Ah, ye olde visions of economic democracy. Adam Smith saw an invisible hand in the interactions of consumers and entrepreneurs that would self-regulate the marketplace. Thomas Jefferson imagined a society of yeoman farmers, each of whom wielded some power, none of whom wielded too much. Lost Edens, it seems, given the bigness — big business, big labor, special interests galore — that prevailed over individuals for a century or more. We've known a monologue economy, in which businesses talked to consumers, and consumers didn't talk back, except with their feet.
Enter the Internet. Monologue has become dialogue; the conversation is now interactive. This edition of The Next Economy, a joint project of The Atlantic and National Journal, explores the effects of communications technology and social media on the economy's balances of power. Is power returning to the people, by means of technologies they have previously lacked?
Yes, as Jeff Howe learns in his cover story. The author of the book Crowdsourcing traces the rise of what he calls the "consumerate." As smartphones facilitate comparison shopping in a way Adam Smith would have died for, Facebook and Twitter marshal impromptu armies of the aggrieved that can smack down huge corporations in a trice. The wiser companies are shifting their strategies
and learning to listen to their customers as never before. Hence, the dialogue.