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Book Review: An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds

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Glenn Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, updates his wildly popular weblog InstaPundit several dozen times a day, regularly posts to another blog hosted by MSNBC.com, writes regular essays for TCSDaily, Cato Unbound and several other publications, composes and produces music, co-hosts a podcast with his wife, contributes to another podcast hosted by Pajamas Media, and still found time to write An Army of Davids.  [Disclosure: my own blog, Daimnation! – which has been fortunate enough to get a few "Instalanches" over the years – is also a Pajamas Media site.]

Personally, I’d love it if he wrote a book about time management, but the book he did produce is informative and thought-provoking in its own right. An Army of Davids is subtitled “How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths,” and it describes how new technologies can allow individuals, groups and small businesses to become successful and effective even in fields dominated by large corporations and government agencies.

His first example, surprisingly, is not blogging but homebrewing. (Yes, Reynolds makes his own beer, too.) Reynolds notes that Americans got tired of the limited selection of beers available in bars and corner stores, and through a process of trial and error, began creating their own – which eventually forced the likes of Miller and Coors to improve the variety and quality of their own products. One homebrewer would hardly have made a dent; hundreds of thousands of them changed the beer market forever.

It’s the same thing with blogging. People got tired of what the TV news channels and major papers were doing — especially after the 9/11 attacks — and gradually turned to the opinionated, feisty, and often very funny writing at pioneering blogs like, well, InstaPundit. The growth of this medium and its influence has been absolutely mind-boggling, with the same mainstream media outlets who once sneered at blogging starting up their own blogs, and both major U.S. political parties inviting bloggers to cover major events and even collaborate and policies and strategy.

Even the biggest criticism of blogging — that bloggers piggyback on the work of the same major media outlets they criticize — is becoming less of a factor, with more and more original reporting showing up in the blogosphere. (See the two Michaels – Yon and Totten – for examples of quality journalism produced without the backing of major corporations or governments.)

Podcasting is taking off in the same way, and so is videocasting. The technology for producing a weblog or podcast is so inexpensive that you don’t need a massive audience to make it worthwhile, which is why Reynolds rewrites Andy Warhol to declare, "in the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people." But when several hundred relatively small blogs get together to take on a common, more powerful foe, the effect can be devastating. Ask Dan Rather.

But Reynolds’s thesis extends to much more than blogging, podcasting or “citizen media” in general. An Army of Davids also includes chapters on how unsigned and obscure musicians are making high-quality recordings inexpensively and using the internet to promote and distribute them around the world; how private companies and organizations like the X-Prize Foundation are gradually supplanting the bloated, stagnant NASA in moving ahead with space exploration; and even how nanotechnology — the manipulation of molecules and atoms — could be used to produce almost anything. Not only do you not have to be big or well-funded to change the way we do things, writes Reynolds, being big can be a disadvantage.

Personally, I don’t think we’ll see the end of the multinational corporation anytime soon. (Indeed, these days, pretty much any business will be multinational. Who would have predicted that one of the most popular means of online communication would come from Estonia?) And unfortunately, bloated bureaucracies may be with us forever.

Reynolds is often accused of being a "blog triumphalist," and there are several legitimate criticisms of his Army of Davids theory, most of them made effectively by Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell in a Cato Institute symposium (available as a podcast, and highly recommended as a supplement to the book).  In particular, new technologies can give a leg-up to many individuals and small organizations and businesses, but that alone doesn't solve the problem of getting that technology to the poorest and most disadvantaged. 

But the opportunities described by Reynolds sound exciting and revolutionary, and I can't wait to see how his theories play out.  An Army of Davids is essential for anyone who regularly reads InstaPundit, and pretty darned interesting even for those who don't.

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About Damian P.

  • methuselah

    The Army Of Davids will be followed by an Army Of Goliaths who will snatch Davids victory after he has paid the freight and shown the way. Already you can hear them knocking on the door: insisting that the government discriminate between David and Goliath on the internet by allowing Goliath a greater priority.

  • Alvin Scotworth

    Corporations/governments are control freaks, and hate freedom of, well, everything really. So when people start putting opinions, ideas, information etc on the internet, which is (for now) free, they get very annoyed and nervous. Unfortunately, the corporations/governments are getting more and more support, and therefore power, to take control of internet content. I’m seeing a lot of outspoken sites, and people, ‘disappear’, or quieten down lately. Hopefully, we can keep our diversity and freedom.

  • Bliffle

    “Corporations/governments are control freaks, and hate freedom of, well, everything really.”

    “Hopefully, we can keep our diversity and freedom.”

    I’m afraid the first precludes the second. If they are successful.