Open Societies Must Evolve With the Information Revolution
The dream of a unipolar world order in which the United States, as a lone, democratic superpower stewards a world at “the end of history,” seems conclusively outdated. Even the most optimistic proponents of this fading worldview seem to have accepted the likelihood of a more complicated, multipolar 21st century.  Aside from the United States, which will remain a global power for quite some time, no other country will be as prominent in the new multipolar world as China. Yet in much the same way that the dream of a unipolar world order has proven illusory, so has the dream of a free and open China. How open societies around the world choose to act next will determine whether the 21st century becomes a closed or an open era. We have a choice, and our options are not merely to surrender to chaos or to adopt China’s authoritarian model. We can choose to reintegrate these technologies into our open society and become stronger for it. The emergence of this future depends on a societal consensus around revitalizing our culture of collective sensemaking, real dialogue, and civic virtue. To do this will first require an understanding of how open societies can coordinate to out-compete closed societies, and why we failed to integrate the internet productively the first time around.
One of the cornerstones of the new, democratic world order was meant to be the information technology revolution that began in the U.S. in the late 20th century, exemplified by the internet. However, as the societal implications of this revolution emerge we see that rather than being a tool of democratic liberation, the internet has been wielded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), among others, as just another tool of state control. At the same time, rather than buttress the emergent order of open societies in the West, the internet has solidified existing divisions and allowed our epistemic commons —our shared public discourse and the norms and worldviews that govern and inform it—to become fragmented and polluted.
Compared to China, it is increasingly difficult to ignore American sluggishness in core areas of societal competence, including domestic governance, and, most obviously, economic and industrial heft. There are even signs America may be starting to lag behind in important categories of technology as well. The West still benefits from dynamic cultural creation and innovation compared to China, but the default future on the current trajectory is nevertheless one in which the 21st century sees the further rise of China and other autocratic regimes that benefit from Chinese guidance. The Industrial Revolution made possible the model of the nation-state, in which geographic proximity—and the ethnic, linguistic, social, economic, and political bonds that naturally followed—was the key determinant of the most important socio-political relations. As was widely predicted, the digital revolution has undermined the nation-state—but only in open societies.
While technology has transformed many aspects of Chinese life, including payments by smartphone for virtually everything, and ubiquitous communication, China has not become an open society, in which democratic governance based upon the free exchange of information between citizens in public discourse forms the basis of legitimate government, but rather has stayed closed. In closed societies like China, the internet has been integrated seamlessly by the state into the 20th-century industrial society’s system of governance. Governance decisions are made behind closed doors in the hierarchy of the CCP and enforced top-down without debate, as they have been for decades.
As of 2021, China has experienced no internet-enabled upheaval. There has been no successful reprise of Tiananmen Square. The failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the following wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019and 2020, show us why predictions about the digital revolution failed to materialize. In response to the Hong Kong protests, at home in the mainland as well as in restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, the government in Beijing successfully deployed tried-and-true communist methods of political enforcement and population control. These included direct censorship, state propaganda, and mass internment, all of which were used to great effect. Rather than ban outright the new technologies and social forms enabled by the internet, or allow them to develop uncontrolled, the CCP proactively made them part of their strategy and systems for social control.  The “Great Firewall,” once expected to eventually fall, instead evolved into a massive Chinese Internet separate from the rest of the U.S.-dominated web. On the Chinese Internet, you may use what Americans might view as Chinese Twitter, Chinese Amazon, Chinese Uber, and so on, all operating within an online ecosystem under centralized CCP control.
China’s government has not only weathered the rise of the internet and fortified its internal stability; it has continued to grow consistently in both geopolitical influence and economic power, both at home and abroad. The success of the “Chinese Dream” is hard to overstate: between 2000 and 2019, China’s GDP per capita rose from about $950 to over $10,000, a more than 10x growth rate. Comparatively, America’s GDP per capita did not even double. Over the same time period, the share of Chinese students studying abroad who would return home to China after graduation went from almost none of them to almost all of them. The image of China as gray, poor, and polluted has become outdated and, although this realization might not yet be evenly distributed, China is now increasingly an optimistic, prosperous, and pleasant place to live. China has stepped up investment around the globe and initiated wide-ranging economic and political projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), going so far as to lead development of a railroad network that would connect the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan to the Indian Ocean, and therefore to China’s favored trade routes.
In the early days of the digital revolution, Western experts and media both predicted and hoped that rising internet penetration in China would help bring about Chinese democracy and end the closed, communist system. Free access to information and peer-to-peer communication would circumvent the government’s old school methods of control. The West expected that the eyes of the people of China would be opened to their oppression, spurring civil society and new social movements towards liberal democracy. Perhaps it would not be unlike the Solidarity movement in 1980s socialist Poland or, a decade later, the mass movements that precipitated the fall of the Soviet Union. These hopes and predictions were especially salient when it came to China, where consistent and unprecedented economic growth was long expected to lead eventually to political liberalization. So far there has been plenty of growth but little liberalization.
In an instance of great historical irony, it was instead America, the “leader of the free world” and liberal democracy par excellence, which had its social, political, and core epistemic norms turned upside down by the internet. The 2010s saw significant political and cultural upheaval in the Western world, largely driven by the information and social media technology revolution. The internet has been around in some form or another since the 1980s, and its societal effects are arguably no better epitomized than by the unexpected victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
To be sure, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he was termed the first “social media president.” But as true as that may have been at the time, the intervening years brought a much higher penetration of smartphone ownership, social media usage, and algorithmically-driven content. Between 2008 and 2016, monthly active users of Facebook were estimated to have risen from about 100 million to nearly 2 billion. YouTube went from 300 million to 1.4 billion users in the same time period. Reddit and Twitter, which barely existed in 2008, each had significantly more than 200 million monthly active users by 2016 and played a key role in the global information landscape.
In hindsight, the way the Obama team used Facebook to buttress his presidential campaign, or the way Obama pioneered a White House-led social media strategy, looks more like a curiosity than a revolution. It took Donald Trump to reveal the full extent of the social upheaval wrought by the internet—disinformation, polarization, fake news, and all. Trump, who used his personal Twitter feed to dominate the national and international legacy news cycle, was just the most obvious result of this upheaval. The former president’s use of Twitter coincided with all sorts of chaotic internet-enabled movements, some radically fringe like the alt-right or Antifa, others radically popular like Brexit, and some both, like QAnon.
But it would be a mistake to think, as is still common, that recent polarization and fragmentation were somehow directly caused by Trump, or would go away once Trump left office. Rather, such upheavals are structurally inherent in the way our society uses the information and communication tools of the digital revolution. Our free-for-all information environment is optimized for maximizing profits through an advertising model based upon time-on-screen and a competition for attention. The accelerated ease of communication makes it easier than ever for people to become sequestered into ever-smaller epistemic groups that match their preconceived worldview. In these “echo chambers,” broad consensus and a shared understanding of reality are disincentivized in favor of in-group engagement. As it turns out, polarization, tribalism, and outrage are the result of maximizing engagement within the digital public sphere.
Within our current information ecosystem, contentious issues too often become flashpoints for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and irreconcilable partisan narratives rather than being objectively investigated and resolved. Nobody who is paying attention becomes more educated or informed, just more hostile and polarized. No broad consensus is reached on these platforms, though solid majorities can be found in polling on many issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting public health measures taken to solve it, including the efficacy, or even necessity, of lockdowns, masks, and vaccines. But despite the threat of the pandemic both to the individual and to our ways of life as a whole, rather than reaching a baseline of consensus to effectively navigate the crisis, the open societies of the West fell into epistemic morass—at great human cost.
As the information technology revolution and the economic rise of China both got underway in the 1990s and 2000s, these were widely interpreted not as warning signs of future fundamental crises, but simply as the expected results of a process of globalization that would bring material prosperity, unprecedented technology, and liberal democratic thinking to the whole world.
Open societies are not intrinsically resistant to oppression or chaos. An open society is not the final stage of human development; once we have democratic institutions and a healthy epistemic commons, we cannot simply relax and stop thinking about how to maintain them. Maintaining an open society requires active effort on the part of all of its citizens. Without this vigilance, an open society will naturally decay into an oppressive or chaotic state. This is the normal failure mode of political culture, and it has been observed throughout history by the ancient Greeks, who termed it the kyklos (cycle) of government, from aristocracy to democracy to tyranny. The rule of law, backed up by the state’s monopoly of violence, is a fundamental feature of both open and closed societies. The difference is that, in an open society, the law is an expression of the will of the people through voting, rather than an expression of a powerful minority of the population’s imposed will.
When new technologies are invented and diffused through society, there is no guarantee that they will necessarily be used for good. Moreover, there is no guarantee that they will inherently support open society. Technologies are not values-agnostic, in that the design of technologies can elicit different forms of human behavior and the values that go along with them. But the design of new technologies and how we choose to use them is ultimately up to people, not machines. Without oversight from citizens using and integrating new technologies into society, it is arguably much more likely that new technologies will be used first by tightly coordinated, small groups looking for an advantage in influence and power—rather than for the betterment of democracy.
This trend may be seen clearly in the full spectrum of information technologies that have appeared in the last few decades. In the open societies of the West, information technologies have empowered fringe groups and anti-social forces, each of whom has used the new power of the internet to push their own agendas at the expense of democratic society as a whole. For the same reason, information technology has not led to a fragmentation of closed societies like China; as we have seen, the Chinese Communist Party figured out how to use this new technology extensively to their benefit. If they didn’t, perhaps fringe groups in China would have done it instead. But they did. This first-order effect of fringe empowerment also gives rise to a second-order effect, in which the social and ideological fragmentation caused by empowering fringe groups itself creates more social and ideological fragmentation, as small epistemic groups increasingly splinter into even smaller and more zealous groups. The opposing fringe views of all these groups combine to form an environment where the lack of clear agreement makes people more susceptible to fringe ideas. The end result is pervasive fragmentation, as opposed to a shared epistemic commons and an ability to reach societal consensus.
Since democratic , participatory government depends on a healthy epistemic commons and cannot flourish in an highly polarized and fragmented ideological environment, this problem becomes an existential threat to open society. This much has become clear to many people in the West, but the preferred solution has come to us via osmosis from China. While it is unlikely that we will see a central “politburo” or “ministry of information” that directs discourse in the West as we might see in China, there is still a temptation among our political and social elites to turn the small number of information technology companies—like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and so on—into a tight-knit oligarchy that controls information flows in a politburo-like fashion. This would solve the problem of internet-enabled social and ideological fragmentation, but it would do so by replacing the substance of the open society with a new information feudalism akin to a closed society, while merely preserving the legal forms of open society on paper.
We are already heading towards this point. The dream of a decentralized internet predicted by early digital pioneers has been laid to waste by Metcalfe’s law, which states that the value or utility of a network is proportional to the square of the users of the network. This logic means that whichever platform can attract the most users quickly enough will reach “escape velocity” and significantly outcompete all others, becoming extremely difficult to displace. For this reason, the mature internet of 2021 is not dominated by a wide-ranging bazaar of small, epistemically self-sufficient forums, user groups, and chat channels, largely uninterested in tribal conflict. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the internet’s activity, and especially socially and politically salient activity, takes place on a handful of networks owned by the same small number of Silicon Valley companies. The primary activity of this select group of powerful networks has become performative self-radicalization in opposition to others. The administrators and managers of these networks, from the CEOs and other executives, to dedicated moderation boards, have inherited outsized editorial power over the national and even international discourse. They have the power to determine who is a verified, “blue check” journalist. They have the power to remove a former president of the United States from their platforms. Moreover, the algorithms they use to organize and distribute user-generated content are themselves opaque editorial influences, operating constantly to curate information in a way that aligns with the company’s goals and values.
Freedom of speech on social media platforms comes with serious problems: conspiracy theories, polarization, foreign and domestic disinformation, and more, all pollute the epistemic commons. Open societies have always struggled with bearing the burden of free speech; how best to promote a healthy public sphere that avoids both anarchy and top-down oppression is a problem as old as democracy itself. Dealing with these problems without centralized oligarchic control can seem like an unenviable position, but it is one that is much more flexible and open to change than one in which a small number of Silicon Valley information monopolies control information flows. Fully ceding the responsibility of safeguarding the public sphere to Silicon Valley would create a power dynamic so asymmetrical that it might never be overcome.
The recent history of the digitized West presents us with a confounding dynamic. In the short run, the design of our discourse mechanisms leads to chaos and fragmentation. A reactive information feudalism then follows, enforced by the information monopolists. Ironically, this means that some form of information regulation is necessary from the outset in order to prevent the tech companies from maturing into bona fide information monopolies; however, what is really needed is a redesign of our digital environments and the business architectures that produced them.
Figuring out how we can out-adapt China may be one of the primary societal and national security issues of our generation, but there is a key nuance here: out-adapting China cannot rely on discrediting an opposing system. Rather, it will involve turning our focus towards developing a new model of information technology that is authentically democratic and bolsters open society. “Beating China” is not enough, and it should only be an incidental goal. The West’s task is to build a model that stands on its own, for itself, and not against any other model as its perverse mirror image. Nostalgic Cold Warrior desire to use China as a new USSR for domestic unity is a distraction and only prolongs our period of confusion and inaction. After all, if binary, hubristic, us-versus-them thinking brought us to this crisis of rudderless fragmentation soon after the West “won” the Cold War, why should it be re-adopted as a strategy?
The only way through is for open societies to think deeply and independently about how to integrate the information revolution into our worldview, social norms, and institutions. Open societies must reorganize to benefit from these technologies in a novel way—through an emergent and democratic, rather than imposed, order. As of yet, this remains an unsolved problem. To even begin to solve it, we must have a national and even global population all capable of, and oriented toward, good sensemaking, real dialogue, and civic virtue. There is no reason to think that this is beyond our ability to achieve, should we choose to pursue this goal. America may seem to be lagging behind China, and yet at other points in the past we seemed to be lagging behind closed societies like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—but when needed, we were able to unify, marshal our creative resources and the benefits of our diversity, and meet the challenges in time.
It is not hard to see how the very technologies that are destabilizing and fragmenting our society could be used instead to fortify it. What if Facebook’s algorithms were made to optimize for pedagogy instead of maximizing the amount of time eyeballs spend glued to the screen? What if Twitter promoted a culture of healthy skepticism and collective sensemaking, as some subcultures on that platform already do? What if the resources of Google were marshalled behind a project of building open-source governance tools available to all citizens, as the hacktivists partnered with the Taiwanese state have done? Information technology still has the potential to bring widespread sensemaking to historically unprecedented levels, but this will require us to make the active and informed choice, as a society, to use it that way.
The hardest, ultimate challenge will be discovering and inculcating the right civic virtues. Our current conception of civic virtue, insofar as we even continue to share one, dates back to the 1920s: this was itself an Industrial era, mass-media update to the earlier 18th- and 19th-century definition that focused on yeoman farmers in an agrarian republic. Our sense of civic virtue must be appropriate to the types of citizens to whom it applies and to the world in which they live. No longer are we a nation of 18th-century yeoman farmers who convene town meetings, or even of 19th- and 20th-century industrial laborers who must be made ready for mass mobilization within the new machinery of the political party and the media environment of the newspaper age.
In much the same way that the information age has made the nation-state obsolete, the information age has turned us all into a new type of democratic citizen, equipped with incredible abilities to communicate and coordinate with other people from all around the world, irrespective of geography or other pre-existing bonds. How can we make our open societies compatible with this new era? We have the choice, now more than ever, to explore this open question together and find a solution. But we will have to choose to do so. It won’t happen by default.
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“Democracy and the Epistemic Commons,” The Consilience Project, February 27, 2021, https://consilienceproject.org/democracy-and-the-epistemic-commons/.↩
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Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “The rise of social media,” Our World in Data, September 18, 2019, https://ourworldindata.org/rise-of-social-media.↩
“Were Pallets of Bricks Planted at Black Lives Matter Protests?,” The Consilience Project, March 1, 2021, https://consilienceproject.org/pallets-of-bricks/.↩
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“Democracy and the Epistemic Commons,” The Consilience Project, February 27, 2021, https://consilienceproject.org/democracy-and-the-epistemic-commons/.↩
Thaisa Fernandes, “Metcalfe’s Law and Why You Should Keep It in Mind,” PM101, April 11, 2021, https://medium.com/pm101/metcalfes-law-and-why-you-should-keep-it-in-mind-9a3b217226fc.↩
Samo Burja, “The Centralized Internet Is Inevitable,” Palladium Magazine, October 19, 2020, https://palladiummag.com/2020/10/19/the-centralized-internet-is-inevitable/.↩
Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin and Nicholas Diakopoulos, “Negotiated Autonomy: The Role of Social Media Algorithms in Editorial Decision Making,” Media and Communication 8, No. 3, July 10, 2020, https://www.cogitatiopress.com/mediaandcommunication/article/view/3001.↩
“Taiwan’s Digital Democracy,” The Consilience Project, June 6, 2021, https://consilienceproject.org/taiwans-digital-democracy/.↩