Future Perfect

Steven Johnson's 2012 book Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age ISBN:1594488207

The key phrase of the book (why not in the title?) is "PeerProgressives" - a belief that Progress can accelerate through Peer Networks (Non-Market Collaboration; see related Crowd Sourcing, Crowd Funding). 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... When a need arises in society that goes unmet our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.

We tend to assume that innovation and progress come from big technology breakthroughs, from new gadgets and communications technologies, most of them created by the private sector. But the positive trends in our social health are coming from a more complex network of forces: from government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes, the shared wisdom of life experiences passed along through generations and the positive effects of rising affluence.

Hmm, how much will this book get you once you've read Wealth Of Networks and Cognitive Surplus?

I haven't read it (yet), I'm just collecting some notes here from other glosses...

Albert Wenger liked it. Government can be a great facilitator of Networks and peer networks are closer to the ideal of Markets that F A Hayek described than many of the current commercial markets (which are often dominated by a few very large companies (Oligopoly)).

But peer networks, Mr. Johnson emphasizes, "are much older than the Internet." The creativity of the Renaissance, he asserts, was catalyzed by the free flow of ideas in trading centers such as Venice, Genoa and Istanbul, cities that "lacked both big government and big corporations." (cf Where Good Ideas Come From) He sees peer networks at work today in the grass-roots management style of employee-owned businesses; in schools that reward faculty members for sharing teaching ideas with each other; in "participatory budgeting" that empowers poor communities to decide how to spend tax dollars; in programs that improve the nutrition of Third World villages by disseminating diet tips culled from healthy families.

Dec09: Fire Dog Lake salon discussion with Steven. In the next day or two, Grist is going to publish a long conversation I did with Wen Stephenson there where we talked about the absence of Climate Change in the book. Or not quite “absence” — it’s even worse, because there’s a line where I say something like “peer networks aren’t going to be able to solve all our problems, like perhaps climate change.” And Wen got rightly concerned that here was this big new political worldview, and I was implying that it couldn’t tackle maybe the most pressing issue of our time. So I wish I’d worked through that in more detail, though in the Grist conversation we ended up getting to some very interesting ideas about how peer networks could be used to fight Global Warming, including Jeremy Rifkin’s ideas about “Lateral Power,” where the power system looks much more like the Internet than the current top-down industrial model.

Tom Whimsley lists 62 things wrong with the book. First, and the reason I am writing this: Claiming that the "peer progressive worldview" stands for decentralization and egalitarianism. It will lead instead to an increasingly polarized world, with centralization of information on an unprecedented scale... Believing that struggle is unnecessary. It is not mentioned anywhere in the book. Johnson responds in the comments.

Interview: Well the funny thing about capitalism is that markets, as they talk about in the book, markets are actually beautiful examples of peer networks. You’ve got a lot of decentralized agents who are buying and selling kind of independently and there’s often a lot of kind of diversity in the market that involves a lot of open audition, there’s a lot of different people kind of working independently when you have monopolies you have another problem, but a corporation is often you know particularly modern. You know a multinational corporation (BigCo) is often very top heavy hierarchal almost bureaucratic organizational form right. So the marketplace is nice and decentralized and diverse but the corporate structure is not a peer network and so the bunch of interesting experiences of their internal corporate organization making these systems more peer network-like.

Nikki Steele: I wanted to showcase some of the most inspiring peer network models I’ve run across lately and hope that you’ll find some nuggets for thought as you browse through each of these as well. (Kickstarter, Coursera, Crowdtilt, MyPhxAZ, Causes, Indiegogo)

Evgeny Morozov criticizes the book.

Some ideas/examples: real and suggested (cf Games To Play)




January 12, 2009, edition of USA Today: “Airlines Go Two Years with No Fatalities,”

in the post-9/11 period, chances of dying on a commercial flight were nineteen in 1 billion; an almost 100 percent improvement over the already excellent odds of flying in the 1990s.

Sully Sullenberger... The plane survived because a dense network of human intelligence had built a plane designed to withstand exactly this kind of failure. It was an individual triumph, to be sure, but it was also, crucially, a triumph of collectively shared ideas, corporate innovation, state-funded research, and government regulation. To ignore those elements in telling the story of the Miracle on the Hudson is not to neglect part of the narrative for dramatic effect. It is to fundamentally misunderstand where progress comes from, and how we can create more of it.

Any attempt to explain the confluence of events that came together to allow flight 1549 to land safely in the Hudson has to begin with the chicken gun

Every make of engine that powers a commercial jet aircraft in the United States has passed the chicken gun test.

the first lucky break the plane experienced after a flock of Canada geese crashed into both its engines was the simple fact that neither engine disintegrated. Neither one propelled shards of titanium into the fuselage; neither engine caught fire.

The phrase “lucky break”—like the whole premise of a Miracle on the Hudson—distorts the true circumstances of the US Airways landing. We need a better phrase, something that conveys the idea of an event that seems lucky, but actually resulted from years of deliberate preparation and planning

the plane’s electronics and hydraulic systems functioned for the duration of the flight. The persistence of the electronics system, in turn, set up flight 1549’s second stroke of foresight: the plane’s legendary fly-by-wire system remained online

The history of fly-by-wire dates back to 1972

used digital computers and other modern electronic systems to relay control information from the pilot to the plane

Because his left engine was still able to keep the electronics running, his courageous descent into the Hudson was deftly assisted by a silent partner, a computer embodied with the collective intelligence of years of research and planning

[Sullenberger] lowered the nose . . . and went to the best gliding speed—a value which the airplane calculated all by itself, and presented to him as a green dot on the speed scale of his primary flight display

Most non-pilots think of modern planes as possessing two primary modes: “autopilot,” during which the computers are effectively flying the plane, and “manual,” during which humans are in charge. But fly-by-wire is a more subtle innovation.

setting the boundaries or optimal targets for his actions

The popular response to the Miracle on the Hudson encapsulates just about everything that is flawed in the way we think about progress in our society

Consider this observation from the entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, published in National Review: When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster

But raw airspeed is only one unit by which we can measure our transportation progress. It happens to be the sexiest metric

Most passengers would probably value safety over speed, particularly if the speed already on the table happens to be 600 mph. And indeed, our progress in aviation safety is off the charts.

Even if the raw airspeed of commercial jets has flatlined over the past forty years, average travel times have nonetheless decreased, because it is now so much easier to fly to midsized markets, thanks to the growth of the overall industry and the modern hub system that creates a flexible network

If you were flying from New York to Los Angeles in 1970, you’d get there about as quickly as you would today. But if you were flying from New York to, say, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the trip might take days, not hours

And then there’s price

That extraordinary record of progress did not come from a breakthrough device or a visionary inventor; it did not take the form of a great leap forward. Instead, the changes came from decades of small decisions

because they were incremental, they remained largely invisible, unsung.

Over the past two decades, what have the U.S. trends been for the following important measures of social health:

The answer for all of them is the same: The trend is positive. The progress is not as dramatic as the story of airline safety over that period, but almost all those varied metrics of social wellness have improved by more than 20 percent over the past two decades.

This is not merely a story of success in advanced industrial countries. The quality-of-life and civic health trends in the developing world are even more dramatic.

Of course, not all the arrows point in a positive direction, particularly after the last few years. The number of Americans living in poverty has increased over the last decade, after a long period of decline.

An interesting divide separates these two macro-trends

On the one hand, there is a series of societal trends that are heavily dependent on non-market forces

government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes

lack of interest in stories of incremental progress

I suspect, in the long run, the media bias against stories of incremental progress may be more damaging than any bias the media display toward the political Left or Right

In the American tradition, the word “progress” has long been embedded in one of the country’s most durable political labels, dating back to the Progressive movement, which peaked a century ago with Teddy Roosevelt’s failed presidential bid under the banner of the Progressive Party

The original Progressives were inspired by two emerging developments. They shared a newfound belief in the importance of social justice for women and the working poor, embodied in the suffrage movement and the muckraking journalism that exposed the horrors of many industrial workplaces. And they shared a belief in a new kind of institution: the crusading Big Government that could use its power to combat the excesses of the capitalist oligarchs, by breaking up the monopolies, by supporting unions, by regulating conditions on the factory floor, and through other novel interventions

The term “progressive” has had a revival in the past twenty years

But there was a funny thing about this recent generation of progressives: they didn’t talk all that much about progress

I liked talking about progress not because I thought we could rest on our laurels, but because talking about progress was a particularly effective way to inspire people.

It turned out that I was not alone. Sometime in the first, dark years after 9/11, I began to realize that a diverse group of people... the people I was interested in were not evangelists for the Internet itself. For them, the Internet was not a cure-all; it was a role model. It wasn’t the solution to the problem, but a way of thinking about the problem. (framing)

From my own perspective, the most striking thing about these new activists and entrepreneurs was the personal chord that reverberated in me when I listened to them talk about their projects and collaborations—and their vision of the progress that would come from all that work. Here, at last, was a practical philosophy

This book is an attempt to take stock of this new vision


French engineers managed to complete a national network of [[canal]s by 1830

its completion happened to coincide with the emergence of the first successful industrial railroads in England and Germany. The canals of France were exquisite objects of design and engineering, but were obsolete on delivery.

Determined to avoid another national embarrassment, the new head of the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées (Corps of Bridges and Roads), Victor Legrand, working with the brilliant engineer Claude-Louis Navier, set out to create a national railway system that would put the British and German railroads to shame

orderly, geometric series of rail lines radiating out across the nation from the center point of Paris

In part, this was an aesthetic principle, but it was, on paper at least, also a matter of efficiency:

did not, in the end, live up to all of its promise. When the Franco-Prussian War erupted in 1870, Bismarck was able to transport nearly twice as many men to the front lines as the French could, despite the fact that the Prussian rail system was a hodgepodge of lines

the hodgepodge turned out to have a crucial advantage over the simplicity of the Legrand Star, what we would now call, in network theory, redundancy

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

Twenty years ago, the Yale political science professor James Scott began investigating this way of interpreting and organizing the world

Scott ultimately published his survey as a book called Seeing Like a State. In it, the word that Scott returns to again and again is “legible.”

by the middle of the twentieth century, the Legrand Star model of state vision had come under attack from multiple opponents, occupying different points on the political spectrum. Most famously, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek demonstrated that centralized planning inevitably confronted an information bottleneck

Hayek would go on to become a patron saint of the libertarian right, but his critique of Legrand Star planning had an unlikely ally in the American progressive urbanist Jane Jacobs, who followed Hayek’s evisceration of Soviet planning with an equally devastating critique of master planners such as Robert Moses and the lifeless (and deadly) housing projects that had sprouted like concrete wildflowers in the postwar years

Yet within a few months of Jacobs’s launching her first volley against the titans of urban planning, a young researcher across the country was sketching a diagram that would ultimately find a way around Hayek’s bottleneck.

In the mid-1950s, a Polish-born engineer named Paul Baran took a job at Hughes Aircraft

As the cold war intensified after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Baran took a new job at the RAND Corporation, where he got involved in a project to design a new command-and-control architecture for military communications

In 1960, Baran began sketching out a different, “fishnet” model for the system, one that didn’t involve a central core but instead relied on a dense network of connections to shuffle information across the country

The distributed model turned out to be far more resilient than the others

A few years later, the Welsh computer scientist Donald Davies hit upon a similar scheme, independent of Baran. He anointed the message fragments with the slightly more Anglo name of “packets,” and the general approach “packet switching.”

In the late 1960s, packet switching became the foundation of ARPANET, the research network that laid the groundwork for the Internet

Several years after the launch of ARPANET, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn designed the TCP/IP protocols that became the common language of the Internet

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 like Hayek’s marketplace, with “dispersed bits of information” and no central authority, but somehow, against all odds, it wasn’t an actual marketplace.

here was an actual telecommunications system that did the same thing, except it managed to pull off the trick without prices

itself, 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

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

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.

In the early 1990s, two married staffers at Save the Children, Jerry and Monique Sternin, traveled to Vietnam at the behest of its government. They had been invited to tackle one of the most pressing health problems confronting the nation: at the time more than 50 percent of Vietnamese children suffered from chronic malnutrition

Their approach was inspired by a book that had just been published by a Tufts University professor, Marian Zeitlin, who had studied nutrition patterns in poor communities in the United States. Zeitlin had discovered that even the most destitute communities had successful outliers: families that had figured out a way to raise healthy children despite their bleak circumstances. Zeitlin called these individuals “positive deviants”

As the months passed, the Sternins turned up a consistent set of behavioral patterns that were unique to the positive deviants

After two years, they found that malnutrition had declined by somewhere between 65 and 85 percent in the villages

Peer networks involve several crucial elements

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

Seen together, the attributes happen to resemble closely (though not perfectly, as we will see) the design of the Internet itself, but they can be built into low-tech webs of collaboration as easily as digital platforms.

The trading towns of the early RenaissanceVenice, Genoa, Istanbul—adhered to peer-network principles in much of their social organization

The fact that those early trading towns are widely considered the birthplace of modern capitalism (in its pre-industrial form, at least) is no coincidence

Up to this point, the peer progressives might as well be just another set of Hayek disciples—what are sometimes derisively called “the wired libertarians.” But several crucial differences exist

unlike many strands of older progressive movements, peer progressives genuinely like free markets; they’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations.

Unlike traditional libertarians, peer progressives do not believe that markets are capable of satisfying all of our human needs

The world is filled with countless other needs—for community, creativity, education, personal and environmental health—that traditional markets do a poor job of satisfying

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

Krupnick’s vision was not about making a standard pop song music video. He wanted to make a single, continuous video to accompany the entire Girl Talk album. He wanted, in short, to make a seventy-one-minute-long video for an artist he didn’t know and a label that had no promotional budget

Art that probes the boundaries of accepted ideas or taste rarely attracts enough of an audience to sustain itself financially

The fact that the marketplace reliably neglects creators like Jacob Krupnick is a kind of cultural market failure

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the market failure around creative innovation lies in the sheer number and size of public-sector organizations devoted to encouraging the arts

his options: go mainstream, find a wealthy benefactor, or turn his creative vision into a part-time hobby

But Krupnick was facing this dilemma in 2010, which meant that he had another option: a website named Kickstarter.

Krupnick’s project went live on Kickstarter on January 31, 2011. He asked for $4,800 to support six days of shooting, the subsequent editing and production of DVDs, and the projectors for public screenings. Within two months, the project was fully funded. By the time Krupnick stopped taking contributions, he had raised $24,817

In late 2011, Krupnick completed the seventy-one-minute version of Girl Walk // All Day

All they need is an informal cluster of supporters, each contributing a relatively small amount of money. They can build that network of support directly through Kickstarter, but they can also augment it with their own social connections

To a traditional economist, there’s something baffling about the lack of an “upside” in the Kickstarter donation. By strict utilitarian standards, the vast majority of Kickstarter donors are wildly overpaying for the product

Drawing on the work of Lewis Hyde, the writer Kevin Kelly calls this kind of activity the Web’s gift economy.

Wikipedia, to use only the most obvious example, is powered entirely by the gift economy

Unlike Wikipedia, though, Kickstarter is a hybrid system. Designed to support creative work that the market does not value, the service is itself a for-profit company

There is something undeniably baffling about this, almost as if some nineteenth-century industrial giant had created a factory that produced socialist collectives

Two and a half years after Chen, Adler, and Strickler launched the site, they announced that Kickstarter was on track to raise roughly $200 million for artists in a single fiscal year. The entire annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is $154 million

Kickstarter and its fellow crowdfunding sites work because the services are built on peer-progressive values

48 percent of Kickstarter projects do not reach their funding goal, and thus raise zero dollars. This is, as they say, a feature, not a bug.

All of which sounds like market mechanisms in precisely the mode that Hayek described: the consumers collectively weeding out the bad ideas through the magic of paying for things

for the precise problem that Kickstarter is trying to solve, the fact that it relies on the gift economy makes it more efficient than a traditional market

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.”

hybrid—what is important is the social architecture of the service. A social architecture is a set of rules and conventions that govern the way a group interacts

Some social architectures—like those of most corporations or religious organizations—are profoundly hierarchical; others—such as communes or trading towns—have more fluid, horizontal structures

Some create very strict limitations on the flow of information through the group

Others are predicated on the open flow of information, as in most university cultures

You could say that the “native” social architecture of the online world is the peer network

The fact that the Net is biased toward peer-network architectures is one critical reason why many current examples of peer progressivism have digital technology at their core

To date, the most prominent examples of network architectures influencing real-world change have been the decentralized protest movements that have emerged over the past few years: MoveOn, Arab Spring, the Spanish Revolution, Occupy Wall Street.

they have succeeded brilliantly at expressing a popular dissatisfaction with the status quo

But they have all proved to be somewhat disappointing at actually proposing new solutions and making those solutions reality

every material advance in human history—from the Great Wall to the Hoover Dam to the polio vaccine to the iPad—was ultimately the by-product of information transfer and decision making. This is how progress happens

peer networks can’t do everything. They’re just a better way to decide. But you can’t have progress without good decisions

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


Communities: The Maple Syrup Event

The city quickly determined that the smell was harmless, but the mystery of its origins persisted for three years

2005, and the city had an extraordinary resource at its disposal, one that had been created only a few years before: the 311 service

took precise location data from each syrup smeller

Seen all together, the data formed a giant arrow aiming at a group of industrial plants in northeastern New Jersey

flavor compound manufacturer named Frutarom, which had been processing fenugreek seeds

As useful as 311 is to ordinary New Yorkers, the most intriguing thing about the service is the data it supplies back to the city. Each call is logged, tagged, mapped, and entered into the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to make it available for subsequent analysis

Some of those patterns are macro-trends. After the first survey of 311 complaints ranked excessive noise as the number one source of irritation among residents, the Bloomberg administration instituted a series of noise-abatement programs

After US Airways flight 1549 crash-landed on the Hudson, a few callers dialed 311 asking what they should do with hand luggage they’d retrieved from the river. The city had extensive plans for its response to an urban plane crash, but dealing with floating luggage was not one of them. Within minutes they had established a procedure for New Yorkers who wanted to turn in debris they’d recovered from the river

other hundred-plus 311s now in operation across the United States

new ecosystem of start-ups—inspired in part by New York’s success and empowered by twenty-first-century technology—that has sprouted up to imagine even more innovative ways for residents to report local needs or issues

Systems such as 311 and its ilk are the peer-progressive response to the problem that all great cities invariably confront: the problem of figuring out where the problems are. In the language of Seeing Like a State, 311 makes the city legible from below.

311 is not a purely decentralized system

To a certain extent, that top-down element may be inevitable. Perhaps someday a descendant of 311 will allow small groups of citizens to self-organize teams to repair potholes on neighborhood streets, bypassing direct government intervention altogether. But even if citizen street repair never comes into being, there are countless ways that true peer-to-peer civic interaction will flourish in tomorrow’s neighborhoods.

Consider the elemental needs of transportation. A pedestrian standing at any intersection in Manhattan has at least four modes of transportation to choose from: cab, bus, subway, or foot

Each is a potential data point—the F train that’s twelve minutes behind schedule, the six cabs just around the corner looking for fares. This, too, is an information problem that can be solved through a peer-network approach

When New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission installed television screens and credit card machines in all taxis, they also installed GPS devices that communicate vast amounts of information back to the TLC. Every second of every day, 13,000 cabs send real-time data on location, travel speeds, and whether they have customers or not

data will allow cities to become increasingly sophisticated in solving urban problems

A few years ago, old friends (and neighbors) of mine decided to embark on what was originally going to be a small renovation of their basement

house had been temporarily stabilized—assuming that there were no abnormal vibrations or earthquakes in the vicinity

learned while chatting with a neighbor that the city was days away from starting a major sewage pipe replacement project on their very block

All of this would seem to reinforce an observation Chris Anderson (of Wired and The Long Tail fame) made several years ago, part of what he called the “Vanishing Point theory of news”: Our interest in a subject is in inverse proportion to its distance. (hyperlocal)

Legrand Stars tend to founder when confronted with these vanishing-point problems, because taking on the bird’s-eye view of the state means erasing or normalizing—or simply ignoring—all those local variations

Making the city legible has historically meant eliminating those micro-local details

But peer networks don’t have to erase those details

When these peer networks work, they challenge most of our easy assumptions about government bureaucracies

government programs, like 311, that draw on peer-network structures don’t suffer from the same constraints

Already, some promising hybrid models have appeared: SeeClickFix has begun offering free dashboards for local governments

Another interesting approach can be found in Open311, a new project spearheaded by the OpenPlans organization.

Unlike New York’s current 311 system, Open311 is designed to be a true “read-write” platform

Now imagine two extra layers: a layer that allows members of the community to propose solutions to the problems or new opportunities that arise via Open311. And then a layer that allows individuals to fund those projects directly through small donations

This is what a group of social designers in Helsinki are beginning to do, under the all-too-perfect code name of Brickstarter

Why isn’t that a model that could productively supplement, if not partially replace, the existing democratic forms that govern most communities, in the developed world at least?

Neighbors understand intuitively what’s working and what’s broken on their sidewalks and in their cul-de-sacs and parks. They know where the positive deviants live

Journalism: The Pothole Paradox

The problems and opportunities we find in local governance correlate very closely with the problems of journalism. Both domains share a defining quality: they involve problems of information management

there is a corollary to this vanishing-point perspective, one that I have come to call “the pothole paradox.”

potentially exciting events if they happen in the communities you inhabit, but they are mind-numbingly dull if they’re one county over, much less on another coast

The other complication here is that the correct scale of local news varies, depending on the nature of the news itself. Pothole repair may die out beyond a few blocks, but many happenings—crimes or political rallies or controversial real estate developments—reverberate more widely

The pothole paradox is a challenge when the news is coming via a Legrand Star. But if it’s coming via a Baran Web, the rules are different

from a peer-progressive point of view, the emerging news system looks like an improvement over the old order. It looks like opportunity, not crisis

If you happened to be hanging out in front of the old College Hill Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1987, on the third week of every month you would have spotted me walking into the bookstore several times a day

I was looking for the latest issue of Macworld

When I left college and came to New York in the early nineties, the technology channels began to widen ever so slightly. At some point in that period, I joined CompuServe, and discovered that MacWEEK magazine was uploading its articles every Friday night at around six, which quickly became a kind of nerd version of appointment television for me. The information lag went from months to days.

Within a few years, the Web arrived, and soon after, I was reading a site called MacInTouch, which featured daily updates and commentary

now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people live-blogging every passing phrase

Unlike Kickstarter or 311, the peer network of tech news was not a single platform created by a few visionaries and entrepreneurs. The network evolved through thousands of small contributions, some of them building out the technical infrastructure of blogs and wikis and tweets, some of them contributing the actual reporting and commentary

When you hear people sound alarms about the future of news, they often gravitate to two key endangered species: war reporters and investigative journalists

I think we have good reason to be optimistic about their answers. But you can’t see the reasons for that optimism by looking at the current state of investigative journalism in the blogosphere, because the peer network of investigative journalism is in its infancy.

That’s why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial. It is the old-growth forest of the Web. It is the subgenre of news that has had the longest time to evolve

Consider another—slightly less nerdy—case study: politics

The first presidential election that I followed in an obsessive way was the 1992 race between Clinton and then President Bush

compare it with the information channels that were available to me after the 2008 election

What’s more, the ecosystem of political news also included information coming directly from the candidates

I think the political Web covering the 2008 campaign was so rich for precisely the same reasons that the technology Web is so rich: because it’s old-growth media. The first wave of blogs were tech-focused, and then, for whatever reason, they turned to politics next.

What’s happened with technology and politics is happening elsewhere, too, just on a different timetable. Sports; business; reviews of movies, books, restaurants

I think in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize how much vital news we were missing in the old regime. Local news may be the best example of this

Skeptics who are less sanguine about the future of peer-network journalism have two primary concerns, one financial and one ideological. For more than a century, serious journalism has been financially supported by the massive profits newspapers accumulated, thanks in large part to the near monopoly they had on local advertising.

they support the news by making it cheap.

Ecologists talk about the “productivity” of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth. A productive ecosystem, such as a rain forest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, such as a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems

The overall increase in information productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years

The new species emerging in the ecosystem understand this intuitively in ways that the older life-forms can’t. ProPublica, the nonprofit news org that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for its reporting, runs an Abbie Hoffmanesque line on its website entreating readers to “steal our stories.”

One of the reasons ProPublica can do this, of course, is that it is a nonprofit whose mission is to be influential, and not to make money. It seems to me that this is one area that has been underanalyzed in the vast, sprawling conversation about the future of journalism over the past year or so. A

And ProPublica, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of organizations—some of them focused on journalism, some of them government-based, some of them new creatures indigenous to the Web—that create information that can be freely recombined into neighborhood blog posts or Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalism. ProPublica journalists today can get the idea for an investigation from a document on WikiLeaks, get background information from Wikipedia, or download government statistics or transcripts from data.gov or the Sunlight Foundation

You cannot measure the health of journalism simply by looking at the number of editors and reporters on the payroll of newspapers. There are undoubtedly going to be fewer of them

Peer-produced journalism may well be able to solve the funding problem without relying on advertising monopolies, but that still leaves the ideological question about the future of news. Some critics believe that a world in which news is divided up into much smaller and more diverse sources will inevitably lead to political echo chambers

A peer progressive would go even one step further. Diversity does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems.

The problem-solving capacity that comes from diverse networks is one of the cornerstones of the peer-progressive worldview

For the peer progressive, too, the emphasis on diversity does not revolve exclusively around the multicultural diversity of race or gender; it’s as much about professional, economic, and intellectual diversity as it is about identity politics.

The question is whether a peer-produced news environment creates more or less of it.

If you look at the overall system of journalism today, it seems preposterous to argue that there has been a decrease in the diversity of news and opinion, compared with the media landscape of the pre-Internet era

The echo-chamber critics would no doubt accept this description of the overall system. But they would counter that this systemic diversity leads, paradoxically, to a narrowing of individual perspectives, because people can now custom-tailor their news to a much smaller slice of the ideological spectrum

For the echo-chamber argument to hold water, you have to believe that the connective power of the Web is weaker than the filters

Over the past few years, a number of rigorous sociological experiments have shown that our concerns about echo chambers online are greatly exaggerated. In 2010, two University of Chicago business professors, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, published an exhaustive study of the echo-chamber effect in various forms of media

Their study created what they called an “isolation index”

perhaps the most striking finding of the study came in the analysis of real-world communities. Neighborhoods, clubs, friends, work colleagues, family—all these groups proved to be deafening echo chambers compared with all forms of modern media.

Technology: What Does the Internet Want?

Alittle while ago I published a description of an emerging protest movement that had captured the world’s attention

No doubt the description is a familiar one, given all the publicity and analysis that the Occupy Wall Street movement generated in late 2011 and early 2012. But here’s the catch: I wrote those words in the spring of 2000, more than a decade before the Occupy protesters started camping out in the streets of lower Manhattan. The protests in question were the anti-WTO rallies of Seattle in 1999. I was describing them in the very last pages of my book Emergence.

On July 4, 2011, the left-wing Canadian magazine Adbusters posted a link to an anti-corporate jeremiad on Twitter: “Dear Americans,” they wrote, “this July 4th dream of insurrection against corporate rule.” After the link, they included a new hashtag that they also ran on the cover of their print publication: #occupywallstreet. Something about the phrase caught people’s attention, and in the ensuing days, the hashtag began to spread across Twitter

A week later, Adbusters followed up with an #occupywallstreet tweet that called its followers to action: “Sept 17. Wall St. Bring Tent.”

The temptation, of course, is to draw a straight line of techno-determinism between the Seattle protests and the global wave of pro-democratic and egalitarian protest that swept across the planet in 2010 and 2011: from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Revolution to the Occupy movement

As tempting as that narrative is, I think it should be resisted, or at least complicated.

Emergence, you see, went on sale the first week of September 2001. I had penned an upbeat account of how decentralized networks could be harnessed to make the world a better place, and the week the book arrived on the shelves, the very city I was living in was attacked by a decentralized network of Islamic terrorists

Al Qaeda is self-evidently abhorrent to everything else the peer progressive believes in

These complications are closely related to the critiques of cyber-utopianism leveled by writers such as Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell.

Morozov’s work goes even further in its critique of naive cyber-utopianism

Orchestrating your protest movement through the public channels of Facebook may reduce organizational costs, as Clay Shirky would argue, but it also reduces the surveillance costs for the state you’re trying to overthrow

I wrote at the beginning of this book that peer progressives do not consider the Internet a panacea. Does that mean they view it as a purely neutral technology?

The problem with the Internet-as-tool argument is that it chips away at that other cornerstone of the peer-progressive worldview: that there are deep-seated forces of progress at work in the world

that history has a direction, just as Hegel and Marx believed, even if the mechanics behind that direction are not exactly what they imagined

The basic thrust of all Marshall McLuhan-influenced media theory is that each new medium has some deep-seated tendencies, sometimes called “affordances,”

television tends to push political decision making toward the realm of personality and physical appearance

But something funny happens when you try to detect comparable affordances on the Web. Even seemingly fundamental tendencies are almost impossible to pin down



Is the Internet just more schizophrenic than earlier forms of media? In a way, yes.

That capacity for shape-shifting leads to another affordance: digital networks like the Web can simulate and experiment with different social architectures more easily than other forms of media

tolerance for risk and failure has two effects: First, the overall system finds its way to useful ideas faster, because the rate of experimentation itself is faster. Second, those ideas can then be ported back into the real world, on the basis of their digital success

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

it can produce surprising outcomes.

not just the Al Qaeda attacks. The Internet may well have made it easier for Occupy Wall Street to form, but it had an even more decisive role in the creation of high-frequency algorithmic trading

So what does the Internet want?

The Internet “wants” both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.

Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps—for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of 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

Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse.

Incentives: We Have a Winner!

From at least the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, the roots of the madder plant have been used to produce striking red dyes. Over the centuries, Indian and Turkish dyers refined an elaborate technique that combined madder roots with calf blood and sheep dung, among many other substances, to produce a brilliant hue that came to be known as “Turkey red.”

the British Isles lacked a meaningful supply of Rubia tinctorum in its fields.

On March 22, 1754, a small group of men gathered at Rawthmell’s Coffee-house in Covent Garden and decided to do something about the problem of Turkey red

A drawing teacher and amateur inventor named William Shipley had assembled the group, with the hope of forming a society that would encourage innovation in the arts and in manufacturing. Shipley’s idea was that the group would offer awards—called, in the parlance of the day, “premiums”—for solutions to urgent problems that the group itself would identify.

They called themselves the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce in Great Britain

Today the institution, one of the most revered in the United Kingdom, is known as the Royal Society of Arts.

The Royal Society of Arts would go on to create premiums—and deliver awards—for thousands of innovations: spinning wheels, mechanical telegraphs, naval construction, brocade weaving.

By 1775, the society had concluded that the premium had achieved its objectives; thanks to the encouragement of the RSA, the British textile manufacturers no longer needed to export their fabrics to Flanders when they needed them dyed Turkey red

their legendary red coats

what we now call prize-backed challenges

John Harrison’s invention of the chronometer, which revolutionized the commercial and military fleets of the day, was sparked by the celebrated Longitude Prize

In their eighteenth-century form, prize-backed challenges had a nuanced relationship to the free market. On the one hand, they were deliberately conceived as a kind of correction to market failures

market blind spots, or market shortsightedness

One other wrinkle complicated the RSA’s relationship to the market. From the very beginning, the society possessed an explicit aversion to patents.

Prohibiting patents meant that solutions could circulate more quickly through society

The RSA’s position on intellectual property was part of a larger intellectual ethos that characterized most Enlightenment science: Ideas improved the more they were allowed to flow through the community

But those Enlightenment values developed alongside an opposing reaction of sorts in the birth of industrial capitalism, which placed an increasingly heavy emphasis on patents and intellectual property

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the patent system had become so deeply entwined with the practice of commercial innovation that the RSA repealed their injunction against patents.

Both peer progressives and libertarians like to see good ideas rewarded with financial gain. Incentives are a core ingredient of a peer network, after all

Matters get more complicated when ownership of those solutions is claimed

For this reason, a more radical subset of libertarian philosophy actually opposes intellectual property law.

For the peer progressive, however, the conflict does not exist, because the open exchange of ideas is a core attribute of all peer networks. What the peer progressive wants to do is reward people for coming up with good ideas—and reward them for sharing those ideas

it is also possible to use peer networks to extend and diversify the minds working on the patent review problem. Several years ago, a visionary NYU law professor named Beth Noveck began developing a program that she called peer to patent, which was, in effect, a software platform that allowed outside experts and informed amateurs to contribute to the prior art discovery phase, both through tracking down earlier inventions that might be relevant and explaining those inventions to the overwhelmed examiner in the patent office.

Noveck herself went on to oversee the Open Government Initiative in the first years of the Obama administration.

The premiums of the RSA offer another example of how peer networks can productively build on one another via stacks or layers

John Harrison’s story, powerfully recounted in Dava Sobel’s bestselling Longitude, demonstrates how a prize-backed challenge extends and diversifies the network of potential solutions

Because the board ultimately doled out small increments of funding with each new draft of the chronometer, Harrison was able to continue tinkering with the problem of longitude for almost half a century

One network identifies the problems and funds the rewards; another network proposes solutions; and a final network improves on those solutions and puts them to use

Governments and private corporations are not entirely absent from these systems: the Longitude Prize, for instance, was established by government decree, and the madder plants ultimately helped textile manufacturers improve their bottom line

In May 2011, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced two bills in the Senate: for the Medical Innovation Prize Fund Act and for the Prize Fund for HIV/AIDS Act

they do two things: They offer billions of dollars of prize money for new pharmaceutical innovations. And they mandate that the prizewinners share their innovations open-source style, and forgo any attempt to patent their discoveries

it doesn’t rely exclusively on taxpayer money: in the Sanders plan, the health insurance industry contributes a significant portion of the prize money, a pittance compared with the vast fortune the industry would save in a world where new drugs appear on the market at generic prices

The bills also carve out additional prize money for intermediary tools and practices that widen the diversity and density of the research network

Software-based competitions—such as Apps for America or New York City’s BigApps competition—reward programmers and information architects who create useful applications that share or explain the vast trove of government data

In concert with a for-profit start-up named ChallengePost, the U.S. General Services Administration launched a website in 2010 called Challenge.gov, which weaves together all the prize-backed challenges currently available throughout the government

Prize-backed challenges are an acknowledgment that governments work better when they tap the intelligence of the wider population. The power of these challenges does not merely arise from the sheer number of people involved but also from the intellectual diversity of the population

The most celebrated prize-backed challenge of the Obama administration, however, predated the Challenge.gov site: the Race to the Top competition, sponsored by the Department of Education as part of the 2009 stimulus package

had begun almost a decade before, when the Clinton education adviser Jon Schnur began systematically tracking the strategies and best practices used by high-performing schools

Schnur’s organization—New Leaders for New Schools—

Schnur and Duncan began brainstorming for ways to encourage more schools to adopt the reforms that Schnur’s team had found to be the most effective.

created a list of statewide goals with a specific number of points associated with each goal.

highest-scoring plans (Not outcomes. Or even outputs. What bullshit.)

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

The question, of course, is who gets to define the goal. Markets work so well in the long run because both the goals and the routes are defined by peer networks. Customers decide what their priorities are by buying certain things and not others.

goals are defined by a peer network as well. That’s exactly the approach taken by the most celebrated sponsor of prize-backed challenges in the modern age: the X Prize Foundation

The X Prizes began in the mid-1990s, when the aerospace engineer and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis announced a competition that would spur innovation in the then nonexistent private-spaceflight industry

Eight years after Diamandis announced the competition, the Ansari X Prize was awarded to the creators of SpaceShipOne, led by aerospace legend Burt Rutan and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.

Today the X Prize Foundation offers more than $100 million in prize-backed challenges that reward innovation in genomics, personal health care technology, automobile energy efficiency, and oil cleanup

The foundation prides itself on the way it develops its new prizes, drawing on a peer network

Each prize emerges out of an intense, layered process: researching the field and defining worthy problems, and then crystallizing the best set of objectives for the prize that will capture the attention of would-be winners as well as the wider public.

Governance: Liquid Democracies

Corporations: Conscious Capitalism

In the fall of 2004, a Bentley College business professor named Rajendra Sisodia began researching a new project on the sorry state of contemporary marketing, working with two colleagues, David Wolfe and Jagdish N. Sheth.

this time around, his research had taken him in a new direction, to companies that had managed to thrive without much traditional marketing, like hiring celebrities to endorse their products, running Super Bowl ads, or putting up elaborate pavilions at trade shows. Despite this apparent lack of interest in marketing their brands, these companies had managed to attract fierce brand loyalty among their customers.

Sisodia and his colleagues began investigating these positive deviants to figure out what made them so successful at winning over the hearts (and wallets) of their customers. It turned out that the companies shared a set of core values that distinguished them from most of their rivals

adhered to a “stakeholder” model, whereby decisions had to reflect the varied interests and needs of multiple groups: customers, employees, managers, shareholders, and even the communities that surrounded the company’s stores or offices or factories

Sisodia’s positive deviants also broke from the deeply hierarchical structure that characterizes most modern corporations

They were deliberately trying to diversify the sources of information flowing through the management team

The question was how they fared on the bottom line. Sisodia and his colleagues decided to track the stock performance of the dozen or so public companies that best embodied these new values. (Selection bias!)

John Mackey has come to call the overall philosophy shared by these firms “conscious capitalism.”

the best way to maximize long-term profits is to create value for the entire interdependent business system

Conscious capitalism is what happens when peer-progressive values are applied to corporate structures

The market that surrounds most corporations is a diverse web of competition and collaboration. But look inside the corporate walls and you’ll find a Legrand Star

But if corporations begin to look more and more like peer networks, that contradiction fades away

The beauty of the peer-progressive approach to corporate organization is that it addresses many of the prevailing critiques of modern capitalism

the region of the U.S. economy that everyone agrees is the envy of the world remains the tech sector, led by the giants of Silicon Valley

The question is, Why? Since the early 1970s, U.S. share of both patents and Ph.D.s has been in steady decline

But what actually happened to American innovation during that period? Instead of slow decline, the tech industry skyrocketed

the organizational structure of most Silicon Valley firms also deserves a great deal of the credit

Stock options, for instance, were distributed sparingly for most of the twentieth century, until the more egalitarian operations in the Bay Area began using them as a standard part of an employee’s compensation package

In the early 1980s, Esquire magazine sent Tom Wolfe out to Silicon Valley to profile Intel founder Robert Noyce and document the emerging culture of the region. The shift from hierarchy to peer network was visible even then, in the days before computer networks became essential to the region’s businesses:

a more radical version of the peer-network approach to capitalism exists in the form of employee-owned businesses, or EOBs. (Employee Equity)

Two years ago, three researchers at the Cass Business School completed one of the first comprehensive studies of how EOBs stack up against traditional corporate structures

The Cass study inspired a new set of initiatives announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg in early 2012, to encourage the growth of EOBs in the United Kingdom

Why do the benefits of employee ownership become less pronounced as the company grows in size? We don’t have a definitive account yet, but one plausible explanation would be the information funnel that has traditionally restrained direct democracies

What goes for private-sector organizations goes for the public sector as well

Consider the question of performance-based pay in the public school system

Performance-based compensation doesn’t just encourage you to teach to the test; it also encourages you to keep your pedagogical tactics to yourself

But imagine that school is structured more like an employee-owned business than a traditional corporation, or like the gainsharing teams at Whole Foods. Teachers would be shareholders in the school, not employees

The peer progressive doesn’t want to turn our education system over to the private markets, because private markets are not omnipotent. But peer progressives want to do away with the bureaucracies as well as the union mentality. They want schools to be run like EOBs, where teachers are shareholders in an enterprise that grows more valuable as it reaches its goal

In February 2012, Facebook filed its S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, justifying and describing its plans for an initial public offering

warning potential shareholders that the company would prioritize that long-term mission over short-term opportunities to increase the share price. The Facebook mission can be boiled down to the old E. M. Forster slogan: “Only connect

the Facebook platform is a continuation of the Web and Internet platforms that lie beneath it: it is a Baran Web, not a Legrand Star. And it considers the cultivation and proliferation of Baran Webs to be its defining mission

The peer progressive encounters the Facebook mission with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the conviction that peer networks can be a transformative force for good in the world is perhaps the core belief of the peer-progressive worldview

But there’s a difference here, one that makes all the difference. The platforms of the Web and the Internet were pure peer networks, owned by everyone. Facebook is a private corporation

If Facebook is any indication, it would seem that top-down control is a habit that will be hard to shake. From Henry Ford to Jack Welch to Steve Jobs to Zuckerberg himself, we have long associated corporate success with visionary and inspiring executives. But the empirical track record of the conscious capitalists and employee-owned businesses suggests that we might have been focusing on the wrong elements all along


Wherever you came down on the question of online piracy, one thing was clear: SOPA marked the single largest attack to date on the core principles of the Baran Web, at least on U.S. shores

The Senate version sailed through the Judiciary Committee with a unanimous voice vote; by the end of 2011, almost half the Senate had signed on as a cosponsor of the bill. But then something peculiar happened. In the language of the Terminator movies, the network became self-aware. It started to fight back. In the late fall, posts and comment threads at influential sites—Reddit and BoingBoing, along with the New York–based venture capital firm Union Square Ventures—began describing the bill’s authoritarian provisions

It goes without saying that the SOPA rebellion made manifest the power of peer networks as a form of Digital Age activism

it was impossible to paint the SOPA failure as a victory for either the Democrats or the Republicans, because the values at stake were not fundamentally aligned with either party

believing in the power of peer networks is not a core value of either political party in the United States

The United States is still living with an operating system that was conceived and designed before railroads were invented

The two-party system in American politics has been in place for more than two hundred years

Because many of us have lived our entire adult lives with these two political institutions, we naturally assume that between them they must cover a significant span of the political spectrum. But think about the specific values that we have seen associated with the peer-progressive worldview.

The parties have failed to adapt to emerging attitudes and beliefs within their constituencies

Many of the most promising peer networks today utilize advanced technology, but from a certain angle, they can be seen as a return to a much older tradition. The social architectures of the paleolithic era—the human mind’s formative years—were much closer to peer networks than they were to states or corporations

explain why so many people have been drawn to participate in peer networks, despite the lack of traditional monetary rewards. There is something in the collaborative, egalitarian structure of these systems that resonates with the human mind, an echo of our deep history as a species

On November 11, 2001, a programmer and engineer named Greg Lindahl uploaded an initial entry defining peer-to-peer (P2P) software for a new collaborative encyclopedia, named Wikipedia.

Ten years later, the peer-to-peer entry on Wikipedia is almost five thousand words long, twenty times longer than the entry on the Encyclopædia Britannica website

The media like to highlight stories of Wikipedia abuse: the scurrilous attack that a user has added to a rival’s biographical entry; the endless fighting over the content of the abortion entry, or the entry on the Iraq War. But these stories are like the plane crashes of the information world: the sensational news that distracts us from the steady, incremental miracle that works astonishingly well almost all the time

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

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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