Book: An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds

Persuasive and insightful

Glenn Reynolds
An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths
Nelson Current, 2006
ISBN: 1-59555-054-2
268 pages

I almost didn't read An Army of Davids. Not because I think that Glenn Reynolds lacks interesting things to say; I read his blog,, a couple of times a day. And not because I thought that the book would be bad; I expected that it would be very good. I almost didn't read it because, since I read a couple of times a day, I doubted that there would be much in it that was new to me. (I seem to remember Professor Reynolds saying something like that in his blog, but I can't find it right now and I may be remembering incorrectly.)

And it's true that many of the themes and even examples that come up in the book will be familiar to regular readers of But, at least on some subjects, a longer treatment in a book is sufficiently different from short blog posts that I learned more than enough to justify reading it.

Professor Reynolds's thesis is clear enough: In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was generally necessary for an organization to be big in order to do much that was meaningful. Industrial-era factories are an obvious example, but so are the large organizations of the mainstream media. In recent past, improvements in computers and communication technology have given individuals and small groups of people many abilities that were once solely in the domain of large organizations. That has various effects: One is that individuals can increasingly produce things that people want without being a formal part of a large organization. That's especially true since a greater proportion of many people's consumption is of things like information and services that are just the sort that individuals can create. (And when individuals can create things that people value or make decisions that were previously in the province of big organizations, they can often do a better job since they can act quickly and they don't have the risk-averse nature that large organizations do.) Another effect is that large organizations will have to reckon with newly-empowered customers, employees, and so on. A third effect is that many people are likely to live happier and more fulfilling lives. Is life as a salaryman anyone's ideal?

If that's news to you, or you aren't fully persuaded that it's true, or you'd like to know what Professor Reynolds thinks are some of the likely implications of all that, then by all means read An Army of Davids. You will likely learn a lot. But those are subjects that I was already familiar with, and on which I agree with Professor Reynolds in very large part, partly on account of reading

That discussion takes up a little more than the first half of the book. What follows are chapters on nanotechnology, life extension, space exploration, the approaching technological "singularity" (that is, the time when human technology may transcend human biology), and a conclusion. Professor Reynolds blogs about those subjects too, but a little less often than he does about more prosaic matters. I've paid somewhat less attention to those posts on not because I think the subjects are uninteresting, but because predicting advances in those areas seems to me to be pretty speculative and futurists' track records aren't great.

Would I have had the same familiarity and general agreement with Professor Reynolds's views on those subjects if I had read those posts carefully and followed the links? Possibly, but I'm not at all sure of it. Anything that's written on those subjects is going to be pretty speculative and a longer discussion is apt to be more persuasive than a short blog post.

I'm pretty skeptical by nature and, after reading those chapters, it's abundantly clear that Professor Reynolds isn't starry-eyed. Still, he has interesting things to say. And I even started to think seriously about whether the folks who think that the singularity will come might possibly be right when I thought about how much dumber I am when I don't have access to Google.

Professor Reynolds manages the transition from things that we see in our daily lives to speculative matters with less than complete elegance. Individual empowerment does figure into the discussions, but the relationship occasionally gets a bit tenuous. Still, the arguments are pretty persuasive and the conclusion ties it all together pretty well.

Professor Reynolds occasionally provides a little less background than some readers may want. For example, I agree that, "Even before 9/11, the 'leave it to the professionals' approach to safety and security as obviously a bad idea" (p. 83). But I suspect that some folks could have used a bit more persuading. Still, Professor Reynolds's writing style and arguments are enormously clear and he accomplishes quite a lot in a pretty short book.

If I had been Professor Reynolds's editor, I would have suggested "among" where there is "between" on page 171. And Professor Reynolds must have nodded briefly because I'm sure that he knows that you can't have an email flamewar on Usenet (p. 260).

Posted: Thu - May 25, 2006 at 08:25   Main   Category: