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May 11, 2006

Is Glenn Reynolds - "Instapundit" - the Karl Marx of the Blogosphere? An Army of Davids - Glenn Reynolds

Posted by Tim Worstall

An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths
by Glenn Reynolds
Pp. 272. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006
Hardback, $24.99

Tim Worstall - the author of 2005 Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere - reviews An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit).

I will confess to one major problem as I read through this book on how the various new technologies are empowering the little guy. I'd read it all before. No, this isn't to accuse Glenn Reynolds of plagiarism but it did take me some time to realise why it all seemed so familiar. He's been discussing and musing over these thoughts for the past few years at his blog, Instapundit and in his column for TCS Daily. As I read his blog and also write for the same site it's not all that amazing that I've seen most of these ideas before. The value of the book is that the lines of argument are all brought together.

At it's simplest the major point is that technology has changed and this is having an effect upon the methods of organisation, both of society and production. This isn't perhaps the most stunningly original insight in all of economics, Marx had something to say about the way in which the Industrial Revolution changed the balance of power between the classes, just as a minor example. What makes the current technological wave so interesting is that, as Reynolds rightly points out, it is undoing much of the concentration of power that Marx and others so bitterly complained about.

Starting with a story that will resonate with British readers, the rise of home brewing in reaction to the mass produced (very lightly) flavoured water that the breweries inflicted upon us, he notes that what amateurs were doing at home soon became something that people were doing semi-professionally and then professionally. Of course the Americans haven't quite got it right as they still pasteurise all commercially prepared beer but then again they didn't have CAMRA either.

Part of the changes described in each chapter are due to changing tastes and growing wealth. A shop that allows children to build and then have sewn in front of them their own teddy bear, for example. Yes, this is an example of greater choice, of the personalisation of services, that makes up so much of the writings of Virginia Postrel. But much the greater part of the changes are due to the way in which technologies, most especially those of computing and communications, have disrupted the old production and power structure.

When capital machinery was both large scale and expensive it made sense that manufacturing was a highly concentrated affair. Large factories, a rigid power structure and a large labour force, were simply what was needed to make the system work at all. Technology has changed, as steel companies have found out: once someone (Nucor in the US, for example) worked out how to make decent steel out of scrap then those companies relying upon huge blast furnaces were obviously at a disadvantage.

We can also go further and point to the rise of services as the major occupation in modern economies. There is simply no need for that old industrial structure when the major assets of a firm go up and down in the lifts each day. As Chris Dillow (at the excellent Stumbling and Mumbling blog) has been known to point out, this new situation, where human capital is the most important kind, rather shakes our faith in the shareholder owned company, rather than the worker owned one (perhaps as partnership, perhaps limited liability) as being the best method of the organisation of a firm or enterprise.

Reynolds skips through a series of observations on how these technological changes are making a difference to the wider society. The rise of laptops and mobiles, of Wi-Fi, liberates many of us from the confines of the cubicle farm, habitat of Dilbert, to the open spaces of the Starbucks or perhaps home itself - the latter making something of a difference to the next generation as they are more likely to have seen their parents actually working than any since industrialisation itself.

While you might not think of a law professor as a producer of trance music that is another of the man's enthusiasms and he neatly describes how, again, the rise in the power of electronics and their reduction in cost has meant that a perfectly decent recording and editing suite can be purchased for a few thousand dollars. Ally this with the internet as a distribution medium and bands are no longer (necessarily) tied to the major recording companies, as both the Arctic Monkeys and Nizlopi have recently shown. Disintermediation as itís known in another stunning addition by economists to the elegance of the English language.

One favourite phrase is "A pack not a herd", to describe the behaviour of the newly wired and communicating masses - no longer passive acceptors of whatever orders are given by the leaders, but active participants in the information gathering and decision making. Examples include the reactions of those on Flight 93, when in less than two hours they realised that the rules of the game had changed. Those at the centre, the bureaucracy, could not have acted as quickly as citizens themselves, using phones, did, when they found out what was happening on 9/11, decided what to do and overpowered the hijackers.

The thing for which Reynolds is best known is of course his blogging. Several chapters deal with the way in which this rise of the conversation (yes, he uses the analogy of coffee shops and pamphlets just as I and so many others have) has changed the balance of power in the newspaper and other media businesses. This part is a little less understandable to UK readers for we've not really faced, at least in newspapers, quite such a monopoly of opinion as they have in the US. Most US journalists see themselves as highly trained professionals bringing a balanced report to their captive audience (for most US cities are one paper monopolies) whereas over here we've had a century of highly partisan press, partisan in competition with each other. The process of journalism is also rather regarded as a craft, not a profession, which means that it can be rather easier for an enthusiastic or different voice to get heard here. So the blogger partisanship, almost triumphalism (barbarian hordes storming the walled city! sort of thing at times from some of the wilder voices) is simply less relevant to our own situation.

The last three chapters deal with nanotechnology, the stopping or even reversal of ageing and the irruption of private companies into the previously government monopoly of space travel. So while still talking about new technologies it is more about their potential disruptive effect, if indeed they turn out to work, rather than the way in which they are already changing the world around us. My own view of such things is that inventors and entrepreneurs simply don't know what people are going to do with their new toys. Edison insisted that the phonograph should be a dictation machine and resisted recorded music for some years: we don't really find out what people will actually use a new possibility for until a few billion monkey brains have played with the shiny gew-gaw for a few years. Who at Arpanet thought that the first profitable business on the internet would be pornography (well, OK, that might have been predictable)?

The book is at its strongest when dealing with those technologies and changes which Reynolds has actually been involved with rather than those, like anti-aging, which he is simply interested in (and aren't we all in that one?).

If you've been reading his work, as I have, for the past few years you'll see episodes, thoughts, come up again but then that is the point of the book. To take a considered and over-arching view of the events and ideas of the past few years and create a coherent narrative of how the changes in technology are, and then in the future might, change our society.

Tim Worstall graduated from the LSE and immediately went into small business where he has remained for twenty odd years, working in the US, UK and Russia in fields as diverse as newspaper distribution, offshore programming and exotic metals. He is the author of 2005 Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere and blogs at www.timworstall.com


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