Book Review: The End of Big

The End of Big
By Nicco Mele
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013

The only reason I didn’t throw this book against a wall is because I read it on my Kindle.

The main idea in The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath isn’t really all that controversial: “radical connectivity” – essentially internet technology – is causing the destruction of large institutions, the End of Big, and this poses a danger to society because our institutions adapt far less quickly than technology.

I actually agree with a good deal of what Nicco Mele says here. He’s an internet strategy consultant and former webmaster for Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic presidential nomination campaign. He’s right: internet technologies have increased the power of individuals at the expense of large institutions (democratization), and they do allow people and organizations to bypass middlemen and go directly to the source for information, entertainment or merchandise (disintermediation).

I think this is a good thing. Admittedly, I’m one of the computer nerds that Mele rants about in the first chapter, arrogantly conspiring to inject our “radical individualistic and anti-establishment ideology” into every aspect of modern life.

Mele, on the other hand is worried, very worried. He’s worried about the imminent collapse of important institutions, the erosion of core American values, and the dominance of digital platform companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google whom he calls “Even Bigger” players. All caused by the End of Big,

“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.” p. 3

All that! Centuries of social progress done in. Talk about revenge of the nerds.

OK, there’s apocalyptic rhetoric and a glaring lack of historical perspective, but let’s ignore that.

The real problem is the book is an infuriating muddle.

Mele can’t seem to make up his mind whether to celebrate the internet or denounce it. He can’t decide whether the internet is destroying critical institutions or saving them. He likes the freedom and empowerment brought by the internet, yet he wants to control it.

The chapter on the news media exemplifies most of the book’s problems, so let’s take detailed look at it.

The fact that traditional news media are in serious trouble is not news. Newspapers large and small are shutting down. Both channels and audiences have become fragmented and “unbundled.” The internet is not the only cause, but it has certainly accelerated the trend. Facebook and Twitter have become the first source of news for many citizens, and often for reporters themselves. Amateur reporting on blogs and web sites competes with professional reporting but without the journalist’s professional training, ethics or funding. (As I’ve said elsewhere, we’re all Zapruders now.) All this calls into question whether and how one of the essential functions of the media, to hold power accountable, will be performed in future. If not,

“… citizens will have a harder and harder time finding objective information on which to base their decisions.” p. 45

This is a good question, but mainstream media are not exactly shining role models here. As Mele himself points out, for every Woodward and Bernstein exposing a Watergate cover-up, there are at least as many examples of supine media failing to investigate the flimsy evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the causes of a great financial crisis. Not to mention that “objective information” cannot be found on Fox News, MSNBC or anywhere in between. His primary concern seems to be that without the deep pockets of a major news organization, investigative reporting that holds power to account will not get funded and written.

“Without Big News, we might well leave ourselves open to corruption and abuse of power the likes of which we have never seen.” p. 36

Yet he goes on to cite the innovative approaches that some online media are now following, like which first broke news about the NSA PRISM program. In addition there are startup media outlets like which operate on a subscription model and are doing a good job, in France in this case, of applying the proverbial fire to the feet of the rich and powerful.

So yes, the internet is forcing radical change in the news media. Some firms are dying, some are adapting, and some completely new ones are emerging. This is pretty normal whenever any industry faces transformative change. Unfortunately, Mele seems to have almost no historical perspective whatsoever, or he would have recognized that industries such as railroads, cars, mainframe computers and many others have gone through changes of similar magnitude before. Instead he serves up handwringing about the threat to democracy posed by the decline of old line media outlets, and vague calls to somehow built new institutions.

“We need to keep the iron core of journalism vibrant and strong – and it’s up to us to imagine and build the institutions that do so.” p. 60

How are we supposed to do this? He doesn’t say.

The next chapter on political parties is no better. Here too, Mele can’t seem to decide whether radical connectivity is a problem or a solution. On the one hand, he lauds the ability of candidates to reach out directly to the voters for donations and volunteers, bypassing old-line party “machines” – something he helped pioneer during his work on Howard Dean’s failed campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

On the other hand, he blames the Internet for enabling “dangerous populism” and increased political polarization.

“In fact, radical connectivity is proving quite dangerous by pushing our political system to unprecedented levels of polarization …” p. 78

“By enabling formerly marginal candidates with little stake in the status quo to move to the forefront of debate, radical connectivity has taken a slow slide towards polarization and intensified it.” p. 79

Well you can’t have it both ways: you can’t enable underdog candidates like Howard Dean without at the same time enabling fringe candidates like Herman Cain.

Mele seems to long for the good old days when a few “wise men” (and they were all men) controlled the parties and a lot of government policy too. He has an idealized view of old style backroom dealing as a vital party function that identified “civic-minded leaders and wise policies.”

What Mele doesn’t recognize is that ultimately this is the responsibility of the voters. I think they generally do a pretty decent job of it. Parties that nominate fringe candidates will find they tend to lose elections. Lose enough elections and they’ll eventually learn to stop nominating wingnuts. Mele appears to believe the electorate cannot be counted on to make the right decisions for themselves. This is elitist nonsense.

Overall, I get the impression that Mele is fundamentally uncomfortable with the uncontrolled nature of the internet and its impact on our world. He’d like to put a saddle and bridle on this wild horse and tame it. He’s maddeningly vague about how this should be done, other than repeatedly calling for discussion and new institutions.

Granted it’s important to have informed discussions about new technologies. I think we’re already seeing that happen today. A prime example is the current debate about privacy caused by concerns over social networking and government surveillance. It’s happening in other areas at the forefront of technology too, such as genetics and 3D printing.

It’s also critical to allow experimentation with new approaches and new models. Mele describes many promising ones in his book.

Inevitably though, technological developments will outrun social customs and laws. (It used to be that automobiles had to pull over to the side of the road to let horses pass.) That’s because we can’t predict the future very well. We can’t predict what new technologies will be developed. We can’t predict which ones will be successful or even how the successful ones will be used. And we certainly can’t predict, let alone control, how society will adapt to them over time.

I don’t see any evidence that Mele understands this.

* * *

The End of Big is similar in many ways to The End of Power which I reviewed here. Both books touch on many of the same themes, and even cite some of the same studies. If you’ve got time for only one “End of …” book before you start packing for the apocalypse, I recommend The End of Power. Despite its flaws, the thinking there is deeper, broader, and better presented.

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