Go Local, Big is History: An Interview with Nicco


Last week, I sat down with author Nicco Mele at a book release event hosted by my firm, Vianovo LP, and the Austin partners.  Nicco, a digital strategist, Harvard professor, and leading forecaster in business and politics, recently published The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath and I wanted to gather his thoughts on what “the end of big” really means, how it affects politics, media, healthcare, universities and business and what his thoughts are for the future.  Below are excerpts of our discussion:

One of the things you mentioned in your book that not many people know about is how you came to work for the Dean campaign.  So, as an introduction, could you tell us more about that?

I went to this event in NYC to meet the former Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, who was running for President.  At work the next day, I tried to find him on the internet and I couldn’t find him online.  I finally found his website and so I thought ‘Oh, this guy seems interesting, my little nod to the little guy, I’ll buy some Google ads to make it easier for people to find his website.’  I didn’t know anyone on the campaign, I just bought some ads, so that when you googled Howard Dean, a little box popped up that said the “Official Website for Howard Dean.”  I forgot completely about it.  Then three weeks later, my credit card bill comes and there is thousands of dollars of charges!  So, I went online and the search volume was on this incredible velocity.  I called the campaign and told them ‘I can’t afford to run these ads anymore; you should really run these ads.  You could raise a lot of money’ and they said ‘Oh! Well, no one here really knows how to do that, so if you want to do that, you have to move here and do it yourself.’  And I thought ‘What the hell! I’ve always wanted to work on a Presidential campaign!’

What is your overall premise in “The End of Big”?  Can you convey what you mean by that?

The force and direction of all technology is towards empowering individuals.  That means pushing power out of institutions to individuals and that has dramatic ramifications.  Every chapter in the book looks at an institution where that’s happening: big news, big political parties, big entertainment, big universities, big armies, big manufacturing, big business.  It’s not just that the technology is pushing power to individuals; it’s also that a lot of these institutions have not done a very good job.  These institutions have failed, at the same time these technologies have come along, in giving people alternatives, so people are using these technologies to build alternatives.

Everyone considers the benefits of technologies and you talk in your book about the downside and about “nerd disease,” what do you mean by that? 

Everyone has a basic rudimentary understanding of how a car works.  You put gas in, the wheels turn, the brakes stop the wheels.  There is a basic sense of how a car works.  Almost nobody, even in a rudimentary sense, has any idea how Google works and yet the vast majority of our information commerce is substantially shaped and controlled by Google.   And so that’s a problem.  There are plenty of information inequalities in the world, so it may not be a terrible problem, except that I think nerds like to perpetuate that and a lot of us prefer to believe that.  So we have this instinct, because things are so fast and changing and foreign, that we don’t really want to understand how it works.  And that’s dangerous.

You mention some stories in your book about solutions that nerds come up with not always being the best solutions.  Can you explain this?

It’s fun to build complicated things.  But, in fact, a lot of solutions are remarkably simple.  Part of the ‘nerd culture’ is to make these things seem more complicated and less accessible than they are.  It’s an aggregation of power that’s dangerous.  There are seven tech companies that control almost all of the space online.  More public spaces are privately-owned than ever before in American history and you will recognize every name:  Amazon, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Skype, which is how Microsoft sneaks in, and Twitter.  I want people not to be afraid of the technology, not to catch ‘nerd disease’ but instead to use it as a tool that serves them.  It can be enormously powerful for good and enormously powerful for bad.

The premise is that major institutions are failing, but you also mention tech companies and the scaling going on to consolidate and serve better?

I think the institutions that will persist in the future will mostly be technical platforms that enable the small.  Google doesn’t work with 500 advertisers; Google needs 500 million advertisers to work.  It needs the small.  If you’re not set up to take advantage of that, you’re at a dramatic disadvantage.  Consolidation that is about bringing centralization and hierarchy will fail.  It looks like it might not be, but the arch of technology is long, and it bends dramatically, forcefully towards small.

You’ve written a lot about politics.  Your premise here is that both political parties are out of sync with what the country needs?  What does it mean for today and how they organize, and for the future?

The whole system doesn’t make any sense anymore.  It was designed before electricity, let alone roads.  You’re lucky to get a double digit turnout in a non-presidential year in a local government election.  Local government ought to be the heart, the beating heart of our democracy.  Instead, it is atrophying and we’re seeing a significant rise in municipal corruption.  It’s also related to the decline of accountability journalism.  As these systems decline, there’s something rotten at the core.  I think it’s an exciting moment in American history, a moment where we can dramatically and profoundly reimagine what it means to be part of a representative democracy… especially with our smartphones.  We can determine what kind of participation we want to have.

Can the solution to this problem come out of Washington?

No, Washington is dead.  It’s a place where all the incentives are aligned in the wrong directions.  People aren’t corrupt, but the system is corrupt.  I think politics is ultimately about process.  The most exciting thing to me about the future is the idea of meet-ups.  It’s the beginning of a new civic ecosystem.

How is the "end of big" affecting universities?

This is a great story of the failure of the institution and the rise of technology.  And the catalytic moment it happens.  There is a whole ecosystem of higher education that is racking up debt for young people without giving them any real economic hope.  It’s not a surprise when people are starting to opt out of it; people are starting to look for alternative systems.  It’s moving online.  Transacting inside the existing system makes less and less sense.

Many companies maintain a code of ethics.  They know what to do.  With this “end of big”, is there a loss of that?

I could have called the book “The End of Expertise” or “The End of Leadership.”   Technology empowers individuals in a way that takes power away from traditional authority.  Sometimes that traditional authority is useful and it’s there for a good purpose.  So its loss is somewhere between a tragedy to dangerous. 

I know you printed your phone case from a 3-D printer.  Tell us what that means for healthcare.

I bought a 3-D printer, cost about $1500, and it sprays plastic into shapes.  I printed my iPhone case.  I’ve printed my boys the equivalent of Crocs on this printer as well.  It occurred to me that they may never go to a shoe store; they may never buy things online.  The future of big manufacturing is totally different from where it is right now and that has implications, especially for medical devices.  They are currently experimenting with printing organs.  I think that the implications for healthcare are certainly that the cost and quality of care is going to change as the complexity of medical devices becomes increasingly available in the home.  And looking at the role of robots in all of this, every type of surgery that is being done today will be done by robots in the future.  This is an erosion of the authority of medical expertise.

At the end of your book, you give some suggestions about what may replace the “end of big.”  One of the things you say is that we must strengthen and reimagine local community.  What does that mean?

I think that this gets back to if we want a vibrant national federal government and a vibrant healthy national politics, then we need vibrant health local politics.  They are related to each other.  If we want the best leaders in the country, we need a farm system.  This is where the political parties have failed us.  They’ve become vehicles for raising money from major donors and it’s made it easy to disrupt them.  We need local politics, local leaders, people that are really engaged in what is happening in their local communities.  It requires that we really radically reshape how some local government works.

About the Author
Matthew Dowd is a partner in Vianovo’s Austin office.  During the past 25 years, Matthew has helped shape strategies and campaigns for CEOs, corporations, foundations, governments, candidates, and presidents.  His work has earned him AAPC Strategist of the Year honors, and his New York Times bestseller Applebee’s America has been widely read by political, business, and religious leaders interested in connecting with a changing public. 
Matthew has served as Chief Campaign Strategist for President George W. Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and was on the staff of a Democratic Senator and two Democratic Representatives.   He has counseled scores of high-profile organizations – from AT&T to the NBA – on marketing, advertising, research, public issues, and advocacy.  He is an analyst for ABC and Bloomberg News and a columnist for The National Journal.