The End of Big: How the Digital Revolution Makes David the New Goliath

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9781250022233: The End of Big: How the Digital Revolution Makes David the New Goliath
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Governments fear―and sometimes fall before―individuals relying only on social media. Major political parties see their power eroded by grassroots forces through online fund-raising. Universities scramble to preserve their student populations in the face of less expensive, more accessible online courses. Print and broadcast news outlets struggle to compete with citizen journalists and bloggers.

Is it the end of big?

Social media pioneer, political and business strategist, and Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Nicco Mele offers a fascinating, sometimes frightening look at how our ability to stay connected―constantly, instantly, and globally―is dramatically changing our world. As our traditional institutions are being disrupted in revolutionary ways, we risk a dark and wildly unstable future, one in which our freedoms and basic human values could be destroyed rather than enhanced. Both hopeful and alarming, The End of Big is a thought-provoking, passionately argued book that offers genuine insight into the ways we are using technology, and how it is radically changing our world in ways we are only now beginning to understand.

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About the Author:

Nicco Mele is a leading forecaster of business, politics and culture. Named by Esquire as one of America's "Best and Brightest," he helped lead the online efforts for Barack Obama in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Mele's firm, EchoDitto, is a leading Internet strategy company working with nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies, among them Google, AARP, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the United Nations. He is on the faculty at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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1
 

BURN IT ALL DOWN
… “You’ve begun
to separate the dark from the dark.”1
Look around you.
Bloggers rather than established news outlets break news. Upstart candidates topple establishment politicians. Civilian insurgencies organized on Facebook challenge conventional militaries. Engaged citizens pull off policy reforms independent of government bureaucracies. Local musicians bypass record labels to become YouTube sensations. Twentysomething tech entrepreneurs working in their pajamas destabilize industry giants and become billionaires.
Radical connectivity—our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally2—has all but transformed politics, business, and culture, bringing about the upheaval of traditional, “big” institutions and the empowerment of upstarts and renegades. When a single crazy pastor in Florida can issue pronouncements that, thanks to the Internet, cause widespread rioting in Pakistan, you know something has shifted. When a lone saboteur can leak hundreds of thousands of secret government documents to the world, helping spark revolutions in several Middle Eastern countries, you again know something has shifted.
Technophiles celebrate innovations such as smartphones, the Internet, or social media as agents of progress; Luddites denounce them as harbingers of a new dark age. One thing is certain: Radical connectivity is toxic to conventional power structures. Today, before our eyes, the top-down nation-state model as we’ve known it is collapsing. Traditional sources of information like broadcast and print media are in decline. Aircraft carriers and other military hardware that for decades underpinned geopolitical power are obsolete and highly vulnerable, while organized violence remains a growing threat. Competitive hierarchies within industries are disappearing. Traditional cultural authorities are fading. Everything we depend on to preserve both social stability and cherished values, including the rule of law, civil liberties, and free markets, is coming unraveled.
The End of Big is at hand.
Institutions Aren’t Dispensable
You might ask, Isn’t the destruction of old institutions potentially a pretty good thing? Many traditional, big institutions are deeply flawed and even corrupt—they deserve to die. Few among us are not frustrated with the culture of influence and money in the two big political parties or disgusted by the behavior of at least one big corporation. Echoing the philosopher Oswald Spengler, isn’t creative destruction, well, creative?
Our institutions have in fact failed us. Building a sustainable economy, for instance, that allows us to avert the catastrophic consequences of global warming seems hopeless in the face of big government, big business, and a dozen other big institutions. Ultimately, technological advances provide unprecedented opportunities for us to reshape our future for the better.
At the same time we can’t fetishize technology and say “to hell with our institutions” without suffering terrible consequences. The State Department was designed and built for an era predating telephones and jet travel, let alone the distance-collapsing magic of the Internet. But that fact doesn’t mean we should or can give up diplomacy. Government has become bloated and inefficient—but we still need somebody to repair roads, keep public order, and create the public sphere where the market cannot or should not dominate. Unless we exercise more deliberate choice over the design and use of technologies, we doom ourselves to a future inconsistent with the hard-won democratic values on which modern society is based: limited government, the rule of law, due process, free markets, and individual freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly. To the extent these values disappear, we’re dooming ourselves to a chaotic, uncontrollable, and potentially even catastrophic future.
No, I Am Not Exaggerating
Ten years from now, we might well find ourselves living in constant fear of extremist groups and lone individuals who, thanks to technology, can disrupt society at will, shutting off power, threatening food supplies, creating mayhem in the streets, and impeding commercial activity. We’ve already seen a small group of hackers disrupt commuting in San Francisco for a few days (as a protest against police brutality) while flash mobs of approximately one hundred people have been showing up at retailers in cities like St. Paul, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., ransacking stores and making off with sacks of loot.3
This is just the beginning. Can you imagine daily life without currency issued by the national government? It’s distinctly possible. What if in a hyperlocal society the sanitation department never comes to collect your trash—what would you do then? What if government bodies can no longer regulate the large numbers of small businesses that will exist with the End of Big? Could you trust that your food, medicines, and automobiles are safe? What will happen if authoritative news reporting ceases to exist and if cultural authorities fade into the background, inaugurating a new dark age? How will our democracy function? How will business advance? How will we solve big problems like hunger and global warming?
Wrapping Our Minds Around the Basic Problem
This book explores the destructive consequences of radical connectivity across many domains of contemporary society, from the press to political parties, from militaries to markets. Other writers have examined the transformative potential of new technologies, generally focusing on specific domains such as business, economics, or culture, or on a specific dimension of technology’s impact. This book seeks to address a broader problem that directly affects us all. Radical connectivity is altering the exercise of power faster than we can understand it. Most of us feel lost in the dust kicked up by the pace of change. We can tell political, social, and economic life is shifting, but we don’t know what to make of it in the aggregate. Some changes seem destined to improve our lives, yet the impact on familiar institutions like the press makes us nervous. Opportunities for progress abound (and I will explore those, too), but so do openings for instability and even outright chaos. The devices and connectivity so essential to modern life put unprecedented power in the hands of every individual—a radical redistribution of power that our traditional institutions don’t and perhaps can’t understand.
Most of us, including policy experts, scholars, and politicians, haven’t subjected radical connectivity to a deep and critical scrutiny, weighing the benefits and risks with a cold eye. Throughout the entire 2012 U.S. presidential primary campaign, not a single debate featured a substantial question about technology—about the nature and role of privacy for citizens, for instance, or about the disruptive impact of social media on the Middle East. But the problem runs deeper. We don’t yet have an adequate vocabulary to talk about what’s happening. The word “technology” is weak; a wheel is technology, and so is the printing press, whereas our present-day technology collapses time, distance, and other barriers. “Networked” doesn’t quite capture the dramatic global reach, the persistent presence, the mobile nature of our world. You often hear “social” used in connection with technology—social media, social business, social sharing—but the consequences of radical connectivity on institutions are anything but social: They are disruptive, confusing, even dangerous.
Sometimes people utter the catchall term “digital,” but it’s not clear what that means, either; remember the digital watches of the 1980s? “Open” sounds good: open government, open-source politics, open-source policy. But WikiLeaks brings severe diplomatic and political consequences that “open” doesn’t capture. Just because something is machine readable and online doesn’t necessarily mean it is open. Also, “openness” describes the end result of technology, but it ignores the closed cabal of nerds (of which I’m one) that came up with this technology and defined its political implications. Not to mention that the control a handful of companies exert over our technology is far from open—companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook.
Ha Ha! You Laughed at Us, Now We Control You
This last point is critical—and as a prelude to this book, I’ll spend the rest of this first chapter fleshing it out. Why has the digital age spawned so much social, political, and economic upheaval? Is it happenstance? Or is it a function of how specific groups of users have chosen to use technologies? Neither. A radical individualistic and antiestablishment ideology reminiscent of the 1960s is baked right into the technologies that underlie today’s primary communications tools. Current consumer technologies are specifically designed to do two things: empower the individual at the expense of existing institutions, ancient social structures and traditions, and uphold the authority and privilege of the computer nerds.
Power is not about knowing how to use Twitter. It’s about grasping the thinking underneath the actual technology—the values, mind-sets, worldviews, and arguments embedded in all those blinking gadgets and cool Web sites.4 Without realizing it, citizens and elected leaders have abdicated control over our political and economic destinies to a small band of nerds who have decided, on our own, that upstarts and renegades should triumph over established power centers and have designed technology to achieve that outcome. “Cyber-activists are perceived to be the underdogs, flawed and annoying, perhaps, but standing up to overbearing power,” says the tech pio...

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