Big Is Broken

Posted on June 12, 2015 by Marian Salzman

Eric Schmuttenmaer

[Originally posted by The Guardian.]

We live in the long shadows of larger-than-life leaders who had big ideas and made a big impact. I’m thinking of Lenin, Franklin Roosevelt, Mao Zedong, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They all secured their place in history by identifying big problems and implementing big solutions to them.

Love them or hate them, what they thought, what they did and how they did it had massive repercussions beyond their own time and place. They fulfilled people’s need for great leaders and fostered the belief that there is a fix for the problems of complex modern societies. All it takes is the right leader with the right ideology.

Now, halfway through 2015, we have a lot more big problems to tackle. Just off the top of my head: climate change, water shortages, species extinction, obesity, cybercrime, nuclear proliferation, conflict in the Middle East, unemployment and a whole lot of messed-up finances. Each of these alone is a seriously complicated problem that is brain-fryingly hard to understand, let alone solve. Put them together and the complexity is beyond imaginable. It’s certainly beyond what history and education have prepared us for.

Back in time, people had to deal with a lot of immediate day-to-day problems just looking after food, clothing, shelter and health. Those were tough enough to deal with, but on the plus side they didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle delivering constant angst about big problems outside their local area. By contrast, we are immersed in 24/7 information. Even if you limit yourself to dipping into one news title such as The Guardian, you find a whole world of pain and problems demanding your attention.

Like good marketers, journalists these days work hard to create an emotional connection with their audience, to make them care about the subject and move them to action. So you find yourself reading about proposed solutions to all those problems, or thinking up your own solutions. The net effect: Not only are you worrying about juggling your finances and losing that stubborn muffin top, but you’re also fretting about the economy, the people suffering in conflict zones, disappearing glaciers and endangered species.

After all, you are a concerned citizen who cares about important things. But you can’t let yourself get carried away. Rational thinking and pragmatic friends tell you that you can’t take all the world’s problems on your shoulders. It’s not your job; it’s the job of politicians and maybe the job of business leaders and their brands. So you look for a political party, an ideology or a political figure that cares about the same problems and has a program of solutions that make sense to you.

People around the world have been going through this experience and increasingly coming to the conclusion that today’s politicians just aren’t up to the job. Today’s great hope is doomed to be tomorrow’s disappointment. In my home country, Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election on a wave of hope that swept the world. By 2012, the enthusiasm had waned and he won mainly thanks to his opponent’s lack of appeal. Now even fans of the president confess their disappointment.

The French couldn’t wait to get rid of right-of-center President Nicolas Sarkozy and took their first chance to dump him in 2012. Within just a couple of years, his Socialist successor, François Hollande, is the most unpopular president of modern France and Sarkozy is eyeing a comeback.

Ahead of the 2015 U.K. general elections, comedian Russell Brand garnered huge attention and sparked a lot of debate with his “I don’t vote” stand. BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman lent weight to that idea when he admitted, “In one recent election, I decided not to vote, because I thought the choice so unappetising.” (Brand changed his mind and backed Labour. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party won by a slim majority and Labour slumped, with a senior figure losing out to a 20-year-old student fielded by the rampant SNP in Scotland.)

So what has changed from the glory days when the world had great political leaders and when parties championed clear ideologies? Pretty much everything. In this age of long lenses, digital leaks, citizen journalism and instant communication, as just a few examples, it would be impossible for a president to disguise his physical disability or for a prime minister to have a reputation for heavy drinking. Politicians operate under intense scrutiny now. They are driven as much by focus groups, momentum polling and the news cycle as they are by ideology. But above all, what has changed is the size and complexity of the problems they’re supposed to deal with.

The word on the street—or at least among political pundits—is that “politics is broken.” That might be true, but I have a different take. My take is that “big” is broken in all walks of life, not just politics. Ordinary citizens no longer buy into big political ideas, and they’ve come to mistrust “big” in general. From the perspective of citizens and consumers, “big” is increasingly a negative term, and not just for libertarians railing against big government.

Banks are not only too big to fail; they’re also too big to manage—a notion that is being applied to other massive businesses. Some geeky types might drool at the promise of big data, but when ordinary people put “big” in front of an industry, it means they don’t like it, whether it’s big business, big oil, big pharma, big food, big sugar, big finance or big agriculture. Big means self-interested and uncaring. Big means remote and out of touch. And above all it means out of control at a time when people want more control in their life, not less. Big problems seem like they’re too big to solve, and big organizations seem too slow and unwieldy to offer much hope.

Big organizations will, of course, lumber on under their own momentum, but people are looking for other ways to take control and make a difference. Watch for the rise of all things small, local and personal as a counter to big, global and remote.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Eric Schmuttenmaer]

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