The End of Big is inevitable, Nicco Mele argues. But whether that creates Big Problems or Big Opportunities is up to us. (More)

The End of Big, Part III: Big Opportunities (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores Nicco Mele’s new book The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath. Thursday we began with how the tools of “radical connectivity” embody a systemic bias against existing institutions, and in favor of nerds. Yesterday we saw his predictions for the end of Big Institutions, from the media to business to national governments. Today we conclude with why we must navigate the End of Big carefully to preserve our values in a sustainable society.

Born to Foreign Service parents, Nicco Mele spent his early years in Asia and Africa before graduating from the College of William and Mary with a bachelor’s degree in government. He pioneered the use of social media for several high-profile advocacy groups before becoming the webmaster for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. He then co-founded EchoDitto, an internet strategy and consulting firm whose clients have included Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, the Clinton Global Initiative, Sierra Club, UN World Food Programme, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, AARP, and Medco. Mele is also on the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School where he teaches graduate-level classes on the internet and politics.

“A messy process taking shape”

Nicco Mele sees radical connectivity – our increasing use of personal computers, the internet, and smartphones – as an epochal change. We are leaving the Industrial Age and entering the Information Age, and only slowly are we coming to recognize the implications of that transition:

Enshrining traditional democratic values in the institutions of the post-Big era won’t be easy. Throughout the course of this book, we’ve seen a messy process taking shape whereby citizens are reassessing existing institutions, determining which to keep, which to modify, which to shelve.

Yet as we’ve seen this week, Mele does not simply assume this process will yield a world we’d like to leave for our grandchildren. To do that we must navigate the End of Big carefully – with our eyes open to both the Big Problems and the Big Opportunities – and he suggests six strategies.

“Making [institutions] more amenable and responsive to individuals”

Just as we saw a year ago in discussing Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked: The New Social Operating System, Mele sees post-Big Information Age as grounded in networked individualism. He doesn’t cite Rainie and Wellman, but he offers this quote from Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in The Starfish and the Spider:

Decentralization has been lying dormant for thousands of years. But the advent of the Internet has unleashed this force, knocking down traditional businesses, altering entire industries, affecting how we related to each other, and influencing world politics. The absences of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, has become a major asset.

Mele writes that this structural shift – from hierarchical, geographic groups to individuals choosing and creating their own often leaderless networks – will force us to recognize that:

Every single citizen, customer, client, employee, listener, reader, student, patient – every person your organization touches – is powerful, almost beyond measure. Treat them that way.

“Demand serious, thoughtful, informed leadership”

This shift will require difficult balances of interests such as personal privacy vs. individual responsiveness (more on this below), and equality of opportunity vs. individual autonomy. For that, we need leaders who understand those divergent and important interests from personal experience. As Mele asks:

How many U.S. senators have ordered a book from Amazon? Paid their bills online? Regularly watch YouTube? How many of our university presidents know the difference between a waiter and a (web) server?
[…]
We need a new sense of public service – not just soulless meritocratic leaders, but leaders who can understand our challenges and inspire us to greater heights.

“Develop new processes … to bring together [networked individualism] and the direction-setting inspirational leadership necessary for change”

Here Mele cites the 2008 Obama campaign, and I would argue the 2012 campaign used the tools of radical connectivity to even greater purpose. As a 2012 OFA staffer told Sasha Issenberg in The Victory Lab, “We ran a national campaign like a school board race.”

That did not end with President Obama’s reelection. Instead, OFA became Organizing for Action, a network of local groups coordinating their efforts for specific legislation. Many OFA veterans have also joined local Democratic Party groups – as I can attest to in my own county – and are bringing that same energy and expertise to state and local politics. For many of us, government is no longer a distant enterprise that happens Out There, with us mere spectators via Big News. We are taking part in it, and the tools of radical connectivity play a key role in that effort.

“Imagine in ever-finer detail what future institutions will look like”

This includes acknowledging that some institutions, such as Big News, will likely fade away. We need to discuss how to preserve their most essential functions, such as accountability journalism, in the institutions that replace them. Other familiar institutions will be forced to adapt, and we must resist what Mele calls “radical, insular individualism” in that transition. Instead, he writes:

[W]e must build institutions that encourage collaboration and accountability, locating such accountability in vast networks of small groups that share common culture and motives.

Mele cites Wikipedia and open-source technical projects as examples of distributed networks with shared common purposes and cultures. Other institutions may follow these models, or develop others we haven’t yet imagined, but we must try to do so.

“Strengthen and reimagine local community”

Mele writes that “communities remain the fundamental building blocks of society,” and I agree, with the proviso that communities already do and increasingly will use the tools of radical connectivity to escape the confines of geography. Some of the best ideas for your city, or your neighborhood, may come from an idea first tried by ‘neighbors’ on another continent.

As Mele argues, we can use those tools to build more sustainable, less energy-intensive local farms and industries. Yet as that develops, we must also preserve and broaden liberal values like the social contract, positive and negative liberty, equality under law, and equality of opportunity. It cannot be enough to live in a gated, self-sufficient island of prosperity surrounded by a sea of neglect. Such islands have always sown the seeds of their own destruction, and we must imagine communities as well as individuals existing in mutually-beneficial networks.

“Take control of the Even Bigger platforms”

Finally, Mele argues, we must recognize that modern behemoths like Facebook, Google, and Twitter “constitute our digital commons,” and hold them accountable not just as businesses and tools for individuals, but as “a digital town square.” He quotes Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked:

In the long run, if social networking services are going to be compatible with democracy, activism, and human rights, their approach to governance must evolve. Right now, for all their many differences, [digital platform companies like Facebook and Google] share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services.

This will require a careful rethinking of personal privacy, as discussed above. We cannot expect individualized attention unless we allow institutions to know us as individuals. Yet we cannot allow “know us” to transform into “own and oppress us.”

While the NSA’s PRISM program has focused our attention on government data collection, the companies that own the tools of radical connectivity collect far more data with almost no democratic oversight. Terms of service for those tools are presently dictated on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, written to enable the companies’ business models, signed with a mouse click after at most a cursory reading, and subject to change without notice.

If these tools are to truly be “a digital town square,” we networked citizens must have a voice in what data can be collected and how it can be used, with effective and transparent institutions for resolving our disputes and enforcing those rules. While we can never ensure 100% security, we should be and feel at least as safe in our online communities as we do in our physical communities.

Only by considering these and other Big Problems and Big Opportunities can we ensure that the Information Age we leave our grandchildren is a better, safer, more sustainable one than the Industrial Age we inherited. The End of Big is coming … but how it comes is up to us.

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Happy Saturday!