Have We Reached Peak Big?

Big Data. Big Tech. Big Science. Big Medicine. Big Money Billionaires. Right now, it seems to be all big all the time with more bigness on the way. In fact, it’s arguable we’ve reached the era of “Peak Big”—and people are tired of just how gargantuan everything has become. Consider just a small slice of the ample evidence.

Airbus recently announced it was stopping production of the A380, its mammoth jumbo jet. With the exception of a few niche long-haul routes, the plane was just too big to succeed. It required an enormous logistics operation and lacked the flexibility airlines need to compete in the modern world.

Last month, New York residents rejected Big Tech with such fervor that Amazon backed out of its plan to locate a new headquarters in Queens. Meanwhile, Amazon’s $0 corporate income tax bill was revealed amid increasing calls for halting jobs-related political bidding wars and corporate welfare.

People are talking openly about banning billionaires and putting higher marginal tax rates on the super wealthy. There was the rollout of Howard Schultz as an independent presidential candidate, which went approximately as well as the rollout of New Coke. And when tech titan Michael Dell rhetorically asked a crowd at Davos what country had ever succeeded with a 70 percent tax bracket and a historian pointed out that the United States did during the 1950s, resulting in high growth, the entire exchange went viral.

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On the Big Medicine front, huge corporate electronic health records are hated by practitioners, and there are fundamental concerns about their accuracy. There is also evidence that the corporatization of medicine is stifling both patient care and innovation. As Big Pharma gets bigger, its capacity for innovation keeps managing to shrink. (This decline in innovation has been called Eroom’s law, a reverse homage to Moore’s law, which describes the exponential rise of computing power.) A recent study on the issue of big vs. small science has shown that disruptive innovation is more likely to come from small science. My colleague Nigel Paneth and I have presented evidence that the massive investment in Big Science genomics has had essentially no measurable impact on human health.

And then there are Big Weapons and Big War. For centuries, guerilla fighters have adopted so-called asymmetric tactics and repeatedly frustrated, slowed, and even defeated the biggest armies who are outfitted with the most cutting-edge weapons. A recent example came during the early 2000s: Retired Marine Corps general Paul Van Riper showed that a swarm of small boats can disable a high-tech aircraft carrier, a low-tech workaround that could take down modern networked warfare. In the 1960s, efforts by Robert McNamara to conduct the Vietnam War using an early version of big data failed. As the US struggles to extricate itself from our “longest war,” it bears asking, why are the limits of Big Weapons and Big War repeatedly missed?

In each of the examples above, going “Big” results either in underperformance or it comes under political or regulatory threat. That is a long way from the death of Big, but there are already hints as to how it could end.

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