Rhys' Newsletter #41
What the Russian protests teach us about technology, politics, and values
Looks like TCP/IP is still working, so that’s good.
2) One theme of this newsletter is covering protests around the world. In #29, we explored the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. This week, we’ll look at the 100,000-person protests in Russia that erupted last Saturday. We’ll explore how protests are connected to:
a) The internet
b) Political institutions
c) Human values
But first, it’s Russia, which means that it was damn cold: -60F in Northeast Russia.
tbh, Putin is bad but if I were Russian I’d be protesting the cold. +2°C couldn’t come soon enough.
And, of course, they’re throwing snowballs at police:
Onto the non-cold content:
1a) How does the internet affect protest?
Russians are protesting because opposition leader Navalny released a Youtube video on Putin’s corruption to build a billion-dollar palace. The palace has an underground ice palace, two helipads, and its own church. Putin has more than 20 palaces. …I feel like three is enough?
The video got 90M+ views on Youtube. TikTok videos with the "Free Navalny" hashtag got 200M+ views.
This is the power of the internet disintermediation. Navalny can speak directly to the people through social media (the Fifth Estate), bypassing traditional media (the Fourth Estate). More generally, speaking directly to the people surfaces charismatic politicians optimized for digitally-native authenticity. Think Trump, AOC, and Jacinda Ardern. And, it surfaces anti-corruption videos like Navalny’s.
Censors at the Russian government (Roskomnadzor) told social media companies to block protest organizing. They claimed organizers were encouraging minors to protest, which is against the law. VK, Russia’s homegrown social media platform, blocked many pages. Youtube and Facebook did not, with Facebook writing: “Since this content doesn’t violate our Community Standards, it remains on our platform.”
This highlights internet censorship and the jurisdiction of nation-states vs. global platforms. The Russian government says “take this protest page down, it’s illegal”. Facebook says, “No. It doesn’t break our Community Standards.” This shows how tech platform documents like Community Standards play a constitution-like role. It’s not whether something is illegal that matters, it’s whether it breaks Community Standards.
Finally, these protests show the power of networked nonviolent protest. Remember from Twitter and Tear Gas that protest has two primary components: short-term signaling (like a protest) and long-term capacities (like grassroots orgs with funding). The internet 100x’s our ability to signal, but only 10x’s our capacity building. This is a big reason why the Arab Spring didn’t have staying power. With Facebook, you could get 100k people to protest at Tahir Square, but couldn’t form real, capacity-driven government. Networked nonviolent protest is fragile.
Here’s a comment from a Russian Reddit user about how the shared context of a Youtube video helped him gain the confidence to protest:
Navalny’s team released a video about Putin's palace. In the beginning of video they put a call for people to go to the centers of their cities on 23rd January.
I was so scared and was thinking about it every night but today i made my decision. I went to the center of Saint Petersburg. A lot of police just blocked almost all the ways. I saw how police arrested a couple of people like a few meters away from me. I tried to look calm to not being arrested too.
Then a thousands of people started a march on streets to get to another place. I was soo impressed and my fear disappeared! I don't think there will be any response from our government, but i think we showed them how much people are against corruption!
The signal of a single-day protest is powerful. We’ll see if Russians can do the capacity-building necessary to keep momentum.
1b) How do political institutions affect protest?
In The Dictator’s Handbook, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explains the difference between democratic and authoritarian governments.
On the left, you have a democracy. There are three main flows:
Taxes are extracted from an educated populace. This arrow is large because you can extract lots of taxes from productive citizens.
Some of that money goes back to the people in the form of programs for the public good, like education (which will increase the size of the taxable base).
And a bit of that money goes to the “winning coalition”, a set of entities (businesses, unions) that are needed to win election.
On the right, you have an authoritarian state (like Russia):
Taxes aren’t really extracted from the (less productive) people. Income tax rates are only 13%. Instead, the government gets most of its income from natural resources. Most of the oil and natural gas companies in Russia are state-owned.
Little money goes back to the population through e.g. education.
Instead, most of that money goes towards the “winning coalition” of the military, media companies, and corrupt companies. (Or roughly 20 palaces.)
The key learning: the people want policies that benefit the public. But countries with lots of natural resources have a difficult time escaping from authoritarianism that benefits the powerful.
1c) How do individual values affect protest?
Are the Russian protests the result of a liberalizing population? Or the result of undemocratic institutions? In other words, are the protests the result of a demand for democracy or the lack of a supply of democratic institutions?
To understand this, let’s first dive into Ronald Inglehart’s Cultural Evolution (my book review is here).
Inglehart looks at how values have changed in the past forty years. As an example, the WWII Silent Generation holds Surivalist Values (Grandma never wastes food) while Baby Boomers have Self-Expression Values (free love!).
One question: do our values change because people change their minds or because old people die? It depends on which value. Views on gay marriage changed during a generation (white), while views of communist books changed across generations (blue):
Another question: how do institutions co-evolve with values? Did Self-Expression Values create democracy or were those values the result of democracy? Inglehart answers:
The causal flow seems to move from Self-expression values to democracy.
Democratic institutions do not need to be in place for Self-expression values to emerge. In the years preceding the massive global wave of democratization that occurred around 1990, Self-expression values had emerged through a gradual process of intergenerational value change, not only in Western democracies but also in many authoritarian societies.
Once the threat of Soviet military intervention was withdrawn, countries with high levels of Self-expression values moved swiftly toward democracy.
We can see this in the beautiful graph below. Self-Expression Values create a demand for democracy, which is then met by democratic institutions. In the top corner, there are a bunch of former USSR states. In the early 1980s, they had high demand for democracy (Self-Expression Values), but didn’t live in a democracy. When the USSR broke up in the 1990s, they all democratized, which created a supply of democracy given their Self-Expression Value-based demand.
In contrast, Venezuela (bottom-left) didn’t have much demand for democracy in the 1980s and actually became less democratic in the 1990s.
In other words, institutions need to “fit” with the values of their people. As the population of Russia continues to develop Self-expression values, they will continue to demand more democratic institutions until that supply is met.
An aside—check out the rest of the book review to understand:
The ongoing “feminization of society”. How we’re removing pro-fertility norms—abortion, homosexuality, and divorce. But how they can come back (see The Haidmaiden’s Tale).
How Self-Expression Values fit into new kinds of religion. Inglehart writes: “A new version of religion that allowed space for individual autonomy could provide a growing market for an enterprising religious entrepreneur.”
Why our Authoritarian Reflex is being triggered by institutional decay and the climate crisis.
Zooming back out to the big questions proposed at the top:
a) Social media creates a 5th Estate that disintermediates the 4th Estate and allows uncensored info to flow, which leads to networked protests.
b) But countries with abundant natural resources can stay authoritarian by funding their winning coalition with those resources.
c) Self-expression values create a demand for democracy. Protests are the result of these underlying values.
1) SlateStarCodex is back. Yay! But mainly it’s time to look at which blogs SSC reads.
2) Related to the mRNA deep dive from a couple of weeks ago, here’s a good NYT piece that looks at how the B117 variant shows up in genetic code.
4) The Onion: Jane Goodall Announces She All About Lizards Now
JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Nicholas Thompson is moving from the editor-in-chief of WIRED to be the CEO of The Atlantic. He’s hiring an executive assistant. Apply here.
Twitter’s protocol division (Bluesky) is hiring folks to build a decentralized standard for social media. DM @Bluesky if you’re interested.
I’m looking for a driven and concrete co-founder for Roote. Learn more and reach out here.
Virtual Ethereum meetup with Linda Xie and Trent van Epps in PlutoVR this Fri, Jan 29 at 4pm ET. Register here.
Effective Altruist Events Calendar (recurring)
Interintellect Salons (recurring)
The Stoa (recurring)
I characterized Aphex Twin as an “aggressive electronic producer.” One reader pushed back against this. He noted their two full albums of “Selected Ambient Works” (vol. 1, vol. 2). So yes, Aphex Twin is aggressive. But he’s also ambient. He contains multitudes. 🙂
I have a detailed process to find weird music. Generally speaking, I’ve operated at the aggregated algorithmic layer—top Metacritic albums, top songs from r/listentothis, top songs for each genre on EveryNoiseAtOnce.
But recently I’ve been exploring “expert recommendations” from individuals. For example, Gilles Peterson is a radio DJ at BBC. He has played a pivotal role in promoting genres such as jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music.
Gilles has an updating Spotify playlist of his top recent tracks here. It’s great stuff. Here are my ten favorite tracks I’ve found from him:
What other top DJs (or radio stations) should I follow? I’d love to share a list of updating playlists that we could check out each month. Thanks!
P.S. Last week Bill Wurtz (from newsletter #20) released new music for the first time in almost two years. It’s below. Looks like his COVID hobby was 3D animation.
Hope you have a good week! Warmth, Rhys
❤️ Thanks to my generous patrons ❤️
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