The virtues of 'a pack not a herd'
A writer with an infectious enthusiasm charts the empowerment of ordinary people
MARK STEYN | Apr 03, 2006
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but what happened to all the mom 'n' pop stores? Go to Anytown, U.S.A. -- or Canada, or Belgium or Latvia -- and it's all Home Depot and Wal-Mart and Dunkin' Donuts.
And yet there is a curious exception to this trend: the media. If the New York Times and ABC and Knight Ridder are the equivalent of the Wal-Marts and Home Depots, they're getting picked off five, 10, a hundred customers at a time by a gazillion mom 'n' pop outfits -- the Drudge Report, Power Line, realclearpolitics.com and a myriad of other Internet wallahs. Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, was one of the first of the big-time bloggers -- or, as we old-media bores say, "bloggers." He hung out his shingle in the summer of 2001 as Instapundit. By Sept. 10, he had some 1,600 readers a day. On Sept. 11, it tripled, and in the weeks after that it soared. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world now dial him up first thing in the morning and throughout the day. That's a lot fewer than, say, the seven million viewers who tune in to the CBS Evening News. But, on the other hand, professor Reynolds' overheads are less than the budget for Dan Rather's hairdresser. Hurricane Dan recently retired, of course, and his successor, Bob Schieffer, is more modestly coiffed, but it will take more economies than that to negate my point: a guy with a laptop and some friendly emailers from Hollywood to Afghanistan can pull an audience a 10th of the size of a mega-global news operation in a big skyscraper in New York full of thousands of employees with lavish benefits.
Reynolds has now written a book called An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths. It's one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in a long time, not because the author is a great prose stylist but because he's an enthusiast who communicates his enthusiasm very infectiously and effectively. He's one of those guys who, if he gets a yen to do something, just gets on with it. Fifteen years ago, he decided he'd had enough of lousy tasteless American beer, so he decided to brew his own. A few years later, he decided he'd like to start producing albums, so he did. His brother had business that took him to Africa, and had heard some Ugandan band he liked, and there was some Polish company that makes studio-quality software you can download off the Internet, and so a few weeks later he was a record producer. He's not Phil Ramone or Mitch Miller, but on the other hand he's not losing money. And, as he points out, for the boys in the band, when you convert any U.S. dollars into Ugandan shillings it goes a long way.
Reading Reynolds reminded me how much of life is wasted trying to get the opportunity to be given the chance to do what you want. When I was a teenager looking for my first break in radio, I had to make an audition tape to send to program directors. That meant booking a professional studio and an engineer so you'd have smooth-sounding cross-fades from the Partridge Family's latest 78 to Bryan Adams' new wax cylinder, or whatever the hell it was in those days. So right there and then I was a significant amount of money out of pocket. Now anyone can do that on a home computer. And you don't need to mail the tape to CZZZ-AM in Queen Maud Gulf in hopes the guy will let you fill in on the overnight shift and one day you'll work your way up to the big time in Yellowknife. Today you can be your own radio station or newspaper or magazine and, if it's any good, a viable economic model will follow, as it has for Reynolds, who now has a book deal and TV appearances and website advertising and all the rest.
The professor thinks we're in a transformative moment: "the triumph of personal technology over mass technology. . . . Starting around 1700, big organizations became the most efficient way to do a lot of things," he writes. But today, "economies of scope and scale" no longer favour the big, and those organizations that don't get it are like the old joke about the Pravda headline boasting that the Soviet Union made the biggest microchip in the world. "The empowerment of individuals," says Reynolds, "may lead to an interesting twist on Karl Marx's goal: workers control the means of production, all right, but it's a far cry from Communism."
That rang a vague bell with me and, after rootling through my mouldering clippings, I found an old column of mine from five years ago -- before Reynolds had started Instapundit or I'd even heard of "blogs." "We have arrived at the situation Marx and Engels urged upon us, in which the proletariat would rise up and seize control of the means of production," I wrote. "Their only mistake was that they were envisioning a workers committee running the local steel mill. But the steel mills have gone, and today the biggest industry in the United States is entertainment. That's the one the masses are kicking down the factory gates of."
Why didn't I work that up into a bestselling book instead of a throwaway aside in the birdcage liner? Well, that's the difference. Reynolds leads by example. It's important to understand what he doesn't mean when he argues that "small is the new big." If your idea of a "small" movie is some piece of pseudo-art starring Nicole Kidman made by Miramax or some other "independent" subsidiary of a blockbuster studio and given a marketing budget bigger than the average European film industry, that's just the same-old-same-old -- vice-presidents galore, years of rewrites, development hell. Rather, Reynolds has in mind things like To Rise Again. Never heard of it? It's from Nigeria, which already has the third- biggest movie industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. To Rise Again cost about 20,000 bucks, start to finish. You could spend more than that on a couple of trips to Los Angeles trying to get face time with a flunky of a flunky of Bob Weinstein's executive liaison to Harvey Weinstein. Why waste years pitching when, for an extension of your Visa limit, you can be your own Weinstein brother? To be sure, for 20 grand you can't do Busby Berkeley's Lullaby of Broadway number from Gold Diggers of 1935, but Busby Berkeley couldn't get the money for that from today's Hollywood, either.
Of course, as Reynolds concedes, "technology empowers the bad people as well as the good. Take terrorists, for example." With some ATM cards, cellphones and box cutters, a nut in a cave in Afghanistan was able to pull off what neither the Nazis nor Commies could: mass slaughter on the American mainland. Yet even here Reynolds is an optimist. One of the ideas he's promoted most assiduously since 9/11 is the virtues of "a pack not a herd." That Tuesday morning, the herd mentality -- big government wedded to 1970s hijack procedures -- failed spectacularly. On the other hand, on Flight 93 a pack -- an ad hoc coalition of fast-thinking individuals -- figured out what was going on, acted swiftly, and at the cost of their own lives prevented that fourth plane from reaching its intended target.
But perhaps the greatest long-term shift will be in our relationship to the state. The thought occurred to me watching Democratic party bigwigs campaigning during the 2004 election. Even though America had much lower unemployment than Canada, never mind France or Germany, John Kerry and Co. went around telling people that there are no jobs out there. And, seeing Democratic Senator John Edwards in an old mill town in New Hampshire, I saw what he was getting at. There are no jobs like the jobs your pa had, where you could go to the mill and do the same thing day in, day out for 45 years, and it made it so much easier for swanky senators come election time because there were large numbers of you losers all in the same place when they flew in for the campaign stop and the crowd was impressive, whereas now they have to prowl around town ferreting out small two- or three-man start-ups, which takes a lot longer and to be honest never looks so good on the news. Watching Senator Edwards pining for the mills, I wondered if he wasn't having a strange premonition of his own obsolescence. The rise of big business was also the rise of big government.
Glenn Reynolds is, by nature, an optimist, even unto the trans-human future and the final frontier("Space: It's Not Just For Governments Anymore"). I'm much more pessimistic about the immediate outlook, but, in a grim and dispiriting time, this is one of the jolliest reads out there. I'd say more but I've got to get back to working on my Christmas album.
To comment, email email@example.com