IN HIS CLASSIC The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon wrote:
the philosophical absurdity that often marks general beliefs has never been an obstacle to their triumph. Indeed, the triumph of such beliefs would seem impossible unless on the condition that they offer some mysterious absurdity.
I was reminded of Le Bon's observations about the absurdity of popular opinion while reading Glenn Reynolds new book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and other Goliaths. Reynolds is a radical technophile and a voice of the ordinary people who, in the spirit of small-is-big spirit, he calls "Davids."
Throughout history, Reynolds tells us, the Davids of the world--peasants, proletarians, cubicle workers--have been bullied by Goliaths in media, government, education, and science. But now, Reynolds explains, technology has democratized knowledge so that the Goliaths no longer have a monopoly on expertise. The Internet levels the knowledge playing field. In the twenty-first century, he says, any David with a broadband connection can acquire the knowledge and the technology to be a doctor, a movie-maker, a journalist, a statesman, an astronaut, or a music mogul.
Reynolds promises us that inside every David is a "superhero"--or more:
Individuals are getting more and more powerful. With the current rate of progress we're seeing in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other technologies, it seems likely that individuals will one day--and one day soon--possess powers once thought available only to nation-states, superheroes or gods.
Welcome to An Army of Davids--a multiple slingshot of a book about the little David revolution by the biggest little David of them all, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds. This über-blogger and amateur musician welcomes the demise of those traditional newspapers, record labels, and network television news shows which collectively make up "big" media. Littered throughout An Army of Davids is also a Proudon-like contempt for the state, elected officials, "experts," and the established law. But there's more, much more, to Reynolds's techno-anarchist utopia.
HAVING TRASHED half a millennium of post-Guttenberg cultural achievement, Reynolds really blasts off, preaching about the miracles of nanotechnology, how Africa can be the next Hollywood, the imminence of artificial intelligence, the benefits of colonizing Mars, and the godlike powers that bio-tech will endow upon man.
Toward the end of this utopian manifesto, Reynolds pauses for breath long enough to make an intellectual confession:
In some sense, of course, how you view these changes depends a lot on how you view humanity. If you think that people are, more often than not, good rather than bad, then empowering individuals probably seems like a good thing. If, on the other hand, you view the mass of humanity as dark, ignorant, and in need of close supervision by its betters, then the kinds of things I describe probably come across as pretty disturbing.
What is most disturbing about Army of Davids is that it fails to address this crucial issue--whether or not man is inherently good--with any seriousness.
True, Reynolds does tell us about the spontaneous community of "good" wi-fi users at his local Borders (which he compares with an eighteenth-century London coffee house). But there is no deeper argument about human nature--neither Lockean nor Burkean nor Nietzchean--on offer.
IN MANY WAYS, Reynolds has been seduced by the ideal of amateurism. He is correct to suggest that contemporary technology has the potential to dramatically change the world. But he almost completely ignores the rich historical debate--from H.G. Wells, Heidegger and Koestler, to John Searle, Hubert Dreyfus and Francis Fukuyama--about the morality and human costs of technological revolution. In fact, his only reference to classical theory is to Marx who is embraced as an early supporter of putting "capital in the hands of the masses."
Like Marx, Reynolds venerates the idea of revolution. An Army of Davids has a chapter devoted to arguing in favor of revolution (titled "The Comfy Chair Revolution") which concludes:
Working it out won't be easy, but then all revolutions have their difficulties.
On this final point, at least, Gustave Le Bon would have agreed. So would Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, for that matter.
OF COURSE, matters might not turn out so black. Reynolds envisages Borders cafe communities for a nation of laptop touting, iPod listening dudes who don't have to go to the office anymore. He promises:
The secret to success in big business and politics in the twenty-first century, I think, will involve figuring out a way to capitalize on the phenomenon of lots of people doing what they want to do, rather than--in previous centuries--figuring out ways to make lots of people do what you want them to do.
Perhaps the future will be like the 1970s, with the self once more supremely ascendant. In this digitalized idyll, wi-fi will replace marijuana and the ashram will be transformed into the always-on Internet café. But the countercultural imperatives of nonjudgementalism and laissez-faire morality will remain. As Reynolds notes in a section entitled "The Kids Are Alright," "Porn and video games. That's what's making American teens healthier." (Reynolds tells us that teenage pregnancy, teen crime, and drug use are all down which, he asserts, must be the result of teenagers spending all their time online playing video games and looking at pornography.)
THE REVOLUTION, Glenn Reynolds promises in An Army of Davids might well be inevitable. Even shunting aside notions of exceptionalism and cultural excellence, the idea of personal empowerment wrapped up in Reynolds's man-without-walls worldview is certainly seductive. But it would do readers well to remember that revolutions have consequences.
Andrew Keen is a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and digital media critic. He blogs at TheGreatSeduction.com and has recently launched aftertv.com, a podcast chat show about media, culture, and technology.