The basic thesis of Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millenium is that “the information technologies of the 21st century have enabled the public, composed of amateurs, people from nowhere, to break the power of the political hierarchies of the industrial age.” The result has been “the mass extinction of stories of legitimacy.” Gurri believes this informational meteor strike has caused the political upheaval we see around us.
The election to the presidency of Donald Trump, in particular, had the effect of a volcanic eruption that thrust into the open, for everyone to see, the fractured and mangled pieces of the old status quo … The great narratives are fracturing into shards.
Every great institution is justified by a story. That story connects the institution to higher political ideals and ultimately to the moral order of the world. It persuades ordinary people—you and me—that, if we wish to do the right thing, we should act as the institution requires of us. The story bestows the authorizing magic I have called legitimacy. High modernist government, for example, told a story about perfecting social relations by the application of power and science. On this basis, it razed entire neighborhoods, without much protest, to make room for housing projects like Cabrini Green. The Federal Reserve, in Alan Greenspan’s time, told a story about mastery over the economy by means of esoteric knowledge.
With these defunct stories died the belief that “high modernist government” could control mankind’s future. But there is yet another reason why, besides the Internet, that elites are having such a hard time today. Since progressivism rested on the proposition that advancements in technology, science, and social organization would allow man, acting through the state, to control destiny, any blow to certainty would strike at the heart of the concept.
The progressive enterprise was undermined ironically by Galileo himself who “contended that scientific knowledge must be constituted within mathematics and not be bound by the need to explain matters in ordinary language.” Nobody had to “understand” anything in human terms as long as the mathematics worked. Nothing seemed amiss while the scientific inquiry was of a common-sense variety. But as early as James Maxwell, investigators began to realize that mathematical models might reveal a universe unintelligible to man. While Maxwell hoped not, by the 20th century Richard Feynman had given up:
One had to lose one’s common sense in order to perceive what was happening at the atomic level. Finally, in 1926, an “uncommon-sensy” theory was developed to explain the “new type of behavior” of electrons in matter. It looked cockeyed, but in reality it was not: it was called the theory of quantum mechanics. The word “quantum” refers to this peculiar aspect of nature that goes against common sense …
When I say that all the phenomena of the physical world can be explained by this theory, we don’t really know that. Most phenomena we are familiar with involve such tremendous numbers of electrons that it’s hard for our poor minds to follow that complexity. In such situations, we can use the theory to figure roughly what ought to happen and that is what happens, roughly, in those circumstances. But if we arrange in the laboratory an experiment involving just a few electrons in simple circumstances, then we can calculate what might happen very accurately, and we can measure it very accurately, too. Whenever we do such experiments, the theory of quantum electrodynamics works very well. …
What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school-and you think I’m going to explain it to you so you can understand it? No, you’re not going to be able to understand it. Why, then, am I going to bother you with all this? Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won’t be able to understand what I am going to say? It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.
The disquiet of the 20th century is now a full-blown crisis in the 21st. The frontiers of science have reached the realm of complex systems. “Examples of complex systems are Earth’s global climate, organisms, the human brain, infrastructure such as power grid, transportation or communication systems, social and economic organizations (like cities), an ecosystem, a living cell.” In the face of complex systems, even our tools falter. At the frontiers of medicine, the problem is particularly acute. Given two models, A and B with 10 thousand identical starting parameters, A will diverge from B within a short time and no one can say why. Expanding the model to 10 million identical starting parameters will not help for A and B will still diverge. Galileo’s hidden curse is upon us.
The full extent of the change did not become apparent until the arrival of quantum mechanics in the 20th century. Only then did the unintelligibility of Nature become forcefully apparent with the uncertainty principle and strange notions like wave-particle duality. … With the advent of the 21st century, it has become apparent that the epistemology that began with Galileo, took shape with Isaac Newton, and came to fruition in the first half of the Twentieth Century with Niels Bohr, Hans Reichenbach, and others cannot support the desire to model complex systems.
According to Wikipedia, “the replication crisis (or replicability crisis or reproducibility crisis) is, as of 2019, an ongoing methodological crisis in which it has been found that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate or reproduce.” This strikes at the very heart not only of the scientific method but all top-down projects to remake the world. The more complex the system the more unpredictable it is.
To restate Gurri’s thesis in epistemological terms: the public has gotten too complex for the elites to understand. The information revolution has destroyed not only the old hierarchical arrangements, it has created a world uncommandable in principle. The world will still have order, except it will be emergent, not foreordained. What we are left with is a kind of Bayesian outlook. No longer can we say: this is what the Five-Year Plan will do. We will have our hands full just answering the question: “what did we just learn?”
This incapacity to foresee has profound implications. In the physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s definition, a ‘natural law’ is a compact description beforehand of the regularities of a process. But if we cannot even prestate the possibilities, then no compact descriptions of these processes beforehand can exist. These phenomena, then, appear to be partially beyond natural law itself. This means something astonishing and powerfully liberating. We live in a universe, biosphere, and human culture that are not only emergent but radically creative. We live in a world whose unfoldings we often cannot prevision, prestate, or predict— a world of explosive creativity on all sides.
Claude Shannon would not have been shocked by this. He knew that information was surprisal. The media thought it was control. The question is whether human society can withstand the unmediated impact of Creation on the personal world. A reader, reacting to a Belmont Club post on the failure of Five-Year plans noted that men needed stories to survive. We would need faith and hope to survive in a narrative without known endings.
Down the Golden Road to Samarkand. Strolling down that road, I picked up that researchers now suggest that the critical advantage of homo sapiens over the Neanderthals was the ability to invent, communicate and believe in stories. I saw a recent melodrama version of it, called William, on an in-flight. Somebody clones a Neanderthal and tries to integrate him in today’s society, which fails due to the latter’s lack of capacity for abstraction. He is intelligent and capable but doesn’t get jokes, metaphors, irony, stories …
This, for instance, allowed homo sapiens to build larger coherent groups, despite having smaller numbers in total. Practically that meant outumbering the enemy when and where it counts in critical regional confrontations.
So here then do we find the prehistorical roots of the war of the words. Homo sapiens’ strength became his weakness as it became excessive.
It would explain why good stories can be so persuasive and pervasive. Think of the Keynesian narrative and its successor the Neolib globalization narrative. They were quickly adopted by all political parties across most nations. I bet we could go through all of history and see how one leading narrative gets replaced by the next. And what a surprise that was.
Right now, as you keep pointing out, there is no plausible narrative to explain it all and bind them all. Mostly, there’s but retrotopian BS.
Another well documented habitat of story-sapiens: when in serious trouble and confusion, then try to remember the last story in your imagined memory that made any sense to you. Not the smartest nor the most courageous way to prepare for what will be, by definition, a surprise.
Thomas Sowell pointed out how sacred the narrative was to each ruling class. “With all the pious talk about ‘tolerance’ in the media and in academia, there is virtually none for those who challenge the dogmas of political correctness in most of our colleges and universities.” That’s because stories were their lifeblood. There are still stories, but governments will have to wait for the news rather than make them up. And they have reason to be afraid. Creation — the future — is coming at them like a freight train.
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The Triumph Of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life, by I. Bernard Cohen. From the pyramids to mortality tables, Galileo to Florence Nightingale, this book explores how numbers have come to assume a leading role in science, government, business and in many other aspects of life. a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics. Cohen shines a new light on familiar figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Dickens, and reveals Florence Nightingale to be a passionate statistician. This is a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics.
Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood. The first book about the victorious partnership between William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and the deep friendship that made it possible.
The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, by Martin Gurri. This book tells the story of how insurgencies, enabled by digital devices and a vast information sphere, have mobilized millions of ordinary people around the world. It also ponders whether the current elite class can bring about a reformation of the democratic process, and whether new organizing principles, adapted to a digital world, can emerge from the present political turbulence.
I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, by Charles Brandt. This book is the inspiration for the major motion picture “The Irishman” and is a true crime classic. Frank Sheeran’s confession that he killed Jimmy Hoffa in the manner described in the book is supported by forensic evidence, and solves the Hoffa mystery.
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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.