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Evgeny Morozov harsh critique of Steven Johnson’s Peer Progressive book

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
7th February 2013


Excerpted from a long and very interesting book review in the New Republic. Bear in mind that author Steven Johnson strongly disputes this interpretation of his book. We add an excerpted of his defense below.

By Evgeny Morozov:

In his “talk about political philosophy, Johnson makes no effort to ask even basic philosophical questions.

What if some limits to democratic participation in the pre-Wikipedia era were not just a consequence of high communication costs but stemmed from a deliberate effort to root out populism, prevent cooptation, or protect expert decision making? In other words, if some public institutions eschewed wider participation for reasons that have nothing to do with the ease of connectivity, isn’t the Internet a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?

To understand why Johnson never ponders this obvious question, it might help to trace where Johnson locates—spatially—all his political battles. His preferred level of scalar analysis is that of the city; he says very little about the nation-state or the international system. His favorite examples of “peer progressivism”—New York’s 311 hotline, where anyone seeking information about some city issue is greeted by a live operator and re-directed to the appropriate resource, and the SeeClickFix initiative, which allows anyone to use the Internet to report a non-emergency neighborhood problem—all revolve around navigating or fixing the decaying urban infrastructure.

Better systems for aggregating and dispensing knowledge can certainly help to solve many problems, but those are problems of a very peculiar nature. Can Washington’s reluctance to intervene in Syria—to take just an extreme example—be blamed on a deficit of knowledge? Or does it stem, rather, from a deficit of will, or of principle? Would extending the participatory logic of Kickstarter to the work of the National Endowment for Democracy or to the State Department’s Policy Planning staff lead to better policy on democracy promotion? Or will it result in more populist calls to search for Joseph Kony? 4 Can’t the lowering of barriers to participation also paralyze the system, as some would argue is the case with the proliferation of ballot initiatives in California?

Many of our political institutions regularly confront problems that are not the result of knowledge deficiencies. Johnson’s fixation on the city, however, makes him erroneously conclude that most problems do stem from knowledge gaps that can be easily, quickly, and cheaply filled with better data. He never mentions that some problems (even at the city level) can only be mitigated—never solved—through bargaining, because those problems emerge from competing interests, not knowledge gaps. Johnson’s is a post-ideological world, where history has ended and politics has been reduced to fixing potholes and reviewing patent applications. Think Palo Alto, not East Palo Alto. In this world, the only evil to be reckoned with comes from lazy bureaucrats who refuse to publish data in easily accessible computer formats.

Projects such as 311 and SeeClickFix face very little opposition from anyone. After all, who would oppose a faster, more effective way to report potholes? But participatory budgeting—another one of Johnson’s favorite examples of “peer progressivism”—is not like that at all. Participatory budgeting is a reform effort that started in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and has now faddishly spread around the globe; its main tenet is that local communities should have a say in how their budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting is far more contentious than 311, as it seeks to take power from one group—elected and unelected city officials, but also city planners and even real estate developers who have been cultivating connections to corrupt officials—and shift it to a previously marginalized group: citizens.

In Johnson’s world, such transfers of power happen smoothly. It’s not hard to see why: his Internet-centric theory of politics is shallow. Wikipedia, remember, is a site that anyone can edit! As a result, Johnson cannot account for the background power conditions and inequalities that structure the environment into which his bright reform ideas are introduced. 5 Once those background conditions are factored in, it becomes far less obvious that increasing decentralization and participation is always desirable. Even Wikipedia tells us a more complex story about empowerment: yes, anyone can edit it, but not anyone can see their edits preserved for posterity. The latter depends, to a large extent, on the politics and the power struggles inside Wikipedia.

Johnson’s sophomoric treatment of power turns his argument into a fairy tale. Take participatory budgeting. Scholars have identified three challenges—the problems of implementation, inequality, and cooptation—that come to plague such reforms. The first arises quite naturally, given that both government and even non-government players are reluctant to relinquish power over budgets to citizens. The second is also easy to grasp: the weakest members of society are often reluctant to participate in such new schemes, as they have no time to attend meetings and lack the self-confidence to voice their opinions. And finally, participatory budgeting is often used to tame—or coopt—otherwise unruly civil society groups. By giving them a small budget to play with and integrating them into existing state structures, the government can neutralize powerful non-state players.

All three problems can be overcome, as the weaker groups learn how to organize, to make alliances, and to refuse the tight embrace of the state. In Porto Alegre, where the practice originated, all three have indeed been overcome. But Johnson never says how this was accomplished: participatory budgeting was the flagship program of the Workers’ Party, which governed the Porto Alegre municipality between 1989 and 2004.6 The idea of wider community participation didn’t just reflect the party’s leftist ideals; it was also a way to chip away at some of the local clientelism that for decades had impeded political reform in Brazil.

A view of Porto Alegro, Brazil, where budgets are set by the citizens. (Flickr/Alexandre Pereira) The Porto Alegre experiment succeeded because there was a centralized effort to make it work. Centralization was the means through which the end of decentralization was achieved. Without well-organized, centralized, and hierarchical structures to push back against entrenched interests, attempts to make politics more participatory might stall, and further disempower the weak, and coopt members of the opposition into weak and toothless political settings. This was the case before the Internet, and, most likely, it will be the case long after.

But Johnson is completely blind to the virtues of centralization. In discussing 311, he lauds the fact that tipsters calling the hotline help to create a better macro-level view of city problems. But this is a trivial insight compared with the main reason why 311 works: Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to centralize—not decentralize—previous models of reporting tips. Here is how Accenture, the firm that assisted New York in its switch to the 311 system, describes the origins of that project: “[Before 311], customers looking for government assistance were confronted with more than 4,000 entries on 14 pages of the NYC telephone book, and more than 40 resource-intensive call centers were required to direct inquiries to the right city offices. The Mayor’s vision was that of a high-performance, centralized, all-purpose call facility, accessible through the simple-to-remember 3-1-1 phone number.”

Johnson’s internet-centric worldview is so biased toward all things decentralized, horizontal, and emancipatory that he completely misses the highly centralized nature of 311. The same criticism applies to his treatment of the Internet. Had Johnson chosen to look closer at any of the projects he is celebrating, he would find plenty of centralization efforts at work.7 Consider Google: when it comes to user data, today Google runs a much more centralized operation than five years ago. Back in 2008, my Google searches were not in any way connected to my favorite YouTube videos or to events on my Google Calendar. Thanks to Google’s new privacy policy, today they are all connected—and Google, having centralized its previously disparate data reservoirs, can show me more precise ads as a result. But don’t count on Internet-centrists to include this trend under that mystical category of “Internet logic.”

Nor does Johnson say whether there are limits to decentralization, or how we can understand what needs to be kept centralized, if only temporarily. Instead, he opts to identify the spirit of the Internet in the workings of modern politics. Thus, writing of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he notes that “as the Internet grew to become the dominant communications medium of our age, social movements would increasingly look like the Internet, even when they were chanting slogans in the middle of a city park.” This, for Johnson, is invariably a good thing: the more decentralized and horizontal it is, the more likely a social movement is to succeed.

Whether Occupy Wall Street got its shape thanks to the Internet or to the ideas of horizontalism — first tested in Argentina around 2001 and promoted by Marina Sitrin, a prominent activist, in the decade that followed — is something to be debated, and Johnson makes no effort to engage with such alternative explanations. (The first rule of Internet-centrism is that if something can be explained according to the Internet, it must be explained according to the Internet.) But even assuming that Johnson is right and the idea of the Internet does indeed inform how social movements form and operate these days, it is not immediately obvious why this is a model worth pursuing. Not everyone believes that Occupy Wall Street was a runaway success.

Besides, what would this model look like in practice? For Johnson, it means a switch from hierarchies to networks, from centralization to decentralization, from leaders to horizontal assemblages. There are two possible responses to such claims. One is to assume that such remodeling rests on a theoretical fantasy about how social movements work in practice. Another is to concede that, whereas some such decentralization might be feasible, absolutely nothing guarantees that, as far as efficacy is concerned, decentralization beats centralization.

The first view—that social movements will never be able to transcend hierarchies and replace them with horizontal networks—was cogently expressed by Jo Freeman in 1972 in her landmark essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

Steven Johnson responds:

“Future Perfect goes to great lengths to separate the promise of peer networks from some naive faith in Internet liberation. The main lines of its argument arose in part out of two book-length studies of peer collaboration in the 18th and 19th centuries: The Ghost Map and The Invention Of Air. My last book, Where Good Ideas Come From, ended with a survey of hundreds of peer-produced innovations from the Renaissance to today. The deep roots of the idea date back to reading Jane Jacobs on the “organized complexity” of the city in my twenties, which ultimately led to my arguments for decentralization in my 2001 book Emergence. I’m giving Morozov the benefit of the doubt that he just hasn’t bothered to read any of those books, since he doesn’t mention them anywhere in the review. But if you added up all the words I’ve published on peer network architecture, I wager somewhere around 90 percent of them are devoted to pre-digital forms of collaboration: in the commonplace book or the 18th-century coffeehouse, or urban neighborhood formation, or the traditions of academic peer review, or in the guild systems of Renaissance Florence. If Morozov were only a little less obsessed with the Internet himself, he might have some very interesting things to say about that history. Instead, he has decided to reduce that diverse web of influences into a story of single-minded zealotry. He’s like a vampire slayer that has to keep planting capes and plastic fangs on his victims to stay in business.

The point I tried to make explicit in Future Perfect is one that I’ve been implicitly making for more than a decade now: that peer collaboration is an ancient tradition, with a history as rich and illustrious as the more commonly celebrated histories of states or markets. The Internet happens to be the most visible recent achievement in that tradition, but it is hardly the basis of my worldview. And there is nothing in Future Perfect (or any of these other works) that claims that decentralized, peer-network approaches will always outperform top-down approaches. It’s simply a question of emphasis. Liberals can still believe in the power and utility of markets, even if they tend to emphasize big government solutions; all but the most radical libertarians think that there are some important roles for government in our lives. Peer progressives are no different. We don’t think that everything in modern life should be re-engineered to follow the “logic of the Internet.” We just think that society has long benefited from non-market forms of open collaboration, and that they’re aren’t enough voices in the current political conversation reminding us of those benefits. For peer progressives, the Internet is a case-study and a role model, yes, but hardly a deity. We would be making the same argument had the Internet never been invented.”

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