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Book Explores Societal Transfer of Power From Big Institution to Active Citizen

May 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Author Nicco Mele's new book, 'The End of Big,' explores how technology has made the world a smaller place, opening up new opportunities for local politics, small business and average citizens to wield influence. Political editor Christina Bellantoni talks to Mele about his work and the ways technology impacts our democracy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: how technology has made the world a smaller place, and, arguably, opened up new opportunities for the little guy in politics, business and entertainment.

Political editor Christina Bellantoni has our book conversation.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Forty-eight hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. This photo of the president and first lady was shared by more than 800,000 people on Twitter.

Technology has allowed us to spread vast amounts of information at lightning speed. But how has that changed the way we interact with our friends, family, society, and government?

That’s the subject of a new book, “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath” by Nicco Mele. He teaches about the Internet and politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and joins me now.

Thanks for being here.

NICCO MELE, “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath”: It’s my pleasure, Christina.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Thanks.

So, you write that we’re in the midst of an epic change, a global transformation that gives us the opportunity to reimagine society, put the power back in the hands of the people. How so?

NICCO MELE: Well, there’s been this tremendous transformation over the last 35 years.

Our technology keeps getting smaller and faster and even more connected. You know, in 1969, a Cray supercomputer would have filled an auditorium and would cost five million bucks. It was really inaccessible to most Americans. And, today, two-thirds of Americans carry around smartphones in their pockets that are almost — they’re actually slightly more powerful than those Cray supercomputers. That’s a tremendous transformation.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And what does that mean for society? How is it changing the way we interact?

NICCO MELE: It’s really about a transfer of power from our big institutions, the big hierarchical systems that have organized our world, our society, all parts of it, from big companies to big governments to big media to big news.

And these institutions were organized around a hierarchical flow of power. And with everyone walking around with this power in their pockets, that power is now distributed out to individuals all over the world.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And you can apply it to politics, culture.

NICCO MELE: Well, to really almost every institution we’re looking at is facing some kind of transformation.

It’s no longer a passive audience in news or in entertainment. It’s — the audience has a lot of power when they’re carrying around these smartphones, constantly connected, able to capture video and photos and share things, and distribute information with zero cost globally.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Fast.

And the core premise of this book is that we’re experiencing what you have dubbed radical connectivity. So what exactly is radical connectivity?

NICCO MELE: One of the hallmarks of the end of big is we don’t really have good language to describe what’s going on.

The Internet doesn’t quite capture what’s happening, because it’s also mobile. We’re carrying around with us. But mobile phones still is like a little too much about phones. And so I coined the term radical connectivity to try and describe how anyone with a mobile smartphone is connected at enormous speed with complete mobility at practically zero cost.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And the heart of government is in our local communities, you write in the book. And I would love to have you explain where you see people having the power in their cities and towns, how technology makes that possible.

NICCO MELE: So, I will tell you a story about that.

In my town — I have two little boys. And I live at the playground, right? Got to keep those boys exhausted. And one of the playgrounds that I frequent has a very big, long slide. And in — a couple years ago in Hurricane Irene, the slide got damaged. And the local town said it was going to be $25,000, $30,000 dollars to replace the slide, and that wasn’t in the budget for a couple of years.

And so I don’t know who. Some local parent made a PayPal page, photocopied fliers, stuck them to the trees all over the playground, and said, you know, if every parent who visits here gives $100 bucks to the PayPal account, we will raise the money to replace the slide overnight.

And, sure enough, it happened in just a few weeks. And when I started to look at that, I could see how this radical power, this incredible connectivity that individuals are carrying around, it’s reshaping the balance of power in our communities, in both good ways and bad ways. You know, there’s some very exciting things happening.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Basically, you prevent this as mostly a positive thing, an opportunity. But isn’t there a flip side, too, an area where there could be some danger in this new society?

NICCO MELE: Well, sure.

The founding fathers spent a lot of time thinking about the balance of power and how to build a system of government that you could balance between the monarch and the mob, that you wanted deliberation. You wanted responsible leadership and responsible public policy.

And our institutions are really designed around that and carry a lot of checks and balances and considerations. I mean, the money we raised for slide, was that really the most pressing need and the best way to spend that money for the town? Question mark.

It all happened outside the existing structures of the local government, and so there wasn’t any way to negotiate that. And so while it’s very exciting that a group of parents can quickly raise the money to replace the slide, it also happened outside the process of government that was designed to really make this all work.

And part of that is because the number of challenges on the front of our traditional institutions, the different ways that government is not doing as good as a job, is not as accessible as it should be, especially in this age. And that’s a core thesis of my book, is that our established institutions are really threatened by technology that redistributes power, especially when they’re doing a bad job.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Interesting stuff.

Nicco Mele, “The End of Big,” thanks very much.

NICCO MELE: Thank you. My pleasure.