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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Nicco Mele, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath

Welcome Nicco Mele (EchoDitto) (Harvard) (Twitter) and Host Symon Hill (SymonHill – blog) (Twitter)

The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath

Nicco Mele is a man who knows the internet. The webmaster for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and the founder of a leading internet strategy firm, his discussion moves between the effect of Twitter on news reporting, Hollywood’s relationship with Netflix and Al Qaeda’s use of YouTube. These are only three of the many examples which make this book so interesting. The big ideas are sustained by engaging anecdotes.

The theme of Mele’s book is the effect of “radical connectivity”, which he describes as “our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly and globally”, thus transforming politics, business and culture.

His first chapter is both alarming and unsettling. He writes:

“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”.

But for Mele, this is not as positive as it may at first sound. He warns of “the ongoing destruction of existing big institutions that remain vital to upholding social order and the Western values of democracy”.

Each of the next seven chapters looks at some of the big institutions under threat: Big News, Big Political Parties, Big Fun, Big Government, Big Armies, Big Minds and Big Companies.

Mele freely acknowledges that he is more hopeful in some of these areas than others. When it comes to news, he fears that the decline of newspapers, along with other trends, will reduce the sort of journalism that works to uphold accountability in society. He is positive about the advantages of radical connectivity for political dissidents in oppressive regimes, but points out the downside: the same technologies “empower both sides of the equation – pro-democracy human rights activists and loose networks of terrorists”.

In contrast, he is much more optimistic about the effect on business. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Mele’s prediction that “Big Business will slowly decline over the coming decades”. He quotes some surprising statistics about the growth in small businesses and self-employment – in many cases helped along by the world wide web, which allows people to market and sell their products or services much more cheaply and easily.

If Mele’s predictions come true, then in twenty years time we might all be quoting a key paragraph from his book:

“If today, bloggers can publish anything at any time to any audience at zero cost, within the next twenty years everyone will enjoy the capability to be their own Walmart. As radical connectivity continues to advance, and as it increasingly comes to affect fabrication and manufacturing, anyone will be able to design and sell anything, and anyone else will be able to buy anything. That’s right – anything!”

Mele’s final chapter is as encouraging as his first is alarming. It is a passionate plea for people to use radical connectivity in ways that benefit individuals and society rather than harming them. He writes:

“We, not the technology, can bring about the cure by assuming control of the technology, embracing where it is taking us while also having the collective determination and strength of mind to steer it where we want”.

Mele wants us to use radical connectivity to affirm and strengthen existing democratic institutions while helping us to develop new institutions where appropriate. He explains:

“Resisting a radical, insular individualism, we must build institutions that encourage collaboration and accountability, locating such accountability in vast networks of small groups that share common culture and motives”.

His suggestions include developing mechanisms for holding to account the big companies that are on one level empowered by radical connectivity, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon (all of which are currently mired in scandal over tax avoidance, particularly in the UK). Mele believes that if people seize the opportunities afforded by “the end of Big”, they can reinvigorate a sense of community as well as the national institutions of the United States.

While I do not share Mele’s confidence in Western political institutions, I am inspired by his vision of the future. I am particularly encouraged by his understanding of the ways in which the end of big business will help the world to face the crises of climate change. “We can only hope to transform our current fossil fuel-based economy into a more sustainable system if we move collectively to small, sustainable local energy sources,” he writes. “We need to build more sustainable, local food production and distribution.”

Like all good books, The End of Big left me with as many questions as answers. In particular (speaking as someone who lives in Britain), I want to ask Nicco Mele whether his predictions and suggestions are just for the US, for the West generally or for the whole world. I also wonder how radical connectivity relates to other causes of the situations we currently face (for example, the breakdown of trust in powerful institutions has been hastened by the banking crisis). And I’m worried that climate change might threaten radical connectivity if failure to invest in renewable energy leads to major electricity shortages.

These are some of the many topics that I look forward to discussing with Nicco Mele. If his answers are as interesting as his book, they will be well worth listening to.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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Symon Hill

Symon Hill