One of joys of my reviewing career for the Independent over the years is that you can often get two chances to sample an author's work. I covered Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad Is Good For You" in 2005 (about which, I'm surprised to find myself so sniffy).
And the prospect of a Romney victory (thankfuly thwarted) hangs over this review of Johnson's latest, an attempt at political intervention (of a geeky kind), which has curious echoes of the UK's "Third Way"/"Big Society" projects. But an "elegant" (argh, I use that word twice over two reviews!) writer, of great pleasure and utility.
Future Perfect: The Case For Progress in a Networked Age by Steven Johnson
Reviewed by Pat Kane
The Independent, 17 November 2012 (Unedited version below, Independent version here)
To be called the “Darwin of Technology” by Steve Jobs’s biographer, Walter Issacson, is a blurb quote to die for. Over the years, the American author Steven Johnson’s elegantly-phrased combinations of history, cultural critique and complexity theory have carved out a solid niche for him in the “big ideas” stretch of the bookshelf.
Yet with Future Perfect, Johnson is putting a pause on tracing connections between slime molds and 19th century city maps, or Joseph Priestly and Gaia theory. He’s bringing his status to the bully pulpit, as his compatriots might say, and proposing a political movement (called “the peer progressives”) in which the geeks inherit the earth. Or at least, lift their entranced faces from their OLED screens, and begin to assert their knowledge-worker clout in government and the public sphere.
For all his characteristic, science-and-humanities-spanning polymathery in this book, what Johnson is describing is the moment where (as that old bearded contemporary of Darwin’s might say) the netheads and creatives become not just a class in themselves, but a class for themselves. That is: aware that they have interests, a particular claim on power and resources, and the confidence to mobilize in that direction.
That direction is one that would have been familiar to the Big Society Tories, in the first flush of their idealism a few years ago. Johnson’s American peer progressives would enthusiastically sign up to Cameron’s axiom (now bromide) that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”. They’re wary of top-down government control, and enthusiastic about “civic accountabilty and participation in public-sector issues”.
They want “choice and experiment” in state schools, and think teaching unions “hinder innovation”. They think markets and open networks are great at keeping new ideas flowing, but are suspicious of corporate governance and political over-regulation of the flows.
To UK ears, it has a familiar recent ring: Burke’s small platoons and Hayek’s catallaxy, as rendered by the proselytizing of the smarter Conservatives like Jesse Norman and Philip Blond. But it’s given a Silicon Valley shimmer by Johnson’s internet experience, both as observer and entrepreneur.
It’s not that Johnson is misdescribing the “network society” that Manuel Castells identified and predicted in the mid-nineties, for centre-right ends. The social transformation of the Net is undeniable, founded in Paul Baran’s idea of the “distributed network” - where power comes not from hierarchy, nor from insurgence, but from the marginal contributions of many, building up a rich commons of information and practice, usable by all.
Johnson is correct to identify that this pervasive system of communication has made new kinds of value communicable, beyond just money or bureaucracy - and that this shakes up, or at least shows up the gaps in, our old institutions. Newspapers can’t compete with how social media allows us to recommend and annotate the news of the world (and our neighbourhoods) to our friends and peers. Big corps can’t compete with smaller, stakeholder and “employee-owned” companies, inspired by the inclusiveness and transparency of the Net (Nick Clegg rather alarmingly cited here), whose peer-oriented work cultures actually deliver better returns long-term.
In the most interesting chapter, Johnson shows how our transatlantic frustrations with representative democracy - whether the malaise of US political funding, or Westminster centralism - could be answered by looking at something pioneered by the anti-copyright Pirate Party, called “liquid democracy” (or more mundanely, “proxy” or “delegate” voting).
Socialism’s problem is that it takes up too many evenings, as Oscar Wilde once put it. But a more active, plebiscitary democracy might actually work, if we could easily pledge our vote (or as easily retract it from) a “peer” who we recognized as expert or passionate in the field. Sounds complicated? Perhaps no more so than participatory budgeting so prevalent in leftist Latin American - or the elaborately coordinated voluntary labours that go into Wikipedia. Yes, Johnson admits, they’re all structures open to gaming and abuse. But we’re happy with the endemic stasis and near-corruption of our current systems?
As many of the illustrative initiatives in this book come from the Obama administration - clearly, the geeks made the White House - there’s a rather poignant tremor running through the prose. The Romneyverse, if it transpires, looks like falling a little short in stakeholder virtues. But Johnson has written a fascinating book. Let’s see if it’s an elegy for a failed intellectual consensus.