Institutions have limits, especially in the age of information technology

The institutions that have defined the world since the industrial revolution are coming into crisis because the world is becoming increasingly more complex

Note: This short essay is part of the Series entitled, “Adapting to Transcend Networked Conflict: How complexity is our biggest asset” which can be found in full here.

The last decade has seen global disruption. From the initial wave of protests like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, to a reactionary backlash against globalization seen by the rise of authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro. These followed in turn by mass popular protest in the United States amidst the pandemic and many crises caused by the Trump regime along with popular uprisings in places like Hong Kong and Chile. We are in an unprecedented time of public unrest.

The Age of Mass Protest: Understanding a Global Trend 

Central to this wave of upheaval is the universalization of information technology. As of 2019, 45% of the world’s population owns a smartphone. This means not just access to alternative sources of information, but also lowered costs (and in the case of end-to-end encryption, risks) of organizing. The result has been an upheaval to the established order but also one that is not strictly bound by geography, leading to larger webs of relationships both within and between states. Now simultaneous mass protests rattle cold war enemies simultaneously such as in the US and Russia.

What’s especially notable about the current wave of protests is that they are an excellent example of how technology has outstripped theory. When the masses take to the streets they tend to cohere around what they’re fighting against, but they rarely cohere around what they want to fight for.

Martin Gurri, an ex-CIA analyst who takes a conservative perspective on the current wave of protests, argues that this asymmetry between destruction and creation means there is a nihilistic streak to the current social upheaval. Because there is no positive vision for what these people want to build, all they end up doing is eroding structures without any replacement.1 Liberal democracy and its institutions and mechanisms, despite their myriad problems, were somewhat effective at channeling the preferences and values of the masses into a decision-making structure that was somewhat workable.

But information technology is upending these systems. Individual citizens have the potential to express their preference in much higher fidelity to both centralized authorities and each other, because of the progress they’ve seen through communication technology over the last few decades. Moreover, the assumption that we need to rely on appointed experts to make decisions for the rest of us when non-institutional forms of education exists and people outside them can self-educate to the point where they can converse with experts (as seen in open forums like Reddit or Twitter) is bunk. Adjusting the system so it can incorporate those who have something to contribute but who don’t have accreditation into the decision-making process of institutions is challenging not just because it would require an overhaul of the credentialing system, but also for ideological reasons. Part of the legitimacy of institutions in our society comes from the fact that the barriers to entry are significant. If everyone was able to enter them, the prestige that those institutions offer would be undermined (which would in turn undermine the organizations that they act as gatekeepers for).

These concerns are merely derivative of one of the most important questions of our time, namely, how do build mechanisms for achieving coordination and harmony that can accommodate these gains in individual capacity (as well as any future gains)? For all its problems, the hegemonic liberal order that rose to dominance in the 20th century managed to create unprecedented economies of scale and scientific/technological development that resulted in a significant improvement in the lives of a minority, some of which did trickle down to the billions of people alive today.2 While the negative externalities (like the horrors of imperial conquest) of its rise were significant and have left deep scars on both people and the environment, the fact that it was able to coordinate scale at all is an impressive accomplishment. If we want to bring this wealth to everyone on the planet, while respecting ecological limits and avoiding, we need to build coordination mechanisms on par with the liberal order.

These questions are worth considering because the upheaval we experienced with the proliferation information technology is only one of many technological disruptions that we will face this century. Many others are coming down the pike at us. Emerging technologies like 3d-printing, renewable energy, robotics/artificial intelligence, etc and biotechnology (just to name a few) will all be increasingly accessible in the next few decades alongside new or re-asserted older social forms. Absent a massive expansion of state power, these technologies will be largely impossible to repress, akin to the way that torrenting continues despite aggression from intellectual property mafias.

And of course, this is to say nothing about the broader scope of non-technological problems that include things like climate change, biosecurity risks, aging population, and climate refugees. All of these problems are concerning not just because of the catastrophic potential consequences, but also because they confound the standard mechanisms of problem-solving that we used to solve problems in the 20th century. They cannot be contained within national boundaries or standards of sovereignty because they affect everyone.

  1.  See Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by Martin Gurri
  2.  The actual cost/benefit of liberal modernity is absurdly hard to quantify and resists the simplistic sort of graphs employed by self-styled optimists such as Steven Pinker (because of things like negative externalities, economic benefits that are illegible to accounting practices that come belonging to pre-modern social networks and dangers brought about by technological lock-in). Nevertheless there are improvements that we see as unambiguously good that have occurred globally such as the proliferation of vaccines, the decline in infant mortality and the increase in average lifespan. Similar chart-brain goes for tankies.