There is a crisis of confidence in elected and unelected officialdom across the planet.
Whether we watch the scenes from Egypt, Brazil and Turkey or read of the horrendous problems at Morecambe and Thamesmead closer to home along with the allegations surrounding the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and government, as we witness elections in the UK and US attracting less and less voters at each election, it becomes ever clearer that confidence in those that have power has been lost.
Hundreds of years ago, when most believed that those in power were born to have it and exercise it and when information was so scarce, lack of confidence in the powerful would erupt only at times into outright hostility. If the French Revolution could be considered an example of such hostility, contrast that to the relative minimalism of 1968 or the banlieue rioting of a few years ago.
Today, the volcano is not sleeping but constantly rumbling with disquiet that breaks out not necessarily in revolution but in people power as shown by Erdem Gunduz’s standing man (duran adam) in Istanbul.
We are more knowledgeable and educated but we are no less intolerant and the expectation is more widespread. So, the rumbling goes on and our politicians – tied to their 19th Century establishments of power – are completely nonplussed and have no idea how to react.
The Power over Information
There are waves of contention that sweep across the centuries.
In the West, the political concepts of the 18th Century and before were founded often on religion and religious intolerance and rising nationalism – this remains the root cause of many conflicts in the Middle East still;
those of the 19th Century on nationalism;
those of the 20th Century on dogma – fascism / nazi-ism, socialism, communism;
the 21st Century still has resonances of all those centuries and many countries remain hidebound by the blood-thirst of years gone by.
However, each century brings its own challenges while technology does much to change our thinking and understanding. In Europe, the invention of the printing press enabled the spread of knowledge beyond the priests and monks who kept power through their monopoly of the printed word.
In the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine brought his word to the attention of the masses through documents like the Rights of Man that fuelled rebellion in the USA and France.
Writers like Dickens in the 19th Century caused the wealthy to respond to the crimes committed against the poor of London and the South of England – leading to the philanthropic movement.
This century’s challenge is about the battle between mass information centralism and decentralism caused by the Internet and cheaper and cheaper forms of computer and mobile technology. It is driven by the extraordinary advances in information, learning and education for most sectors of the world. It is driven by the power that such information provides and the desire of those in power to retain it.
Edward Snowden’s rebellion is about information and the central authority of the National Security Association in the USA to plough information furrows in search of masses of data (see excellent article by Kenneth Roth). Technology now allows so much information to be gathered that those in power’s natural default is to take it. Snowden rebelled in the way he thought right – his own 21st Century revolution in the same way that Wikileaks did or Bradley Manning attempted – their own duran adam.
Elsewhere, it is the gaining of information that empowers those who rebel against what they see as the wrong use of power. From radio to TV and to the internet and social networks, information in the hands of increasingly better educated citizens means that their concerns can be better disseminated and groups can more easily coalesce. From the printing press to the telegraph and now to social networks running on mobile phones, the acquisition of knowledge and the crowd forming opportunities available (online and offline) challenge authorities worldwide. In Turkey, The Hurriyet Daily, in one comment piece, headlined: ‘Twitter versus Prime Minister Erdogan’. The “democratic coup” in Egypt was fuelled by the rapid dissemination of information to a population where many tired quickly of the deceit of power.
The Long Tail and “Power Law”
With the extraordinary advances in technology and information, society is splitting into those that have control over it and those that don’t. This is seen clearly in the financial crash of 2007/8. Leading up to this, the banks that control much of the information upon which our economies rely were able to manipulate that information and thereby also manipulate the so-called analysts and quality assurance organisations (like the ratings agencies – Moody’s, S&P and Fitch). They do so still.
The increasing use of social networks and of online systems puts the mass of information in the hands of governments and large corporations. Big data (metadata) means that individual citizens are merely part of the “long tail”, while those who run the large corporations remain independent. There are individuals and there is the long tail. They call the long tail the outcome of a power law – no better description.
Orwell saw this “power law” clearly in his “1984” but could not foresee the means that would be available to those who stand at the top of the big data (as opposed to those who stand beneath or within it). There is a real danger that as society becomes more separated by data collection, we will see confidence in institutions and governance erode progressively more – a leaking of trust that is already weak.
The reason for this is that those within the long tail, despite being so far away from the centre, still have access to large amounts of data – just not in a controlling manner as individuals. This access means that they understand the problems they are facing much more than the militants of previous centuries.
The Information Revolution
Jaron Lanier – a leading thinker on information systems and a pioneer of virtual reality – has written in “Who Owns the Future?” about the destruction of the middle class and the propensity of information systems to force us into the long tail.
The information revolution may not be the stable process that we want it to be. It may be that independent revolutions (like those of Snowden or Bradley Manning) become more common as the common man and woman show their own discontent with the world of big data.
Duran adam – standing man – is one individual silently standing up against centralized power – just like those at Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square. This stand requires some thought because while the situation in Turkey can be improved by government listening to its people, the answer to the information problem is less clear – even if both require huge changes in thinking.
On the problem in Turkey, the issue is an old one (or a group of old ones): secular versus religious, centralized versus real democracy. In Egypt, it is similar (if more violent).
In the era of big data, the problem that Edward Snowden exposed is the same one that exists outside of the Internet – that centralized power with control of information is often corruptive. At a more micro level, that is why the Morecambe Bay hospitals issue (where the CQC is alleged to have suppressed a damning report on care in hospitals -that is claimed by campaigners such as James Titcombe – who lost his nine-day old baby son in that hospital – to have caused loss of life) is similar to Edward Snowden’s concerns.
Power over information – such as at the CQC – can be wholly corruptive. This provides a glimpse into the potential solutions – which are transparency and access to information. It always was, of course, but larger organisations like the NHS (the UK’s National Health Service) easily become power drunk (especially in a secretive nation like the UK). The same is true in Turkey and Egypt. The same is true at the NSA. This power relies on information.
The release valves are (1) transparency – the same transparency called for in dictatorships where money is looted on a grand scale; (2) access to data – sharing between the centre and the long tail.
“One Word of Truth…shall outweigh the whole world.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1970
It is not too simplistic to say that transparency and data access are at the heart of the problem in the information battles of the 21st Century. Power centres based on information only function because they have more information than those outside their circle.
This has been so throughout history – from before Pheidippides and his Marathon run to Rothschild and his use of advance information to be the first to know (and profit from) Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Advanced democracies now need to take the next step – the provision of information as the default and a requirement on all governments and companies to make information available unless they can justify the opposite.
The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 debated the issue of transparency this week – endeavouring to determine where the boundaries were. David Leigh – formerly of the Guardian argued well for greater access of information for ordinary citizens.
Diane Coyle in “The Economics of Enough” proposed experiments in the use of the Internet to engage citizens. We already have this. Organisations like Avaaz, Witness and 38 Degrees are already providing experiments. These are not-for-profits set up to access information – including much user-generated content – to create access for citizens and pressure on government and companies. Nowhere in Diane Coyle’s book does it mention the opportunities created by such organisations – Government, public sector and corporations have so much power that top economists like her do not consider the power of citizens to collaborate that already exists.
The problem is that individually lobbyist activities like the three mentioned address the power of the Internet to pursue specific causes – often not the root cause of the Power Law over Information. Those like Wikileaks attack the issue head-on – quite some experiment that has seen Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for over a year. The experiments with the Internet – bringing information and access to information to citizens – is under way. We are all already part of it: active or passive.
The question is whether the Long Tail of Information gets to be wagged.