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Peer Progressivism — a review of Future Perfect

To my knowledge, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age is Steven Johnson’s first attempt at pamphleteering. The other books of his that I have read — The Invention of Air, Emergence and Where Good Ideas Come From — have been about telling the stories of complex concepts in an engaging way. In Future Tense he tests his hand at creating a new concept, and comes up somewhat short.

A fairly enjoyable book, I hope it becomes a cornerstone of new political discussion. By way of that discussion, I have a few criticisms that I would like to lodge.

First, we must define our terms. “Peer progressivism” is in Johnson’s words:

… the belief that new institutions and new social architectures are now available to us in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.

By the adoption of peer network style structures in government, business, education etc. society’s next phase of progress is ensured. It is meant to be a positive message and Johnson uses the examples of Wikipedia and Kickstarter to demonstrate how massive, decentralized networks can contribute to humanity — all the while making digs at “the market” for not being able to come up with such solutions.

The positioning of the peer progressive is a funny one. Imagine a political compass where the vertical axis is hierarchy and the horizontal free-marketism. On the top half are the traditional, lumbering bureaucracies of the two American national political parties — Democrats to the left of the scale, and Republicans to the right. Below the Republicans are the Libertarians — free-marketeers with a strong dislike for bureaucracy. The bottom left quadrant is the realm of the Peer Progressive: anti-bureaucracy and wary of laissez faire.

Now, the above illustration is not entirely fair. Peer progressivism is more nuanced and I have included a fairly long quote from the book summing up the values of the peer progressive at the very bottom of this post so you can get a more well-rounded description. The example simply illustrates how I found peer progressivism positioned in the book. Something like, “the Republicans have the Libertarians… what do we Democrats have?”

That aside, the exploration of applying peer networks to politics, government, education and business was very interesting exercise. It reminded me somewhat of What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis. Yet I don’t think it went far enough, specifically in the realm of politics and government.

Firstly was the purely domestic approach to politics. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the peer progressive approach to solving a problem is “to build a peer network around it”. International politics is inherently network-based, as it lacks any hierarchy. States may posses power or influence over one another, but they all retain the same equal status since Westphalia. Solving international problems in the post-empire era has always been about “building a network”, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. I would have expected Johnson to discuss this topic, even though I do not particularly think it supports his thesis.

Secondly, with regard to domestic politics, Johnson doesn’t talk about the how. The concept of eGovernment has been around since the beginning of the networked age. It is something that everyone says they are for, yet we still do not have it. Issues based voting (rather than party-based) is a wonderful idea, but the logistics has not been resolved. This book is another account about the why, but the true problem lies in the how.

As a self-proclaimed citizen of the internet I am prime mental real estate for an idea like peer progressivism. Running society like the internet? Count me in! Hell, the only political party I have ever become a member of is the PPC. Yet somehow, the book didn’t reach me. The concept had not been fully fleshed out, and the overwhelming impression that I got from this book was a bad case of “machine metaphor”. This is a phenomenon seen throughout history: that as a new technology begins adoption, it is often used as a metaphor to describe other parts of human understanding. For example, Galen thought of the body as a hydraulic system, reflective of the new technology of the time: plumbing. The brain has been known as a pneumatic device, a calculator, and more recently a computer. Companies are vast machines with human cogs as workers. With new technologies, came new metaphors. Berlin himself has used advances in network theory to describe Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. I think Future Perfect may have taken the metaphor too far.

If you want more of Steven Johnson, or are a fan like me, follow him on Twitter(@stevenbjohnson), read his blog and his Medium blog.

Peer Progressive Value Statement

Peer progressives are wary of excessive top-down government control and bureaucracy. They want more civic participation and accountability in public sector issues that affect their communities. They want more choice and experimentation in public schools. They think, on the whole, that the teacher’s unions have been a hindrance to educational innovation. They think markets can be a great force for innovation and rising standards of living. But they also think that corporations are far too powerful and top-heavy in their social architecture. They beleive the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to those of the 1950s. They beleive that the campaign finance system is poisoning democracy, but want to maintain an individual’s right to support candidates directly. They want lower prices for prescription drugs without threatening the innovation engine of the pharmaceutical industry. They are socially libertarian and consider diversity to be a key cultural value. They beleive the de-centralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the internet has been a force for good and that governments or corporations shouldn’t mess with it.

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