The Prophet of the Revolt: Martin Gurri and the ungovernable public.
Martin Gurri was formerly a member of CIA’s global media analysis team, and in 2014 he self-published a book that feels like it was written last week. Republished by Stripe Press in 2018, it soon became a must-read inside Silicon Valley, particularly among those astonished at how they themselves had become the central story to the central challenges in the West. This spy from the Beltway made a victory lap in Silicon Valley, where I met him at a book launch dinner. Aside from the usual Cuban-exile plotting, we’ve been kibbitzing about tech and media ever since.
This Q&A was conducted over email, and Gurri’s answers are unedited.
“The great political conflict of our century, I believe, is that between a networked public and the elites who inhabit the great hierarchical institutions that organize modern life.”
“The public, which swims comfortably in the digital sea, knows far more than elites trapped in obsolete structures. The public knows when the elites fail to deliver their promised “solutions,” when they tell falsehoods or misspeak, when they are caught in sexual escapades, and when they indulge in astonishing levels of smugness and hypocrisy. The public is disenchanted in the elites and their institutions, much in the way science disenchanted the world of fairies and goblins. The natural reaction is cynicism. The elites aren’t seen as fallible humans doing their best, but as corrupt and arrogant jerks.”
“In other words, the elites had abandoned the idea of serving the public before the arrival of the digital tsunami. What that catastrophe did was to reverse the polarities of power: it was the public that was now technologically adept, politically restless, and in revolt against the perplexed elites. The vast gap remained, and the elites have no wish to cross it”
“Social media has served as a sort of society-wide bodycam: the institutional abuse was always there, now we're simply seeing it.”
“Now reality is messy. Events are unpredictable, and the human response to them rarely matches any ideal. To maintain the authority of the institutions, an explanation must be provided to the public that connects events to the ideal.”
“Sometimes, by sheer luck, you are in a high place and can see the shape and character of the approaching trouble, while those in the flatlands have no idea of what’s coming. That was me at the global media analysis section of CIA. And I was not alone. A group of us were obsessed with the same drama. We watched the digital tsunami tear its way around the world, and we observed, amazed, a tremendous spike in social and political turbulence behind it. We all asked the same question: Why? What does information technology have to do with politics?
That was the seed out of which The Revolt of the Public grew.”
According to Gurri, trust in society’s institutions – police, journalists, scientists and more – has been undermined by constant criticism from outsiders, and exposed to a cacophony of conflicting opinions on every issue the public takes fewer truths for granted. We are now free to see our leaders as the flawed human beings they always have been, and are not amused.