The Civilization That Knew Too Much

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

The pre-pandemic world of 2019 may be gone, but there is no clear indication what will replace it. Russia is no longer a first-rate power. China’s economy has stalled. The US and Western Europe are facing an economic slowdown that may deepen into a recession in the coming months. The great powers are increasingly at odds, not only in Eastern Europe but also in the Western Pacific across the Taiwan Straits. The old ‘rule based, global world order’ is seemingly falling apart. George Friedman optimistically calls it The Storm Before the Calm, and sees a renewed and dominant United States emerging from a period of global upheaval. Crisis and innovation is how (for the US at least) things are reinvented.


Whether that optimism is justified remains to be seen. But there are two aspects to the current crisis, the first a collapse of consensus over what the rules ought govern all nations and second the problem of distrust in institutions within nations that must be solved for any lasting renewal to take place. The two problems are related. The digital revolution has provided the troubled states with the technical means to spy their population’s activity while simultaneously giving that same public the awareness of how often they are being spied on. Wherever one looks, whether Russia, China, Iran, the EU, Latin America or the US, this duality is evident: there is conflict within societies as  well as friction between civilizations fueled by a popular awareness of identity, grievance and controversy that could not have existed twenty years ago.

The underlying cause of both is that trust-based governance and institutional arrangements which were viable in the information-poor environment of the 20th century are hopelessly inadequate in the information-rich 21st. A generation ago, public perception of the interior of institutions was low-resolution, almost pixellated. The average person could not know the details of what went on inside religious, law-enforcement, educational, corporate, or scientific organizations, he simply saw them through the lens of reputation. Reputation can be thought of as a kind of data compression process that reduces a vast and complex reality into what in some cases is a single number.


People relying on indexes like the US News ranking of the Top Ten universities often need know nothing about an organization other than that it is Number X in a particular category. But it was enough for many. In that old world, people thought law enforcement mostly upright, churches mostly holy, educators largely trustworthy, journalists largely truthful and Washington occasionally honest, not because they knew the details, but because they accepted the Number. There were a few bad apples, no doubt; but by and large the institutions stood secure behind their reputations.

This coarse picture was validated by equally coarse feedback mechanisms. For so long as the institutions did their job in broad terms — produced an ever rising standard of living, kept obvious crime off the streets, upheld widely accepted moral codes — then the entire arrangement was accepted. The advent of the Internet with its vastly multiplied amounts of data and analysis upset this broad quid pro quo. Suddenly institutions could see inside private lives, while simultaneously, publics could also see inside institutions and the trust system collapsed.

Ironically, the more information a society has access to, the less effective trust becomes as the currency of institutional acceptance. A 2021 UN report noted that: “while data for long-run trends are limited, the data available show a marked decrease in institutional trust in developed countries. In the United States, trust in the national government has declined from 73 per cent in 1958 to 24 per cent in 2021. Western Europe has seen a similar steady decline in public trust since the 1970s.” The Internet in developed countries was in many respects a bane for institutions.


Greater connectivity and access to more (dis)information may be affecting trust as well. While empirical evidence is still scarce, social media and quickly-spreading news—genuine or fake—is changing the public discourse. Social media have emphasized institutional failures (real or perceived), enabled the sophisticated targeting of information campaigns, manipulated views and affected trust in the legitimacy of election outcomes. They have also been used by populist leaders to bypass or undermine other public institutions that may provide checks on power or help mediate a plurality of interests, such as political parties and the media.

Information was also destructive to the prestige of great powers. The perceived power of Putin’s Russia as a Permanent Member of the Security Council was probably highest in the days before the invasion of Ukraine, when it could still cloak itself in the mists of WW2 legend. After the harsh light of open source intelligence revealed its fallen state, the obsolescence of the UN legacy arrangements became clear in the eyes of the world .

Information is even corrosive to big science. Trust in the Centers for Disease Control declined during the Covid-19 pandemic after it failed to live up to its hype. People could also read scientific journals online and became ‘conspiracy theorists’. Pew Research found that “trust in scientists and medical scientists, once seemingly buoyed by their central role in addressing the coronavirus outbreak, is now below pre-pandemic levels … Overall, 29% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 40% who said this in November 2020.” No man is a hero to his valet nor is any scientific hypothesis immune from disproof, especially in the Internet age.


The great seem diminished, not because they and their institutions were better in the good old days, but because the imperfections of all human structures, once only visible to a few insiders, were now plain for anyone with a network connection to see. The situation is only likely to worsen as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence spreads its ganglia over the planet. We must, as George Friedman says, come to terms with technological transformation. The key problem of the information revolution that must be solved, if we are to harmonize the technological and institutional transformations of the current age is finding a basis for legitimacy without resorting to what Dostoevsky called miracle, mystery and authority Institutions in the past received trust and in return dispensed certitude and assurance. The fictional Grand Inquisitor argued that humanity could not live with either freedom or doubt and fled to institutions to escape them.

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such miracles and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; other, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves.”

So, when a pandemic comes, tell them a vaccine is on the way even if it’s not tested. Say it’s two weeks to flatten the curve. Say we have a plan to save the world from Putin’s nukes. Say anything but “we’re not sure”. That implies doubt, that conveys no reassurance. Today the public wants to be saved from global warming, to leave work to AI and be freed from the task of thinking by fact-checkers. It wants to believe, to trust; to find an ideology that will make it both virtuous and prosperous. But it can’t and we know it can’t. Everywhere we turn there are only flawed men like ourselves. Therein lies our modern purgatory and the root of our irreversible loss of faith in institutions.


The solution is to rebuild legitimacy on a basis that minimizes the need for unlimited trust. Much of the technology has already been created by the software industry to enable transactions between strangers. So-called trustless systems, session variables, security tokens, cryptographic authentication, etc are among the several tools available to dole out, limit and selectively renew our grants of trust. Moving to a system based on limited trust means that institutions must abandon their dreams of unlimited power. Big open-ended, multi-trillion dollar projects lasting decades must evolve toward a world based on a shorter trust-promise-fulfillment cycle; a kind of trust as you go system. Perhaps the biggest benefit of such a transformation is the resulting agiliy that comes with ability to admit mistakes, change course and deal explicitly with uncertainty.

If the pre-pandemic world imagined itself the End of History, the coming decades may mark its conscious rebirth. The information revolution has driven us from the land of miracle, mystery and authority; away from the reassurances of the fact checkers into the desert of doubt and discovery, where, guided by the dim lamp of freedom, we seek something greater than what we had before. It’s the storm after the storm. But there is no other way.

Books: Against the Great Reset: Eighteen Theses Contra the New World Order Kindle Edition by Michael Walsh (editor). In June 2020, prominent business and political leaders gathered for the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, under the rubric of “The Great Reset.” In the words of WEF founder Klaus Schwab, the Great Reset is a “unique window of opportunity” afforded by the worldwide COVID-19 panic to build “a new social contract” ushering in a utopian era of economic, social, and environmental justice. But beneath their lofty and inspiring words, what are their actual plans? In this timely and necessary book, Michael Walsh has gathered trenchant critical perspectives on the Great Reset from eighteen eminent writers and journalists from around the world.


Though I wouldn’t exactly consider myself an eminent writer, mine is one of the 18 chapters in this book and I think it’s worthwhile.


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