Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age

By Steven Johnson

Riverhead Books, 2012, 229pp.

 

Steven Johnson believes in progress—not the “progress” promised by shallow politicians offering quick fixes through “hope and change,” military surges, or fast-tracked powerful new legislation, but rather progress in the sense that human existence has been getting better bit-by-bit in slow, steady increments “since at least the dawn of industrialization.” (xxii) Progress defined, that is, to some extent as Burke, Hegel, and others have used it. His book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age makes the case for his belief, arguing that the future of this progress—and indeed of all human progress of any kind whatsoever—is bound up in personal connections (facilitated by technology) rather than in the traditional categories that have locked us in stagnant and moribund patterns.

This does not mean that when we’re all friends on Facebook all of our political and social problems will be solved. It means that rather than relying on the state or the individual to solve such problems,

Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange. (18)

In other words, the author of The Invention of Air, Where Good ideas Come From, and Everything Bad Is Good for You has given us a book of surprising nuance and complexity that merits attention and reflection.

 

The Summary:

Although this book is broken into four parts, really there are only two broad divisions in the text. The Introduction, Part I, and the Conclusion all are dedicated to articulating and defending Johnson’s key idea: the “peer progressive.” Part II explores the application of this idea to various areas of human existence, including communities, journalism, technology, “Incentives” (encouraging people to be creative), politics, and economics.

 

What is a “Peer Progressive”?

In short, a “peer progressive” is one who rejects both of the traditional worldviews and instead embraces a new way of engaging the twenty-first century world—a way that involves small localized networks of average people pursing everyday ends.

The traditional models are those of the “statists” on the left and the “radical individualists” on the right. On the one hand, the statists would see society organized according to the Legrand Star model, wherein all decisions are made from the center and imposed on the peripheries. On the other hand, the radical individualists (Johnson especially knows his Hayek) would virtually collapse the center—in its extreme form, it would even abolish all authority whether centralized or not—and leave individuals in functional isolation. Johnson argues that although both of these models have strengths to be admired, their weaknesses render them incapable of facing twenty-first century problems.

Instead, Johnson proposes a third alternative based on networks of peers working together to engage these issues.

To be a peer progressive, then, is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, health care, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies. When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem. Some of those networks will rely heavily on digital network technology, as Kickstarter does; others will be built using older tools of community and communication, including that timeless platform of humans gathering in the same room and talking to one another. (48)

In other words, when we’re faced with problems as a society, the answer is to form a “network” of people and work together to solve them. But what does such a network look like? What does this mean in our day-to-day life? Using the problem of a market failure as an example, Johnson writes

Markets are constantly failing all around us. The question is what you do when those failures happen. The pure libertarian response is to shrug and say, “That’s life. A market failure will still be better in the long run than a big government fiasco.” The traditional liberal response is to attack the problem with a top-down government intervention. The Right says, in effect, “Read your Hayek.” The Left sets about to build a Legrand Star.

The peer-progressive response differs from both these approaches. Instead of turning a blind eye to market failures, it assumes that these problems are widespread, and actively seeks them out as the central focus of its agenda. Instead of building a large government agency to combat the problem, it tries to build a peer network around it, a system of dense, diverse, and decentralized exchange. (28-29)

In essence, the peer-progressive response is to get a small group of connected, concerned people working together on the problem in an intimate and personal way. Johnson calls his model for this the Baran Web. In contrast to the Legrand Star mentioned above (itself created to govern the French Rail system in the nineteenth century), the Baran Web consists of a much smaller network that trades the impersonal power of a massive system for a much weaker but much more personal power placed only in the hands of those immediately concerned with the decisions in question.[1] Likewise, the Baran Web works through incremental changes decided upon by the broad consensus of all participants (however average and uninformed they may be) rather than through centralized decisions made by the powerful and the experts.

To speak analogically, rather than working like a power strip into which all of one’s appliances are plugged and through which all current must flow, the peer-progressive network works like, well, the Internet, where everyone may communicate and collaborate with everyone else (though on a smaller scale focused on specific issues) with no powerful central authority strictly necessary for success. As with the Internet, this model includes a vastly increased possibility of abuse since it lacks centralized supervision and accountability.

The peer progressive, then, embraces this model as practical tool for engaging the problems which we have to face in our social, political, and even personal daily lives, which brings us to the second part of the text: how is the Baran Web applied?

 

The Life of the Peer Progressive

As already noted, Johnson discusses how peer progressivism may be applied to communities, journalism, technology, incentives, politics, and economics. To give just one example, in the chapter dealing with Community (“The Maple Syrup Event”), Johnson highlights the success of New York’s 311 system in solving a mysterious maple syrup smell that from time to time showed up in the city. Where city officials and the traditional channels of centralized city government failed to identify the source of the smell, individual citizens managed to succeed through the coordinating efforts of the 311 exchange. No single authority was in charge directing the operation; the individuals simply worked through the 311 network, which gathered and released information until the solution was discovered. Johnson takes this success as just one example of how local problems can be solved by members of a community organized in a loose network coordinated through (but not necessarily run by) some kind of local government authority or private organization.

Again, this is in contrast to more traditional methods. As our current system operates, problems such as potholes are reported to the appropriate central city office (responsible for the entire city), which then might eventually get around to dispatching a crew—so long as there are no emergencies diverting resources and attention elsewhere. This is the old Legrand Star model, and the model by which most governments function. Under the peer progressive’s Baran Web model, the pothole would be reported to a localized network, which would then respond to the pothole much more quickly and efficiently. While this localized response would not necessarily have the resources or expertise of a more centralized entity (it may very well involve citizens themselves working with shovels and wheelbarrows, rather than professional paving crews with bulldozers), it involves only those with a personal investment in successfully solving the problem. This principle is, in turn, applied generally across the political and social spectrum. Speaking of the impact of the Internet, Johnson writes

When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves—incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. (119)

In short, the peer progressive applies his views to society by decentralizing power and information and devolving them to the lowest possible webs of relationships. Rather than filtering life through a nation-state or an economy or a, well, whatever we can think of that is powerful-at-the-center-but-inefficient-and-dehumanizing, peer progressives trade this powerful center for an individual and local cooperative with more independence and input in the matters that most directly affect their own daily lives. This method has the added benefit of preserving local autonomy, thereby avoiding both the danger of imposed top-down uniformity and the destruction of local values and traditions.

As should be fairly obvious, this application is largely contingent on modern technology. Johnson believes that the internet makes our time uniquely ripe for such an application of peer progressive principles. In the past one had to rely on word of mouth, television, radio, and newspapers for information about such public relationships. All of these media are fine as far as they go, but tend to be either too local (word-of-mouth) or too wide-ranging (newspapers, television, and radio). The internet, on the other hand, allows people to network at levels that are appropriate for whatever problem happens to be currently under consideration. The problem of a pothole may be solved using a local, neighborhood, or city-wide network, while problems such as those of public education or the environment may require a state-wide network (or even a regional one). On whatever scale is required, the internet is capable of facilitating information spread in a way that vastly surpasses the old means of communication and so enables peer networks to supplant older models.

 

The Strengths:

If nothing else, Johnson is an excellent writer with a clear understanding of both his own position and several of the current major worldviews. Johnson’s alternative to these worldviews is one that will appeal to a goodly number of people. Our localist friends will especially enjoy his arguments in favor of an organic, local, bottom-heavy web of social and political connections binding people together for the common good. Although Russell Kirk is not mentioned by name, Johnson’s arguments that these networks may facilitate local cultures and traditions fits in quite well with Kirk’s second canon, and so will appeal to paleoconservatives. The same is true with his repeated warnings that getting away from a top-down centralized power structure necessarily means relying on the less informed and competent to be the decision makers, and that consequently we should be wary of utopian easy solutions. Despite the title, Johnson refuses to promise an immediately perfect future with no time or effort—progress is a long-term investment that pays dividends over generations rather than weeks.

What may be most compelling, however, is Johnson’s thoroughgoing dislike of both capitalism and socialism. (189-192) His preference for local adaptability and regulations in an appropriate context is a breath of fresh air in our otherwise nationally focused society. This, in turn, means that Johnson’s vision is firmly rooted in observable reality. Despite his admitted occasional strains of utopianism (49), he repeatedly demands that we remain practical, realistic, and focused on achievable goals that are related to technologies and systems already in use.

The peer network is not some rarefied theory, dreamed up on a commune somewhere, or in a grad school seminar on radical thought. It is a practical, living, evolving reality, one that is already transforming dozens of different sectors. It underlies the dominant communications system of our time, along with some of the most significant social movements. This is why it is such an interesting and encouraging time to build on these values. We have a theory of peer networks. We have the practice of building them. And we have results. We know that peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us. (50)

Whatever we ultimately decide about the value of his vision, we can’t argue that he doesn’t have solid, real-world examples supporting his claims and driving his arguments.

 

The Weaknesses:

As is probably apparent given the above-described strengths, Johnson has an optimism that, although tempered by realism, is still perhaps a bit too positive and is certainly too reliant on technology. Johnson at times seems to approach technology the way romantics approached nature: without enough critical reflection or suspicion. (No doubt he would cheerfully agree.)

Perhaps more discouraging, Johnson falls prey to the old fallacy that technological process combined with ever-better social structures will solve human problems, rather than simply shifting them around. In this sense, he is well aligned with the older Progressives. To his credit, Johnson is aware of Neil Postman’s and Marshall McLuhan’s arguments that technology can negatively shape us, but while not quite dismissive of them, he is not as concerned as he ought to be.

In line with the older Progressives, one of Johnson’s justifications for this re-articulation of societal thought is that it is heavily democratic with the goal of moving towards ever greater democracy. Though it is not the point of the book, Johnson seems to have little suspicion of the power or morality of the people. If Johnson’s plan is implemented and successful, it would no doubt unleash a tremendous amount of energy into society and result in significant change. But there is little reflection on whether such a release is a good thing. Jacobinism and Communism likewise bring energy and change, but without careful critical reflection and sharp checks on the dangerous aspects of human nature we are always in danger of a repeat of the French and Bolshevik Revolutions. It is unclear how peer progressives expect to limit or control the resulting changes if and when they cease to be beneficial and become dangerous or even harmful. “Progress” can be a good thing if it is progress in the right direction—but that requires thought about our destination and the morality of the methods we use to get there.

Regardless, Steven Johnson has written an interesting and thoughtful book that is worth mulling over. There are, to be sure, good ideas contained herein, but the fact remains that Johnson’s vision relies almost entirely on the pervasive power and usefulness of modern technology. I suppose that this kind of vision may be what we need for the future if technology is here to stay, but we must be careful to approach the future critically and thoughtfully. To that end, Steven Johnson has made a useful contribution that should help us in such reflection.

 

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University. He received this book for free from the publisher, and he was not required to write a positive review.

 

Notes:

[1] In contrast to the radical individualism of the right, the Baran Web still gathers individuals into a network rather than leaving them isolated.