The Technium

Overcoming Bias Against Bigness

A generation ago a very popular book among progressives was E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. The 1973 book eloquently argued for “small”, that is, human scale things, and railed against big institutions, big systems, big solutions. This small book was a rousing sermon for anti-bigness, but it was not alone. Fifty years ago anti-bigness was not a fringe sentiment. It was the emerging consensus. Young people on the left were suspicious of big systems like capitalism, the military, the education system, and of course big business. Over time progressives became very wary of big stuff, and today the left of any age is completely allergic to any large scale solution, particularly ones that involve big technology. In fact today, the left holds big tech as public domestic enemy #1.

At the same time, conservatives began to question bigness, particularly big government, and big non-profits. In their view the public domestic enemy #1 was the official US government, primarily because it was big. Traditionally conservatives have backed big business, but today as those big business lean more liberal, they find lots to dislike about them too. They will consider breaking up big business primarily because they are big (and liberal).

Paradoxically, the prime issue among progressives in this era is climate change. Climate is big. Climate problems are huge, and fixing climate change requires really big solutions. But if you are allergic to bigness, then your solutions can’t be big. That is why most progressives don’t champion big systems solutions for climate, such a geo-engineering. In their view the remedies all come down to individuals changing their personal behavior — recycling, reducing consumption: We can only change the climate by summing up a billion changes in individual virtue.

With the same logic many other seemingly big problems are reduced to individual good behavior as well, and not just by progressives. Conservatives preach that any social problem (abortion, crime, poverty) can (and must) be solved by individual virtue and responsibility. There can be no big systems solution. All kind of other social issues such as housing, transportation, education, likewise come down to personal responsibility and “family values” rather than big systems.

Across the board in the US there is a strong bias against bigness. Big projects of any kind, from building railways to raising education standards to providing health care to sending people into space, are deeply suspect and usually rejected — because they are big. Big means big budgets, big disruptions, big complaints, big potential side effects, and possible big failures. Big plans to build solar farms, or solar recharging stations, or levies at river fronts, or high rise residential housing are routinely denied — because they are big. Some optimists have called this hesitancy a reluctance to build, but it is not quite that. We as a society seem quite eager to build — as long as it is small. We’ll build billions of smartphones which fit into your pocket. They run on a huge, global network, but it is invisible, so no one seems to care about its bigness. We will soon build millions of electric cars (small) but not nuclear plants to power them (big).

Big, grand projects have become uncool. People who think of themselves as smart don’t support big grand projects. It’s seen as something for the naive. If they do succeed, their abundant negatives are believed to overwhelm any positives. But more commonly there is a belief that grand projects simply can’t succeed. And that bias is not really so crazy on the surface because we do indeed have a society system that makes it really hard for big projects to succeed. There are so many stakeholders, laws, constraints, reasons to say no and NIMBYs that in addition to the ordinarly difficulties of running a large project, it really is extremely difficult to overcome these secondary hurdles and make a big project work. That knowledge makes anyone sane second guess their desire to make something big.

In the past decades other countries have done big. China in particular gained a well deserved reputation for accomplishing grand projects, a historical skill they have maintained. Long ago they built the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, which would have been BIG projects even today. China’s new highway system is slightly bigger than the US, and they have a high-speed super-train system that is 13 times as big as Japan’s. They have also built cities as big as New York City in only 30 years, and far more futuristic.

It is unclear whether the conditions that allowed China to build big and fast will continue, but overall there is far more public backing for bigness there than in the US and Europe. I have no idea what it would take to shift American sentiment to embrace bigness. Perhaps a string of successful big-ish projects like the Webb Telescope, or an extensive solar charging system, might begin to alter expectations. Maybe we need the same kind of awareness raising we apply to other prejudices to combat the prejudice against bigness.

All the challenges ahead of us as a species are global in dimensions. We’ll need global climate management, global financial agreements, global conflict governance, global migration protocols, and global resource management. By definition, planetary designs are way way big. Our success as a species is going to depend on us embracing big projects, our biggest yet. Big may never become cool again, but at least we should get comfortable and competent with big.


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