Ah, ye olde visions of economic democracy. Adam Smith saw an invisible hand in the interactions of consumers and entrepreneurs that would self-regulate the marketplace. Thomas Jefferson imagined a society of yeoman farmers, each of whom wielded some power, none of whom wielded too much. Lost Edens, it seems, given the bigness—big business, big labor, special interests galore—that prevailed over individuals for a century or more. We’ve known a monologue economy, in which businesses talked to consumers, and consumers didn’t talk back, except with their feet.
Enter the Internet. Monologue has become dialogue; the conversation is now interactive. This edition of The Next Economy, a joint project of The Atlantic and National Journal, explores the effects of communications technology and social media on the economy’s balances of power. Is power returning to the people, by means of technologies they have previously lacked?
Yes, as Jeff Howe learns in his cover story. The author of the book Crowdsourcing traces the rise of what he calls the “consumerate.” As smartphones facilitate comparison shopping in a way Adam Smith would have died for, Facebook and Twitter marshal impromptu armies of the aggrieved that can smack down huge corporations in a trice. The wiser companies are shifting their strategies
and learning to listen to their customers as never before. Hence, the dialogue.
How deep is this conversation? Not very, not yet. So far, the consumerate has confined itself to issues of bumper-sticker simplicity that favor the trivial over the substantive. In politics, too, as Micah L. Sifry describes it, the ease and speed of electronic petition-signing has introduced a new people’s weapon, albeit one so far aimed mainly at emotional issues that lend themselves to simple solutions.
Simple solutions. That’s Ralph Nader’s beef with the effect of high technology on consumer power: The ephemeral nature of Twitterized brigades makes them incapable of dislodging entrenched interests. On the back page, James Fallows finds even a more sobering shortcoming in this race to the future: As individuals have gained the power of choice, they’ve lost the shelter that mega-institutions used to provide.
So, does the march of technology augur more opportunity and truer democracy? Or more insecurity and dumbing down?
This article appears in the June 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.