Uncommon Sense: Too Big to Succeed: The Perils of Digital Scale

In the rush to all things digital over the past generation, we have largely ignored and turned away from the fact we are somehow far more fragile and exposed in aggregate as unwired denizens of the digital cloud than we ever were are as wired individuals with our feet on the ground.

The overwhelming complexity of the immense systems that now run our lives guarantee equally immense failures -- like the three trillion-dollar market crashes in the first decade of the 21st century.  While some institutions may be deemed too big to fail, many of our biggest digital systems may be simply too big to succeed.

In the Age of Too Big to Succeed there is no safety in numbers (especially for those in the front row).  Not only is there no safety in numbers, but the numbers themselves are utterly and entirely unaccountable -- just ask John Corzine or anyone at Fannie Mae.

Back in the mid-1990s, the youthful evangelists of the Internet economy -- driven almost entirely by global corporate interests but marketed as a youth-driven attack on the status quo -- canonized a number of half-truths and outright lies. Not least among them was the myth of digital accountability, sold by every digital salesperson on the planet as an obvious extension and benefit of digital measurability.

How, one might wonder, can there possibly be more accountability as the number of transactions in the pipeline increase exponentially? Still, the digital era did increase accountability, only not as we intended, We’ve become much more accountable to the digital systems -- and the institutions that own them --than they’ve become to us.

We tell ourselves the opposite, of course, because we cannot accept the notion that our machines are already in control. We simply cannot accept complicity in our own addictions, even as they drive us out of our own jobs in the name of digital efficiency.

We tell ourselves that institutions are somehow more accountable to consumers in recent years precisely because of our digital technologies.  We tell ourselves that -- thanks to digital transparency -- politicians and government bureaucrats are somehow more transparent and answerable to a better informed citizenry.  But those are pernicious and cynical myths sold 24/7 by global interests with big investments in protecting and promoting the status quo.  The true digital bias is the scaled extension of institutional power for one reason and one reason only: because we can.

Thanks to our digital technologies of scale, the corporatists know far more about each and every one of us than we will ever know about them.  Almost all of it is for sale almost all the time, and virtually none of it is accountable to you and me.  In the end, what we call digital accountability is just another euphemism for no one home but us chickens when the shit hits the fan.

Thanks to our infatuation with and fealty to our own digital tools of scale, all of our major systems are now complex beyond our wildest imagination and way too big to succeed.  Worse yet, they’ve all begun to operate in reverse: Our communications tools have already begun to shut down communications.(Ssocial media is really its opposite: antisocial media.)

The pharmaceutical industry invents diseases to match existing drugs in the pipeline. Big-box digital media do to local media franchises (once the commercial backbones of all communities and the true defenders of democracy) what big-box retailers have done to their local counterparts: steal market share and drive down price points.

Massive market crashes and system failures aren’t what happens when institutions become too big to fail.  They’re what happens when they become too big to succeed.

4 comments about "Uncommon Sense: Too Big to Succeed: The Perils of Digital Scale".
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  1. Jeff Einstein from The Brothers Einstein, May 31, 2012 at 4:40 p.m.

    Yes, there seems to be a direct relationship between systems efficiency and fragility. The more layers of optimization we add in order to enhance efficiency, the more fragile systems become.

    Begging to be controlled smacks of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

  2. John Grono from GAP Research, May 31, 2012 at 7:21 p.m.

    Good article Jeff. You only need to look at the online metrics that have been peddled over the past 15 years or so to see the obfuscation. For example, Australia has 110 million Unique Browsers per month, which up until recently was the de-facto measurement 'currency'. The problem is our population is a fifth of that number. We now report on a Unique Audience of around 16 million. The old saying that online is the most accountable medium is out by just two letters - it is the most countable medium but just because you count things doesn't make you accountable.

  3. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, June 1, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.

    Good point, John. And the massive blind spot - massive gap - online is that they can only count action that lives by the online Vegas rule - things that happen online, stay online. Unfortunately, real life may be influenced by online activity, but it lives out offline. So we never know the impact at a store of our online actions. We never know how online communication leads to behavioral change. And, just so, so much of the infinite countability online is like counting the atoms in a pin - achievable, but meaningless.

  4. John Grono from GAP Research, June 1, 2012 at 7:16 p.m.

    Agreed Doug. The inverse is also true. The online action is (generally) attributed to online activities only, so we never know how offline activities impact on the online (sales) action. That is, offline often fills the funnel that leads to the online conversion and the majority of online measurement systems concentrate on the base of that funnel simply because it is easy to collate the data.

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