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Book Review – An Army of Davids

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When I was younger, I had a friend who seemed to live somewhere in a grey area between reality and fantasy. He was able to deal with reality for periods, but would always slip back into strange little fantasies where he was a ninja or an elf warrior or something else equally strange. He and I would go to the park to practice golfing, but inevitably the golf club in his hand would become a sword and he would want to begin sword-fighting with me. He developed a near-obsession with fantasy books and games, science fiction and the like. The cover of every book he owned featured either a picture of spaceship or a warrior holding some ridiculously large weapon. As I read An Army of Davids I continued to conjure up memories of this friend.

Glenn Reynolds is best known as being the “Instapundit.” His blog makes just about every other blog in the world look miniscule in comparison. His site gets more readers in a day than many blogs get in a decade. Just about every blogger dreams of someday having the audience and influence of the Instapundit. Most never will.

In some ways, Reynolds is the ultimate “little guy.” Or that is how he started out, in any case. He represents a new breed of reporter who has arisen to challenge the mainstream media. With little more than a web site built upon free software and a desire to share what his interest in current events, he has become extraordinarily widely-read and influential. It was no great surprise, then, to learn that he had written a book that would seek to explain “how markets and technology empower ordinary people to beat big media, big government and other Goliaths.” There are few people more qualified to join this discussion.

I was expecting a book about blogging and the power of new media. The marketing material I received along with this book promised that I would “learn how new technology has empowered the little guy.” Specifically, it suggested it would explain “how bloggers brought down Trent Lott, Dan Rather, John Kerry and New York Times editor Howell Raines.” Here is the section of the book dealing with John Kerry: “Another example involved Democratic candidate John Kerry’s claim to have been in Cambodia on Christian Day 1968, which turned out not to be the case either” (91). So clearly the marketing material had it wrong, for this hardly explains how bloggers brought down John Kerry! Many other triumphs and challenges of the blogosphere received just as little attention.

So what is this book about? The thesis of the book seems to be captured in the words I have italicized within the following quote from the book’s introduction. “I’ll look at the way this change [big to small] is playing out in the worlds of business, media, the arts, and even national security. I’ll look at the downside of empowering individuals: if amateur musicians or bloggers are empowered by technology, so in a different way are terrorists. Overall, I consider the trend to be a positive one. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, the existence of this empowerment is undeniable and irreversible. Love it or hate it, it’s worth close consideration” (10).

There were some very good sections in this book. The section dealing with blogging did provide a challenge that the Goliaths of the world ought to consider. The section on horizontal knowledge did a good job of showing how information is increasingly moving horizontally, between groups of loosely-coordinated people, rather than vertically as in the past. Reynolds does prove, to some degree at least, that because of new technologies, the little guy is empowered in a way that was impossible in the past. And, as he says, “As the big guys get better at being big, it’s actually easier for the little guys to stay small” (27). After all, if Wal-Mart and Kinko’s, through their massive size, can reduce the cost of consumer goods, it makes it easier for small business to begin and thrive. There is an important synergy between the big guys and the little guys.

Right in the middle, just as the book is beginning to come together, it takes a strange turn and it began to evoke memories of my childhood friend. Reynolds leaves behind media and blogging and begins to fantasize about nanotechnology and life in space. You have to read it to believe it, but there is a long, detailed section of the book discussing the future colonization of Mars and a 4,000 ton Chinese spacecraft powered by nuclear explosions (not to be confused with a nuclear reactor). He even provides a primer on how we can prepare ourselves to deal with a terrorist attack. There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to somehow make this relevant to the thesis of the book, but it simply cannot be done convincingly (unless we are to believe that China, the most-populated nation on earth, is a “David” who is tackling the American “Goliath” in the space race). The final chapter introduces the concept of “singularity,” which describes “the point at which technological change has become so great that it’s hard for people to predict what would come next” (237). I think it is the point where robots take over the world and use as as their fuel source and those who remain develop superpowers (and yes, Reynolds does discuss the possibilities of humans with super strength, x-ray vision and underwater breathing).

Throughout the text Reynolds uses the pejorative word “Luddites” as often as the average Christian-market bestseller uses the words “Mother Teresa.” He uses the word to describe any person who expresses fear or concern about technology. He often uses it without justification and without allowing legitimate concerns to be expressed and discussed.

The book concludes with these words: “The Army of Davids is coming. Let the Goliaths beware” (268). By the time I had waded through this book, it seemed to me that the previous 268 pages, or the previous 134 at any rate, were really just filler and did not do a whole lot to support this conclusion. I know what Reynolds was hoping to say: that small is the new big and that we are coming into an era where the little guy, David, will have ever-greater influence over the big guy, Goliath. The problem is that too much of the book did not even attempt to support this thesis, and several of the bits that tried fell flat.

I guess I could summarize by saying that I felt this book did not receive good editing. Half of the book could have been left on the editing-room floor and probably should have. Instead, An Army of Davids rambles on through topic after topic which seem to be related to each other only as Reynolds’ personal interests. The book often seems to forget just what it is supposed to be about. I can’t help but believe that Reynolds could have done better.

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