Peer pressure

Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 255 pages

The age of networking and the internet has given rise to an optimistic new political philosophy. The “peer progressive” view, based on collaborative networks working beyond the control of state or marketplace, has been gaining adherents over the past few years. Now it has a name and an articulate manifesto, thanks to Steven Johnson and his book Future Perfect.

Peer progressives have built – among many other things – the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, the arts funding site Kickstarter, the patent review system Peer-to-Patent, a plethora of networks reporting urban problems to local authorities, and online collaborations tackling scientific subjects from pharmaceutical discovery to astronomy. The time has come to apply these principles to mainstream politics, says Johnson, a highly regarded US technology writer.

A good name around which believers can coalesce is important for any emerging movement, particularly one with a rather diffuse philosophy. Johnson toyed with and rejected neologisms such as “netarian” (too internet-focused) and “ambitarian” (from the Latin for edge – too obscure) before realising that “peer” was perfect as peers are “your equals, the ones whose respect and judgment you seek”. And the internet and web are peer-to-peer networks.

Johnson added the word “progressive” because he is an optimist, believing in social and technological progress, with peer networks providing the best way to advance the cause.

Indeed Future Perfect is suffused with the feeling that almost every aspect of society has been getting better – an improvement not reflected in the predominant media narrative of decline and disasters. The book points out that a host of indicators have been on an upward trend for at least 20 years, including airline and road traffic safety, educational attainment, infant mortality, life expectancy, gender and racial equality and per capita income.

This leads to something of a disconnect in Johnson’s argument, because many of the factors that are making life better have little or nothing to do with peer-to-peer collaboration. One specific area that he singles out is the improvement in airline safety: your chances of dying in a commercial jet crash today are 100 times less than they were in the 1960s. Yet he fails to point out that credit for this lies with the aerospace industry, university engineering and materials science departments and other institutions working along traditional hierarchical lines.

Even the internet and then the web were founded by conventional research organisations for internal data sharing, though their structures turned out to be perfect for more open peer-to-peer networking. Of course, this form of collaboration does not require the internet – and Johnson gives several examples of networking that preceded its existence or widespread adoption. More than 20 years ago, for instance, the impoverished Brazilian city of Porto Alegre pioneered a bottom-up system of “participatory budgeting” in which neighbourhoods feed spending priorities through assemblies to the state government. According to Johnson, this quickly transformed the city’s infrastructure. But information technology has made it far easier to connect large numbers of networkers and, as importantly, to turn their views into practical action.

The question now is what impact peer progressives will have on mainstream politics. Johnson positions the movement as neither right nor left but something new with both liberal and libertarian elements, putting faith neither in government nor big business.

Unfortunately he does not show how this approach will help tackle the really big issues facing society. Indeed Johnson mentions in passing that climate change and military spending may be beyond the power of peer progressives to solve. He has no answer for the pessimists who say the reason why things have been getting better on the whole over the past few decades is that humanity has been consuming Earth’s resources and polluting the planet at an unsustainable rate. Future Perfect is an interesting book as far it goes, but it does not go far enough.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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