In an era where the news is frequently gloom-and-doom, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to realistically predict a rosy future without sounding Pollyannaish. Glenn Reynolds manages to accomplish this in his new book, An Army of Davids, and in doing so, he amply fills some pretty big shoes.
Over two decades years ago, it was against an even worse backdrop of daily media doomsaying that was able to illustrate the promise of the future when he wrote The Third Wave, his sequel to Future Shock, published in 1970. And for American big business, the seventies were a shock: the railroad industry required not one, but two federal bailouts (Amtrak in 1971, Conrail five years later); the steel industry imploded; and the Arab oil embargo contributed to the American auto industry being rapidly surpassed by Asian automakers with their emphasis on fuel efficiency.
But in 1980, Toffler was able to see beyond those crises and place them in perspective. They weren't part of an overall economic meltdown on the road to a second Depression; they were a clash of the last element of what Toffler called the -- the Industrial Revolution -- butting up against the Third Wave, the high tech future.
The Second Wave was dominated by a rust belt economy and gigantic machines: locomotives, steel mills, and assembly lines. All massive machinery promoted by mass advertising within a mass media and all consumed by nearly identical mass men.
But if the machine set the tone for the Second Wave, the microchip would set the pulse for its successor, allowing for infinitely more economic, media, and even lifestyle diversity.
And few have demonstrated the power of media diversity more so than Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor, proprietor of the hugely popular InstaPundit.com Weblog, a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and now author of the aforementioned An Army of Davids.
Snapshot of Life in the 21st Century
Reynolds' book is the photograph of life at the dawn of a new millennium; it explores what the next 25 to 50 years will bring. In describing his approach to the book, which grew out of on TCS Daily, Reynolds says he tries to find "the pockets of the future that are already here, and then imagine what they would be like if they were more evenly distributed".
Like Toffler, Reynolds' optimistic look at the near future comes in an era in which the news generated by the mainstream media is a seemingly infinite calamity: terrorism, war, partisanship and political scandals.
But these days, there's a second media -- -- spearheaded by Reynolds himself. Bloggers are but one of the Armies of Davids that Reynolds writes about, but arguably their most visible division. And they're part of a much larger trend.
Goliath Is Beginning To Actively Help David
"We've been in a period that's been sort of a blip in human history," Reynolds says, and it's been one in which technology "happened to favor large organizations. In which economies of scale and scope were really the big thing and the problems that small persons or organizations had were exacerbated. And we've now come full circle on that."
Reynolds notes that for the first couple of million years of human existence, "technological improvement pretty much worked on the individual level": fire, the of Reynolds' title character, the spear -- "that was all stuff that empowered the individual."
The Industrial Revolution began to change that, though. "It was only when we get to the steam engine and the telegraph and stuff like that, that big organizations start to look more functional."
Although Reynolds believes that period is rapidly being superseded, he doesn't think that big businesses are going away anytime soon. However their focus is starting to change.
Increasingly, the businesses that are most successful are those that benefit other, much smaller businesses, even down to sole proprietors. Certainly, that's the case with UPS and FedEx, office supply chains such as Staples and OfficeMax, and employee-hiring outfits such as Manpower, Inc., and Monster.com.
"I think the way that you make it in the 21st century is going to be figuring out a way to help a lot of people do what they want, rather than as in the 20th century, trying to figure out a way to make them do what you want."
That's especially the case with eBay, which warrants several mentions in An Army of Davids. Reynolds says that "eBay lets lots of little guys make it, and they're able to make it while they're little, because eBay is big. And it does sort of replace a lot of the old big business infrastructure. It replaces it, but it doesn't abolish it: it provides a lot of the same services. You talk about disintermediation, but eBay tends to re-intermediate by providing a trusted framework for buyers and sellers to get together, by making it easy to find what you want -- and among other things, . And that's a fairly dramatic thing. Those are the kinds of things that whole offices used to do.
"It's not by any means the only one, of course. There's Amazon.com with their affiliates and associates programs, and a bunch of other online programs. And for that matter, a lot of the drop-shops that let people sell on eBay without having to have eBay accounts themselves are providing a similar kind of service. Likewise, I think that's what the Blogosphere is about in a way."
Not surprisingly for one of the most popular bloggers on the Web, there is a chapter devoted to the topic in An Army of Davids. Blogs have taken off partially as a response to media bias, but also because technology no longer rewards size alone. "Big newspapers that we think of as classics are themselves a function of a particular technology that made it economical to print 100,000 papers and not that economical to print 1,000 papers and not at all economical to print 100," Reynolds observes. "And now it doesn't matter."
Leaving The Cradle
Of course, the widespread growth of technology isn't entirely a panacea. When I spoke with Reynolds, his copy of Verner Vinge's Rainbows End had , and Reynolds was entranced with the veteran science fiction author's theme of an apocalypse occurring within two decades, quoting Vinge's line that "anyone having a bad hair day" could eventually ruin the world. "When you the have the equivalent of giving everybody nuclear weapons, the trouble is, some people will be idiots," Reynolds notes. "And we do have to deal with that."
But Reynolds, unlike Vinge, has more faith that the collective power of individuals will in fact deal with those bad hair days. Perhaps in a similar way to big software companies inviting hackers to help hack-proof their products.
This optimism about individuals and private businesses ties into the theme of one of the last chapters in An Army of Davids: the importance of . Reynolds is particularly excited over recent efforts by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, and flamboyant Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson. "You now have a generation of rich guys who, like me, grew up on science fiction. And really want to make this stuff a reality."
And these efforts can't come at a more opportune time, with the combination of NASA's ever-increasing bureaucratic constipation and the growing odds of an Osama-wannabe having his own "bad hair day."
Which may be why the second half of that chapter in Reynolds' book diverges slightly from the book's main thrust, to focus closely on what technologies could propel manned deep space probes, and not all that surprisingly for a high-tech law professor, what sort of language would be contained of an Earth colony on Mars.
It's going to be quite some time before lawyers will be drafting the Red Planet's legal structure. But that subchapter is the exception to the rule in the future of An Army of Davids. Just as Toffler extrapolated then-cutting edge technology of the late-1970s to accurately predict life in 1980s and 1990s, most of the technology in An Army of Davids is already here and, barring a bad hair day or two, will be radically reshaping life for the next several decades.
Ed Driscoll is a TCS contributing writer.