June 14, 2013
For the history of humanity, for one person to make a difference, the individual had to convince many others to join the pursuit. And the convincing part was tough — whether you were Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., the amount of effort was high, and the probability of success was low. (Certainly the list of people who tried to change the world and failed is long; it’s just that we won’t know their names, which itself is part of my point.) From Christopher Columbus to Steve Jobs, individual power has really only amounted to much infrequently, and only when backed by very large and wealthy entities. Kings and queens financed the discovery of the Americas; Wall Street and venture capital bankrolled Silicon Valley.
I want that to change. I’m a bit of a troublemaker this way and always have been. I’m the guy who as a kid heard the phrase, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else,” and figured I would sit at the side of my bed so that I could pull both legs on at the same time. Every time a new technology arose that offered the chance to take power once reserved for bigger groups, I have been interested. I spent my paper-route money on an Atari 400 computer in middle school, a decade later I invested in a laser printer and a color scanner so that I could learn desktop publishing, and I maintained what you would call a blog years before the term was coined. So it’s no surprise that when Amazon.com offered writers the opportunity to self-publish on the Kindle platform, I jumped in right away. It helped that I had a young-adult novel already finished, so I put it on Kindle within months. Then, last year, pursuing a personal passion for the topic of fatherhood, I spent my own money to survey 1,000 people about fathers, wrote up the results in a short book, and published that on Kindle as well.
So it was appropriate that when Christopher Kenneally of the Copyright Clearance Center invited me to participate in a panel about self-publishing at BookExpo America (BEA), I jumped right in. As a technology analyst, a book-business analyst, and a self-published author, I was about as interested in this panel as you can be. You can watch the entire hour-long panel on C-Span, which broadcast the event live. I refrained from promoting my own books on the panel, but I did talk excitedly about the expanding force of digital — how it is giving more of us more opportunities to do more things in our lives and potentially to influence and affect others. Self-publishing is just a tiny slice of that future of more, what I’ll call the shift from many to one.
Not that individuals didn’t matter in the past; they did. But the individuals that mattered most in the past were those chosen to represent our collective aspirations. The rest of us had to choose whether to support them or not or let them borrow from our individual power to pursue aims on our behalf or not. Most of us could do very little for ourselves without aligning with those powerful individuals and the institutions that they represented. That’s why we lobby politicians, kiss up to CEOs, and praise celebrities. It's kind of pathetic, really, when you realize that we’re going to such lengths merely to borrow back some benefit of the individual power that we surrendered to these institutions in the first instance.
Those days are over. In the digitally disrupted era that we have just entered, the ability to make a difference in the world — the opportunity to express your individual power in the world — is about to shift dramatically toward the individual. In this respect, the rise of digital disruption is just the logical next step that began with the rise of constitutional democracy and the industrial revolution. But it’s about to accelerate to an unprecedented level, and the effects will be both messy and marvelous.
Today, without lobbying my congressperson, without ingratiating myself with my superiors at work, and without paying dues to an exclusive club, I can use digital tools and platforms to get more out of my life than I could have otherwise. With Google and Wikipedia at my fingertips, I can amass the power of knowledge to generate new ideas; with Kickstarter and Indiegogo, I can ask other people to support my ideas at very low cost; by signing up as an Amazon merchant or creating a free blog on WordPress, I can distribute my products or services nearly for free; and by tapping Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, I can connect with an audience of people who can judge for themselves whether my ideas, products, or services are worthy of their time, attention, and even money.
In saying this, I have set myself up for easy critique, because I have invoked larger-than-life historical figures, compared with whom, the individuals I’m talking about will seem like small potatoes. But that is also part of my point. Because it was so hard to change the world before, changing it had to happen at large scale and was therefore very rare and very, very costly. As individuals, we’re smart enough to know that we should just keep our heads down, not rock the boat too much, and cautiously join in revolutions around us only when they have a large probability of success. This applies to supporting a political movement, joining a startup, changing careers, or lending support to a community project.
But thanks to digital tools and platforms, we can do all of those things with much greater ease. This makes it not only easier to join a large upheaval happening around us but also possible to start our own revolutions on a much smaller scale. Using a Withings scale, a calorie-tracking app like Lose It!, and a Fitbit pedometer, you can decide today to change your weight, rather than depending on Weight Watchers to build a facility near you or ship frozen foods to your grocer. Making yourself healthier won’t change the world. But it will change your world.
Now imagine that multiplied by hundreds of millions of people. What happens if each of them changes his/her own world sufficiently that the aggregate change results in a complete revolution? That’s the point of digital disruption. By putting power into the hands of individuals to change their own lives and make a difference in their own communities, people are likely to launch more initiatives, and they’re likely to attempt more changes. Even if all of these changes occur at an extremely small and local level, the aggregate benefit to the world is massive.
It may not be sexy to describe the Columbus or Jobs of the future as an aggregate mix of all of our good intentions and unshackled individual aspirations. But this shift from many to one — the unleashing of our individual power, collectively liberated by the digital tools and platforms we now depend on — will change the world in ways that legendary historical figures could not have dreamed of.