Optimism is a terrific force. But it can be difficult to tap into this force when you’re confronted with information that indicates a steady decline in quality of life, punctuated daily by ‘newsworthy’ events involving such things as global economic demise or a rash of senseless and unexpected murders across one’s country. My spouse and I were recently reassessing our budget due to some changes in healthcare costs and I became depressed over the outcome. I needed a reminder that no, everything around me is not sliding down into the abyss of poverty and social chaos. It’s fortune, then, that led me to Steven Johnson’s new book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.
As the subtitle promises, this book is indeed a case for progress. It provides several cases, actually, in which Johnson’s “Peer Progressive” archetype creates an environment for progress, and then real progress happens. The peer progressive is such an appealing thought even just in theory. Johnson builds the idea from a fundamental crisis of centralized intelligence and power, posed by the economist Friedrich Hayek, who Johnson quotes:
The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.
Johnson uses as his primary example of the dysfunctional centralized network the French railway system, the Legrand Star. France had high hopes for The Legrand Star, but as Johnson recounts, the system failed France in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, due to the line’s inability to transport from one remote location to another. Everything had to be routed through one line, which formed a transportation bottleneck during a time of great need. Throughout Future Perfect, the Legrand Star becomes a household name, a synonym for the bottleneck. Johnson contrasts this failure with more recent examples of success. The peer progressive model for success is built upon a distributed network, a web or net in which no single point holds or wields an unbalanced amount of power or ability. In the peer progressive world, all members are equally eligible nodes and all contribute to the success of the network.
Peer progressive culture is most alive today via a distributed network that we all use daily: the internet. Both the creation and the operation of the internet reek of peer progressives. One such example of an internet-facilitated network cited by Johnson in Future Perfect is Kickstarter. As of today, Kickstarter has helped fund over 29,000 projects, providing over $300 million to project leaders. The site has quickly become both a tool for the distributed network of creative individuals and a noteworthy source of revenue for the company’s creators. Johnson talks about Kickstarter’s structure:
Both the ideas and the funding come from the edges of the network; the service itself just supplies the software that makes these connections possible. The donors decide which projects deserve support. There are no experts, no leaders, no bureaucrats—only peers. New creative ideas don’t need to win over an elite group of powerful individuals huddled in a conference room, and they don’t need to win over a mass audience. All they need is an informal cluster of supporters, each contributing a relatively small amount of money. [...] Interesting, provocative, polished, ambitious ideas get funding; boring or trivial or spammy ones don’t.
The thrill that Johnson experiences from witnessing the success of Kickstarter both as a company and as a facilitator to the distributed network is well-communicated—I feel that thrill too. (Optimism, yes! He even writes, “How novel is the Kickstarter crowdfunding approach?”) Johnson gives a portrait of possibility for the future of capitalism, not as an extension of what it is now (a bloated, unbalanced network that is essentially a series of Legrand Stars), but as a true capitalism in which future demands come from the people, the members of the distributed network, rather than from some centralized arbiter who lacks Hayek’s ‘knowledge of circumstance’.
The most exciting part of Johnson’s message, though, comes in imagining where else the peer progressive model can have application. Imagine all of the broken systems, both in the private and public sectors. Many of them are built upon centralized networks. Now imagine how wonderful these systems would be if they were operated as distributed networks. The internet is young, and it has already demonstrated an ability to solve problems of bureaucracy by distributing the power of creation to its network (goodbye World Book, hello Wikipedia). The future might not be perfect, but it appears quite a bit brighter through the lens of the peer progressive.