Impossible Conversations: The End of Big

Thursday, October 24, 2013
by Tariq PirachaRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Tariq Pirachatwitter / tariqpirachaGoogle+ / tariqpiracha

Nicco Mele's The End of Big
I've been on a bit of a rant lately when I see or hear people making claims like "Distance is dead" or "Newspapers are dead". Partially, I'm annoyed that they're stealing from Nietzsche, who coined the phrase "God is dead". The trend is: pick a concept and add "is dead" to the end. We love predictions and there are plenty of folks out there who are happy to oblige.

The catch here is that in Nietzsche's case, he was examining a long history of spirituality vs. science. We, in many cases when it comes to social media and web, do not have such a long history to look at. It is almost as if we are assembling a long list of weak signals and using them as fait accompli predictors of the near future. (Dare I call it the Malcolm Gladwell effect?)

I'm skeptical.

That said, Nicco Mele's The End of Big is compelling. Mele described many instances of the disruptive nature of the Internet that were effectively tearing down systems. However, what caught my attention was the void that followed. The scary thought for me isn't the removal of old systems — it's the lack of knowledge, or complete inability to replace them. Both in real terms and sociological ones.

I think perception also has a role to play in some of the disruption Mele points to, where a group's strength is not found through traditional notions of power, but in their ability to mobilize quickly and be perceived as big. For example, the U.S. Congress backtracked on SOPA in response to 7 million online signatures condemning the bill. Is a petition of 7 million signatures enough in a country of almost 314 million? Should 2% be enough? I don't know the answer to that. But the perception by Congress of the situation was "big" enough to change their mind.

There are plenty more interesting examples that Mele offers and I suggest you take the time to read them. If I hadn't missed the Google Hangout with Mele, my question to him would have been: Are we really seeing the end of big? Or has the Internet just introduced a new way for many people to take on the role of a big, disruptive player on any given field of play?

George Wenzel — "Threats abound in this dystopian future..."
George Wenzel

The End of Big gives a far-reaching, albeit bleak, overview of the Internet and its impacts upon the news media, entertainment, government, and business. Nicco Mele's take on the impacts of 'radical connectivity' upon these areas create a comprehensive, albeit bleak, view of how the hyper-connected world is working today and might work in the future.

The book's author joined our discussion and admitted that early drafts were even more dark and bleak, with a draft subtitle describing the 'coming chaos'. Mele's editor wisely suggested a tone-down of the FUD.

Mele paints a picture of a world where individuals can bring down governments, cripple industries, and strike fear into the populace. Threats abound in this dystopian future. Mele gives several examples, but I do not share the author's worry that these events are bellwethers of a coming geek-driven apocalypse.

If you haven't read much about the impacts of technology on the world, this book is a good overview. Kudos go out to Mr. Mele for joining our discussion via Google Hangout and sharing some of his thoughts in a more personal way.

Nick Charney   " ... the book made me take a good hard look my propensity to adopt new technologies ..."
Nick Charney

Here's the rub according Mele: radical connectivity is radically reshaping society and the tools used to create our culture are coming to define it. If nothing else the book made me take a good hard look my propensity to adopt new technologies even as they erode the very institutions we work for. 

This isn't to say that one ultimately defeats the other (although that may be implied by Mele's subtitle) but rather that we are just starting to understand the tip of the iceberg; the book is a great introduction for the uninitiated and a solid recap for those following more closely.

Kent Aitken — "...there is no such thing as metaphoric dust settling on the scale of global change..."
"The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today". (From BBC.)

I agree that the internet is changing our world massively. I'm more hesitant to buy into Mele's title thesis, which is that we've reached The End of Big. There are many amazing and illustrative examples of Davids upending Goliaths, and our assumptions about power should be shaken. But I think there'll be a lot of Big in the future.

I originally wrote "there'll be a lot of Big left when the dust settles," but it struck me that there is no such thing as metaphoric dust settling on the scale of global change. Definitely not anymore.

To be clear: Mele is dead-on about a lot here, and our assumptions about power should change. Governments should be scared into rethinking their role in this world. The principles are the same - manage public goods and services otherwise unfulfilled, nudge general welfare along, uphold laws - but the what (What goods and services? What's welfare? What laws?) may be very different.

Social entrepreneurs are improving public transit environments without government. The classical concept of GDP*, as a rough measure of welfare, ignores the economy of experience, philanthropy, and environmental amenities. And many laws are ill-equipped to deal with, say, the collaborative consumption economy (think AirBNB) or global, internet-based terrorism.

On the more reviewy side of things, it's a solid read. The case studies (for instance: Anonymous, Reddit, 3D printing, citizen journalism, etc.) may be familiar to some, but The End of Big is a great synthesis, and it'd be a good wakeup call for others.

*Prediction: We'll stop caring about and quoting GDP figures within five years.

John Kenney — "...The Internet redistributes power by design..."

John Kenney

In his book, The End of Big: How the internet makes David the new Goliath, Nicco Mele sounds the alarm that "radical connectivity - our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally - has all but transformed politics, business, and culture, bringing about the upheaval of traditional, "big" institutions and the empowerment of upstarts and renegades."

Radical connectivity presents opportunities and challenges. Ideas and data can be disseminated quickly via networks and social media. People and resources can be mobilized with relative ease to address perceived needs (e.g. fixing a pothole, addressing climate change, or overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship). On the one hand, it opens up opportunities for citizens, governments, private and non-government actors to collectively address issues that in the past only governments typically addressed (see the emergence of the solution economy). This is exciting.

On the other, radical connectivity can be disruptive and unpredictable. "Our twentieth-century institutions, which seem as foundational or ahistorical as hereditary monarchy, are on the cusp of collapse - or, if not, outright collapse, of irrelevancy and anachronism." They are ill-prepared and unable to engage with the connected world effectively. The role of government, accountability for resources and results, ensuring public health, safety and security, and maintaining equitable service standards and equal opportunity are all murky at best, particularly if governments do not adapt.

I found myself pulling a few other books off the shelf while reading The End of Big. Our big political, economic and social institutions have been on the receiving end of constructive criticism well before we became radically connected. For example, in the face what he saw as large-scale, unsustainable and dehumanizing economic systems, E.F. Schumacher proclaimed Small is Beautiful (1973) and extolled the virtues of "technology with a human face." On the education front, Ivan Illich called for Deschooling Society (1971) and, more broadly, the need for Tools of Conviviality (1973). And Samual Bowles and Herbert Gintis argued for more participatory political, economic and social models that reflect democracy as being not just about choosing (i.e. purchasing and voting), but also learning (i.e. how preferences are formed) - see Democracy and Capitalism: Property, Community, and the Contradictions of Modern Social Thought (1983). It appears the inventors of the personal computer read those books too, or at least shared similar philosophies. The Internet redistributes power by design.

I was struck by the common threads running between the authors' recommendations above and Mele's conclusions, including "As individuals and as a society, we need to acknowledge small as our future" and "...we can learn to celebrate the creation of a radical new way of organizing the world, taking steps to align it with democratic values and with our need for social order." Back in the 70s and 80s, the proposed alternatives may have been dismissed as radical, utopian, or both. If Mele's right about the current context, big institutions won't have a choice but to adapt this time around.

I highly recommend it. Both the book and adapting.

Next up: Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass Sunstein. Interested in taking part? Send us an email, leave a comment, send us a tweet. You know the drill.