- Amit Baumel
The Mouse and the Elephant: How Populism is Growing by the Search for Relevance
As someone who contemplates with questions about the use of technology for the benefit of humanity, I get to think a lot about how technology fuels populism.
Recently I came across this phrase which I think has a lot to do with it:
A mouse walks alongside the elephant and says “look how much dust we make”
By itself there is no problem with such a bold statement coming out of the mouse’s mouth, HOWEVER, if the mouse and the elephant need dust to survive, and the mouse also happens to have a gun (the kind that penetrates an elephant skin), well, I can only wish good luck to the elephant and the mouse.
In a nutshell, this phrase presents an analogy that links between populism and relevance.
People (the mouse) who in order to feel relevant adopt stories about the value they provide to the world (the dust), but in practice ignore others who provide essential value to the society (the elephant).
Now to the complete story that links populism with the humane need to optimize relevance in a technological world.
The Flattening of the Expert Class
Here is a tough question: Who beyond the nuclear family and close friends provides other people with plenty of value?
After all, every person provides some kind of value. Every person who smiles at other people, who helps a stranger change a flat tire on the road, who gives me a high five (and doesn't leave my hand hanging in the air) is valuable.
Every person is important.
And yet, who are those people who determine whether a country without a natural resources will provide a higher quality of life (like in Israel) or lower (like in Bulgaria)?
Who are the people that we should thank for when we enjoy a higher budget for education and health? The people that thanks to whom we have more budget for welfare that eventually relates to this sense of solidarity that could be found between strangers who meet in the street?
These are the people who build companies or non-for-profit organizations that improve the quality of our lives (and employ others who pay taxes). These are the people thanks to whom their own country enjoys a technological advantage in the modern warfare, and also the people who work in sectors of health and education systems.
Let's warmly welcome THE EXPERTS.
The idea of expertise has radically changed in recent decades following the flattening of the expert class. Since then many would like to forget the importance of expertise to our societies. This is a populist position in the sense that any person has the ability to state (s)he is an elephant that creates dust. This is a position that optimizes our wellbeing, relying on the need of humans, every one, to feel relevant.
This is natural of course. If I am taking part in a group of people who create the stardust that our society rests upon, well, I feel much more important.
The emotional roots of the flattening of the expert class began when commercial channels (which depend on popularity rates) noticed that viewers prefer to watch people like themselves on the screen (over experts of various kinds). It began somewhat around 2000 and the first season of the American series "Survivor" (1). Since then the popularity of modern reality shows has vastly grown.
People discovered quite quickly that it is very interesting and pleasant for them to watch ordinary people standing in the center of the stage – that they identify with ordinary people much more. Then, commercial companies learned that the new reality stars can perform in advertisements, sometimes with better conversion rates in comparison to traditional experts. And this is, in a sense, a short way of explaining how the whole gap between an expert on behalf of her/his "professionalism" and an expert on behalf of her/his "publicity" becomes smaller.
After all, when we admire someone like us, this is a bit like admiring ourselves – which is a highly recommended experience for our emotional wellbeing.
If this is the emotional dimension that explains the benefit in flattening the expert status, there is also a technological dimension to the whole story – the one that enables the flattening in practice.
Technology in the Service of Populism
The information revolution that allows us all to access data and knowledge in a relatively simple way, means that the gap between each person and the medical doctor or investment advisor becomes smaller.
The megaphone (social networks) revolution that allows us all to try to influence others (exactly in the same way that I am trying to influence you in the current post) means that the gap between each person and a political commentator or public influencer becomes smaller.
Basically, the flattening of the expert class is desirable since it provides everyone with more opportunities to provide more value, to become more relevant. But with it we experience new norms, such as, for example, the concept that all people have the right to choose who to listen to – the right to choose experts on their own. And since each new-expert chooses to tell a very specific story, based on very specific facts, the right to choose your own expert is also the right to choose your own facts.
Populism is growing today in light of the fact that everyone has the right to choose the story that makes them feel most relevant and important, while ignoring facts that do not agree with their narrative.
This is a right that exists under the democratization of positions and opinions - in a world of social networks. And all of us tend to prefer the story that makes us feel more relevant.
Stories Then and Now
It is important to remember that people have always tended to tell stories that do not 100% match the physical reality, however, these were stories that did not harm people’s productive value, and sometimes even contributed to it because they encouraged cooperation.
If I live in a small community, and while I work the agricultural field I tell myself this is all done thanks to "Fruitiona", the goddess of agriculture, there is no problem with this story. On the contrary – I find more meaning in my production. The problem will begin to emerge if I stop investing in grain and believe that the goddess will simply provide me with food. And in such moments, those who believed in stories that oppose to their productivity did not survive.
And here we reach the danger in modern populism.
In a pre-modern local-community (or tribe) you produce food, take care of shelter, security, and try to save resources for less favorable times. Eventually, there is no complicated dynamic between production and survival. In that sense you created = you survived.
On the other hand, the budget of modern countries – the one that determines government ability to support education, health, and the well-being of all of us – is built on a very complex and complicated network of value transfer between people through trade and taxation. In practice, only 12% of global GDP is based on people who produce food, electricity and basic things that are important for our immediate existence (2). This means that the relationship between expertise, productivity, and the resilience of the societies becomes much more distant and certainly less immediate.
If you stop producing something today in a non-technological community, tomorrow you will not have food on the table. This is not the exact case in a modern country.
In a modern country, many processes take place and prolong the period of time between damaging productivity (led by experts) and actual problems evident to the public. If today entrepreneurs stop creating new companies (companies that will only provide value in two or three years from now), we will experience problems in our budget and employment rates only in several years’ time.
In the same way, if a populist government decides to please the crowd by providing more today on the expense of more debt (above the agreed ceiling of deficit), it is difficult for an uneducated person to understand what that exactly means.
When populist governments manage to postpone the problems that their populist stories create in reality to a distant point in time, they can avoid being accountable for their actions. This can be done in the absence of powerful experts who would require an earlier encounter with reality.
However, once the problems do appear in modern societies, they are much more difficult to solve. A small community requires fewer mouths to feed and is more flexible as it is not reliant on the need for complex infrastructures of sanitation, transportation, health, and education. In the modern country, on the other hand, the ability to steer the ship is more complex.
Looking for a Sliver Lining
There is no simple solution in a world where people are looking for a way to feel good about themselves, and populism provides them with the exact pill they are looking for.
And yet, this is not a story about a superior group of experts and another, inferior group of unskilled people.
Everyone is looking to be relevant and valuable to others in the society. In other words, people would like to be in a position where they have a positive impact on others, and this is a real blessing. Subsequently, a healthy society manages to provide as many people as possible with this exact feeling. And from this perspective, the problem in the phrase about the mouse and the elephant is that there are some people who can't make dust.
More about technology’s ability to enable all of us to make dust in a different post.
Meanwhile, in the hope of a humane society where everyone can make dust…
Be well and enjoy the rest of your day.
(1) Survivor: Borneo (2) How can we protect food systems against global shocks? Here's what business leaders say