Movement of the Day: the Peer Progressive Movement

From an interview of Steven Johnson, conducted by Steve Paulson:

“Paulson: You have actually identified a new movement what you call the peer progressive movement, what is this?

Johnson: Well I looked around and some point over the last couple years I realized there was this whole group of folks who I’ve been inspired by, who were doing really interesting projects, some of them were working the tech center, some of them were working in education, some of them were working in local neighborhood community movements, and they all shared this kind of philosophy they all believed in the power of what I call peer networks. They were using these kind of decentralized networks with open collaboration often with a much larger more diverse group of people coming together to try and solve problems, usually working outside of traditional big governments or outside of the marketplace.

Paulson: So this is not strictly a left or right model here?

Johnson: Yeah, part of the weirdness of it and one of the reasons why I wrote the book is that this kind of peer network approach doesn’t really fit the traditional stereotypes of the Democrats’ traditional stereotypes of the Republicans. In some ways, the best way to think about how this works and practice is to think about the history of a lot of the technology that we now use; the internet, the web, things like Wikipedia, things like open source software, that’s in a lot of the devices we now take for granted. All of those things were developed by groups of people collaborating not working for the same organization, many of them working in actually universities systems and think tanks and things like that. Some of them funded by the government some of them funded by private corporations, but mostly they were working without traditional ownership over their ideas and they were sharing kind of technologies and breakthroughs that they’d come up with and building on top of other people’s ideas and that kind of peer network collaboration created the internet, created the web, created the standards behind email, created Wikipedia and so on. So when you think about kind of open networks of collaboration without traditional ownership, it sounds like you’re talking about this utopian fantasy it sounds like I mean –I’m talking to you from California right now, like it sounds like something you’d expect from a northern California commune in like 1969. You know, be talking about weaving baskets [laughs] but in fact that kind of collaborative structure, those peer networks build the defining technology of our age and so this is why it’s such an interesting time to be thinking about the power that kind of organization is. We’ve proven now that it can work in the real world and can really build substantial things and change society as we know it what else can that form of collaboration do?”

Paulson: So is it fair to say if we step back for a moment and talk about these various things, you know -what’s happening in business, what’s happening in some internet companies, that a new world view is taking shape? What you might call a peer progressive world view.

Johnson: The beautiful thing about this book, which was so fun to write, is it’s kind of a book about something that hasn’t fully happened yet, right? It’s a book about something that’s just starting I wanted to kind of take these organizational forms and these ideas and give them some names. It’s very helpful that we can kind of point the idea of government or we can point to the idea of a corporation of the marketplace and we don’t have to explain what we mean when we talk about these things you know. We know government even though each government is a little bit different we roughly know how governments work and so I wanted to get this conversation about peer networks out there so that we could start to say, listen I believe in government in these roles and I believe in the private sector in these roles but I also thing that the peer network can do a lot of good work in society. And by giving them names it just increases their currency and it makes it a lot easier for people to take the ideas and run with them hopefully. So I’m hoping that this book will inspire some folks to do things which I didn’t dream of at all which was the power of these kind of peer networks, they can take you to places you’ve never imagined!”

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