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The World Is Going Digital -- Are We Doomed?

Two new books, about the effects and implications of the Internet, suggest a scary digital dystopia awaits us.

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Call me irresponsible – oh hell, call me a cyber-utopian, throw in celebrant – but it’s undeniably true that I regard the admittedly messy, chaotic, confusing and upsetting digital information revolution as, on balance, a good thing, particularly when it comes to issues of democracy and power. After all, as noted in a recent book on the subject, one result of that revolution has been that “new methods of creating content and new channels to distribute it have become available to everyone and between everyone.” As networked technologies proliferate, they rapidly transform “our political, commercial and communications environments” – including “the very nature of our democracy itself.”

Sounds good, don’t you think? But two new books about the effects and implications of that ongoing and all-encompassing revolution – especially with regard to the role of journalistic institutions – suggest such optimism is increasingly obsolete. Instead, the authors believe, a scary digital dystopia awaits us.

The End of Big by Internet pioneer Nicco Mele, is about the nature of power in the digital age, and has as its thesis that the radical connectivity of the new information revolution – “our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly and globally”– is upsetting traditional big institutions and empowering upstarts. It is “toxic to conventional power structures” such as Big Media, Big Business, Big Government, Big Education, etc, and ipso facto, “the end of big is at hand.”

One might think this power shift presents us with what Mele describes as “unprecedented opportunities to reshape our future for the better.” But unfortunately, he says, we may rather be “doomed to a future inconsistent with the hard-won democratic values on which our modern society is based… a chaotic, uncontrollable, and potentially even catastrophic future.”

Although he concedes that many traditional institutions are flawed and corrupt, and says “they deserve to die,” Mele is more concerned about what he calls the “destructive consequences” of radical connectivity, which puts “unprecedented power in the hands of every individual.” At first glance this may seem to be “potentially a good thing,” but Mele warns, “radical connectivity is altering the exercise of power faster than we can understand it.” The consequences are “disruptive, confusing, even dangerous.”

Why? “Without realizing it, citizens and elected leaders have abdicated control over our political and economic destinies to a small band of nerds like myself,” explains Mele. This “ revenge of the nerds” scenario worries him because he fears that technology is outstripping the ability of our institutions to keep pace with it.

The End of Big makes big claims – sometimes too big. In trying to support an overarching premise, Mele sometimes overreaches; describing what is at stake as “nothing less than the continued progress of the human race” or claiming that the “end of big in business represents one of the greatest hopes for saving our civilization” detracts from his otherwise cogent analysis. Another problem with his “end of big” metaphor is the problem of how to account for the “bigger than big” new tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple – which briefly became the world’s largest company last year when it passed Exxon in market capitalization until the oil giant regained its premier status a few months ago.

But the biggest flaw in The End of Big may be simply that Mele takes on too much. He offers too many examples from too many sectors, such as Big Media, Big Politics, Big Brands, Big Government, etc. – many of which have already been considered elsewhere. Mele may have profited instead by biting off far less and chewing more just on technology, education, government and politics, areas where he has ample top-flight, real-world experience and is most insightful. If his book’s focus had been narrower – dare I say smaller? — he could have drilled deeper as well.

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