The Internet has changed all our lives, but there are a few things that it doesn't do quite so well as the traditional world. First on my list is what I'll call "serendipity." The Internet allows you to find what you want when you want it, to customize this, RSS that, and otherwise cull together things that interest you. But what about the fascinating stuff you don't choose but can have enormous impact on your life? How often have you bumped into an extraordinary article on page B7 of a newspaper that you never would have found online?
Okay, so I'm a nerd. As I read so little in print during the year except books, my end table is piled high with magazines I'm dying to (or, truth be told, feel I ought to) read. Amid the drama of Paul McCartney's divorce blaring from People and the best Rh"ne wines reported in Wine Spectator are daunting analyses on disease technology and pandemic preparedness (I do run health Web sites, after all), and even more terrifying reports on the next presidential election (which, in case you're not from Washington, D.C., has already started). There I find one joyous serendipity experience after another. I can kick back and have fun, but I also find insight.
With all this in mind, I'm going to alert you to an article that might not have made your summer reading list, from the July/August edition of Foreign Policy magazine. It is written by chief editor Moises Naim and called "Megaplayers Vs. Micropowers," with the subtitle: "Rising instability is good news for the little guy - and bad for everyone else." In a dozen lucid paragraphs, Naim posits that what the Internet has unleashed - the individual in charge, small communities of individuals, and experts building wildly influential exchanges of insight and actions - is in fact part of a broader trend in the world today.
He surveys the globe, noting everything from the fact that Royal Dutch Shell is no longer able to take on the nationalistic (and nationalizing) trends of tiny powers like Bolivia, to the rise of "ragtag militia equipped with small arms...denying the most powerful military in history control of the territory it swiftly conquered;" from the surprising statistic that Wikipedia actually has significantly fewer mistakes than Encyclopaedia Britannica to the phenomena of smaller margins and greater churn in political elections; from central banks having to contend with hedge funds to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Naim outlines how large traditional juggernauts are "threatened by improbable new rivals."
Sound exciting? Naim instead concludes soberly, "Whether you prefer cheering for David or Goliath, the complex interplay of megaplayers and micropowers portends a more volatile, fractious world."
Having served in government in the foreign affairs apparatus, I've met plenty of folks with something close to nostalgia for the simpler days of the Cold War. "You knew who your enemies were, and they were established institutions," is the formulation I hear a lot, but that's too simplistic. The good old days were never so good or simple, except in hindsight.
I worry about our political situation, cyber-criminality, our environment, and the world that my kids will be exposed to as much as, if not more than, the next guy. I wonder at the forces of nationalism and cultural and religious identity, which drive such deep hatred, anger, finger-pointing, and objectification of our opponents - trends that clearly have risen in the world we're in.
But I am an optimist by nature. Micropowers may be curtailing the "disciplining effect" of the megaplayers, but nothing in history has convinced me that these megaplayers were all that disciplined themselves (thank you, Enron). Micropowers are sharing innovation (open source), expertise (community-driven Web sites, like mine in the health field), recommendations (buy/rank this), and insight (search as a massive voting machine). All of this is enriching our lives in ways that were unimaginable when I was a kid.
I must confess that every time I go to a hockey game, I have my doubts about the so-called "wisdom of crowds." I'm also inspired by their excitement and their insights - almost as much as I am by the solitary, serendipitous joys of reading.
Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of The Health Central Network, a ChoiceMedia company. (firstname.lastname@example.org, thehealthcentralnetwork.com)