Sunday, April 2, 2006

Utopia? Maybe...

I just listened to an National Public Radio piece that presents one mans concept of utopia. Namely, individuals or small scale organizations working on small scale work projects.

The guy is a University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, also happens to oversee a blog, a music label and a microbrewery. He's written a book An Army of Davids : How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, which I haven't read. But I am living what he's talking about, so with that let me write a few things.

In the NPR piece the situation is described thusly.

Up until the Industrial Revolution humans did most things on a small scale. A few people running a farm, or running a mill, etc. These were very human scaled organizations, he claims.

Then the Industrial Revolution happened and suddenly the scale of organizations had to expand dramatically. A cost effective factory for that time was huge, and employed thousands of people. To go along with it was the rise of huge corporations.

But, today, technology has come full circle to being able to enable individuals to work on small scale organizations.

An example is what I do with my web sites. I have a "day job" in a large corporation, but I also am a web site publisher and earn a tidy side income at that. Additionally I see a way to totally divorce myself from the large corporation, and instead operate several small operations each of which would provide part of my income.

In the interview they gave some more examples.

For example all the people making a living (partial or not) via sales through eBay.COM. He exemplified eBay as a wave of future business style. Another example was someone making custom guitars at home, and he uses eMachineShop.com for parts production.

The way eBay makes their money is through taking advantage of others doing what they want to do. This is drastically different from the large corporate style organization, where the organization exists to tell thousands of people what to do. There are dozens of companies making money through enabling others to do what they want. Google, for example, makes a lot of money from individuals like me who run AdSense advertising on their web sites.

I think, though, he's selling a bit of a pipe dream.

These individuals making their small organizations are riding on the back of some very large organizations. An individual selling stuff through eBay is absolutely dependant on eBay, as well as the package delivery industry (FedEx, UPS, DHL, etc). These are all very large companies who operate in the top-down style of telling their employees what to do.

Let's take another example. Suppose you have a great salsa recipe and you want to make and sell salsa. Go to any farmers market and you'll find several people living a similar dream. It's relatively simple, you need to pass health inspections, be able to operate a healthy kitchen and production facility, find FDA certified packaging, get a FDA certified label made showing the ingredients, etc. One could launch a salsa business with a small group of people, and then go to farmers markets or local Whole Foods stores to sell your product. If you keep working at it, you might eventually have national distribution and so on.

But, let's get back to the beginning. Where does your packaging come from? Are you going to make the packaging, or are you going to buy that? How big is the company who makes the packaging? Where do you buy the ingredients? The local farmer, or from an agribusiness?

What I'm getting at is that this utopia Glenn Reynolds holds out in front of us won't be there for all of us. Some of us will have to work in large organizations like UPS so that others of us can run our humanely-sized home businesses. And that's probably okay, because not everybody is inspired to do this. Many people seem content to go to work and be told what to do with their lives. If that's what they want to do, then more power to them.