign in which people would show a little card what being part of the 99% meant.
Martin Gurri: They had a resonance way beyond their numbers because it was so brilliant at manipulating the digital conversation. These were all people who were not marginalized. These were mostly college educated individuals.
Robert Wiblin: I’ve seen some evidence that at least for the pro-Trump movement, the people involved were more likely to be using cable news than the news on the internet, or at least relative to people with other political views. I’m not sure how strong that evidence is, perhaps it’s wrong. Do you want to talk a little bit about how, say, cable news fits into this argument? Was that a precursor to the internet that you think it also created similar effects?
Martin Gurri: Yeah. Not just cable news, but satellite. I think that trajectory that I talked about when I was sitting in my analyst chair at CIA watching the global media slowly go crazy, the very first explosion of information was not digital in a sense of the internet. There was no internet yet. It was television. Somehow or another television became kind of like a symbol of a modern country. If you had good television, you were a modern country. If you were a primitive country, then you had what the Egyptians had in 1980, which was two channels that were literally all Mubarak all the time. It was just deadly.
Martin Gurri: A man like Hosni Mubarak, dictator, he wants his country to be modern, so bring in the channels. Bring in the channels. Ten years later there were 400 channels, and you could get almost anything in Cairo that you wanted to in terms of television from anywhere in the world including the state televisions from Libya where it was all Gaddafi all the time. Basically television is probably to this day the most powerful media. One of the really interesting changes that I actually researched some, I wish I had had the time to research more, is the fact that what we call the digital age is in some ways the victory of the image over the printed word. People tend to look at YouTube and television, regular television of many kinds. The Al Jazeeras of the world, for example, had a just tremendous … they said words that have never been heard of on television in many countries.
Martin Gurri: I think, yes, television had and has an enormous impact. I think it’s fracturing as everything else is today. It’s fracturing along many different ways. When you look at the numbers of cable news in the United States, people tend to ascribe demonic powers to Fox News. I mean they hit four million viewers on a really good week. We have 320 million people in this country. That’s not a lot. Of course, MSNBC and CNN are less than that, so if you add them all up together, it’s not very many. Yes, they are part of the package and I think in the Trump era, there seem to be echo-chambers almost to all the noise that’s going on elsewhere, but it’s not a significant player I don’t think.
Robert Wiblin: One are your points that the public is more nihilistic than before, more just against rather than for anything. How sure are we that that’s true? It seems like, for example, Bernie Sanders has quite a significant platform. His supporters like things like Medicare for all. Trump wants to build the wall. He’s got at least some specific policy proposals. He wants to have tariffs on China, that kind of thing. The Brexit people, they were in favor of leaving the EU. That’s a specific policy proposal. I guess you might say it’s more about what they’re against than what they’re for, but that’s often the case with opposition movements in the past I would imagine, that it’s easier to corral people to be against something than to tell them exactly what they’re in favor of.
Robert Wiblin: How do we know that there really has been a shift here?
Martin Gurri: I really do think that all of those examples, the people that joined were very much motivated by what they were against. Very much motivated. Like I said, when you look at what they write, they don’t write about the magnificent Sanders vision for the future. They write about the things that they want to obliterate and to leave behind. There’s a big trail, both digitally and paper, of these people writing about their movements that they have joined. In many cases, from the Indignados and the Yellow Vests, they have nothing they advocate. There really is … You cannot pin them down to say, “Give me one thing that you want done.” They will start spouting things that they would like to happen, but there is none that the entire group has gathered around, and oftentimes they’re very contradictory.
Martin Gurri: I think the tent city protestors in Israel wanted, for example, to abolish tuition and to increase the pay of college professors. You go, “Okay, how’s that going to work out?” It was just like make it a perfect world, is what they would say. My feeling is that they are very much motivated by what they are against. These individuals, like Sanders, provide a vehicle for that. Sanders gives kind of an old time-y socialist face to that negation, but I saw very little in terms of what people were saying on that side and more of what they were saying of what they were trying to change away from.
Robert Wiblin: I guess I’d be very interested to see some case studies of other protest movements in the past and see to what extent they were united by what they were against versus what they were for. I guess, it seems like you might be right, but I suppose I also want … it’s possible the protest movements in the 20s and 30s area also really focused on negation because that’s just easier.
Martin Gurri: I actually, I think you’re right. I remember long, long ago doing a lot of research on Marxist and communist movements and the big names and the ideology, and realizing, having that exact realization is that they were a little sketchy on what was going to happen when they took over, but they were really, really sharply focused on the injustices of the moment. Maybe it’s a human thing. I think in this particular, there isn’t even, in most cases, an elaborated ideology, an elaborated set of programs that stand as, well in the end this is what we want to do. Bear in mind that many of these people, many of these movements are not even interested in taking power. Power to them is corrupt. It’s essentially corrupt. They don’t want to participate in that.
Martin Gurri: They want power to de-corrupt itself in some way that is never explained, and then you get to change the tax or do this or do the other. There’s specific grievances they immediately fasten onto. That would be it.
Robert Wiblin: I guess another oddity, or at least something that seems kind of inconsistent with your theories, I’ve looked at an opinion polling in a wide range of different questions that I’ll stick up links to, and it seems like across a whole bunch of issues, like support for trade, enthusiasm about immigration, attitudes to guns and abortion and levels of taxes, the average level of opinion is actually remarkably stable over the last 10, 20, even 30 years. It’s like most people remain moderately enthusiastic about trade in the U.S. even today when Donald Trump is bashing it and it’s a big political issue, where it didn’t used to be. I think there probably has been a bit more of a splintering where the parties are more polarized than they used to be.
Robert Wiblin: It used to be like 2/3 of people in both the democrats and republicans were mildly portrayed where now it’s like they’ve kind of diverged. How does the stability on public polling on these questions fit with your theory?
Martin Gurri: That’s a good question. I was a young man during the Vietnam War, and consistently, consistently until almost the very end, a majority of young people at that time supported the war, but if you were to say, “What imprinted my generation, the boomers,” it was not the people who sat at home and said, yeah, the survey guy said, “Yeah, I support that.” It was the people who went out to the streets and made a noise. There were many. Let me tell you, I was here in Washington and I would participate in one or two, and you could see we’re all nonconformists. I remember standing in this ocean of blue jeans. My now wife who was then my girlfriend said, “Look at us. We’re all identically dressed.”
Robert Wiblin: We’re all nonconformists now.
Martin Gurri: Millions of nonconformists all wearing blue jeans. There was maybe a million at that particular one. That’s what defined my generation. It defined who we are. The people who had the poll numbers are forgotten today, and I think there is a difference between what people feel and think and what the events of the day are. I think what I’m talking about is events. Sometimes the events fly in the face of even the reality. There’s a whole lot of talk, for example, about how globalisation is driving a lot of the discontent and basically elected Trump. I mean look at our unemployment numbers. They’re wonderful unemployment numbers. I have lived through much worse.
Martin Gurri: You look at education numbers, you look at life expectancy, and every group, and the ones improving the most to be the ones at the bottom or the ones that have been marginalized. If you wanted to say this is the best of all possible worlds, you can say that, but nobody’s saying that. Nobody is saying that. They say the opposite. It’s the worst. They are basically out in the streets and they have seized the stage.
Martin Gurri: I think the age is going to be defined not by the good economic numbers but by the people who are saying, “We don’t like what’s going on.”
Robert Wiblin: I guess one synthesis would be that the median person might feel pretty similar, but the people who are influencing the perceptions are the 5% of 15% who are like most dissatisfied and most vocal and their attitudes have shifted quite a bit.
Martin Gurri: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Their ability to communicate has changed quite a lot.
Martin Gurri: Yes. I think that the number of people who can participate has changed dramatically. The way that they participate has changed dramatically, and eventually the Clay Shirky self-assembly, you can push a button on your laptop and the next day you are one of tens of thousands demonstrating with people who you have never met before. How could that have been possible 35 years ago? It could not have been. Today it’s a pretty common occurrence.
Robert Wiblin: I’m curious what evidence do you think would refute your view or maybe what are the best arguments you could come up with if you were trying to challenge the perspective that you’re proposing?
Martin Gurri: Well I mean if you had a respect, a public respect for the institutions that run our lives or that frame our lives, if you within the institutions themselves had that, I don’t know what to call it, but sense of sporting fair play where you are no long a resistance really, you are the loyal opposition, for example, if the pitch of our politics were not so apocalyptic, were more institutional, more policy driven, more like it used to be, and if whenever the president spoke there would tend to be a gathering behind him and saying, “Well okay, let’s listen to what he’s got to say,” when all these things begin to happen, you will know that my thesis was completely false.
Martin Gurri: Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, but yes, the industrial world had a moment and it was a moment where hundreds of millions of people basically entered history, so it was not like you could say it was an anti-democratic moment, it just was democracy at a very different model than what we have today, and that has lasted in some form until this day, but our social model is a lot flatter. We can get a date at the click of a button. I wish I were a young man today. It’s a lot easier than it used to be. You can buy a car at the click of a button, but if you want a passport, you got to take weeks. If you want a building permit, you probably have to wait years. If you go to an ER room, it takes you a day to get looked at.
Martin Gurri: The institutions seem to be moving at a different pace of response than the public is used to in its social and commercial existence. That social and commercial existence I think has created certain expectations of government that may well be utopian. I don’t know. Probably are, but they are there. I expect the government to treat me the way that Amazon does, which is when I want something they give me, oh yeah, you like that, here’s something else you might like, and not like take a line and go through the metal detector and take off your hat and salute, knuckle your forehead at me, salute me and wait your turn. We’re not used to that. That was the industrial way of being. The people at the top got respect, the people below them got respect by the people below, and those of us who are at the very bottom then respected everybody and accepted what they said.
Martin Gurri: It worked as long as they could maintain the … basically command the conversation. They had the information available to us came from them.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any countries that you find hard to fit in your theory, where you’re like, “Ooh, maybe this is a counter-example or maybe there’s obviously other dynamics going on and this is an example of something that’s not what I would have predicted?”
Martin Gurri: Less that than China, I just wish I knew more about what’s going on in there because China has a gigantic online, probably the largest online presence in the world. Very active, very clever. There are all kinds of clever ways at which they get around, all their limitations, but also a whole lot of self-censorship, a whole lot of probably thinking that the government that they have, while pretty terrible in some ways, has made prosperity possible and not wanting to play with that. I don’t know. China is one that perplexes me a little bit. I’d like to think it’s because there is not enough knowledge, certainly I don’t have enough knowledge and I’ve looked somewhat. I’m not a Chinese expert though, and I can’t read the language.
Martin Gurri: Keep an eye on China. They just strike me as kind of an anomaly in some ways.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess one country that I feel is a little bit in tension with the model that you’re putting forward is actually Spain, which you talk about a whole bunch. I feel like there was a lot of street protests, a lot of anger, but the magnitude of the recession that they had and its persistence was incredible. Unemployment there peaked at 26%. Youth unemployment was approaching 50%. It seems like not too surprising that there would be some outcry there. Yet, it seemed to die away and policy and politics there overall seems to have remained remarkably sensible. We currently still have a center-right party in place. Given the magnitude of what people went through, it’s kind of surprising that there wasn’t a larger revolutionary change or there wasn’t more dissatisfaction.
Robert Wiblin: I think there was two big new parties that appeared, Podemos and [inaudible 01:05:28].
Martin Gurri: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: To be honest, I’m certainly no Spain expert, but they both seemed kind of like sensible parties to me, certainly within the realm of normal opinion. I’m kind of curious to know, do you think that Spain maybe isn’t like the archetypal case?
Martin Gurri: I did a lot of research on Spain. Number one a lot of those numbers were on a very high base. It was always a lot of youth unemployment in Spain, way higher than anywhere else in the EU. Number two, the protests happened in 2011. That was three years after the crisis. Number three, I’ve been in Spain since, it looks pretty damn prosperous to me. That could be a superficial impression, but the statistics are it’s back to where it was before 2008. My sense of the Indignados in 2008 was part of it, but was not a leading part. The political system that they had, which my interpretation of it in the book is that it was very fragmented with a lot of local authority and then a lot of EU authority in terms of the currency.
Martin Gurri: The central government actually was squeezed from the top and from the bottom, and so the two main parties, the socialists and the conservatives, had to more or less agree on the big picture, and they did. They disagreed about social policy and whether to be in the Iraq War, but mainly they agreed about the EU. They agreed about the euro. They agreed about capitalism. They agreed about democracy. To the people who took the streets in 2011, that looked like collusion. That looked like these people basically are profiting. There’s no difference. There really was very little between one group or another. There is no listening to us and to our pain, and there was some economic pain, no question about that, but I always feel in these movements that hit the street there is a sense of listen to us. You see that really strongly in the Yellow Vests.
Martin Gurri: I think the Indignados were probably the most that had the sense of nobody who claims to represent us actually does. One of their mottos was “You don’t represent me.” You may be my representative, but you don’t represent me. I am not anti-system. They were full of clever slogans. “I am not anti-system, the system is anti-me,” they said. There was a sense that nobody was listening to them. There was that sense of distance and failure at the top. I think that was a bigger motivator. I think that 2008 was part of the failure, no question about that, but I don’t think that was the main driver. You would have expected the trouble to have started in 2008, 2009. It took three years.
Martin Gurri: It started with a flash and it ended with a dribble, as these things tend to.
Robert Wiblin: I guess another point you make is that it’s surprising that people who are participating in the protests who were relatively well off by Spanish standards were not more appreciative of the enormous progress that Spain had made over the 40 years since Franco fell in 1975, that Spain had actually really pushed ahead, become quite a wealthy country. I think one of the longest lived in the world.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. In 2011, the average person in Spain, they average young person in Spain, was better off and had more freedom and had more social openness than I would say any previous time in their history. They were a privileged generation. Yeah, they’d been hit on the jaw by 2008 and unemployment was not what it should have been and there was a housing issue. It was not a perfect world, but you had people, as I show in the book, some of these Indignados saying, “Our parents, they were happy just because they could vote for a government. We’re of the first generation that isn’t grateful for that.” You’d go, “Well where are you going with this? Where would you be going? If you’re not grateful for voting for democratic government, what is it exactly that you would put in its place?”
Martin Gurri: Of course, they never even remotely attempted to discuss that.
Robert Wiblin: Tyler Cowen wanted me to ask are people also more disillusioned now with sports heroes and actors? That seems like your theory would also predict that, but it wouldn’t just be disillusion with politics but also just with kind of all prominent figures. Is that the case, and if not, why not?
Martin Gurri: That’s a hard thing to measure. I’ll give you a very speculative answer, but I actually believe this. I believe that if I could research it I could prove it probably. I think part of the ethos of this public that tends to build around certain events is a very, very profound cynicism that goes with the anger. It’s always assuming the worst of your opponent. That is, as you know, the internet mode, right? There is no internet discussion about politics that’s halfway salient that doesn’t end with somebody threatening somebody’s life. It’s just amazing how that happens.
Martin Gurri: I would say that we look for those things that in the people who are rich and famous, which demean them, bring them down to our level. Formerly, people were very different. As I said before, we used to talk about George Washington being honest and so forth. Watch two movies. It’s not just the actors and not just sports figures, which of course today we know way too much about them. In the old days we knew hardly anything and so we could fantasize. Today, part of the information tsunami is these people are out there almost usually literally naked to the world. Watch two movies in succession. I did this at one point. One is called Young [Tom] Edison and it is Mickey Rooney, of all people, I don’t even know if you know who he is.
Martin Gurri: He was very well known in his day, little guy. He was very young then. He played the young Tom Edison. It was essentially this little guy who came from nowhere and persevered and it ends with still his being young. He’s not famous yet, but you can tell he’s going to be famous because he’s got these wonderful qualities in him. Then after that watch The Social Network, which is almost the exact same story. This guy from nowhere goes to Harvard, comes up with this thing and suddenly he’s a billionaire. Except he becomes a billionaire by being a jerk. Now you might want to say whatever you want about the quality, the actual personal qualities of Edison versus Zuckerberg, but what we’re looking for, what we look for is he’s a jerk. He’s no better than I am.
Martin Gurri: People we’re looking for back in I think it was the 30s, maybe the 40s when that movie was made of Edison, was somebody to admire, somebody to look up to, somebody that had qualities that I could model myself on. I think today, we as part of the internet culture, which is everything ends in a death threat, we tend to be very cynical and, yeah, we know too much and we’re too cynical I would say. That’s the long answer, and I can’t prove it, but I bet you if I researched that I could.
Robert Wiblin: I guess one difference is that sports heroes don’t exercise authority on the same degree, so there’s perhaps less need to resent them. Another question that Tyler has was he pointed out that Ethiopia, and I guess some other countries as well, banned the internet in most of the country outside of the capital city for quite a long time, and that’s a policy that was recently changed. What do you think, was there a certain wisdom to this, at least from some people’s perspective?
Martin Gurri: Well if you want to hold onto power, maybe. I don’t know. Hosni Mubarak, to go back to Egypt, of course in his moment of panic, switched out the internet. It was too late for him there. In the book, I make it pretty clear that although there is a certain usefulness in talking about old media and new media and the internet and newspapers or whatever, in fact what we were exposed to, what that tsunami is is all those things together, it’s what I call the information sphere. The information sphere, you have to be at North Korea levels of control to keep out. Even the Cubans can’t keep it out anymore.
Martin Gurri: I don’t know Ethiopia. I can’t tell whether they are at those levels of either underdevelopment or political repression, but I can guarantee you that if somebody has a dish in Ethiopia, they can get a lot of information and it’s not going to stay in one place. The internet is one thing, the information sphere is another. Information sphere is very redundant. It’s beyond the power of any government to keep out unless you want to impose North Korea levels of repression. The idea of keeping out the internet, I think I wrote you an email, when I was posted to Paraguay with the U.S. government, I arrived there and the Paraguayan senate was debating very furiously whether the internet was a good thing or a bad thing.
Martin Gurri: I mean to an outsider like me, that was astounding. Paraguay at that time probably to some extent even now, was a very isolated country, not very well off. There were not any public libraries there. There were very few bookstores. Those little newspapers were not of tremendously high quality. Information was hard to get at. Suddenly you had the possibility of opening this immense world, access to every Paraguayan citizen who could afford a connection to the world of information that had been denied to them before. Why would you not do it? That was one of the first moments where it clicked in my head, “Oh wait, these are not the people who would have access. These are the people who are in charge of the government and they’re asking themselves what’s going to happen if we say yes, you can have all this information?”
Martin Gurri: I thought that was kind of an interesting insight. They did do the right thing and allow internet. I had internet the two years I was there, but the fact that they debated it pretty furiously, I thought, was very interesting.
Robert Wiblin: In the book, you make an impressive effort to be descriptive rather than normative, to try to actually understand what’s happening before you pass judgment on it. I’m curious to know, do you think overall we’re better off for these changes? What are some of the places we’ve gained?
Martin Gurri: I had an aunt who always said she wanted to live in the Middle Ages and she was very unhappy with the modern world. I never understood people like that. I think all the changes, when you add them all up it’s hard to say good or bad, but the wonderfulness of what has changed, the ability to communicate across the world, you and I are doing so right now in a way that would have just completely freaked me out 10, 15 years ago. The amounts of information about places that are not necessarily salient to important people or to important media, you cannot access information about anywhere in the world, the communications. Four billion got on an airplane in the year 2017 and flew somewhere. That is not the way things used to be. Only rich people were able to afford that in the old days.
Martin Gurri: I think good or bad, you have to be able to make a judgment. You want a personal judgment from me, I think I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t turn the dial back one second. I think this is all … we have to learn how to deal with this. We have to learn how to live in the world that we have created, and the book I hope describes that world very crisply and provides a few hints as to how we can live that way without tearing each other apart in a fairly pointless manner I think.
Robert Wiblin: I want to spend a bit of time now thinking about what implications this has for our listeners who overwhelmingly are interested in using their career and their lives to improve the world. It seems like one obvious implication that occurred to me is that it seems like this is a glorious time, is what you want to do is try to stop things from happening. That it’s maybe hard to put forward a constructive agenda, but if you’re interested in influencing politics to just prevent something, then it’s like easy to corral people to negate things. Perhaps there’s some really good opportunities here. There’s bad things that are happening and you can go in and start a movement to stop them much more easily than before. Would you agree with that?
Martin Gurri: Yeah, I think that’s a statement of fact. I think that’s correct. I would just be a contrarian there and say I actually think what’s needed is the opposite of that. I think what’s needed and I think people who are just now starting on their career have a chance to do it if they want to adapt our institutions, to the actual world we’re living in, is learn to talk in a language that can’t be falsified almost immediately. Learn to talk in careful terms of we think we can do this or we hope we can do this. We can try this or then we can try that. This is all very unglamorous. Very unglamorous. If you can say, “My gosh, I’ve got the ultimate solution or I’m so against you that I’m going to lead the demonstration of a million people and I’m going to eliminate this tax or whatever,” that’s a lot more glamorous.
Martin Gurri: That’s not what we need. That’s happening right now, and in the end, it leads to a dead end. It leads to nihilism.
Robert Wiblin: I think a lot of listeners will be involved in the policy conversation, many of them may go into politics themselves. I think you say in the book, the reformers of democracy must learn to say out loud for all to hear. This is a process of trial and error and we’re uncertain about the consequences, and even I was wrong, which is very difficult for politicians to do these days.
Martin Gurri: Impossible.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess how can we get to a point where people view the system and politicians as legitimate and respectable, given just the competitive pressures against being honest about the limits of your power and knowledge, that they currently make it so hard to say those things?
Martin Gurri: If you think of politicians, of the elites as being an entirely different species from yourself, then almost everything they do you can dismiss and say, “Well that’s them, this is not me.” What we need obviously is for elites to behave the way they behaved before they became elites. What we need for them is for the public and the elites to feel like they belong to the same tribe. For that, the people that are part of your audience, who hopefully many of them will become elites, need to rehearse their humility. Humility is a hard art to learn, I’ve always found. I’ve found that the older I get, the more humble I become. I knew everything when I was about 30 and I know nothing right now.
Martin Gurri: I basically can support some arguments, but I feel like there is so much that is perplexing. We can’t stop life to figure everything out. Life is not a laboratory. It has to be addressed as it is, and therefore there’s a lot of ignorance built into every decision that gets made. That gets washed out of the discussion somehow. The rhetoric is certain. The reality is uncertain. Well I think if we start to bring some of that, which is really more of a scientific approach, the humility and uncertainty to political discourse, you will find fewer people will say, “Well you promised us this and you completely failed. You said that you could do it but you couldn’t. You promised this gigantic thing and instead you gave us a mess.”
Martin Gurri: This seems to happen all the time. That change is a generational change, number one, and it’s an institutional change. I honestly think the elites we have in charge right now are not capable of doing it. You look at their behavior and you go, “These guys like it the way it is. They like the metal detecting machines. They like the bodyguard. They like the limos.” That’s what being an elite is all about for them, but that puts them at another species from the public. We need people for whom all of that is not necessary and who go back to being what … I mean let’s face it, it wasn’t that long ago that going into government meant serving national interests, serving some particular ideology, some particular set of beliefs. You’re hard pressed to understand what the beliefs other than just stamped out, right, left, conservative, liberal, what the beliefs are of these people that are in front of our cameras all the time.
Martin Gurri: They’re basically consume the conversation, the political conversation. I would say, if you’re young, the easy path is what you said. There was a Charlie Chaplin movie where a truck with a red flag at the end drops a red flag and he runs up to the truck showing it and then he turns a corner and then like a Charlie Chaplin movie, suddenly there’s like a million people behind him. They were in some kind of demonstration. He’s waving the red flag. He looks like he’s some kind of radical leader waving his red flag. That’s very easy to do. Basically if you want to be against, you can wave your red flag and you can probably get an audience.
Martin Gurri: I think the hard thing to do, the courageous thing to do is to look in the eye what we really know and what we can really say. If you’re proposing certain policy changes or directions, what you can say and you can say, “Well I think, I believe, but these are the possibilities.” Assume that the public is as intelligent as you are. That is an assumption that is never made, or rarely made. Be humble in what you propose. Phrase it in such a way that it doesn’t sound like you have a mathematical solution when it’s really a human condition.
Robert Wiblin: Sounds like you’re saying if listeners want to go into politics, they should try to be like really authentically an ordinary person who talks to voters all the time and isn’t a world apart and they speak the language of voters and they don’t view themselves as better than everyone else. That’s a part that’s both likely to be healthier for democracy and also potentially successful for them, and that might give them the discretion to be able to say things like, “I don’t honestly know the answer to this,” whereas currently I guess elites are just expected to promise the world.
Martin Gurri: If you look at how authority works online versus how authority works in the industrial model, it’s very different. The industrial model, you get it, and once you get it you have it. You’re at the top of some hierarchy and you have this authority and it’s given to you because of who you are. Online it’s every day. If you have a person you look online that connects you to stuff that you find interesting, if he has a bad week, you’re not looking at that guy anymore, if he gives you bad links that you don’t like … Every day, you have to say …
Robert Wiblin: You have to earn it.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, you have to earn it every day. I think our politicians are going to have to learn that lesson. We are now in that kind of digital world where you have to earn it. Yeah, I think the young in particular will play a big role in this because my sense of it is if there’s a model for the elites of the generation in charge right now, and some of those are boomers, many of them are GenXers, it’s Harvey Weinstein. It’s a guy like that, a person who basically is self-inflated with feelings of how virtuous he is while he’s doing horrible things in secret. Everybody knew it, everybody knew he was doing this and nobody said a thing. That kind of confirms all the conspiracy theorists that there is all this horrible corruption at the top and that they all are protecting each other.
Martin Gurri: I think there probably is a little bit of truth to that, but that image has got to be overtaken by an “I’m not some big mogul. I’m not a big powerful politician. I’m a citizen, like everybody else, who happens to be serving the public.”
Robert Wiblin: Are there any countries or parties or people who you think are pushing things forward and finding good ways to make politics work in this new era?
Martin Gurri: I think I pointed to Estonia. It’s probably an unfair thing to do the poor Estonians because they’re such a small country, but Estonia has digitized their politics and their public life to a pretty astounding degree. For example, every Estonian citizen owns his own public information. Everything that is known … there’s one set… part of what drives people crazy, whatever institution you go to, they ask you the same questions over and over again. You give all of this information, and they keep their set and the next institution will be different. If it’s state or if it’s local or if it’s government or it’s this side of the government or that side of the government, you have to be put through this “Who are you and why should I care” process.
Martin Gurri: In Estonia, you have one set of information. You can do any number of things including voting online, and it’s a country of about a million people. You could probably do that, and I live in Fairfax County, Virginia and that’s got a population of about 1.2 million. You could probably do that in Fairfax County, Virginia. Whether Virginia itself could do it is a question, the United States? I’ve sat in the bureaucracy of the United States government. You have no idea how the digital structure is alien to it. It just doesn’t know what to do with it. Simply, it looks at it and it wants to be. It’s not even like it’s repelled by it. We have to be just like the private sector, we have to be just like Google. They just kind of smash into a wall trying to do it. They have no idea what they’re doing.
Martin Gurri: Start small. Start at the local level, maybe the state level for some of the smaller states. You can get closer to that social and commercial reality and your political reality, and I think Estonia has done that to some degree.
Robert Wiblin: At 80,000 Hours and effective altruism in general, we’re very concerned about the long term future of humanity, which means that we care about potential catastrophes like war between the U.S. and China or a nuclear war, whether accidental or deliberate. I guess also we’re concerned about really bad political outcomes like some kind of dictatorship. How do you feel like the revolt of the public, does it make those things more likely or less likely? It’s a tough question.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, this is totally speculative, but okay, I’ll tackle it because I think the book addresses it to some extent. In the old democracies, and you can make a different case for newer democracies like Turkey and Venezuela and so forth, but in the old democracies I would say the revolt of the public makes authoritarianism almost impossible. What you have is the opposite. You have state organizations, state institutions weakened to a great degree disintegrating to a great degree, even literally so in some countries like Britain where Scotland wants to break off, and in Spain the Catalans want to break off.
Martin Gurri: Even within the mainstream country, there is a fragmentation of politics. You mentioned Spain. Spain needs to be basically bipolar like we are. Democrats, republicans, they have socialists and conservatives. Now after every election, there’s a pause of months sometimes trying to figure out who the heck gets a government. Nobody knows. There are so many parties. The idea of an authoritarian government is to me very unlikely. What I worry about is that nihilism. If you want to see the most extreme version of nihilism in power, look at ISIS. People who were basically there because they were in revolt against the modern world as it appeared to them, but these were very modern people. These were not primitive people. These were a lot of young people who are very internet savvy and many of them highly educated, but they hated history.
Martin Gurri: There’s a pervasive thread throughout The Revolt of the Public, is looking at history not as a store of lessons or a store of memories that the human race has accumulated, but as basically the origin of all bad things, the origin of repressions, the origin of defeat. The origins of a lack of authenticity. If you’re ISIS, you’re out to basically eradicate history. You do that by basically killing a lot of people. You have very little in the way of a positive program, very little in the way of an ideology, hardly any organization. They had a caliph, al-Baghdadi, and his speeches are very enlightening because they’re just rants about history, but they hardly had an organization. They were just there to bash, to bash at the world as it is today. Many, many hundreds of thousands of people have died in the circumstance.
Martin Gurri: You want to worry about something that the revolt to the public may trigger, it’s that. We get that in little. We get the person who you have the internet ranter who does the death threat, and at a certain point that person crosses over from the virtual to the real, picks up a gun and for no particular reason, even though he may have some little ideological reason, but for no particular reason starts shooting innocent people and killing them.
Robert Wiblin: The risk is more chaos than totalitarianism.
Martin Gurri: That is my fear.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any particular view on what this is going to do to international relations? Will it make it harder for countries to cooperate and avoid conflict?
Martin Gurri: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Honesty I think what it’s going to do is create an inward, much more of an inward looking. I think international relations are going to become far less important than they have been since World War II and certainly since the end of the Cold War. I think you can see it now. Countries are turning inward. There’s kind of a people score points off of each other for inward politics. That’s what you have now is everybody’s internal politics and their foreign politics are part of the same, so Macron gets to give a speech about how nationalism is not patriotism in front of Trump who had just said he was a nationalist, and then when the demonstrations hit the street in Paris, Trump is gloating about it on his Twitter stream.
Martin Gurri: Each is trying to basically pose to his domestic audience by taking this stand in the foreign policy. I think we’re going to probably be … this is off the cuff. I haven’t thought about it all that much, but I think it’s probably going to be a much more inward, much less outward oriented role until we work out how to survive the new digital age in terms of our politics.
Robert Wiblin: You’re a busy guy and we’ve been talking for a while, so I’ve got to let you go in a minute, but perhaps just to wrap up, would you like to paint a vision for how the future could go well and maybe give a bit of a call to arms for listeners to contribute to it?
Martin Gurri: I think, as I say, many of the individuals involved in a lot of these circumstances are not only good and dedicated and brave, but noble individuals. I think the change in a strange way is in a way seems to be very simple, and that’s usually the hardest thing to do, which is in looking at the other side of this great divide of the public and the elites and seeing humanity on the other side and seeing validity on the other side, because until that happens it’s going to be very hard to, number one, avoid these eruptions from below, and number two, avoid these populists who basically straddle the divide and appeal to one side or the other.
Martin Gurri: I think that change can happen. Like I said, it’s a generational change. I think if you can flatten the pyramid the way that Estonia has done, structurally flatten the pyramid, I think you can have a new generation of elites who are conscious of being citizens, conscious of being just ordinary people who happen to have achieved an extraordinary end and who treat the rest of us in a way that we find “Yeah, this guy could be my next door neighbor, only he’s the president or he’s my senator.” Our politicians used to be very good at this. I don’t know what’s happened. The politicians have run a circle around each other, and they seem to want to impress each other more than they want to appeal to the public. This is not a hard thing to do. This generation of elites seemed to have lost the knack.
Martin Gurri: It’s going to be younger people, and so then at that point you open up the possibility of having this digital expansion of government where you can flatten, you can for example, you can poll the public about their opinions about any number of policy issues before you pass a law. You can post laws online in different versions and have the public comment on them. If it doesn’t end in death threats and if it doesn’t end on the kind of polarized extreme violent language that it does today, you have flattened the government to a place where it is far closer to the people. There is no reason why that can’t happen. That will be, alas Rob, your generation’s burden.
Robert Wiblin: The book is The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, and my guest today has been Martin Gurri. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast Martin.
Martin Gurri: It’s been fun.
Round table transcript
Robert Wiblin: All right, so I’ve got Keiran and Michelle, my colleagues here to share their reactions to the episode. Did you have any strong views about it?
Keiran Harris: My first impression of this episode was that I thought, well my main criticism was, which I’ve already said to Rob, but I thought that an alternative timeline Rob that had never heard of EA could have recorded this episode. He could have given most of the pushback. So when Rob’s asking about different examples about Spain and Canada and China, I felt like it was never actually tied to our questions. I’m biased about this because I write most of the EA related questions, but I felt like I always wanted it to be tied back into how does this actually relate to us? What are the implications for us? We had a section going into this, what are the implications for do-gooders? If we accept Gurri’s thesis about creating this new elite class, is that going to be us? And if it’s us, what are we going to do about it?
Keiran Harris: Should we be thinking in terms of positioning ourselves as becoming intellectual elites or would that actually put people off to the point where we couldn’t actually achieve any of our political goals?
Robert Wiblin: You’re meant to be critiquing Martin Gurri here, Keiran, not critiquing my performance. But I’ll take it.
Keiran Harris: I mainly view this as a critique of you.
Robert Wiblin: Finally you get your chance to air your grievances on the show. I think it’s a good point. I guess I was very interested in digging down into whether this is a persuasive story, whether this is actually the right model for thinking about things. Because I read the book twice preparing for the interview, and it’s influenced how I see all these things. I’m now starting to apply this model when I ever notice people complaining about how their country’s being governed and taking to the streets. And I worry that maybe it’s too much, that I’m giving too much weight to this particular way of seeing things. Because it’s not … I’m worried that it’s too easy to create a narrative for this, to create a story that explains things when you’re able to elaborate on it a lot.
Robert Wiblin: Unless you actually look for all of the cases where the model fits the data in a particular country, but you also look for all of the cases where the model doesn’t fit the data that you’re seeing and try to see how strong is actually the fit. Then you can just end up … it’s too easy to spin any story, and it could be right or wrong, but it’s going to sound kind of compelling. That’s I guess why I was pushing back on that.
Why was the argument persuasive?
Keiran Harris: You mentioned that you found this quite persuasive in changing your views. What aspects of his argument did you find the most persuasive?
Robert Wiblin: I guess the description of how these nihilistic or protest movements seem to operating internally. What drives the people and how they’re coordinating. It does seem to fit that data relatively well. Also, the mystery of why is it that we’re seeing these particular protest movements that we didn’t before at a time when things seemed to be going fairly well. It provides and alternative explanation for why you see so much discontent that doesn’t require you to say, “Well, conditions are objectively worse than they used to be,” which they don’t seem to be.
Troubled by not seeing similar movements in Canada / Australia?
Keiran Harris: How troubled are you by the fact that we don’t see similar movements in, as you said in the podcast, in Canada and Australia?
Robert Wiblin: It’s definitely not great for the theory. I suppose it would be more compelling if you were seeing this in more places where things are going fine. I guess Martin’s approach is to say, “Well, maybe they will in the future.” This creates the possibility of these protest movements taking off, but it doesn’t necessarily say that they will in every particular case. You need a spark and perhaps a somewhat chaotic, chancy event.
Robert Wiblin: Another synthesis that I thought of after the episode was that in most other ways, the world seems to be becoming more stable and more boring. As people get older, conditions become more pleasant, so people are less likely to revolt. You might think all else equal, the world would’ve become more boring, there would be fewer protest movements, less instability in politics. I guess Martin’s model potentially explains why it hasn’t gone to zero even in these relatively wealthy countries. It’s explaining what’s left, in as much as we do have protest movements, this is kind of the nature of them, that they’re based on people feeling totally unimpressed with their leaders because they’ve got access to more information.
Robert Wiblin: All things considered, if you looked at the entire model, you might not say it’s going to cause an increase in the total number of protests everywhere in the world. But this will explain the ones that are left.
Michelle Hutchinson: I thought the timing question was something that you didn’t touch on that seemed interesting to me. It might somewhat answer the question of why aren’t we seeing these in Canada and Australia, because it seemed like a lot of the changes he was talking about happened in the early 2000s, but then all the protest movements were actually in 2011. It seemed like it took a while for this actually to happen. I guess the thing I’d been assuming was going on there was something more like this created the conditions where this might happen. He seemed really clear that he wanted to say this is just creating the conditions rather than actually being causal.
Michelle Hutchinson: In which case you might think that they set each other off. It seems pretty clear in the case of the Arab Spring, one of them happened, that’s what led to other ones. You might just think that, well, it took quite a few years from these changes in the early 2000s for this to actually happen, and these things are going to happen as well in other countries, and it’s not something you should expect to happen at a really frequent pace. Maybe it superficially looks like you’d expect it to happen at a quick pace, but actually that’s just because several of these set each other off. Then maybe we should expect another spate of them, but not for 10 years or something.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess that sounds right. I suppose on the question of timing, it’s hard to know exactly what this model should predict in saying when should we see this uptick in discontent, because it’s been a somewhat continuous, exponential growth in the number of information sources that people have access to, such that there’s not really a sudden one year where suddenly the Internet was switched on and everyone had access to everything, but before they didn’t.
Robert Wiblin: It’s just more and more people getting online and cable news came before that, which was fewer sources of information but still potentially a big increase on what people had access to before. That makes it a bit harder to get a great identification condition as a statistician might think, because it’s just, well, one of these is going up, the other one is also potentially changing continuously. But it could be many things that are driving that. Which isn’t to say that the theory is wrong at all. It just means that it’s going to be harder to definitely attribute the changes in one thing to changes in another.
Implications for us
Keiran Harris: Getting back to the implications for us. Let’s assume that the thesis was correct. I pulled out a key quote. Gurri said, “Assume that the public is as intelligent as you are. That is an assumption that is never made or rarely made.” Gurri talks throughout the episode about this new class of elite, this legitimate class rising up and we were trying to get into what that actually meant, which I think is a bit blurry. But if it did look something like us, if it was that we were taking positions of power, people like us, how do we actually deal with these questions that are posed? Would a public revolt against us in the same ways if we used tactics that we thought would work today, or would we actually try and build a framework where we can be honest and we can say, “Yes, we actually do think we have better information. We think we do have an answer to this question”?
Robert Wiblin: I suppose the Trump phenomenon makes me wonder whether people might enjoy it as an interesting break from the way that politicians usually address you. It seems like you can get away with a lot more interesting and insulting messages as long as you seem like an authentic person and you’re owning the whole thing and not seeming fake.
Keiran Harris: That’s right.
Robert Wiblin: I don’t know whether we’ve seen many people try that approach. Do we really have any authentic technocrats or something who go out and they’re a technocrat of the people or something like that?
Keiran Harris: I mean, I suppose-
Robert Wiblin: It’s difficult to …
Keiran Harris: The closest might be Macron in getting elected.
Robert Wiblin: Okay.
Keiran Harris: But still, not quite. You don’t get the impression that he’s really being himself.
Robert Wiblin: You don’t get the impression that he heads down to the pub, either.
Keiran Harris: No, exactly, yeah. But again, if he doesn’t head down to the pub, then being authentic is to admit that, is to say, “I don’t head down to the pub, but that’s actually okay and maybe in a leader you don’t want that.” And maybe that kind of just being blatantly honest, being just embracing who you actually are, is that a positive, to be genuinely authentic, or is it always this game where you’re trying to appear authentic?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess, I think it would be worth more people trying the authentic route. If only ’cause it seems like that’s something that the public is hankering for and there’s enough randomness in this entire process that … and it’s also so much better as a politician, so much nicer when you get elected to actually be able to be yourself, and to actually state your real opinions rather than constantly putting on a façade.
Keiran Harris: That’s a really good point.
Robert Wiblin: And in as much as it only lowers your chance of getting elected more moderately, but then you can actually be more sincere and you don’t have to be acting and double thinking about everything you’re saying all the time. Maybe it’s just worth more people taking that shot.
Keiran Harris: I think that would also potentially create better long term incentives for people to go into politics, because at the moment we have this issue where most people win in politics, and not people who we would think of as our best and brightest. The most talented young people tend to go into other professions. If you had the opportunity to go into politics and really be yourself and you didn’t have this impression that you had to play a game, it was really just going in, representing people, and doing the best for them within your own framework for what you think is actually best and being authentic, I think it might be quite appealing.
Michelle Hutchinson: Maybe. I can imagine it being more pressured filled as well, because you might think that right now you aren’t going to have to open up your full self to the whole world, whereas I’d imagine you’d just feel hugely vulnerable if you were trying to actually show your entire self to everyone in the whole country.
How would this thesis affect our career advice?
Keiran Harris: Do you have views for how this thesis, again, if we accepted it, would impact our career advice for the people who wanted to go into government?
Robert Wiblin: I suppose there’s an obvious answer which suggests that people shouldn’t go into government as much because in as much as listeners to the show are very unrepresentative of the general public in their policy preferences or style, then they’re contributing to this problem of the government not being seen as legitimate, not being seen as representative. Or at least [inaudible 00:10:20] people should be more compromises between their ideal policies which might be focused on helping foreigners who are non voters. Just like voters or constituents in a particular area.
Keiran Harris: Or that would go against his dream of having this new elite class rise up and be authentic.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it just seems tricky. Let’s say that your main policy priority was improving foreign aid. It just seems very hard to get elected on a platform that’s mostly focused on helping people who can’t vote. So, that’s one reason that, because we’re focused on helping groups that are so disadvantaged that they don’t have any say in the political system, like farmed animals, or foreigners, or people who don’t exist yet. That’s one way where it’s very hard to go out and build a popular movement around these causes. That’s kind of an underlying challenge.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose we could compromise on that and say, “Well, no, we actually are gonna focus on things that help voters and … current day voters, ’cause that will allow us to be more in touch and not contribute to this problem as severely.” But it might just be outweighed by other factors.
Michelle Hutchinson: I guess my feeling is that he indicates that now is a particularly non tractable time to go into politics, because you have these kind of two groups of stakeholders where you have the existing elites for whom you have to talk in a particular way and play the certain game, and then also you have the public, which are likely to try and cut down these elites, so you have to talk in a totally different way and about totally different issues in order to get them on board, and that it was much easier either in the past when you could just fit into the existing elite, or potentially in the future when you actually do have this new understanding of what elite should look like or something. So, it indicates that we’re at a time of history where you in particular should think that it’s difficult to go into politics, you’re gonna be able to get less done than either in history or in the future. I don’t know if I agree with him on that, but it seems to be a [inaudible 00:12:11] of his argument.
Robert Wiblin: This Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC has been, I’m not sure whether you’ve been following this one, but in the last month or two, she does seem to have been living out the approach that Martin seems enthusiastic about where she just got elected basically just promoting exactly her views, whether you think they’re good policy ideas or not. She’s extremely direct and certainly not at the center of the political spectrum, and also just on a personal … She just seems to be an extremely authentic person all the time. She’s Snapchatting her induction to the congress. She’s constantly just tweeting, making fun of the people who are criticizing her in the same way that probably I would. So, it does seem like there is a potential approach to doing that.
Robert Wiblin: I guess she may have gotten lucky in the primary fight in that seat where it seemed like the incumbent was particularly out of touch and particular uninterested in appealing to voters there. But nonetheless, she’s doing extremely well taking this approach.
Pinning down traits
Michelle Hutchinson: I feel like we’re not quite pinning down what traits it is that we’re talking about, because we’re kind of talking about it as if being an authentic person means tweeting a whole bunch and using things like Snapchat, when presumably for a lot of existing elites, it’s actually just pretty authentic for them to be relatively reserved and spend most of their time, maybe they don’t really like tech. Maybe they are more kind of slowly thoughtful or something rather than putting out a lot of content quickly. I’m not really sure if the thing we’re talking about is authenticity so much as like radical openness or something, so what the public’s looking for is not that they are genuine all the time, but that they’re doing, that they’re acting in a way that means that the public has access to their thoughts all the time, something like that?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, people made the joke the Hillary Clinton was being extremely authentic, she was an extremely authentic, awkward person who is not relatable. She’s just being herself and I guess people didn’t like it. I think maybe it is relatability more than authenticity. I suppose if you’re being inauthentic, then that probably is going to be hard to relate to, but it is true that you can be authentic and still not terribly likable and not terribly relatable to ordinary people if you just come from a completely different social group.
Keiran Harris: Which actually has real implications. If it is relatability that we’re really concerned about, it means that someone like a Rob 10 years from now going into politics would have to have a very different strategy. And if it is about authenticity, you would have to be more inclined to make compromise at least on honesty.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I think it’s something that we need to keep in mind that that’s the thing that we’re really talking about, because I think it would be easy to think that what we’re talking about is authenticity and then end up with people feeling that they have to massively fake authenticity or something.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I haven’t been optimizing my character in CV in order to get elected. I’d probably do very different stuff if I was trying to-
Keiran Harris: No, but the fact that you haven’t means that you have this opportunity to be authentic. So, if you had been optimizing to get elected, that would be, I would say almost by definition, inauthentic.
Thought experiment on changing social circles
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s interesting. Interesting angle on that. What if you were thinking, “Well, with the current social group that I’m moving with, I’m going to become a person who’s very unrelatable to voters. So, I have to not hang out with my other elite friends. I have to go and actually hang out with ordinary people and make sure that my life brings me into touch with the kind of people who I would be interested in having vote for me so I can relate to them and speak their language.” In that case it does, maybe it’s inauthentic at the point that you make that decision at the age of 30-
Keiran Harris: Yeah, it certainly is.
Robert Wiblin: And then by the time you’ve changed your character and you’re 40 or 50, and are actually kind of more sort of the earth politician, it might seem authentic by that stage.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. So, the question would be whether it would seem authentic or whether it would actually be authentic if you did make a genuine change. I suppose if we were looking for real authenticity, you would then have to say, “Okay, so when I was 30, I made this decision to be actively inauthentic by moving to a completely different social group. I wanted to get elected. Now that I am elected, I can tell you all about it.” And you would have to then reflect on it honestly.
Robert Wiblin: I think even authentic and likable and relatable people don’t say absolutely everything that pops into their head.
Keiran Harris: No, and you’re under no obligation to.
Robert Wiblin: That would be one way.
Keiran Harris: But if you were presenting yourself as though you were just, you had always been salt of the earth, you had always grown up around these people, I think that would be a fairly key part of your history. So, by omitting that, I would think that it’s dishonest.
Robert Wiblin: Trump and Sanders, they’re not super relatable I guess to most voters. Their lives have been very unusual. They don’t actually live the kinds of lives that most people voting for them presumably, they’re a totally different age, totally different generation than most of the voters who are voting for them to begin with. It does seem like one thing is just not feeling like people are lying to you all the time is kind of key. Most politicians are so reserved that it just feels like they’re being, that their response to every question is basically the thing like, “What’s the least dishonest thing that I can say that will get me out of this situation?”
Keiran Harris: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Whereas Trump and Sanders, you don’t get that impression.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. Trump has kind of destroyed all our ideas about that, because he lies more frequently than anyone else, and yet he comes across as authentic to his base, because they sort of have the feeling that, “Well, he’s kind of winking to us. He’s lying constantly, but we know he’s lying and therefore that means that it’s okay.”
Michelle Hutchinson: I don’t think I really like this idea of authenticity as a thing we’re using to decide which politicians to vote for. It seems like what we really care about with politicians is are they telling the truth, and then something like are they speaking from dispositions that we can expect them to continue with in the future. So, it doesn’t feel like there’s really any problem with people deliberately setting up their life such that they would be a good politician, right? Because what we actually care about is will they then act how I would want the politician to act, and I think that’s actually what we are or at least should be getting at when we seek for our politicians to be truly authentic.
Michelle Hutchinson: Our worry is, “Well, this person’s pretending to be one of us, but then when he gets the chance to vote on will he raise taxes for my group, he will choose to raise taxes.” So, in some ways it seems like we might be wanting to vote for people like Trump because we think they’re authentic in the sense of, “I just expect him to have poor impulse control, so I feel like the fact that he’s continuously telling me what he thinks or something, even if it … I can see through the lies means that I can trust the way that he will vote.” And that kind of thing makes me think that the hypothetical in which someone totally changes who they hang out with at age 30 and things is worrying only in so far as you think, “Well, maybe I’ll then vote them in and then they’ll go back to hanging out with the people that I think will give them poor ideas or something.”
Michelle Hutchinson: As long as you can trust that they genuinely will keep that up, it seems not problematic at all. And then I think the question of whether it’s truly authentic is just not the relevant question to ask.
Keiran Harris: So, Martin talked about in terms of reclaiming the trust of the public, the importance of people in positions of power being willing to say that they were wrong, and they were uncertain about positions, and in the effect of altruism community, we take moral uncertainty very seriously. But I wonder if perhaps we don’t push that message aggressively enough. Do you guys have a sense in which that’s true or how we could change that?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess it’s a meme that hasn’t seemed to be super viral, so I think it would require a decent active effort to push it, or at least we would have to find new ways of framing it. ‘Cause I guess it’s hard to just push the message of “We don’t know.” That doesn’t tend to inspire people to take to the streets saying, “I’m not sure-”
Keiran Harris: “We don’t know.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. “We’re not as sure as we think we are. I’m agnostic about this issue.”
Keiran Harris: People with a big sign that just has a question mark.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose another thing is we’re extremely unsure about what the exact implications are of moral uncertainty when you follow it through, so it’s perhaps a bit too early to be popularizing it. But I guess it is, I mean moral uncertainty, empirical uncertainty, it’s always hard to keep in mind just how naïve or how ignorant we are about the entirety of all the things going on in the world, and yeah, the human mind is just really not designed to be very agnostic about all kinds of … to be as agnostic as it should about a very complex system that’s much more complex than the world we were dealing with when humans evolved. So, it’s probably hard to go overboard emphasizing that, at least among people who you want to be actually taking action or who have power to change the world.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I guess it feels like also something that’s pretty relative to context and so hard to get precisely right, because you both want to be being clear about the things that you do know that might be surprising, but then you also want to be really clear about where your uncertainty ends, and it’s so difficult to know what the beliefs of the person you’re engaging with are, so then you don’t want to be sounding more uncertain than you are and you don’t want to be sounding less uncertain that you are, and it makes it a very difficult thing to communicate cogently about.
Definition of elites
Keiran Harris: Martin Gurri, so he constantly refers to the elites. Did you have a good sense of what that meant? A lot hinges on what we actually mean by this word, because initially I thought it was just political elites, and then of course it becomes clear that he is actually talking about anyone in a position of power within previously dominant institutions. So, if you’re a news anchor, then you’re an elite.
Michelle Hutchinson: That doesn’t give any specificity to thinking that these people are different in any way other than their role, right? So, I was thinking that these, “I’m angry at this person simply because they’re a news anchor,” not because there are any properties about this news anchor that makes them feel “not like me” except that they’re the one on the news. If people were to get angry with someone, it’s purely because of their role and not because of some class of properties.
Keiran Harris: If that’s true, it means that we would have to be quite pessimistic on this idea of replacing this elite class. If it was just people within roles, then whoever we replace them with is gonna have the same kind of pushback, even if they are very genuine, even if they are very honest.
Michelle Hutchinson: I don’t think we necessarily have to be pessimistic about it, because I think it would just imply having to change dynamics and maybe how democracy worked, maybe bringing in more direct democracy, maybe changing ways in which people engaged. And in a way, it’s a more optimistic picture where you’re not saying you have to change any of the actual individuals, only the people in these roles are bad, simply that you need to get these two groups getting on better either by changing the ways in which they interact or simply by them getting used to a new dynamic.
Why would increased information lead to a poorer understanding of each other?
Michelle Hutchinson: And then on this, a thing I was thinking was kind of interesting was it seems a bit surprising that he seemed to be saying that the real problem between elites and the public was that each was insufficiently charitable towards the other, so each is thinking that each is malevolent in some way or something when actually neither of them are. And you would expect given that this whole, that he thinks that the whole revolt of the public is caused by increasing information. You’d expect that this is a problem that would’ve gotten better rather than worse over time, because if both groups are actually good, the more information you get about each group, the better it is.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I was wondering whether what was really going on here was that it used to be that elites and the public thought of each other as being just totally different types of things and incomparable or something, so there was no point getting angry with them, just like if an out group is sufficiently different from you, you don’t bother thinking about whether you disagree with them. And if that’s the case, it could be that we’re just looking for a new equilibrium where people have started to learn that actually they’re the same types of people and that’s led to them noticing things that they’re annoyed about of like, “Oh, we’re the same types of people, but you’re treating us like we’re not,” or something like that. Or maybe you’re doing these malevolent things. But then we actually just need to go, continue in the same direction of learning more about each other and things, and then we’ll learn like, “Okay, we’re the same types of people and also that means that we both can get on and that everyone can be charitable towards each other.” How does that strike you guys?
Keiran Harris: That seems right to me, yeah. I think that seems like a reasonable counterpoint to the thesis, this increase in information not leading to an increase in charitability.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I thought, that point really stuck with me, that it was like people in power tend to look down with contempt at the public, if he was culturally very different from them, and vice versa for different reasons. I guess the people in power think that the general public, yeah, really prejudiced and quite stupid. Whereas the general public is inclined to view anyone who has power as corrupt and self serving. It does seem like there’s obviously some truth potentially to both of those views. But it’s probably, the inclination on both pats I think is to massively overstate it, how much is down to bad intentions versus how much is down to just like sincere error give the challenges of the world.
Robert Wiblin: And also to overstate how useful it is to have that kind of contemptuous attitude, that even if in a sense someone deserves contempt ’cause they have weaknesses as we all do, it’s maybe just best to ignore that and try to love them nonetheless, or at least not to hate them, that that would be a big step forward in making politics in society work better.
Spreading the norm of being charitable
Keiran Harris: You recently wrote an article that gave tips along these lines in saying that you ought to ascribe good motives to someone where possible. Do you think that it’s plausible that these kind of norms could spread throughout let’s say the United States?
Robert Wiblin: Well, I feel just like the current information environment just really isn’t pushing in that direction. Actually, I suppose maybe I’ll walk that back. It does seem like social media has made things probably worse in this in that we spend more time interacting through a medium in which you don’t get the normal cues that arouse human sympathy, that you normally do when you’re talking to someone face to face. Even if someone is acting quite badly face to face, I think it’s much harder to get angry with them than the equivalent person on the Internet. But it does seem like there’s such, plenty of people have noticed this and gotten dissatisfied with it that I do wonder whether there’ll be a cultural counteraction to it that can at least maybe temper this damage.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think, as always, I’m more optimistic than you, Rob. And think that we’re actually doing fairly well at learning more about how humans work and how to improve techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, and that in general the world has been on an upward trajectory and we’re going to get better at teaching our kids how to be more charitable and building tools such that they are more conducive to positive human interactions rather than negative ones, and it’s pretty explicable that when we first developed things like these social media tools, we wouldn’t really know how to deal with them well and we would use them badly, but that we’ll get much better at that both in terms of building tools that are good and in terms of learning how to use them in ways that lead to better human interactions.
Has the media gotten worse?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Though it’s getting better in most ways, but I guess I feel like the media has mostly gotten worse, like the sharper competition between outlets has led to a degradation in quality. And yeah, the transfer of discussions to the Internet seems to have mostly made things worse, and I’m not sure what is the strong enough force to reverse that trend. I suppose, yeah, you could hope you get kind of cultural antibodies to these negative, or like learning effects, but I do just wonder whether that is gonna be strong enough to turn back the tide in the other direction.
Michelle Hutchinson: Do we have worse media outlets now? I mean, certainly some seem to have gotten worse and to have gotten more partisan, but you also have different types of media outlets springing up. Vox’s style of explaining a whole issue seems markedly better to me than the more traditional newspaper where you’re just getting bite sized chunks every day.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, I mean, I think part of this plays into perceptions versus actual reality of the reporting, too. So, as you say, Vox can have some excellent articles on these explainers, but from people who don’t already consider themselves Vox subscribers, if they already look at them as the other, as the enemy immediately, we’re now in a situation where unlike, let’s say … it was maybe a high watermark for American journalism post Watergate, but people didn’t used to look at NBC and say like, “Oh, it’s the other team.” It was just basically we had this shared news, whereas even if Vox is doing a really good job on any particular article, if somebody comes to that with the view that they’re not on my team, therefore it doesn’t matter, they’re probably wrong, that seems like a problem that is gonna be very difficult to fix. So, even if the institutions were doing really good work, and obviously there’s incredible investigative journalism going on, they need to have that coupled with this respectability.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, I guess things seem pretty bad now. Maybe I haven’t lived long enough to have known on a day to day basis how bad things were before. From memory, the number of journalists in the US has halved, I think, over the last 10 or 20 years, just ’cause the whole business model has been broken by the Internet. And no doubt there are some really outstanding outlets producing good journalism as there kind of always has been, but it seems to me like the stories that get the most attention these days are probably worse. There just seems to be more bullshit stories than kind of ever before.
Keiran Harris: Certainly television news used to be a loss leader for the companies. It used to be, “Okay, we know we’re gonna lose money in this, but this is, we’re doing a public service here.” Whereas now most media institutions, they need to generate a revenue, so that is done around clicks. And unfortunately, the stories that get the most clicks are not necessarily the best reported ones. And the New York Times had this incredibly in depth investigation about Trump’s taxes a few months ago. Seemed like basically it got no traction, like the public just didn’t care. You have this really incredible reporting and these stories, and they just get less of a reaction than something that’s maybe just 500 words, but plays into what you already think about the other side.
Michelle Hutchinson: How much do you think this varies between countries? Because you might expect that in Britain with the BBC getting the TV license subscription fee, they just are going to be able to afford to continue doing excellent journalism in a way that no network in the US will be able to?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Public broadcasters can be shorted from this and potentially provide this public service. There’s like a subsidy for investigative journalism or writing stories that people might not be interested in reading, but it’s important that they exist, whereas it’s harder in a purely market environment to support that. State media is a bit of a wild card to throw in there, ’cause it can be very good in this way if you set it up correctly that they provide a more sober analysis and they don’t really care whether they have a large viewership or not. They’re just gonna try to do a good job. It can also obviously just become an arm of the government to promote their views and not be any higher quality than anything else, and I think that’s the case in the majority of companies. The BBC seems to be doing substantially better than that and so does the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They have managed to set it up such that the government doesn’t have too much direct control and it kind of does provide a public service.
Robert Wiblin: It’s a very difficult problem to solve. You’ve got this … like market media, the quality’s getting worse because the business model that supported it has weakened. You could try doing it through non profits, but there’s probably not enough people willing to donate to support very much of that. There’s some of it like ProPublica, and I guess people donate to The Guardian and things like that, which might change their incentives a bit. And then you’ve got government, like would you really want Trump starting up a broadcasting corporation in the hope of providing the public service of informing us all? I mean, maybe, maybe not. I’m actually just not really sure what is the solution to this. I suppose you could try to get a lot more people enthusiastic about donating to really high quality journalism, and maybe that’s the best we can do, but I don’t imagine that’s gonna bring in billions and billions of dollars of revenue.
Journalism as a potential cause area?
Keiran Harris: I was gonna ask, do you think that it’s plausibly important enough that those of us in the effective altruism community should be thinking about this as a potential cause area to actually be generating more donations towards independent media outlets? Or do you think that this is something that is either not going to generate enough interest or just wouldn’t be able to track well enough against our other primary causes?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think someone who’s in a good position to take this on is a really important problem in society and reasonably neglected. There’s not that many people trying to come up with new models for funding high quality information, like discovery and provision. I suppose I just haven’t been able to think of a good solution here, so I’ve been a bit pessimistic about the tractability of it. It seems like the trends are negative. There’s lots of ways that things are getting worse and I’m just not sure what approach I would take if I was gonna try to fix it. But it seems like the problem has become more severe, so I hope that we’ll be able to do more interviews about this in the future, see whether anyone actually has any good ideas for how you can change this on any significant scale.
Michelle Hutchinson: I don’t think I have a good sense of how many journalists and how much media I think would be the best, ’cause on the one hand, halving the number of journalists sounds kind of bad, but I have the general sense that most media is just not very high quality and not that good, so actually you would be fine with substantially less as long as it was good. But then I don’t know how much you actually need really good competition in order to get good journalism, and the extent to which you have to have more jobs in order that you attract some of the best people and things. My general feeling is that journalism is very competitive and so you are attracting really good people, and that it would just be fine to have a bit less as long as it was high quality.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think we need less competition. It’s like the competition that’s making things worse, because it just turns … In the past there was so much slack in the system. There was not that many channels, not that many newspapers that people could possibly subscribe to in any given city, such as it was viable for them to have a lot of … They could take some of the extra profits that they were earning essentially from this oligopoly and spend some of it on investigative journalism or doing what they thought was the right thing. Now that the margins are so fine, they don’t have any discretion to do what they think is right potentially because if they do that, they just get cut out of the conversation and go bankrupt, which is … It’s an unusual business where you say, “Well, in fact, less competition might make things better.”
Robert Wiblin: Part of the issue is that the media, I think, now is providing what we want, but it turns out that what we want is like entertainment and hating on our enemies more than like reading some really in depth story about Trump’s taxes. That’s just a lot of work and not very rewarding I think to most readers, even though they would like for that story to exist. They’d be willing to pay if their contribution, they made the difference between that story existing and not, then they might be willing to pay for someone to go and do that work in order to make the country better. But there’s this really strong temptation to freeload on and to not contribute to paying for the kind of people who would work and do that difficult research.
Michelle Hutchinson: How much of this do you think can be replaced by books? ‘Cause you might think that it’s now easier than ever before to write and publish a book, and you might think that most of the things that you really want investigative journalism done on, actually you’d like done in a lot of depth, so that might be able to improve this problem a bit.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that seems like a good point. I suppose if you consider all different information that people have access to, I guess it’s not clear that the environment as a whole has gotten worse, ’cause people have access to academic journals more easily than they used to. In fact, yeah, there’s more books being published, though I’m not sure what the typical quality is. We have access to Wikipedia, for example. It just seems like the things that kind of day to day journalism focuses on seem to be the things that have gotten worse.
Robert Wiblin: So, I guess I’m not sure whether the public as a whole is more misinformed, all things considered across all issues, but when it comes to politics and the kind of day to day fights that you read about in Vox or Fox News, that seems to be degrading worse.
Michelle Hutchinson: I mean, if we don’t think the public is less well informed than it previously was, then it seems a bit surprising to think that it’s an important cause for effective altruists to work on to increase the extent to which the public’s informed, even if they’re now getting most of their information from different sources, like Wikipedia and books. Unless you think that the fact that specifically mass media is degrading means that we have this huge opportunity to make the public way better informed than it used to be and we need to be taking that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so I guess I just think of them as different problems. People who are interested in reading books and reading encyclopedias and learning about history, or learning bat chemistry or something, in a sense we’ve never had it better. But I think there’s a subset of kind of the information environment, which is political fights where the typical quality of things that people are reading on that issue is worse.
Michelle Hutchinson: I’m not sure I agree that these things are really in different categories, because when I want to learn about some particular political fight, I will very often go to Wikipedia, ’cause what I actually want is a summary of what’s been happening over the last month and a half or something.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so do I, but I think that’s very unusual. Like Wikipedia doesn’t push its articles in the same way to come up with snappy titles and snappy hooks to try to get people to read it and then get a click through from their news feed. That’s like something that you would do if you’re really interested in the topic, on some policy level. But I think that that’s like a vanishingly small fraction of total readership.
Effective altruists learning from this impulse towards negation
Michelle Hutchinson: I think I feel a bit uncomfortable about the framing that we’re using to learn how we might want to apply this for improving the world, where it feels a bit like we’re using this to think through, “Okay, how does this mean we should be trying to change other people’s actions” or something whereas I think it could be that actually the thing that we should be most using this in is thinking about how this might bias our own actions. So, one thing that stood out to me was that these, the public protest movements that he was talking about often were basically just negation. They often weren’t aiming at anything in particular, and that felt like it was getting at some kind of general psychological trend in humans where we tend to feel, “Well, this is wrong and I should do something about that.” And then it’s actually much harder to take this final step of being constructive and working out what thing to do about it. And often by that point you feel like you’ve put in a ton of effort, you went to the protest, and you did your part, and you can see that in things like the protest after the Brexit vote or something where people who maybe didn’t actually go out knocking on doors getting people to vote remain then all went to London to protest about.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I think one thing that we should really be learning as effective altruists from this synthesis of, “Here are all of these movements” is that it’s gonna be super easy for us to generally criticize things and to point out all of the ways in which things are failing and point out these charities being less effective than they could be and people should be thinking differently and people should be, instead of being super constructive and thinking about, “Okay, but how do we create the institutions that will be positive in future?”
Keiran Harris: That seems right to me, yeah. I’m not sure if we got into as much as we wanted to but yeah, the idea that we could as a community be susceptible to this idea of negation seemed to be really important, that we … probably, it’s a very young movement, but it seems plausible that if we existed in 30 years, you could get more and more towards this idea of trying to be, as you say, overly critical as opposed to creating these worthwhile possibly alternatives. Which I think we do at the moment, which Rob pointed out in the interview. Yeah. I wanted to know what Martin thought about how we protect against that impulse, if it is a universal human impulse.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think it feels to me like that did ring true as a human impulse. Partly because there’s the obvious saliency of, “Well, if someone brings a thing to me, then I can think of what might be wrong with it.” But then it’s a whole extra step to work out what I should do next. And I don’t know how self congratulatory we should be about this in thinking that effective altruists are good at avoiding this negation problem. Sure, it seems like we try harder at it maybe than some other groups, but actually it does feel like the emphasis on effectiveness can easily blur into an excessive emphasis on the negative and on what other people are doing wrong rather than on what things we can notice are going well in the world and what we should increase in the world, that kind of thing.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess we’ve tried from back in 2011, 2012 to discourage people from just shitting on the efforts of others, which obviously is a pretty strong temptation at times. It can be fun.
Michelle Hutchinson: Some more than others.
Robert Wiblin: No doubt. I guess, yeah, maybe at 80,000 hours, because we rarely put up discussions of problems when we have no sense of the tractability or no sense of what can be done. There is this push to be at least somewhat constructive, even if I guess a lot of the time we are just criticizing things that don’t work or talking about problems that we think are over emphasized. But hopefully we can keep that and expand that even more, so we don’t just fall into this trap of criticizing things that don’t work without actually having a better alternative.
Back to politics
Robert Wiblin: So, I guess people might look at the current peculiar nature of politics in the US and to a lesser extent the UK, and hope that things are gonna go back to normal in the next election. I kind of still hope that that might be the case that this will have just been an unusual four to six years and then maybe we’ll just elect someone boring next and policy discussions will return to how they used to be. But I suppose if Gurri’s thesis is correct, then that’s probably not going to happen. We’ll probably, I think things will remain peculiar for some time, although I guess people’s behavior and reactions to this new circumstance might change. So, that doesn’t necessarily doesn’t have to be the same kind of weirdness that we have now. So, what do you think? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about where this is gonna go in the next 10 or 20 years?
Keiran Harris: I’m genuinely uncertain. I just think that … I don’t think that Gurri has persuaded me enough to the point where I’m now gonna say, “Okay, I’m willing to make a strong prediction one way or another.”
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I’m not sure I’m even totally persuaded that politics is wackier now than it has been if you look over a broader time horizon than just like eight years ago or something. Do you feel that you are pretty sure of that?
Robert Wiblin: It does feel like it’s a bit worse than average, but I suppose it’s not clear whether it’s worse than like Nixon or … I’m trying to think. There was a lot of racism throughout US history if you look at what the kind of policies that were getting proposed in the ’90s by very mainstream politicians, they were perhaps not as different than what we see today from people who we consider quite radical. So, it could be that it’s like this has just made more visible something that has always been the case and in fact we’re over estimating how much things have actually changed. And I suppose, it could be that just the very crowded Republican primary is an unusual voting system that allowed a set of views that were always common but nonetheless a minority to achieve a much higher level of prominence.
Michelle Hutchinson: Do you have a sense of whether, if a candidate has a particularly strong policy, for example, trying to implement massive tax cuts, whether that’s likely to make the tax cuts that are implemented in fact greater or lesser, ’cause I can both imagine that if they ask for something very unreasonable, then they end up getting totally blocked and no tax cuts go through. Or I can imagine it going the way where people were thinking that they accept some smallish tax cut, and then the person’s just giving such a huge initial bid that they end up being willing to accept much more than they would’ve otherwise.
Robert Wiblin: It would be kind of surprising, I guess if electing someone who had a very strong view in one direction, like said it backwards all things considered, or in expectation. I suppose if they’re extremely unstrategic politically, then I guess it could end up like producing a kind of reverse effect. You do see that with a lot of the things that … there’s a lot of things that Trump supports like the wall and reducing immigration and reducing trade that have actually become less popular while he’s been president because he’s radicalized Democrats to oppose this, so reducing trade has become more popular among Republicans, but Democrats have even to a greater degree consolidated in favor of trade because they dislike Trump so much.
Robert Wiblin: So, I think yeah, there are a whole lot of forces that push against someone having control. I guess also incumbents also become less popular because once they actually have to put forward policies, people become dissatisfied, and this is very fitting with Martin’s theory that it’s potentially easier to gain power by complaining about the system, but then hard to hold onto it because then people hate you because you’re the status quo. I mean, that’s potentially somewhat good, I suppose, because it means it’s harder for politics to go off in one extreme direction and to kind of get snowball effects where you get in power and then you get in even more power and then so on. It seems to be that it’s hard for anyone to pursue an agenda for any significant period of time. Often any particularly large direction.
Robert Wiblin: Though, I suppose if you think the status quo is very bad, that also isn’t too appealing, ’cause it means that we’re kind of stuck here with only small modifications and we’re gonna swing back and forth and never really have a concerted effort to shift things away from where we are.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. It also creates limitations on us being able to put forward policies that have the even medium long term future in mind. So, if a candidate comes forward talking about even the next 50 years, they’re not getting any traction, then they’ll just naturally keep dropping down and down until it’s just the next four years, maybe the next eight years. And yeah, I’m not sure if I know a way out of that, but that seems pretty important for us to try and change.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, it does. I guess you might think that we should in fact be really happy about this dynamic from the kinds of reasons that Martin said near the end of the podcast about authoritarianism now seeming entirely unviable, because it does seem like this dynamic of swinging back and forth is happening more and should mean that totalitarianism is just much less likely compared to looking at the number of termsimes that FDR say had. And that could be a massive relief, ’cause it does seem like one of the few things that could really destroy the value of the full far future is some totalitarian government that gets properly locked in. And if we can’t even get near that because of these new dynamics, that could be something that makes the world much better.
What does this thesis imply for the probability of authoritarianism?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I wasn’t entirely convinced by his answer there. I suppose probably it is true that, in as much as the general public has access to lots of information, it can oppose authority and challenge it. Maybe it is harder to create a stable dictatorship. On the other hand, in as much as people are just completely dissatisfied with how things are running and have no trust in institutions, then I think it makes them more open to radical shifts like having a military coup and then … so, the military runs the coup and then people kind of shrug their shoulders like, “Well, everything was terrible anyway,” and I think you see this in many countries. Perhaps in South America and in some European countries in the past that in as much as people just kind of despair of democratic politics functioning at all, then they’re more open to alternative arrangements, ’cause they just don’t actually see it as being materially worse.
Keiran Harris: I think you’re right, yeah. I think it potentially makes people more likely to allow for a military coup and then we have to hope that the access to extra information makes it more likely they’ll be able to get rid of them, but that may not be the case if someone’s actually running things correctly. If you have a North Korea who is actually giving you a blueprint for what you could do if you have total control, well it’s possible that a military could get themselves into that situation. Any particular country, particularly if the public are just, at least in the first stages, in the first couple of years of a government just less interested, if there’s sort of ways to burn out, if everything is just like, “Well, this is just, we’re constantly dissatisfied,” rather than having a change between, “We really liked this person, we didn’t like this person.” If they’re always being against, they always have this spirit of negation, maybe that could make things more troubling.
Michelle Hutchinson: I mean, the spirit of negation doesn’t say anything about whether you couldn’t have degrees about how much against things you are, and it seems that the kinds of things he’s talking about are increased engagement rather than disengagement, which to me would make it less likely that you could have a military coup, because it’s just more clear that you have a lot of people willing to engage and willing to engage in a vocal way that maybe you didn’t at all in the past.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of barriers to a military coup in the US today. What if you did just have the kinds of people who are taking to the streets and complaining about the system as it is today, did just eventually despair of democratic politics ever bringing about the changes that they want to ’cause they’ve seen things go back and forth so many times and in their view, nothing has gotten better. Would they then be like, “Well, we’re not gonna take to the streets when the military takes over, because who cares? We voted for Trump to try to smash the system and make it different and get rid of these people we don’t like and who look down at us, and this is just another shot of doing that. Sure, a very risky one, but we were willing to take risks anyway ’cause we were so dissatisfied with the status quo.”
Robert Wiblin: I think the reason it won’t happen, there’s a lot of reasons that I think that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. In particular, I don’t think the military would go along with it. I think they have too much of an ethos that’s in favor of following the Constitution. But you could see that being worn away over decades.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. My feeling is the you guys’ point is that the strong engagement that we’re seeing now where people are willing to protest is going to lead to burnout. I don’t actually see any evidence that it’s going to lead to burnout. The only evidence we have right now is increased engagement, and if we can see increased engagement now, then there’s no reason to think that that will lead to future disengagement, which could lead to military coup or something.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, I suppose it was just an increased engagement might lead to a military coup just by virtue of not seeing them as being too different from another political option, so they might actually go along supporting military coup in a way of engagement, and then might realize a few months in, “Whoops.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess Martin’s point might be that you get the military takeover and people are like, “Oh, well this is interesting,” but then like a month later they hate it and then they’re all taking to the streets again [inaudible 01:02:55] so easy to coordinate against it that it wouldn’t last very long. It just seems like there might be a lot of truth to that, especially ’cause it’s like the thing that ultimately sustains a military dictatorship is that the soldiers are willing to shoot on the public in order to protect it in as much as the public protests and tries to overthrow them, and it does just seem unlikely to me that we have a military coup here any time soon, and then when people take to the streets, the typical members of the military are just gonna start shooting on the American public. Maybe I’m naïve, but that does seem like a bit of a stretch, like [inaudible 01:03:26] in the next 10 or 20 years.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. I mean, it actually speaks to realizing that we’re actually not, in America at least, not in the worst phase of even recent history. If you look back at the early ’70s and you had situations where you actually did have police firing on the students, and some really severe riots and actually people fighting in the streets, things that people are concerned about today but tend to not happen. You have groups that confront each other and there’s a little bit of violence, but you really had that a few decades ago, and I think it’s interesting to consider how much of our disagreements and animosity is just happening online and whether you actually, it would extend to this apocalyptic civil war people sometimes talk about.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I am pretty interested in this question of whether there actually is more protesting now, ’cause as you say, you had ’60s and ’70s in the US, Women’s Movement and Youth Movement, and it might be partly that it feels that we have this more. I mean, we feel it more probably because you can see it much more, ’cause we have so much more media now. But it might also feel more salient because it’s less clear what their demands are, so it feels a lot less like, “Oh, well, those are the people that are protesting against the Vietnam War, so we don’t have to think about that except in so far as we’re thinking about the Vietnam War,” whereas things like Occupy Wall Street is a lot less clear and it’s a lot more protesting against everything. I think it’d be pretty interesting to know to what extent we should just expect people in general to always have some underlying feeling of “The world should be better” and always to want to protest something, even if they’re not clear what they’re protesting.
Keiran Harris: Martin made this point about, he was part of the Vietnam War protests and he was there, and he was with his then girlfriend, now wife pointed out that there was a million nonconformists who were all wearing blue jeans and that that’s what defined their generation for them, it was the protestors. It wasn’t the people who stayed at home and just silently supported the war even though most young people seemed to. Do we have a sense of who’s gonna be viewed as sort of the key cultural figures of this era? Do we think that in 30 years people will look back and say that there are these people who defined our generation? Or are there so many different movements that it just isn’t possible today?
Robert Wiblin: I think it’s the 80,000 Hours Podcast that’s gonna be at the vanguard of everything, Keiran.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’ve got no idea. I wouldn’t want to be making predictions about that. Things seem pretty chaotic culturally and politically it’s had to tell who’s gonna be popular two years from now, let alone in decades from now.
Keiran Harris: Final thoughts. Did you enjoy the podcast, Michelle?
Michelle Hutchinson: I very much enjoyed the podcast, yeah. I thought that it was a really good discussion of the topic.
Robert Wiblin: Excellent answer, just as we rehearsed, Michelle. All right. Let’s leave that there. Thanks for joining us for this impromptu discussion, Keiran and Michelle.
Keiran Harris: Thanks, Rob.
Michelle Hutchinson: Thanks, Rob.
Robert Wiblin: I hope you enjoyed all the above. If you did, you should definitely subscribe so you’ll get Glen Weyl’s episode in the next few weeks.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Thanks for joining, talk to you in a week or two.