Adam Ash

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Will an army of Davids overwhelm the Goliath of Big Media?

Small Is Powerful
Will Glenn Reynolds and his army take down Big Media?

Fifteen years ago Glenn Reynolds started brewing his own beer ("sometimes terrific . . . sometimes not so great"). A few years later he began recording his own music. Then, in the summer of 2001, he turned to writing a Web log, and the rest is history. A hitherto obscure law professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, became Instapundit , an insta-star in the firmament of the blogosphere.

More than a few rival bloggers, at the time, were old-media writers who had decided to try their hand at something new. Instapundit, by contrast, was born along with the form. Indeed, he embodied it ("sometimes terrific . . . sometimes not so great"), providing instant reactions to current events. Insights appeared alongside thin, one-sentence musings--always supported by links to news stories, columns and, not least, other bloggers. Reading Mr. Reynolds's blog could become addictive, even if you often felt that you'd be better off spending your time talking to real people--or even reading an old-fashioned newspaper--than clicking your life away.

Which adds to the pleasure of "An Army of Davids." Mr. Reynolds shows himself to be as accomplished in the medium-distance race--the book's text fills 268 undersized pages--as he is at the short dash. He shows as well that he has a coherent, and very American, philosophy of the world.

Mr. Reynolds argues that we are undergoing a sea change. The balance of advantage--in nearly every aspect of society--is shifting from big organizations to small ones. Economies of scale and scope matter much less in the information age than in the industrial one. And thanks to advances in technology, more and more people are transforming themselves from salary men into entrepreneurs and independent contractors. "The secret of success in both business and politics in the twenty-first century," Mr. Reynolds writes, "will involve figuring out a way to capitalize on the phenomenon of a lot of people doing what they want to do, rather than--as in previous centuries--figuring out ways to make lots of people do what you want them to."

This attractive thesis is hardly original--Ronald Coase explained the economics of it back in 1937. It has been chronicled many times since, especially in recent years. And Mr. Reynolds doesn't take time from his breakneck exposition to consider complications. Don't some big organizations develop core competencies that it is very hard for competitors to imitate? Isn't the do-what-I-want cohort, even if growing, still a rather small one, confined mostly to an educated, versatile, technologically literate elite? Even Instapundit himself presumably relies, for paying at least some of his monthly bills, on the steady salary from a big organization (a university). The Internet, for all its technological dazzle and ambitious individual voices, is still weak on producing revenue.

Yet Mr. Reynolds presents his case with verve and wit. Had you realized that "the comfy chair revolution" (the appearances of comfortable chairs in bookshops and even clothes shops) is a sign of the army of Davids on the march? Starbucks and Barnes & Noble provide loiterers with temporary offices as well as lattes and muffins. Did you know that the Nigerian film industry is flourishing, thanks to hand-held cameras and digital processing (and, incidentally, that it produces works that make the "Left Behind" films look downright secular)?

Mr. Reynolds pushes his case to provocative lengths. Two of his biggest passions--as readers of Instapundit know only too well--are space colonization and "transhumanism." Both, he believes, are better served by Davids--private citizens acting individually or as a collection of individuals--than by government bureaucrats. He says that we need to adopt a Wild West model for outer space: If we privatize space travel and give land grants to people who colonize the moon or Mars, we will soon see a space rush, even a Mars rush. As for technology improving the human condition, he is a relentless optimist. Why not allow people to put memory chips in their brains to improve their mental performance? Why not celebrate, instead of worrying over, the idea that people might be able to live for centuries, with the help of some cellular tinkering?

Mr. Reynolds is at his most impressive when he is commenting on his natural habitat, the blogosphere. It is extraordinary to think that when he went into blogging a mere five years ago the activity didn't even have a name for what was produced ("mezines" was the best anyone could do). There are now more than 22 million blogs, according to; Mr. Reynolds alone sometimes gets more than a half-million page views a day. And indeed, as he notes, bloggers have changed the landscape of journalism. They have helped to bring down both Trent Lott and Dan Rather; they have produced great reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan; and they have demonstrated, beyond doubt, that journalism is an activity, not a profession.

But here Mr. Reynolds is not quite the mainstream-media basher that the book's long subtitle suggests. (It claims, in part, that "An Army of Davids" will show "how markets and technology empower ordinary people to beat big media.") He recognizes that bloggers and the mainstream media (MSM) are supplements to one another as much as competitors. If bloggers can challenge and criticize the MSM, they depend on it for most of their information. The result should be a self-correcting system. Mainstream editors get faster off the mark (one hopes) because they realize that any dithering will be exposed by the blogosphere; and mainstream journalists get more self-critical because they realize that ignorance and bias will be immediately exposed.

The David army envisioned by Mr. Reynolds may well, in the long run, end up beating the Goliaths of big media and big government into submission. In the meantime, let's hope for a more modest goal: that it can make them a little better at doing their jobs.

(Mr. Wooldridge is Washington bureau chief of The Economist and the author, with John Micklethwait, of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America." You can buy "An Army of Davids" from the OpinionJournal Bookstore)


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