Reynolds — An Army of Davids

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Reynolds, Glenn, An Army of Davids: How Markets and technology empower ordinary people to beat big media, Big Government, and other Goliaths, Nelson Current, 2006, 289 pp.

Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) has carved out a unique niche in the blogosphere for the last five years with an amazing stream of interesting links (often with brief commentary), an eclectic set of hobbies and intellectual enthusiasms, and a law professor’s expertise in sorting through the legislative and legal whims of American society. Mostly libertarian, with a proactive attitude on personal and national safety, he remains as one of the few prominent “one-man band” bloggers to remain active through the years since 9/11. His energy and productivity are legendary and his influence, I believe, is substantial and growing.

In Army of Davids (AoD), he summarizes his personal experiences with the changes wrought by technology in the last decade, especially those which allow ordinary people to create goods and services which were once the province of large organizations. And he investigates topics that have long held his interest: beer-making, music, the Internet and broadcast media, games, nanotechnology, politics, space exploration, and life extension.

Regular readers of the Instapundit blog will find little that’s surprising in this book, but readers with little or no exposure to the Professor will come away with a great encapsulation of one of the social trends affecting our world. Little guys, talking to each other, turn out to have many useful things to say. And their ability to mobilize in support of, or in antagonism to, large organizations is certainly having a big effect in American society and politics, if less so around the world. For people with an interest in the history and dynamics of the Anglosphere, Army of Davids is an up-to-the-minute description of something we’ve seen in the English-speaking world at least since the Reformation, if not earlier. It’s a reflection of a society that values individual contributions (of information and consideration), leverages the “wisdom of crowds,” (per James Surowiecki) and has the mindset to establish high levels of trust among strangers … or at least has the appetite to develop new ways that strangers can productively work together. To borrow the “wisdom of crowds” summary of scifi writer John Brunner … “while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.”

Reynolds has been accused of being a Pollyanna in his blog and in his book, of only seeing the sunny side of technology and the future, but in his defense, Army of Davids provides plenty of caveats about the impact of small groups gaining new powers. And he takes the time to offers suggestions on how individuals and communities can begin to protect themselves from unexpected dangers in the wider world … especially when the larger organizations of governments may be unable to provide protection and assistance.

But I think much of the criticism of Reynold’s writing is better attributed by the Reynolds persona. He’s friendly in manner, scarily bright and productive, lucid as a writer, curious, and not given to “woe is me” prognostication. He’s “a really smart guy you’d like to have a beer with.” The neighbour that everyone on the street likes, and depends upon. Anyone projecting that kind of personality is going to have trouble communicating gloom and doom successfully.

One reason I believe that he has hundreds of thousands of online visitors to his blogs (and thousands downloading the “podcasts” he creates with his wife, Helen Smith) is that his take on the world is adult, but not morose. Each day’s posts leave one better informed, often amused, but rarely paralysed. I can’t recall any topic, of any degree of seriousness, that he’s been unwilling to address directly, or unwilling to provide a link to someone who is discussing the subject seriously. It’s just that he’s living his life in a free country, amongst lots of people who have some fun in their regular lives. It shows.

The “Army of Davids” can certainly become an Army of Freebooters or an
Army of Fagins
… and the great burst of sociability across the Internet of like-minded individuals can easily slide into a 21st century version of the farflung amateur “army” of people who sent Darwin barnicles to further his research. In other words, the new technologies of communication and information-sharing can be used for malicious and deadly purposes, and it can be co-opted or swamped by the fascinating but totally irrelevant. Nonetheless, the Army of Davids in Reynold’s book seems just as likely to deploy itself in serious issues as in those which are “merely” fun.

In a post entitled A Parsec Too Far, I’ve compared the Professor’s book to Jim Bennett’s Anglosphere Challenge because both made no effort to hide the personal inspirations of the authors … and that entailed taking readers on trips into realms of science and speculation (especially relating to the Technological Singularity) that challenged, or confused, or offended many. By I cannot hold it against Mr. Reynolds for writing the book he wanted to write, and populating it with interviews of people like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey … people he wanted to talk to. The thousands of loyal Instapundit readers will all find parts of the book that they’ll skim … and other parts where they’ll mutter to themselves “you missed a spot.”

From the perspective of the Anglosphere, however, the Army of Davids fits into a small but growing constellation of books that describe a social psychological and technological trend that appears to be most dynamic in the English-speaking world. The titles would include Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds and the newly released The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. It’s not that other cultures aren’t immediately able to take good advantage of the new tools of creativity and communication. It’s that the common law countries have the least obstructed civic space in which to establish communities, and establish new businesses that cater to those communities (both with general tools and with specialized applications or services). It’s entirely possible that some non-Anglosphere country will come up with great new ways to encourage an Army of Davids, to some positive purpose. We’ll have to wait and see. I think the tale of the French Minitel is an excellent example of what happens when the State provides your online environment.

One new, or rather strongly reinforced, pattern does seem clear. The new citizen publication tools: news sites, blogging, podcasts, video-logging (vlogging) — have almost instantly created the threads of social community that stretch from the Big Six (UK-Eire, US-Canada, Australia-NZ) to vast numbers of people who rightly feel they have important information to contribute (drawn from wherever the common law has touched down … or where British or American culture resonates). That will have serious implications for how political thought evolves … especially as Democrats and progressives in the US (shut out of power for some years) turn to UK and Canadian commentary to find succour and form their political narratives. The booming growth in cable subscription to BBC channels in North America, and readership of the Guardian Online are a reflection of the perceived need for a left(er)-wing megaphone than that provided domestically by the NYT, WaPo, and LAT.

The “Army of Davids effect” should logically leverage whatever civic space, and civic appetite, exists in a culture. In the right circumstances, it should build up such space and appetite (as examples in Asia, Iran, India, etc. seem to confirm). For cultures with a strong volunteer, or non-profit/non-state, ethos, the new and inexpensive tools for content and service creation will fit “hand in glove.” The good news is that this should be a very positive trend for the revitalization of local community — reducing the cost of communication and co-ordination in small towns across the Anglosphere. The bad news, as Reynolds touches upon, is that these tools for co-ordination can also be used for destructive purposes. It will take yet another wave of technical change, and legal/social adjustment, for open societies to adjust to malicious and dynamic “free riders,” whether criminal or politically homicidal.

So here’s where I get to join the crowd and play “Missed A Spot” — the favourite game of blog lurkers everywhere.

What topic would I have wanted Glenn Reynolds to mull over in his book?

I guess my choice would be “scalability.” The Professor has some very useful sections on personal safety and encouraging community preparedness for natural or man-made disaster. This seems eminently practical, and part-and-parcel of the pioneer (or at least rural) spirit of America which is still quite alive. Most Americans are still only a generation or three off the farm.

My question would be “If the Goliaths are unable to provide national security, is it permissible or likely that the Army of Davids will start to generate their own foreign policy and weaponry … distinct from the State?” Does the Anglosphere get to practice Fourth Generation Warfare back?

It seems to me that having half a million troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan with a full understanding of how to build IEDs offers both comfort (a newly invigorated set of police, firemen, EMTs, and HAZMAT teams), and a worry (scary new domestic criminals, and a large pool of motivated folks who know how to Fedex anthrax to Riyadh). How long before “people take the law into their own hands” … before they realize that their freedoms come not from their laws but from the values that sustain their laws? How long before the Anglosphere Army of Davids actually mobilizes for war?

With Hezbollah highjacking Lebanese sovereignty for its own purposes, a porous border to the north and south of the US, and Jacques Chirac talking of Africans flooding the world across the Straits of Gibraltar, I’ve been thinking a lot more about frontiers and borders. Especially those that exhibit massive differentials in standard of living, while having minimal impediments to travel or insurgent warfare. My earlier post on a new book on the Fall of Roman Empire spent a few paragraphs discussing other books that summarize the new trends in prosperity, productivity, democratization, and criminal enterprise. It seems to me that the encouraging trends of “horizontal knowledge” reflected in the Army of Davids effect is most tricky when it is working across national borders and massive economic differentials. Whether its sex tourists in Cuba or malignant Muslim teenagers in the Toronto and Atlanta, the challenge is to control the movement of money, ideas, and people in a way that makes things better rather than worse. Whether the Ottoman and European empires can continue their slow-motion decay without triggering massive expulsions and exterminations of ethnic and religious groups is an open question. In Africa, the answer is already “no.” Whether Asia, or even South America, can establish effective and peaceful national sovereignty across entire regions is not yet known. Current events are not encouraging.

One could hypothesize that a newly enhanced Army of Davids in the Anglosphere now has a real-time capacity to evaluate Goliaths, even governmental Goliaths, and aggressively provide an environment that balances freedom and safety to their local satisfaction, rather than that of the Goliaths. The militarization of police forces recently noted by the Instapundit himself seems like a sobering sign that ordinary citizens are more and more willing to see monopoly of very deadly force devolve to their local communities.

Again, then, how soon before the Army of Davids actually goes to war?

Table of Contents

Introduction – Do It Yourself [ix]
1. The Change [1]
2. Small Is the New Big [11]
3. The Comfy Chair Revolution [29]
4. Making Beautiful Music, Together [47]
5. A Pack Not a Herd [65]
6. From Media to We-dia [89]
Interlude — Good Blogging [115]
7. Horizontal Knowledge [121]
8. How the Game is Played [139]
9. Empowering the Really Little Guys [153]
10. Live Long — and Prosper [175]
11. Space: It’s Not Just for Governments Anymore [195]
12. The Approaching Singularity [237]
Conclusion — The Future [255]

6 thoughts on “Reynolds — An Army of Davids”

  1. “How long before “people take the law into their own hands” … before they realize that their freedoms come not from their laws but from the values that sustain their laws? How long before the Anglosphere Army of Davids actually mobilizes for war?”

    James, this idea, which you have been mulling for some time now, is a major one which few people have addressed. The idea that small groups or super-empowered indidivuals may strike blows against civilization is now a common theme. The idea that people who live in civilized communities will have these same capabilities, perhaps moreso, and will used them actively against their enemies, especially if the state refuses to do so, is a very important variable.

    Also, as Walter Russell Mead has written, the American PEOPLE have always had a very robust and multi-faceted foreign policy of their own — missionaries, students, businessmen, etc. — and the possibility of them having their own military assets to respond to threats is certainly possible.

    What this will look like in practice is now hazy. We need a good science fiction novel set in 2050 to show us some possible lines of development.

  2. The recent supreme court decision in Hamdan suggests that a literal army of Davids has important advantages over a national army. It gets the protections of the Geneva Convention, no matter its barbarity, and no matter its separation from traditional nation-states. It seems to me likely that paramilitary, mercenary, or militia-type forces will become a tool of choice for great nations even as they now are for moonbat countries, functioning as cats-paws for major nations whose regular armies will be hamstrung by treaties and international press-fussing.

  3. If armies of Davids do take the law, literally, into their own hands, such things as the Geneva Convention will stop mattering. There will be no protection for anyone.

  4. “What this will look like in practice is now hazy. We need a good science fiction novel set in 2050 to show us some possible lines of development.”

    Working on it, albeit slowly.

  5. You don’t look at science fiction for a perfect map of the future. You read it, or write it, to think about trends and where they might go and what consequences they might have. It is the process of thinking these things through that is useful and interesting, much more than getting this or that precise detail right.

    For example, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is filled with interesting perspectives on future developments, many of which I think are very astute. That does not mean we will in fact literally have Queen Victoria II reigning over a worldwide a Neo-Victorian phyle wearing top hats and corsets and bustles and living in nano-tech defended fortress complexes that look like English country towns. (Of course, if this does happen, I am there, baby.)

    On the specific point you make, William Gibson’s stories and novels from the early 80s, classics of the genre, did in fact give us some inkling of the Internet, he invented the word cyberspace which he described as a “shared consensual reality” which is actually more advanced than where we are now but which may look like what is still ahead.

    I gave up on science fiction, with very few exceptions, in 1990, due solely to time constraints. Those who have followed SF in the last 16 years will probably have more timely examples.

    Overall, I think the science fiction field has done a pretty good job of projecting trends and talking about possible future developments.

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