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FUTURE PERFECT by Steven Johnson


The Case for Progress in a Networked Age

by Steven Johnson

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-820-7
Publisher: Riverhead

Forceful argument for a new politics modeled on the structure of the Internet.

As the title suggests, bestselling science writer Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From, 2010, etc.) is a proud optimist. He believes that most problems facing us are soluble and only becoming more so, thanks to new patterns of social relations that increasingly mirror the organization of the Internet. Johnson coins the term “peer progressive” to describe an outlook that favors building the kind of society where power is distributed more or less equally among a self-regulated network of peers, who are free to contribute to the greater good according to where their strengths lie. (Think Wikipedia writ large.) Borrowing from Frederick Von Hayek, Johnson views heavily centralized organization as the enemy of progress. He cites Hayek’s critique of the star-shaped rail system of 19th-century France as an example of raw power put to poor social use; on the other hand, Prussia’s organic weblike system enabled it to efficiently transport troops and materiel via rail, without fear of the bottlenecking that plagued the French system. But unlike Hayek, Johnson argues that capitalism is prone to its own failures (a prime example being its inability to produce cheap HIV/AIDS drugs), particularly when practiced by top-down, hierarchical corporations that are just as self-deluding and corruptible as centralized government. The greater part of this slim but idea-packed book looks at how, even as older institutions with concentrated power are failing us, peer-to-peer networks are already having positive impacts on local politics, activism, journalism, education, elections, businesses and even the arts. Johnson praises new approaches to problem-solving like Kickstarter, which enables artists to connect with patrons willing to contribute small amounts en masse; Whole Foods and employee-owned businesses that spread power and rewards throughout the organization; and New York City’s much-imitated 311 telephone service, a virtual two-way problem-solving system between citizens and public officials.

A thought-provoking, hope-inspiring manifesto.