This Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, examining Steven Johnson’s new book Future Perfect (2012) and its parallels to TIMN — in particular, his concept of “peer progressives” because it helps flesh out the +N network part of TIMN.
Again, here are the major areas where Johnson’s themes parallel and overlap with TIMN:
- Network forms of organization are on the rise.
- They and their proponents are altering all areas of society.
- Hierarchy and market forms of organization will endure, though altered.
- People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
- New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
- TIMN implies that a new sector will grow around the network form. Johnson’s write-up does not detect this, though I suspect it would appeal to peer progressives.
- TIMN offers a quadriform understanding of society and its future prospects. The view in Future Perfect remains triformist — though a kind of triformist-plus.
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Peer progressives in action — all over the map
Johnson recognizes that the rise of the network form had spectacular expression in a series of political and social movements since the 1990s. Indeed (p. 48), “To date, the most prominent examples of network architectures influencing real-world change have been the decentralized protest movements that emerged over the past few years: MoveOn, Arab Spring, the Spanish revolution, Occupy Wall Street.” While Johnson’s book doesn’t mention TIMN (and why should it), the parallels are so close that in one spot it even reads like a paraphrase of our (Arquilla & Ronfeldt) earlier work on information-age conflict (as clarified here and in Appendix B here). That’s when Johnson quotes (p. 106) from his book Emergence (2001), saying about the anti-WTO Battle-of-Seattle protests in 1999, “that there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you were trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you're better off becoming a distributed network yourself.”
But those movements involved so many ideological and other tendencies that none offers a seminal expression of peer progressivism. The movement that finally did so was the one in 2012 to block a congressional bill known as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). As Johnson puts it, “SOPA marked the single largest attack to date on the core principles of the Baran Web” by the established proponents of top-down Legrand Stars — the federal government and largest media corporations (p. 200). Indeed, “the SOPA rebellion made manifest the power of peer networks as a form of Digital Age activism” (p. 201). It helped that believing in peer networks was not a key value for either the Democratic or Republican political party — making it easier for a bipartisan consensus to form against SOPA, since neither party needed to claim it as its own victory (p. 203). As a result (p. 204), “The protests made perfect sense: they were the first great awakening of the peer-progressive movement.”
Yet, as Johnson wisely notes (pp. 48-49), “these grand spectacles … have turned out to be something of a distraction, averting our eyes from the more concrete and practical successes of peer networks.” The meat of his book is thus about problem-solving enterprises that have arisen because of the network form. Favorites include Wikipedia, Kickstarter, New York City’s 311 phone system, and ProPublica. Some are in the private sector, others the public sector; they arise in business, government, and civil society. Some are for-profit, others non-profit; some run by public employees, others by private enterprise. His point, much like TIMN, is that the peer network “is a practical, living, evolving reality, one that is already transforming dozens of different sectors.” (p. 52)
He admires New York’s 311 system at length (esp. pp. 63-66), for such peer-based solutions enable people to call attention to public problems. He’s also careful to discuss that it’s not a pure peer network, for the network has a headquarters. But it’s still more bottom-up than top-down — a hybrid of hierarchy and network that lets people share and pool information. Johnson speculates insightfully (pp. 72-73) that combining 311-like systems to identify problems with Kickstarter-like systems to solve them, plus introducing prize-backed challenges to attract participation in some situations, might go far to improve upon current ways of addressing civic problems in our communities.
Looking ahead from a peer-progressive perspective, Johnson anticipates major shifts in our political and economic systems. As for politics, peer progressives welcome transitioning away from the old Legrand-Star model of the state and its penchant for central planning; for they are ambivalent about hierarchical institutions. This includes representative democracies that are supposed to be bottom-up but have become quite centralized and top-heavy, and that let power be concentrated around ever smaller and less diverse groups. Indeed, he says, peer progressives tend to be Madisonian in their concerns that modern-day tyrannical nobles are gaining sway in our public and private sectors (pp. 155-157). Thus Johnson, like others, expresses hopes for the spread of “liquid democracy” and “participatory budgeting” as ways of expanding “the space of civic participation” at local and broader levels (p. 175).
As to future economic change, he draws mainly on the concept of “conscious capitalism” and the prospects it offers for making corporations run more like peer networks than fiefdoms:
“Conscious capitalism is what happens when peer-progressive values are applied to corporate structures.” (p. 182)
“The beauty of the peer-progressive approach to corporate organization is that it addresses many of the prevailing critiques of modern capitalism.” (p. 183)What he likes is that conscious capitalism is about stakeholders more than shareholders, seeks out diverse sources of information, and encourages wide distribution of profits (pp. 178-180). He also commends that all the above is embodied in a new generation of employee-owned businesses, some of which operate as non-profit cooperatives (p. 187). Nonetheless, his optimism is tempered by wondering whether capitalism will really be transformed by learning to apply the lessons of peer networks to the social architecture of corporations (p. 195).
Johnson also discusses applying peer-progressivism to schools and their incentive structures. He thinks both teachers unions and libertarians — i.e., the agents of hierarchy and market methods — have faulty solutions in mind. Outcomes would be better if schools could be run like peer networks (pp. 191-190).
Thus, his array of examples shows that peer networks are taking hold all over the map, in all sectors of society: government, business, civil society. And that is principally what we wants to show. Moreover, by now, perhaps a year since he finished the book, lots of new examples could be added that seem eminently peer-progressive. For example, I’d suggest adding Code for America (CFA), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), and NGOs promoting “networked humanitarianism” (such as iRevolution and ReliefWeb). Meanwhile at his blog, Johnson is keen about pro-peer-network research at NYU’s Governance Lab (GovLab). And just today, thanks to the PBS Newshour, I learned that Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s The Metropolitan Revolution (2013) reports on how numerous coalitional networks of city and metropolitan leaders from diverse sectors — and they sure sound like peer networks, including conservatives as well as progressives — are stepping up in innovative ways to fix political, economic. and other problems while federal and state governments pull back.
All this parallels TIMN, which holds that established activities and enterprises in all sectors will be modified by the rise of a new form, currently meaning the network (+N) form. But from a TIMN perspective, more is going on than across-the-board modifications and transformations in existing sectors. TIMN also implies the creation of a brand new sector.
But before turning to that, I’d rather focus first, and briefly, on a couple of points that extend from the preceding discussion about wide-ranging changes:
- People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
- New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
Networks as solutions
TIMN has long maintained that, beyond today’s common claims that government or market is the solution, we are entering a new era in which it will be said that the network is the solution (e.g., here and here). Aging contentions that turning to “the government” or “the market” is the way to address particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to innovative ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution.
Johnson shows that peer progressivism says much the same — indeed, it’s one of his key themes:
Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that govern the design of the net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems — the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. (p. 19)
“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, healthcare, 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.” (p. 50)This prospect amounts to a significant overlap with TIMN. I’ve tried to indicate elsewhere that it may develop in the context of the rise of “cyberocracy” and a “nexus state” in the future, but I’ll leave discussing that for another day, possibly in Part 3.
Toward new political ideologies and philosophies
According to TIMN (initially, 1996, pp. 30-33), as the network (+N) form takes hold, new political ideologies and philosophies will take shape around it. They will be network-oriented rather than tribe-, state-, or market-oriented, and they will arise across the political spectrum: Right, Left, and Center.
Johnson’s write-up shows agreement with this prospect, at least for the Center and Left parts of the spectrum — that’s what peer progressivism means. Here are a few apropos quotes:
“The fact that the peer network does not fit easily into traditional political categories of the Left and Right should not be mistaken for some kind of squishy, “third way” centrism. It is not the moderates attempt to use Big Government and Big Labor to counterbalance the excesses of Big Corporations. Living strictly by peer-progressive values means rethinking the fundamental structures of some of the most revered institutions of modern life; it means going back to the drawing board to think about how private companies and democracies are structured. It is … not a matter of finding a middle ground between Left and Right, but rather finding a way forward. This is why it is so important that these principles not be confused with simple internet utopianism. (p. 51)In the following passage he tries to specify the kind of political agenda that peer progressives are disposed to have:
“But think about the specific values that we have seen associated with the peer-progressive worldview. Peer progressives are wary of excessive top-down government control in bureaucracy; they want more civic participation and accountability in public-sector issues that affect their communities. They want more choice and experimentation in public schools; they think, on the whole, that the teachers unions have been a hindrance to educational innovation. They think markets can be a great force for innovation and rising standards of living, but they also think corporations are far too powerful and top-heavy in their social architecture. They believe the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to those of the 1950s. They believe that the campaign financing system is poisoning democracy, but want to retain an individual’s right to support candidates directly. They want lower prices for prescription drugs without threatening the innovation engine of the pharmaceutical industry. They are socially libertarian, and consider diversity to be a key cultural value. They believe the decentralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the Internet has been a force for good, and that governments (or corporations) shouldn't mess with it.” (pp. 205-206)Johnson says that this set of values and positions may look like a mishmash, drawn partly from one political party and partly the other. Yet there is a coherent logic behind them:
“[T]hrough the lens of peer progressivism, they all come into focus, because the values flow directly from a core set of beliefs about the power and effectiveness of peer networks, in both the private and public sectors. The number of individuals and groups that are actively building new peer-progressive organizations is still small, but the values associated with the movement are shared much more widely throughout the population.” (p. 206)In rather odd few paragraphs, Johnson mentions Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and unspecified persons in the Obama administration, as people who have done much to foster peer-network experimentation in political circles (p. 207). I understand his point — it’s a good one — but I wish he’d said more, and identified more than just those mentions.
In any case, by pointing out that networks are increasingly seen as solutions and that new political philosophies and ideologies will take shape around the network form, he goes a long way to proposing that peer progressivism is about far more than reformist modifications all across the board — it means that something distinctly radically new is dawning.
If I ever get back to doing Part 3 of my unfinished series of posts on “TIMN: some implications for thinking about political philosophy and ideology” (beginning here), I’ll be able to say a lot more now than a year ago, thanks to Johnson’s adding peer progressivism to the lexicon for thinking ahead. Indeed, peer progressivism could do a lot for our country in the future. A conservative variety too, if it would just show up (and I’d suppose it should have a name other than peer conservatism). Possible alternatives — e.g., “network libertarianism” — would not be nearly as constructive from a TIMN perspective, as I’ll discuss in Part 4 of this series on Future Perfect.
Over the past 10 to 20 years there have been lots of comparisons of America to the fall of Rome. But TIMN points to a huge crucial difference between the two cases. Yes, they both involve the decay of hierarchical institutions. And both also involve a resurgence of tribalism, domestically and around the periphery. But only one of the two cases — America — appears to be declining in an era when a new form of organization is emerging: the +N form. And that can make a decisive difference, meaning America can renew itself whereas Rome could not. From a TIMN perspective, I'd like to think that is part of the promise of peer networks and peer progressivism.