In the IT world, people learned very quickly not to put all their eggs in one basket, as it were. If you didn’t back up or replicate your data somewhere, and something happened to your system or hard drive, you were in trouble. Big trouble. Your data was lost, and likely lost forever. The storage industry responded with the creation of RAID: Redundant Array of Independent Disks. The idea was that you replicated the data (RAID 1), or spread data out over multiple small drives and introduced the notion of parity (e.g. RAID 3, 5, and 6). The advantage of RAID is that if one drive in the system fails, you can rebuild the data from that drive elsewhere, and the system doesn’t lose data.
However, his isn’t meant to be a technical discussion on RAID, data protection, or storage. What I see in this is a way to generalize to a more philosophical and societal discussion.
We’ve all heard plenty of pleas to support smaller businesses. Some do it out of pity, even though perhaps the products aren’t as good. Some choose to do it even though Amazon has it cheaper (independent bookstores are a good example of this).
There are honestly perfectly good reasons for large corporations and their successes. Leaving politics out, it’s pretty clear that large supermarket chains reduce the cost of living and can distribute far more goods over much larger geographies than a tiny corner store. Large centralized factories can produce volume that no small mill can manage, which in turn drives down prices to make goods previously considered luxuries to be mainstream staples. Clothing and textiles are the classic examples here. Computer giants like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM made it possible for all of us to hold tiny computers in our hands, and for platforms to be created that allow you to read this article wherever you are in the world (as long as you have cell service, WiFi, or internet).
However, as in everything in life, we must take all things in moderation. We’re starting to feel some of the pains of too much centralization in the tech world, but in reality, we’ve seen this for decades. For instance, some of my family is from a small town in rural Alabama. That town was kept alive almost solely by a large textile mill. Everyone worked there in some capacity. Restaurants and stores only succeeded because factory workers spent their earned money in the town. Tax revenues were only possible because of this textile mill. It was a tree with one major node. The local businesses were all connected to that one mill. What happened when the mill closed? The town is a shell now. There’s hardly anything or anyone left.
This happens in towns and cities all over the United States. Coal mines, factories, mills. These are the “blue-collar” examples. But what if Sandia Labs in Albuquerque shut down? What if Lockheed Martin in Marietta, GA shuts down? These are much larger firms with different industries and skill levels, yet their departure would wreak similar destruction on their cities. Financially, if you were looking at a city, you’d consider this model to be a bad investment. It’s better to spread your money over a diversified portfolio, so that if one sector of your portfolio fails, you remain financially afloat.
In centralizing to larger and larger companies doing more and more things, we’re actually making society less stable as well. Increasing dependence on one or two companies in each sector ties everyone to their business decisions, which can wipe out entire cities. Moreover, we’re less connected and invested in our own local communities, because our purchases and attention are turned outward. You buy your groceries from a large chain; it’s unlikely you know the owner. You buy your clothing from a mall or online most likely, not from a local designer or manufacturer.
This isn’t meant to be a condemnation; every person has the right to spend as they choose. I’m looking at the collective effect. The centralization is the exact opposite of good data protection practices. It’s actually more resilient, both financially and sociologically, for multiple redundant small to medium-sized firms across all sectors than to have one massive conglomerate per industry. The trade-off for RAID is in capacity versus I/O speed. The tradeoff for “social RAID” is slightly higher prices. However, we’re knit together by what we build together, and local specialization contributes to a robust economy and a stable society. People are angry politically (on both sides) because we are economically and socially unstable. We don’t know our neighbors. We don’t buy tools from a local forge.
We’re all scared to start businesses, and rightly so. How is a new independent bookstore supposed to compete with Barnes and Noble, who is getting eaten itself by Amazon? How is a group of pilots supposed to start a general aviation airline when you have Delta and American Airlines to compete with? Why would someone open a tiny textile factory, when he can’t offer the same selection and low prices as a large one? Consumer choices perpetuate business centralization, which again feeds back into consumer choices. It becomes a cycle that’s hard to break, and almost cultural now.
I think it’s worth revisiting the look of the “independent city-state” model, or Redundant Array of Independent Duties, to give it a 21st century rebranding. Multiple (almost) self-sufficient cities inside a state or country adds resiliency, both financially and socially. We would see less wild swings economically, both in terms of boom and bust. And I also think it would add some peace and stability socially as we reacquaint ourselves with our neighbors and support each other.