Long celebrated as one of the Internet’s deepest philosophical thinkers, Steven Johnson uses the publication of his eighth book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, to make the case that a new model of political change is emerging, transforming every aspect of modern life along its way. Johnson is a huge fan of networks of all kinds, but especially distributed networks, the kind of decentralized peer-to-peer connections that pretty much define what the Internet is all about.
Johnson reminds us that the ARPANET, which evolved into today’s Internet, may have been created by a very hierarchical organization — the Defense Department — but it was designed to be completely non-hierarchical, with no central core that could be targeted for an attack. That’s the defining characteristic of the Internet today, and people Johnson calls “peer progressives” are taking advantage of all the energy at “the edges of the network” to encourage social progress and make good things happen without traditional leaders or gatekeepers getting in the way.
A prime example: the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Johnson analyzes how this rapidly growing service that connects artists, inventors and other creatives directly to patrons does an end-run around traditional arts grants and boring old organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts. Who needs all that paperwork when cool artists can find cool donors at the edges of the network? Today, Kickstarter’s donor pledges have surpassed the budget of the NEA. “Society is better off with dynamic, innovative cultures on their fringes, even if the short-term value of their work is not quantifiable,” Johnson writes. In other works, IBM would never have come up with Facebook.
Johnson looks at the rapid rise of Occupy Wall Street as another example of loose networks finding connections and purpose without traditional leadership. But don’t be fooled into thinking that he plants his flag on the far left. Johnson believes in markets and capitalism. He just wants them to be more efficient.
“To be a peer progressive 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, neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies.”
Get out of the board room and into the lunch room, he seems to be saying. Talk, share ideas, connect — both online and off.
From a pure technology point of view, the most interesting thing about Johnson’s argument is that he never talks about hardware. He sees a world where all the connections are already in place, where the Internet has fully flowered, and where server farms are waiting to proliferate our progressive ideas once we come up with them. Have we arrived at the moment when the Internet is seen as a basic utility like electricity? Johnson seems to think so. He has no interest in the wiring. He just wants to shine the light.