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The Digital Big Bang
How the internet changed the public's relationship to authority and power.
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It’s difficult to grasp how much of a game changer the internet has been. The breakneck speed of life in the 21st century doesn’t offer much opportunity for reflection, but if you pause for a moment to think about what things were like just a couple of decades ago compared to today, the disparities are awe-inspiring. It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet is disrupting modern society and politics as much as the printing press did in the 15th century.
Consider the sheer scope of information available to you. In 2003, researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a study of epic proportions: Measuring, in data bits, the total amount of information produced in 2001 and 2002, and then comparing the results with the total amount of information accumulated in all of human history before then. What they found was astonishing.
More information had been generated in 2001 — just this one single year — than in all of humanity’s previous existence. In fact, 2001 doubled the previous total, and then 2002 doubled the amount of information in 2001, adding around 23 “exabytes” of new information—roughly the equivalent of 140,000 Library of Congress collections.
Today an average of approximately 2.5 quintillion (2.5,000,000,000,000,000,000) bytes of new data is created online every 24 hours.
Before the internet, growth in information occurred at a snail’s pace; after, it was exponential. That much is obvious. But it’s not the quantity of information that matters so much as it is the effects. While the tsunami of new, easily accessible information was incredible in itself, it was the tsunami’s indirect role as a catalyst within a burgeoning info-sphere built on human cultural dynamics, ubiquitous digital connectivity, and the business models of tech giants that really transformed society and forced us to rethink our understanding of power.
A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity: They become authoritative.
The pre-digital era already seems sort of fantastical, but consider the limited means by which your average citizen, if so inclined, might learn more about the big wide world outside his immediate experience before the advent of the internet. Folks were forced to rely on news and newspapers to keep abreast of all the goings-on during a time when news and information were virtually synonymous. Television news was usually limited to 30 to 60 minutes every night, which meant the stories discussed were relatively few and only ran for a minute or two at most. But combined with print newspapers, this was deemed enough to broaden one’s horizons on a day-to-day basis.
Consider the New York Times, once known as the “paper of record” before it did a one-and-a-half tuck brodie into the journalistic abyss and sold its soul to the “moral clarity” ethos that apparently justifies hiring sensationally stupid individuals like Nicole Hannah-Jones. If today’s ever-expanding info-sphere weren’t readily accessible to me and I wanted to connect with the world beyond my immediate perception and familiarize myself with the most important events, people, and places on any given day, I’d pick up a copy of the Times because, as the so-called paper of record, it would be deemed among the most authoritative sources.1
Things were a lot simpler, back then. Joe Briefcase could wake up each morning and enjoy his ritualistic cup of coffee with the day’s paper, and by the time he was finished he’d know where he stood in relation to his neighbors, his town, his city, his country, and his world; and when he got home later that evening, he could turn on the 10 o’clock news,2 and before retiring for the night he’d again have a firm grasp of where he stood relative to the universe.
Whereas before the internet, dominant media of the 20th century operated within a system of centralized, one-way news dissemination — meaning to consume the news was to ingest a diet of information pre-selected by elites in control of the institutions of the industrial age — after the internet, information was no longer predominantly limited to a newspaper, the 10 o’clock roundup, and the expert class. Nor was it dispensed one to many via a rigid, top down pyramid. The elites had always played an intermediary role in the way citizens received and processed contemporaneous information, but the internet’s sheer speed and scope blurred the very definition of “news” and upended the concept of authority as a belief system anointing the chosen few.
This is why the most portentous consequence of the cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technology caused by the inception of the internet — what I like to call the “digital big bang” — has been the rapid dissolution of institutional authority and elite power. An abundance of information, in this case a limitless, infinite influx, greatly diminished the authoritative aura of previously select sources. The elite class went from enjoying what might as well have been a monopoly on a relatively tiny info-sphere (which in turn allowed a false pretense of moral certainty) to finding itself smack dab in the middle of an epistemic free-for-all.
It’s impossible to overemphasize how consequential this has been. When every single person out there has an infinitely longer reach with which to access an infinitely larger pool of information that’s teeming with all kinds of wonderful little nuggets that thoroughly subvert our noble overlords’ facade of legitimacy and the cherry-picked narratives they sedulously curate, the relationship between the public and authority in more or less every domain of human activity is revolutionized.
When the Sheep No Longer Need Shepherds
The top-down control elites exerted on the public during the industrial age is no more. The new digital world is defined by access to information and a public that can communicate without intermediaries.
This is problematic for a number of reasons, perhaps the most salient of which is that all information must be mediated through a larger theory, narrative, or story in order to make sense. In the 20th century, mass media was used to mediate information, endowing the people who ran the media with serious power. They, along with the expert class and government officials, set the conversation, and our regime gained legitimacy through narrative control.
But today we’re exposed to so much information that we get to choose what deserves our attention.3 Not only that, but we get to choose whom to believe; we select our own authorities. This has eliminated the possibility of certainties and a shared sense of reality being accepted by the public. Alternatives can be conceived. Moreover, the mass audience is now so fragmented that truth itself is often a subjective matter based on sectarian perspectives. The result has been distrust and disenchantment and discord, with agreement a rarity and strife the new norm.
The internet’s democratization of information also brought with it a nasty little curve ball in the form of user-generated content and independent sources. Once-esteemed custodians of information suddenly found themselves besieged by millions of new players looking for a seat in the members-only temple of authority, and these filthy laymen — uncouth, unaccredited, PhD-less mediocrities the lot of them — had the nerve to think that they, too, could assume the coveted role of Truth Guardian.
As the early aughts gave way to the second decade of the digital era, the shepherds grew agitated with their new, relatively disenfranchised social station.
In The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri notes how a “visceral repugnance amounting almost to nausea” was shared amongst government officials, the expert class, and the media about the public’s incursion into their hallowed realm. In addition to “endangering livelihoods,” it was “a threat to the fabric of democratic life.” Suffice it to say that changes in the relationship between the public and authority thanks to the rise of the internet have slowly but surely taken on the foulness of one giant moral perversity, and our noble overlords remain righteously pissed off that they no longer control the public conversation. They struggle to “manufacture consent” because the sheer amount of information available to the public is subversive of any narrative.
Just as importantly, the public’s access to the internet and independent media has exposed the gap between an institution’s claims of competence and its actual performance.4 This gap had always been there—no institution is infallible. But what changed was the public’s awareness of it. In the industrial age, the shortcomings and failures of authority had been carefully managed and shrouded by a mystique of legitimacy, expertise, and prestige. Today, however, thanks to the demystifying power of the internet, the distance between institutions and the public has collapsed. Failure happens out in the open where everyone can see and amplify it. The gap between reality and the authorities’ claims of competence becomes impossible to ignore. Unsurprisingly, much of the public has lost faith in the people on whom it once relied to make sense of the world.
What began with the evolution of the internet and the subsequent collapse of traditional barriers to entry in public, nationwide discourse was soon followed by the social media blitz. The ascendancy of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in particular broke down what social scientists call “pluralistic ignorance”—the belief that one’s personal attitudes/opinions are different from the majority attitudes/opinions, and thus one goes along with what they think everyone else thinks. Social media also challenges the status quo by facilitating communal discord: Individuals previously isolated in their dissent find and draw strength from one another thanks to these platforms.5
It goes without saying that an American psychosphere where the layfolk can rally around one another on digital participatory mediums and challenge institutional authority has not been a favorable development for elites. When government officials and bureaucrats and the media and the intelligentsia lost their vice grip on society’s knowledge pipeline, their claim to power was dealt a near-fatal blow. They’re no longer perceived as prophetic and in command, and this obviously undermines the established order.
Not at all coincidentally, the media and the Biden administration have been harping about our “disinformation crisis” and the need for censorship of the many under the aegis of the few. Leading Democratic Party politicians have repeatedly subpoenaed social media executives and explicitly threatened them with legal and regulatory reprisals if they don’t employ more heavy-handed censorship against “agents of disinformation,” AKA people who hold political views of the conservative and/or anti-establishment persuasion.
These are not the benevolent concerns about the decay of political discourse they would have you believe. Big Brother looking over your shoulder as you scroll through social media is not about helping you make sense of things and protecting delicate progressive psyches. These companies convey astronomical volumes of information to the public beyond the reach of elite influence and control. And in the 21st century, the perturbing agent between the public and authority is information.
Increasingly evident schemes of control over the info-sphere and revelations from the Twitter Files illustrate the same thing that Putin’s attempt to censor all non-Russian information about what’s really happening in Ukraine does: Today, more so than ever before, power is just as much about force as it is controlling information. And thanks to the internet, the public’s relationship to power, authority, and information is likely to remain in a permanent state of flux.
Essential to this scenario: It not being well known that the Times is an utter rag staffed by activists pretending to be journalists.
Some 40 years ago, Walter Cronkite would conclude his broadcasts of the CBS Nightly News with the words, “And that’s the way it is.” He was voted the most trusted man in America in large part because he was the one to disseminate much of the information that ordinary folks used to make sense of the world. He emanated authority.
Because the media has lost its gatekeeper function, they can’t just report on things and assume that the public will care. They must insist that their information is more important than other information. Think of how many headlines now include the phrase, “Here’s why that matters.”
Think of the CDC during the pandemic, for example.
Unfortunately, people tend to get stupider in geometric proportion to their numbers, and nowhere is this more visible than on social media, where random Americans with wildly differing capacities to reason and express themselves verbally coalesce in search of daily doses of dopamine and targets on whom they can direct untapped reservoirs of ill will.