Book Summary: “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress In a Networked Age” by Steven Johnson


Title: Future Perfect: The Case for Progress In a Networked Age
Author: Steven Johnson
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Johnson argues for a new political viewpoint that differs greatly from the Left and the Right. He calls this viewpoint “Peer Progressivism.”

My Comments

Johnson builds a compelling case that Peer Progressivism is a viable new way of viewing the world. He also sketches out a number of examples of how this view can lead to beneficial reforms that promote progress. He also acknowledges that the viewpoint has domains where it does not apply, but until we try, we will not know the viewpoint’s limits

Key Take-aways

  • The Left tries to build centralized government-dominated solutions, while the Right tries to build market-based solutions.
  • Peer Progressives try to build decentralized networks. These networks resemble the Internet in structure, but the concept can be implemented in the real world as well.
  • In some sense, Peer Progressive try to step in where both government and price-based markets have failed to try to build markets without prices.
  • Peer Progressives look to reform government, corporations and other institutions to make them look more like decentralized networks. Those networks may or may not include prices.

Important Quotes from Book

Whether these biases come from media distortions or our human psychology, they result in two fundamental errors in the popular mind: we underestimate the amount of steady progress that continues around us, and we misunderstand where that progress comes from.

Where British and German rail lines followed chaotic, sinuous paths, defined by local topographies and the uncoordinated plans of competing rail companies, the French system was elegant and eminently legible, the industrial embodiment of what Pascal earlier had called l’esprit géométrique. It came to be known as the Legrand Star [after its designer Victor Legrand].

Think of the Legrand Star as a kind of shorthand symbol for the ways that states like to organize the world. They concentrate power in a central location; they make the peripheries, the edges of the network, feeder systems for the main core; they simplify; they favor broad strokes over unpredictable swerves; they prefer master planners over local knowledge. They look best from above.

The creation of ARPANET and TCP/IP were milestones on many levels. They now rightly occupy a prominent place in the history of computing, communications, and globalization. But in a strange way, they should also be seen as milestones in the history of political philosophy. The ARPANET was a radically decentralized system that had somehow emerged out of a top-down government agency. The Baran Web showed that states did not have to create Legrand Stars, with their geometric lines and heavy centers. They could also create more fluid, dynamic structures that lacked hierarchies and centralized control. The ARPANET was like Hayek’s marketplace, with “dispersed bits of information” and no central authority, but somehow, against all odds, it wasn’t an actual marketplace.

Decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, gateways, platform stacks—the principles that Baran, Davies, Cerf, Kahn, and others hit upon together in the 1960s and 1970s provided a brilliant solution to the problem of sharing information on a planetary scale.

A growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems—the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange.

We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.

Peer networks involve several crucial elements, most of which involve concepts from network theory that have been refined over the past twenty years. They are decentralized in their control systems; no single individual or group is “in charge” of the system. The networks are dense, in that they involve a large number of participants, with many interconnections between them. They are diverse, in that the individual participants that make up the network bring different values or perspectives to the system. Peer networks emphasize open exchange over private property; new ideas are free to flow through the network as they are generated. And they incorporate some mechanism for assigning value to the information flowing through the network, promoting the positive deviants and discouraging the negative ones, creating incentives for participation in the network, or steering the system toward certain goals. (Crucially, that value need not take the form of traditional monetary units.) In addition, many of these networks come in layers or stacks, with new platforms of collaboration and exchange built on top of earlier platforms.

Peer networks are, in fact, much older than the Internet. The trading towns of the early Renaissance—Venice, Genoa, Istanbul—adhered to peer network principles in much of their social organization. of modern capitalism (in its pre-industrial form, at least) is no coincidence.

True markets display almost all of the core principles of the peer-progressive worldview.

All of which adds up to a simple but important truth: To be a peer progressive is to believe in the power of markets.

They’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations. When they look out at a globe with so much power concentrated in a handful of economic oligarchs, their reaction is like Gandhi’s quip about Western civilization: “What do we think of free markets? We think they would be a good idea.”

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. The Right says, in effect, “Read your Hayek.” The Left sets about to build a Legrand Star.

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.

In effect, they create Hayek-compatible solutions in the blank spots that the market has overlooked.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between a libertarian and a peer-progressive approach. The libertarian looks at Kickstarter and says, “Great, now we can do away with the NEA.” The peer progressive says, “Now we can make the NEA look more like Kickstarter.

To be a peer progressive, then, 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, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies. When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.

We have a theory of peer networks. We have the practice of building them. And we have results. We know that peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us.

At the most elemental level, the Internet and its descendants possess this defining property: they make it easier and cheaper to share information.

The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves—incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time.

The great flowering of mechanical and commercial innovation that took place in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is conventionally attributed to the entrepreneurial zeal of the inventors and early industrialists who created entirely new markets and new sources of energy because vast economic rewards awaited them if they were successful. But that history cannot be told in its full complexity without reference to organizations such as the RSA, and the tradition of what we now call prize-backed challenges. Countless stories of innovation from the period involve a prize-backed challenge.

A prize-backed challenge is a way of steering a peer network toward a goal, without restricting the route the network chooses to get there.

And that is ultimately what being a peer progressive is all about: the belief that new institutions and new social architectures are now available to us in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and that our continued progress as a society will come from our adopting those institutions in as many facets of modern life as possible.

Wikipedia is a living book, growing smarter and more comprehensive every day, thanks to the loosely coordinated actions of millions of human beings across the planet. Like Hayek’s marketplace, it works as well as it does precisely because no single individual or group understands the whole of it. But unlike Hayek’s marketplace, it has no price signaling, or traditional rewards, beyond the satisfaction of being able to add a small bit to the sum total of human knowledge. We have Wikipedia because the Internet and the Web made it easy and cheap to share information, and because they allowed people to experiment with new models of collaboration while minimizing the risks of failure.

To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience. This is why we are optimistic: because we know it can be done. We know a whole world of pressing social problems can be improved by peer networks, digital or analog, local or global, animated by those core values of participation, equality, and diversity. That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it.

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