The End of Big Power


theendofbig.jpgIn The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), Nicco Mele, a Harvard Kennedy School faculty member and social media pioneer, argues that “the end of big” means the end of top-down, centralized hierarchical control.  He sees governments being upended by individuals relying only on social media; he sees major political parties losing power to grassroots movements. He writes:

“The Internet and mobile phones—a combination I call radical connectivity – profoundly empower individuals in ways that spell disaster for traditional big organizations. Big news organizations have seen both news production and advertising revenue disrupted by radical connectivity. The entertainment industry, from publishing to record companies, is in its own death throes. Big armies face distributed cells of terrorists instead of nation-states . . Even big manufacturing faces a growing challenge from desktop 3-D printers, spelling an end for big brands.”

Centralization’s demise is also well documented in The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be (Basic Books, 2013) by Moisés Naím. Naim 510x340.jpg

Naím, former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy and former executive director of the World Bank, focuses on the challenge to leadership posed by the digital revolution. In this new world, leaders are finding it harder to wield power and harder to hold on to it.

Naím asks is there anybody in charge any longer? And his answer is no, there is not. “Citizen activism, global markets, and ever-present media confront today’s leaders with more challenges, competitors, and constraints . . . Insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative start-ups, hackers, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media outlets, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals who seem to have come from nowhere are shaking up the old order.”

These micro-powers, as the author calls then, are small, unknown, or once-negligible actors who have found ways to undermine, fence in, or thwart the big guys. As a result, traditional forms of power are becoming feebler, more transient, and constrained.

For example, prestige counts for far less than it once did. People are less in awe of leaders than before. Big centralized institutions – whether governmental, military, religious or business – no longer command respect. They are distrusted and even despised.

In the past, big corporations – Sears, for example – could count on economies of scale to keep them on top, but now the digital revolution has destroyed this advantage. Now big businesses must constantly struggle to keep their products innovative and their brands fashionable – or fall prey to more agile upstarts, the way that Kodak, a huge, long-dominate company, was done in by Instagram, which has eleven employees.

Now, as I stated previously, I acknowledge that change on such a vast scale brings both good and bad, and we are seeing gigantic manifestations of both. Certainly, the perverted populism that is Trumpism, is a manifestation of the bad side of this change. But I’m celebrating the good that this change brings.

I welcome the decline and fall of centralized power. Decentralization is my hero. It and I go back a long way together.

SchumacherSiB200.jpgIn 1973 I read Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher (1911–1977) and I was blown away by it. The New York Times said that Small Is Beautiful “changed the way many people think about bigness and its human costs.”

In his Foreword to the book, Theodore Roszak wrote that, “Schumacher’s work belongs to that subterranean tradition of organic and decentralist economics . . . that distinguishes itself from orthodox socialism and capitalism by insisting that the scale of organization must be treated as an independent and primary problem.” I swallowed this idea hook, line, and sinker, and today it remains my cri de coeur.

Brawling over scale has greatly intensified and spread since 1973. Now it’s being fought everywhere you look. This fight pits big government against small government, a struggle presently embodied by the Tea Party movement. It pits big banks and financial institutions against, well, virtually everyone else, a struggle presently embodied by the Bernie Sanders people. It pits giant multinational corporations like Wal-Mart against small businesses and local communities. It pits large-scale technologies against small-scale technologies; big oil and gas against solar and wind power; the electrical grid against distributed generation of energy; automobiles against pedestrians and bicyclists; agribusiness against family farms, and on and on and on. And it pits “too big to fail” against Small Is Beautiful.

Now this fight is not over and the verdict is not in, but I’m prepared to bet on the outcome. The little guys are going to win this one, and it’s all thanks to the new force of connected decentralization.