Steven Johnson on his book Future Perfect

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First aired on Spark (19/10/12)

Steven Johnson recently dropped by Spark to talk about his new book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, and a new political philosophy inspired by the decentralized nature of the internet.

Johnson is the author of a string of bestsellers, including Where Good Ideas Come From and Everything Bad Is Good for You. He told host Nora Young that he wanted Future Perfect to be "provocatively utopian." In his view, the peer-to-peer nature of the internet is transforming the way that organizations like neighbourhoods and governments operate, and thus giving rise to a new political ideology.

future perfect book cover.jpg

Johnson started out by describing the railway system in 19th-century France. "It was incredibly centralized," he said." If you look at a map of France, it's like this perfect star, with these even lines descending straight to the heart of Paris."

In neighbouring Prussia and Germany, however, the railway system was not centrally planned. But this "hodgepodge" of lines turned out to be more flexible. "You had multiple ways to get from A to B," Johnson explained, as opposed to the French system, in which all travel went through Paris, and so created bottlenecks.

As a model, it's a lesson. "It teaches us that there is this interesting kind of resilience and flexibility in less centrally planned systems," Johnson said. "There is an amazing kind of emergent property that these more decentralized systems can have. We've seen them at work in the success of the internet and the success of the web. The opportunity now is to see the other things they can do."

Johnson's argument hinges on the fact that this kind of network, which is decentralized and has no specific leader, "nonetheless manages to solve complex problems."

Johnson also pointed to diversity as an important property. "There's a lot of different perspectives that are brought to the problem that the network is trying to solve. They can't be flocks of like-minded people," he explained. "Ideally, there are a lot of people involved, too, so they have a kind of density. And they don't usually involve forms of ownership of those ideas. And so a new idea can appear inside a network and other people can take it and improve on it, or refine it or borrow it and push it in new directions. So they're decentralized, they're diverse, and they involve that kind of free exchange of ideas in a way that we don't normally see in traditional, say, marketplaces."

Peer networks can be low tech: communities, food co-ops, even political parties, can use them as a tool to get things done. Johnson links these networks to a different political philosophy: what he calls peer progressivism.

Johnson said when he looked at these types of projects, he realized "they didn't quite fit the traditional categories of that we have of the left and the right. They're not about big government they're not about top-down state power. And they believe in the power of decentralization, but they're not about the market, and the traditional kind of libertarian belief that the market will cure all of our problems." He went on to add, "It didn't quite fit the big government-big capital opposition that structures so much of the way that we think about politics."

But is a centralized, hierarchal structure still needed for some things? That's a question that Johnson is still turning over in his mind. "To what extent can these kind of decentralized systems perform long-term thinking? A lot of the problems we have, whether it's climate change or energy needs, and things like that, are problems that you need to think on that 50-year scale to really work," he said. "Can a decentralized network that's not about the market, and not about short-term profit, can it be trained to think on that long-term scale? I hope so."

Host Nora Young pointed out that for Canada, a large country with a small population, it can be helpful to have a centralized institution like the federal government or mainstream media to connect us to what's happening in other parts of the country. Do we risk losing something if we get our information from decentralized networks?

"I'm a utopian, but I'm not a revolutionary in the sense that I think states are going to survive, I think that traditional media forms are going to continue to survive," Johnson responded. "They're just going to be surrounded by these other forms and ways of organizing that didn't really exist before, that were harder to organize before. It could be that the state actually becomes a little bit more network-like."

Johnson gave the example of "new forms of more participatory democracy, participatory budgeting, for instance, which I talk about in the book, where neighbourhoods are deciding where their tax dollars should go in terms of specific projects, that we've seen some interesting results in."

The power of networks has been at the heart of much of Johnson's past work. But in Future Perfect, he extends his analysis to the landscape of politics because he believes it's an idea whose time has come. "Not only is decentralization an interesting idea, and emergence an interesting idea scientifically or in terms of the history of cities and things like that," he said. "But it's actually the framework for a way of looking at the world in terms of politics whose time is right right now."

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