Book of the Day: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age

Book: Steven Johnson. Future, Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age


“Is there a new political philosophy emerging from things like open source software development; massive community sharing hubs like Wikipedia, Kickstarter, and Reddit; peer-to-peer social networking; experiments in “Liquid Democracy,” and the rapid spread of resource sharing tools like ZipCar, AirBnb and Car2go? Is it time to start talking about replacing the “welfare state” with the “partner state”? “Future, Perfect” is must-reading for people who believe in the power of open, collaborative peer-to-peer networking to achieve real social progress.”


Bernard Vaughan:

“Principles that created the Internet such as decentralization and peer-to-peer networks should be used much more to tackle some of society’s most pressing issues, technology writer Steven Johnson argues in his new book.

“Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks,” Johnson writes in “Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.”

“Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange.”

Trailblazing examples Johnson cites of such systems include 311, New York City’s information hotline; Kickstarter, a web site where people seek funds for creative projects; and Wikipedia, which Johnson lauds as “a living book, growing smarter and more comprehensive every day, thanks to the loosely coordinated actions of millions of human beings across the planet.”

While Johnson finds similar collaborative parallels in pre-industrial communities like Renaissance trading cities, he traces the modern trend to the 1960s. That’s when engineer Paul Baran designed a decentralized, web-like military communications system that would influence the design of ARPANET, the research network that led, in turn, to the Internet.

“Traditionally, networks had involved centralized mainframes that contained far more processing power and storage capacity than the less advanced terminals connected to them,” Johnson writes. “ARPANET, on the other hand, was a network of equals, of peers. No single machine had authority over the others.”

In networking that decentralizes intellectual power even as it boosts it, Johnson envisions the future. He calls it “peer progressivism” and tries to show how it might reshape debates on many subjects — from capitalism’s focus on short-term profits to improving the effectiveness of unionized teachers, he says.

Techies and political wonks are likely to find Johnson’s ideas stimulating. It’s a brew tapping both libertarian and liberal philosophies: respect for the individual but distrust of laissez-faire capitalism; support of government’s role in cultivating progress but distrust of centralized planning.

Such disparate iconoclasts as liberal Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and conservative Rep. Ron Paul of Texas influence this “new political philosophy,” Johnson claims.

Thus, for example, Johnson thinks patent enforcement stifles innovation. So he favors government-sponsored prizes for innovation, rather than patented property rights.

“By creating an outlandish award for a successful product,” Johnson says of legislation Sanders introduced in 2011 to encourage pharmaceutical breakthroughs, “Sanders seeks to increase the network of organizations attacking the problem. And by mandating that the innovations not be shackled to the artificial monopolies of patents, these bills increase the network of people who can enhance and refine those innovations.”

Businesses with “flatter” hierarchy focused on pleasing employees and customers as well as shareholders offer a more successful and creative alternative to centralized corporate structures, Johnson writes.

At Whole Foods, for example, no one is allowed to earn more than 19 times the salary of the average worker, and bonus recipients can distribute some of their rewards to others.

“The best way to maximize long-term profits is to create value for the entire interdependent business system,” Johnson quotes Whole Foods CEO John Mackey as saying.”

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