Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An Army of Davids

So, I've been spending some time with Glenn Reynold's book (Glenn being of course the seminal and highly influential Instapundit), and I must say that it gives me lots of language I can use to talk about phenomena that are easily observable right now. I think you could say that Glenn Reynolds has done for technology what Virginia Postrel did with design topics.

Which is to say, they beat the drum and say, hey, look at what this democratization of knowledge can do for you! In that vein, the book is really pretty visionary, pointing out the magic of the internet age. And I for one see it as magical. You know how Laura Ingalls Wilder's Pa in Little Town on the Prairie said to Laura that it was an amazing time to be alive (that was in the 1890s)? I've been actively thinking that to myself for the past few years, and An Army of Davids gives me ample evidence to back that up with its talk of citizen empowerment and the "comfy chair revolution."

The theme of "ordinary" individuals being empowered to create, and then to benefit from the fruits of their labors is a big one in the book. This is making me think of the Business Week article I read at the gym this week, where they were talking about the validity of the measures we use to guage the strength of the economy. One of the things they mentioned was the amount Americans spend on education, which is, of course, huge. The number crunchers chalk that amount up to consumption, however, the article's authors were looking at it as a form of investment, which of course it is. It's these kinds of individual choices adding up to sweeping societal changes that An Army of Davids is really good at articulating.

Toward the end of the book, there's a lot of emphasis on Kurzweil's Singularity, which Kurzweil defines as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed." Even though that definition is broad enough to drive a boat show into, it's something that we all see every day. What's potentially frightening about it is that there are so many people who don't know about the shadowy optimization that is occuring at the fringes of life. There are so many people who still proclaim proudly, "I don't do email," and the like. What's going to happen to them? It's a form of illiteracy already, not to mention what it's going to be like 5, 10, 15 years from now.

This is not to say that Glenn holds back on some of the more awful sides of the democratization of knowledge and resources, e.g., Bioterror for Dummies and the like, but I think what comes through in the book is an inherent trust in human beings, i.e., la technologie c'est un humanisme. Because, when everyone is empowered, the good guy stands a lot better chance of winning.

Notes for myself and others involved in association management. You know how we have a hard time getting and keeping members, and also quality volunteers, etc? My conclusion from reading this book is that our boards and staff are asking a lot of people--asking them to give up their free time when they could be "volunteering" for themselves. And I don't think that's selfish, either. When someone could put together a website and manage an effective program, whether professionally or for a cause, we had better make sure that our programs are just as effective. Also, I think associations should focus on what they're good at: providing credentials and/or education as a cost-effective alternative to the bloated universities, and lobbying the government. IMHO.

Army of Davids, by Glenn Reynolds
ISBN # 1595550542