An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds

One of the eternal mysteries of the blogosphere is how Glenn Reynolds finds the time to post so much on his InstaPundit blog. After all, this is not some unemployed socially challenged teenager posting from his parent’s basement (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Reynolds is a law professor; columnist; musician, producer, and record label owner to name just a few of his varied activities. Add in the fact that he is married and has a daughter and it is hard to imagine where he finds the time to post all those entries or read just a fraction of the unending stream of emails he receives.

Clearly, Reynolds has a curious mind and a lot of energy. In the midst of all of the above, he found time to write a book. The recently released An Army of Davids, gives those unfamiliar with his writing an idea of the breadth of his interests. Subtitled “How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths,” the book is also a guided tour through some of the more interesting ways technology and markets are changing society.

The book’s main strengths are its approachability and its good-natured optimism. Reynolds doesn’t hold a utopian view of technology and the market in which the future holds only unbridled health and wealth if we would just embrace it. But neither does he give in to a pessimistic view that foresees a dystopian future full of tyranny and oppression where technological might makes right. One might quibble with his optimism or his ideas along the way, but his readable and conversational style make the book enjoyable.

The basic idea behind An Army of Davids is rather simple. Reynolds posits that we are coming out of a unique period in human history. Prior to the industrial revolution societies were centered on the small and the local but after the industrial revolution factors like economies of scale, the division of labor, and the prohibitive cost of machinery, meant that large-scale organizations dominated.

Reynolds believes that this “big is best” era is coming to a close as the technological and communication revolutions undermine the power of large scale organizations and structures. In an effort to understand this process he surveys a range of fields from journalism and entertainment to politics, anti-terrorism, and the space program. Reynolds’ approach is to find what is already happening and to speculate about how these “pools of the future” might spread.

At the root of these changes is the empowering impact of cheaper technology. What used to be accessible only to the professional backed up by a large organization is now in the hands of the individual. The beer enthusiast dissatisfied with the mass produced drek can make his own. The informed citizen who used to have to write a letter to the editor and hope for the best can now post his views online almost instantaneously. Musicians don’t need an expensive studio or record label when a personal computer and some software is all that is needed for a virtual studio and the Internet can connect the musician directly to potential fans around the world. Private companies led by dynamic innovators have the flexibility and drive that bureaucratic and risk averse NASA seems unable to match.

Reynolds also notes that technology can enable and encourage community. Miniaturization and wireless access now allow us to take our technology on the road. As a result, “Third Places” have now sprung up that allow us to combine work and pleasure in unique ways. Whether in a coffee shop, a bookstore, or a downtown hot spot work is no longer confined to an office with four walls. Cell phones, handheld computers, and laptops make it possible for you to work, shop, and play on the go. In the past, if you were waiting for an important communication you were trapped in an office or by a phone. Now you can be sitting in a comfy chair reading a book or enjoying free time with your family.

Reynolds also discusses the potential impact of these changes on the big organizations. With more and more individuals empowered to strike out on their own, and with all the flexibility and mobility that implies, big organizations that can’t adapt, or provide the goods and services to this new economy, will be in trouble.

The media landscape, to take one example, has already changed a great deal in the last few years as a result of these changes. The infamous Mainstream Media (MSM) may not like blogs and other forms of competition but they are here to stay. When local knowledge and immediacy of response is available to almost anyone and at minimal cost, suddenly the journalism guild doesn’t seem quite as useful.

He highlights one example in what he calls the change from media to “we-dia” in J.D. Johannes, creator of the blog Faces From The Front. Johannes decided to independently cover a platoon of Marines in Iraq and make a documentary film about it. In the past the cost to do so would be close to $100,000 but today you can do it with about $7,000.

Previously this type of journalism would need to be funded and managed by a news station or film studio; a large scale organization with access to the necessary funds and technology. Today, Johannes has the independence that comes from doing it yourself and brings the unique first person perspective.

Interestingly, those large scale organizations that are succeeding are those that help individuals. Reynolds notes the success of EBay and the entrepreneurs who use the online auction site to make a living. EBay is even considering offering health insurance to its members. Big box retailers provide inexpensive goods and services to these individuals so that they can focus their time and money on what they really care about.

An Army of Davids deals with a lot more than just blogging and the growth of self-employment, however. Reynolds looks at the way these technological and social changes might impact terrorism and anti-terrorism; how nano-technology might impact our health and longevity; how the market can boost the space program; and more.

Throughout these discussions the focus is on how individuals empowered by technology and the market can solve problems and improve the quality of life; about how we can harness the power of these forces.

Not surprisingly given his libertarian leanings, Reynolds hopes the government – and other large scale organizations – will stop trying to fight and/or restrain these forces and instead find ways to help individuals make the most of them. Whether it is fighting terrorism or sending men into space, the government can accomplish more using the power of individuals than it can going it alone. And in business, the most successful companies will both supply these dynamic individuals with the goods and services they need but also leverage their passion and loyalty.

An Army of Davids is an enjoyable and thought provoking book. Anyone interested in the intersection of technology and culture will want to be sure to read what it has to say. Those already familiar with the changes noted within will enjoy Reynolds light touch and interesting perspective. Those who are not yet aware of the changes taking place will be well served by this accessible introduction.

As Reynolds notes, it isn’t as if we have much choice in the matter. The future is now; the question is what we are going to do about it.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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