Thursday, March 09, 2006

An Army Of Davids: The TigerHawk review 

An Army Of Davids by Glenn Reynolds. Nelson Current, 289 pp., $24.991

To center-right bloggers and at least some of their readers, the prepublication enthusiasm for Glenn Reynolds' An Army Of Davids was almost Potteresque. I found myself nervously refreshing my Amazon "Track packages" page, frustrated all day Monday that my AAOD package had unceremoniously stalled in Philadelphia at 5 pm Friday afternoon, even though it had covered the distance from Nashville to Roanoke to the City of Brother Loving in a mere 22 hours, 36 minutes. But there it was, helpfully propped against the door to our garage (lest somebody steal it from the front stoop, which was a risk, what with all the excitement). Imagine my relief.

It finally having arrived, I faced the question that all bloggers now face, or will face: How might one review a book with the subtitle How Markets And Technology Empower Ordinary People To Beat Big Media, Big Government And Other Goliaths?

It seemed to me that there were several alternatives.

I thought about scanning each page of the book into a separate file and rounding up 289 bloggers each to review one page. Unfortunately, I don't know how to make pdf files -- I'm told you need particular software -- and my secretary might raise a ruckus if I asked her to do it. The last thing I need is "an army of one disgruntled employee" on my case.

I also thought about live-blogging my reading of the book -- you know, "here I am on page 16, where suddenly we are talking about crime."

I could fisk the book, but I require an advanced state of personal agitation to crank myself up to fisk something, and I quite enjoyed An A of D.2

Then, of course, there was the option of linking to the hundreds of A of D blog posts already out there, hoping to synthesize a market-like average review therefrom.

In the end, though, I decided that the straightest path to glory -- which for me would be a blurb before the title page of the paperback edition -- would be a conventional, decidedly non-Army of Davids book review. Albeit one with links.

[Short bits of praise suitable for extraction into blurbs for the inevitable paperback edition are rendered in bold type. - ed.]

In the second sentence of the Introduction, we learn that Glenn Reynolds' grandfather, like Reynolds himself, was a libertarian:

About fifteen years ago, I started brewing my own beer. Nothing new about that: people have been brewing their own beer for millenia [approximately 3.9 millenia, to be precise - ed.], and my grandfather was reputed to have been a pretty good brewer during Prohibition.

It is important to honor one's grandparents, and Professor Reynolds has done so with this book. The Instapundit (who, by the way, enjoyed only 1,600 visits a day in early September, 2001, roughly this blog's traffic on days when we don't, er, get a link from Instapundit) explains how technology has enabled and will further empower unregimented and spontaneous "armies" of ordinary individuals to wield extraordinary wisdom, social influence, and raw, unfettered political and even police power.

In the first sentence of the introduction, we get a glimpse of the reason why there are hundreds of thousands of readers of Instapundit: he is interested in an enormously wide range of things.

These two facts about Glenn Reynolds -- that he is a libertarian and has very widely ranging interests -- explain the central thesis of the book, and why it sometimes strays from that thesis just because Reynolds is really interested in what he is writing about.3

At the risk of being too reductionist, Reynolds' argument is this: technology is radically shrinking the sphere of activity that is, or ought to be, the function of governments and big corporations. Since virtually all readers of this review read Instapundit or see Professor Reynolds when he declaims on television, I'll skip the extended recap and try to confine myself to observations that may not have been made elsewhere.

An Army of Davids is a romantic book. Reynolds loves the idea that individuals can defeat the threats against them. In the fifth chapter -- "a pack, not a herd" -- Reynolds writes with particular verve about the capacity and even tendency of humans to preserve civilized habits and responses even in moments of extreme danger. He cites the academic literature that is quite at odds with the popular, Hollywood idea that people panic in a crisis, and looks at the particular case of September 11, both the evacuation of the Twin Towers and the cobbled together response on Flight 93. Before September 11, al Qaeda adapted itself to each change in airline security, and ultimately exploited the critical loophole in the system: the assumption that hijackers would want to survive. Within minutes, a pack of ordinary Americans responded:
But no sooner did the first plane strike the World Trade Center than the hijackers had to confront someone with a swifter learning curve. As Brad Todd noted in a terrific column written just a few days later, American civilians, using items of civilian technology like cell phones and twenty-four-hour news channels, changed tactics and defeated the hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. These civilians overcame years of patient planning in less than two hours.
Just 109 minutes after a new form of terrorism -- the most deadly yet invented -- came into use, it was rendered, if not obsolete, at least decidedly less effective.

Deconstructed, unengineered, thwarted, and put into the dust bin of history. By Americans. In 109 minutes.

And in retrospect, they did it in the most American of ways. They used a credit card to rent a fancy cell phone to get information just minutes old, courtesy of the ubiquitous twenty-four-hour news phenomenon. Then they took a vote. When the vote called for sacrifice to protet country and others, there apparently wasn't a shortage of volunteers. Their action was swift. It was decisive. And it was effective.

No one has successfully hijacked a Western civilian airliner since -- and, as "shoe bomber" Richard Reid learned, those terrorists who threaten civilian airlines now tend to emerge rather worse for wear. Against bureaucracies, terrorists had the learning curve advantage. Against civilians, they do not.

This bit, and the lengthy appeal in the same chapter to learn arcane skills of the pre-industrial era that might allow you, the gentle reader, to rise up and be a David when your opportunity to defend your loved ones or the country arises, is a core idea in the book. My question is, how much of this is attributable to technology, and how much of it is a fundamentally American -- or "Americanesque" -- response? I can imagine a plane full of Israelis reacting the same way, or Australians. But if al Qaeda had hijacked a Japanese plane, would the passengers have reacted the same way? Was the Flight 93 counterattack determined by the technology, or was it a cultural response enabled by it? To what degree is Reynolds imagining the impact of technology on an American world, rather than the whole world? I don't know the answer to that question, but if he needs a topic for another book that would give him the excuse to travel abroad...

Another, related point: Like most romantic American individualists, Reynolds writes about competent people. Technology will endow capable people to virtually god-like power, and says so toward the end of the book. He does not (in this book, anyway) wrestle with a really interesting derivative question: what happens to a society predicated on equality of opportunity (as opposed to equality of outcome) when purchased technology can change the terms of virtually every competition? This omission, though, is not a bug. It is a feature of Reynolds' irrepressible optimism, which is why I so love to read him. But if he's looking for a topic for another book...

Energy and enthusiasm are core values for Reynolds. In a passage early in the book that describes in positive tones the changes in work and family relationships enabled by technology, he concludes that "[n]obody was that thrilled with the Gray Flannel Suit era." Well, there are a lot of slugs out there who just want to make it to the weekend. They will never be "that thrilled" with work, but much preferred it when they could earn a comfortable living in the middle management of a huge corporation that would take care of their family and virtually guarantee them a job as long as they were willing to pull up stakes whenever the "personnel" department said "move to Wichita." Technology and its hot, cosmopolitan twin, globalization, finished that off about 1975 (except in a few regulated industries), but there are surely a lot of Americans who are unhappy about that. And many more in Europe.

An Army of Davids almost always concludes that the benefits of technology will outweigh their burdens. I tend to agree, but this is largely extrapolation from history. Technology has brought such huge benefits to the human condition that only the most narrow primitivists argue otherwise. But will that trend continue beyond the "Singularity"?

The "Singularity" is the favorite term of futurists "to describe the point at which technological change has become so great that it's hard for people to predict what would come next," and the chapter devoted to it is very illuminating if you are not used to the idea. But by its nature, by its definition, it begs a lot of questions. If we accept that there is such a moment in our near future, perhaps yet in Glenn's lifetime4, how do we know that our historical experience that technology benefits humanity will continue to apply? I certainly don't, but I remain a technology triumphalist because I do not have a good answer to one of the most important questions Isaac Asimov ever asked. But first we have to get back to Reynolds and the future of humanity.

Reynolds' vision of human potential technology focuses on hardware, which is a good thing for my company and its industry. In an extended discussion of technologies that will enhance human ability, Reynolds imagines that devices will make ordinary people extraordinary by today's standards:
Running as fast as light, a la The Flash, might be out of the question, and web slinging is unlikely to catch on regardless of technology. But other abilities, like super strength, x-ray vision, underwater breathing, and the like are not so remote. (The dating potential promised by The Elongated Man's abilities, meanwhile, may produce a market even for those second-tier superpowers.) ["Dating?" Reynolds dates himself! - ed.] Regardless, transcending human limitations is part of what science and medicine are about.... [See my post on functional neurosurgery for more. - ed.]

Reynolds quite noticeably does not even specifically mention the possibility of engineering germ line changes in humanity, which omission allows him to bypass the really nettlesome philosophical controversies. Fine, Reynolds makes no secret of his love of gadgets, and I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with him. But just as new hardware will revise, or revolutionize, the boundaries of human potential, so may human genetic engineering. What will happen when it arrives? Should we be afraid of that future? Will the Singularity only occur when biological and computational inventiveness intersect?

Since we cannot see beyond the Singularity, it will be tempting to resist it. Resistance, though, will be futile. Even if the West resists germ line engineering and Islam is incapable of it, do we really think that it will not emerge in China, India or even Brazil? How can we face this future without fear of its consequences? My answer is to ponder Asimov's question: What if it turns out that like the manipulation of tools, oral language, and writing, the further development of the species requires that we learn to manipulate our own DNA?

I choose to believe that it does.

Don't be a fool. Read An Army of Davids, and then give it to the people in your life who will really need it: your teenaged children.
1. If you're too dumb not to buy it through Amazon.
2. "An A of D" sounds like Borg nomenclature, and there lies the irony: An A of D, after all, integrates with its technology quite in a spirit quite different than that of the Borg.
3. I was fascinated by his fairly lengthy discussion of the Orion project, by which massive space ships might be lifted out of Earth's gravity well by the sequential explosion of shaped atomic bombs. It did not seem to fit the book's core argument, which Reynolds acknowledged by titling that subchapter "Goliaths in Space." He might have, though: I think he missed a chance to mention Footfall, the Niven-Pournelle classic in which humanity overthrows its alien overlords by cobbling together an Orion-type weapons platform. As I recall, the project to build that platform had a decidedly Davids quality to it (although I read it twenty years ago and if you tell me that it was all a big government black-op, I'll concede defeat on this point).
4. I believe I am one law school class younger than Professor Reynolds, although I would more obviously benefit from the anti-aging nanorobots that will, presumably, materialize on or about the Singularity.


By Blogger Gateway Pundit, at Thu Mar 09, 01:14:00 PM:

Terrific job, TigerHawk! I can't wait to dive into my copy!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Dec 07, 11:43:00 AM:

Wikileaks vindicates, this book 'An Army of Davids' by Glenn Renynolds a famous blogger (InstaPundit'). The book is about how markets and technology empower ordinary people to beat big media, big government and other goliaths.

Hats Off !!!! Wikileaks now available from 570 locations !!!! Now different governments are using their usual techniques to stop publication of Cables. Sweeden has issued an International Arrest warant against Julian Assange for questioning in Sweden over a rape allegation !!!! He has kept certain sensitive cables ready for publication in eventuality of his arrest ...!!!  

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