Future Perfect, Peer Progressives, and the Continuing Crusade to Debunk

Steven Johnson, one of my all time favorite writers and thinkers has a new book out: Future Perfect – The Case for Progress in the Networked Age. Go buy it; I’ll be here when you get back (I love it when bloggers say that — I almost always do it myself).

In Future Perfect, Steven presents a vision for a new political viewpoint he calls “peer progressive” — a view of problem solving that is built around the power & potential of peer networks.  It’s a view that rejects both the traditional leftist view that society’s problems need to be solved via top-down regulation, as well as the pure market-driven views of the right:

Unlike traditional libertarians, peer progressives do not believe that markets are capable of satisfying all of our human needs. This is where the experience of the Internet has been particularly instructive. When it came time to satisfy, on a global scale, that basic need for communication and the sharing of knowledge, the best solution turned out to emerge from open collaborative networks, not from private competition. The world is filled with countless other needs—for community, creativity, education, personal and environmental health— that traditional markets do a poor job of satisfying. Put another way, “market failures” are not just the twenty- year storms of major recessions or bank implosions. 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.

He goes on to articulate the peer progressive approach (emphasis mine):

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. 

That last part is key — the idea that our first step towards approaching hard problems should be build a peer network around it.  This sounds simple, but it’s profound. And this is where there is perhaps the biggest distinction between the approach the traditional left takes and the peer progressive approach.  Building a network around a problem is inherently a hands-off approach.  It says, up front, that we don’t know all the answers, and we are doing everything we can to empower others.

An example that illustrates this outlook is the recent launch of Ask Patents — a community website powered by Stack Exchange, that will tap into the power of peer networks to assist with the evaluation of patent applications.  Joel Spolsky of Stack Exchange has a great post introducing the idea. Ask Patents is inspired by the Peer-to-Patent project (lead by Beth Noveck and Chris Wong) — but improves on the implementation by piggybacking on the existing and incredibly active community at Stack Exchange.

Another example is the Camellia Network, which is building a network to support youth aging out of the Foster Care system. There are tons of other examples, across every sector of industry and society.

Here’s a short video describing the idea:

How things really work

All of Steven’s books are great (I must admit not having read every single one… yet).  As I was thinking about it, one way of looking at the body of his work is the constant process of uncovering how the world actually works, as opposed to how we think it works.  Or rather, the continuing crusade to debunk myths across all areas of life — so that we can see and then learn from how things really work.

In Emergence, he tells the story of how complex, coordinated action takes place.  Not by central planning, as you might expect, but by decentralized, distributed decision making adding up to a greater whole.  This is the case across biology (how coral reef ecosystems grow), sociology (how cities get built) and technology (how the internet works).  The idea that complex ideas and systems emerge from underlying architectures and distributed decisionmaking is deep.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, he investigates what he calls “the natural history of innovation”, debunking the myth that big ideas are the products of “single moments of genius”.  Instead, they are nearly often the product of accumulated observation, thinking, and connections between ideas that form over long periods of time.  He calls this “the slow hunch” and it’s an idea that has stuck with me profoundly, to the extent that I’ve incorporated many of the ideas behind it into my daily life, I’ve named this blog after it, and it’s literally the foundation of my work environment.  This video is a great illustration (and has been viewed 2.5mm times, if you can believe that):

Now, in Future Perfect, he debunks the myths behind our polarized political views of how we accomplish progress and achieve societal good.  He points that the left-right dichotomy is a false one, and notes that while we natively focus on our societal shortcomings, we massively understate the widespread, incredible progress we’ve achieved.

For example, he debunks Peter Thiel’s claim that we’re not making progress in the transportation space, with a holistic view of progress:

Yes, Thiel is right that the planes themselves can’t fly any faster than they did forty years ago, and so by that metric, progress has in fact stalled. (Or gone backward, if you count the Concorde.) But just about every other crucial metric (other than the joys of going through airport security) points in the other direction. That extraordinary record of progress did not come from a breakthrough device or a visionary inventor; it did not take the form of a great leap forward. Instead, the changes came from decades of small decisions, made by thousands of individuals and organizations, some of them public-sector and some of them private, each tinkering with the system in tactical ways: exploring new routes, experimenting with new pricing structures, throwing chicken carcasses into spinning jet engines. Each of these changes was incremental, but over time they built themselves up into orders-of-magnitude improvements. Yet because they were incremental, they remained largely invisible, unsung.

This is the beauty of Steven’s writing — the ability to open up a clear and compelling view into What’s Really Going on Here.

So, I’ll leave it at that for now. If you’re in Boston tonight, go see Steven at the Harvard Bookstore.  And if you’re in NYC next week, catch up with him at the New York Public Library.  And go read those books!