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No doubt like a lot of Grist’s climate-conscious readers, I tend to view humanity’s near-term future as, well, problematic — no, make that downright terrifying. So, when I saw the title of Steven Johnson’s latest book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Then when I saw that the book contains barely a passing mention of climate change, you could say I was a little skeptical of Johnson’s grip on our planetary reality.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s for years. I’ve worked with him from time to time as an editor and producer. He’s one of the most admired science and technology writers around, author of books like Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, Everything Bad is Good For You, and Emergence. And despite the new book’s title, he’s not simply another glib techno-utopian. He’s also, rest assured, fully aware of climate change.

But he does, emphatically, still believe in a future marked by progress. And in this book he argues, ambitiously, that the most promising developments driving social progress today can be seen in an emerging wave of thinkers, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists he calls “peer progressives.”

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What’s a peer progressive? To begin with, they’re inspired by the decentralized, non-hierarchical, “peer-to-peer” structure of the internet. As Johnson notes, however, “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.”

Johnson goes on to describe the rise of the peer-progressive worldview, centered on the principles of the leaderless “peer network,” as something approaching a social and political movement. Slowly but surely, he writes,

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. 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. … Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange.

Johnson points to peer-network success stories like Wikipedia and Kickstarter and New York City’s 311 system, even political protest movements (the relative success of which can be debated) such as MoveOn and the Arab Spring uprisings and Occupy Wall Street.

I find all of this tantalizing. Johnson, I think, is clearly on to something. But there’s just no getting around the glaring, and puzzling, absence of climate change — and the pressure it exerts on any optimistic vision of the future — from his book’s argument. How could one of our best, most zeitgeist-savvy science writers paint a picture of our moment so conspicuously incomplete? And yet, is it possible that the part he gets right — the promise of peer networks — can somehow help us deal with the part he left out?

I had to ask. And Johnson gamely agreed to an email exchange for Grist, which I’ve lightly edited here.


From: Wen Stephenson
To: Steven Johnson

Thanks so much for agreeing to this exchange. I think you know I’m a longtime admirer of your work. But I have to be honest, here at the outset, and say that my initial reaction to this new book — just given the (slightly outrageous) title, and only having read the introduction and perused the table of contents — was, shall we say, uncharitable.

Sorry, bear with me here.

Grist readers and writers think a lot about the future, and, in particular, about what climate change means for our collective future. And it’s safe to say that most of us who’ve spent a lot of time plumbing the climate crisis aren’t nearly as optimistic about our human social prospects as you are. And so, on the face of it, I simply couldn’t understand how a writer as smart and knowledgeable as you are could write a book about progress and the future — much less an optimistic book about progress and the future — without grappling in any sustained way with the greatest and most urgent threat facing all of us, and especially facing today’s children and future generations. My reaction, I hate to admit, fell somewhere between incredulity and, well, contempt. Here was yet another example, I thought, of the #climatesilence pervading our media culture.

Then I actually read the rest of the book.

And, I have to confess, I kinda liked it. In fact, more than kinda.

Of course, it remains the case that the book gives climate change no more than a passing mention. And yet, as though to acknowledge (or apologize for?) the omission, you write near the end: “No doubt there will be places where the [peer progressive] approach turns out to be less effective. It may well be that certain pressing problems — climate change, military defense — require older approaches or institutions.”

So, I have two questions for you, to begin with. First, given that I know you’re aware of, and concerned about, the magnitude of the climate threat, why didn’t you tackle it head on, devote a chapter to it, in this book? And second, perhaps more importantly, why do you suggest that peer networks may be less effective in dealing with the challenge of climate? That sentence feels a bit too much like a throwaway. I’d love to see you unpack it. What is it, exactly, about the peer progressive approach that may make it less effective in dealing with climate? Because, on the contrary, it seems to me that peer networks have huge potential contributions to make to the climate fight — indeed, are already making them. But I’ll save my specific thoughts on the latter for the next round.


From: Steven Johnson
To: Wen Stephenson

It’s great to be back engaged in one of these conversations with you! And I’m glad your feelings of incredulity and contempt lifted once you read the entire book. That would have made for a fairly depressing conversation otherwise.

You make an excellent point about the importance of climate change, and its absence in Future Perfect. But before we get to that, let me back up a little and say a few things about what I was trying to do with this book.

As you note, Future Perfect starts with an extended preface about progress, making the point that we have a deep bias against stories of steady, incremental improvement in our society. If you look at society on the scale of the last 20 or 30 years, most measures of our social health — everything from violence to physical health to drug use to air and water pollution to automobile safety to divorce rates — have improved markedly over that period. Not everything has gotten better, of course, but the story of that progress is far more encouraging than most people suspect. Most of that progress did not come from sudden technological breakthroughs. It came, instead, from the subtle but crucial forms of mass collaboration that shape society: from government regulation, nonprofit interventions, doctors and scientists, local communities, and in some cases, private corporations.

I spent those opening pages walking through that story because I think we live in an age where people are deeply cynical about our ability to solve big problems, where we assume by default that as a society we are on a downward slope. (This is, in fact, one of the few places where the far left and the far right seem to agree, though they disagree about the nature of the problem.) So I think it’s important to remind people that that sense of terminal decline is at least partially an illusion; that there are plenty of cases of progress happening all around us — and if we apply ourselves, and learn from those successes, we can solve other problems.

As you know, the main torso of the book then turns to the argument for a new political worldview, one predicated on the power of peer networks instead of traditional top-down organizations like states or corporations. I talk about the way peer networks have been harnessed to build technology platforms like the internet or Wikipedia; to fund creative projects, a la Kickstarter; to empower local communities, as in the participatory budgeting approach pioneered in Brazil 30 years ago; to make governments more innovative, through the mechanism of prize-backed challenges; to reform the campaign finance system; and even to transform the internal organization of corporations so that they behave more like peer networks.

These are all stories that showcase what I’ve called the “peer progressive” philosophy actually out there in the real world changing society for the better. But it’s by no means a comprehensive list, and more importantly, it’s just the beginning. This is something that I thought about very consciously when I was writing Future Perfect: It’s a book about something that hasn’t fully happened yet; it’s a book about a movement that’s just in its incipient stages. I wrote it to amplify the voices that are already working in this mode, and to inspire more people to use peer networks to solve problems that aren’t mentioned in the book. I’ve written books where I took a long time writing and researching to get a comprehensive view of a mature field or historical event — Where Good Ideas Come From and The Ghost Map were written in that mode — but Future Perfect was designed to be a different kind of book: I wanted it to be short and punchy and to come out now, right in the middle of an election season, right as these various projects were starting to coalesce into something larger.

There’s a cost to that kind of strategy, and the cost is that you don’t end up covering every single element that could be relevant to the argument. Would the book have been better with a chapter on peer network solutions to climate change? Absolutely. Maybe this dialogue will ultimately lead to an additional chapter for the paperback edition, which would be great.

Why did I write that line about climate change potentially requiring “older approaches or institutions”? In truth, I think you’re right when you say it sounds like a throwaway. I wanted to have some acknowledgment that peer networks were not a solution to all our problems, and top-down decision-making would continue to be a part of society even in a world where peer progressivism has become a mainstream philosophy.

There is a more interesting question lurking behind that offhand comment in the book, though, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. One of the advantages that central planning has over decentralized solutions is its capacity for long-term thinking. If you think about it in terms of cities, peer networks are brilliant at identifying immediate problems in neighborhoods, and proposing and sometimes even funding solutions to those problems. But right now, in their current incarnation, they are less adept at thinking about the city’s future on the scale of 20 years or 50. In other words, right now, peer networks are great at fixing potholes or building community gardens or sharing news about the school board election. But they’re not as good at building sea walls, or designing a plan to get a metropolis off of carbon-based energy sources. But as I said, we’re just starting to experiment with these kinds of approaches, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if my concerns about long-term thinking prove too short-sighted. In which case, it will turn out that in writing Future Perfect I wasn’t optimistic enough!


From: Wen Stephenson
To: Steven Johnson

You write: “we live in an age where people are deeply cynical about our ability to solve big problems …”

I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, I think you and I have a common enemy — cynicism. (Something our generation, perhaps, has a particularly hard time getting over.)

And this goes to the heart of why I did, in fact, end up liking the book (quite a lot), once I got past what I felt was an incomplete initial framing. I genuinely admire your stubborn refusal to give in to the culture’s, and especially the media culture’s, pervasive cynicism — and not simply on the basis of some feel-good wishful thinking, but based on the evidence of what’s actually happening in the world around us. So, kudos to you for that.

But I want to tell you where I was last night, because it’s entirely relevant here.

Last night, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein packed Boston’s famous Orpheum Theater (where Bill saw the Ramones, back in the day) for the Boston leg of 350.org’s 21-city “Do the Math” tour. There were something like 3,000 people, including a large number of college students from schools all around the Boston area, totally fired up and ready to take the climate fight to the fossil-fuel industry.

As I’ve become involved in the 350 movement (I helped launch the grassroots network 350 Massachusetts earlier this year), I’ve seen a lot of ground-level organizers at work — and working outside of government and the political party system, outside the big environmental NGOs, outside the mainstream media, and forming what sure looks to me like your idea of peer-progressive networks. Quite honestly, it’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever been a part of. Hope is no easy thing. But if anything gives me hope these days, it’s the passion and energy and commitment — and swarming, collaborative intelligence! — of the people building the climate movement. We’re going to need a lot more people like them if we’re going to have a fighting chance. But based on what I saw last night, and what I’ve seen over the past couple years, it’s clear that something is really happening here.

And so, with all of this in mind, I want to quote a key passage from the final pages of the book, and then pose another question. You write:

There is a utopian strain to this [peer-progressive] vision, to be sure — utopian in the sense of both unchecked optimism and a certain lack of real-world practicality. Rebuilding the social architecture of the U.S. electoral system, to give one obvious example, may not be an achievable goal in the short or even medium term. But Wilde had it right: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not even worth consulting.” It may well not be possible to implement peer-progressive values on the scale some of us would like — in our lifetimes, at least. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to imagine what those larger changes would look like, if only to give us something epic and inspiring as a lodestar, guiding our more incremental movements.

Still, the peer network is not some rarefied theory, dreamed up on a commune somewhere, or in a grad school seminar on radical thought. It is a practical, living, evolving reality, one that is already transforming dozens of different sectors. It underlies the dominant communications system of our time, along with some of the most significant social movements.

Wilde did get it right. I love that line. But it’s also crucial to be absolutely clear about the vast and dire challenges we face as a society and a civilization in the face of climate change, even as we work overtime, using every social, technological, and political tool at our disposable, to address it.

I’m very interested in how peer networks may help us build more powerful social, and ultimately political, movements. Despite what some believe, we can’t rely on “sudden technological breakthroughs” to solve the climate crisis for us. It’s going to take some hard-won political breakthroughs — and it seems the only way that will ever happen is through some combination of decentralized, peer-network movement building, on the one hand, and some very smart, very inspired and committed leadership to focus the movement on the specific, urgent tasks involved in transforming our politics and our economy.

You’ve written that the genesis of Future Perfect goes back to your 2001 book, Emergence, and your description in its final pages of the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. You note the way that passage seemed to anticipate something like Occupy Wall Street, or even the Arab Spring. But you also note that those examples are far from, well, utopian. So, what does experience teach us about the promise and limitations of decentralized, “leaderless” peer-progressive movements?


From: Steven Johnson
To: Wen Stephenson

I haven’t spent enough time with 350.org up close as you have, but from a distance it seems like an essential contribution, and a great example of the power of peer networks.

But I think it’s important to stress that this notion of the peer network is not — as people sometimes assume — just a high-tech synonym for grassroots organizing. Bottom-up organizations like Occupy Sandy are certainly peer networks, but the concept is deliberately meant to be larger than that. Think of it as a concept equivalent in scale and variation to something like “the marketplace.”

The basic definition of a market is flexible enough that it can incorporate everything from a shopping mall to the NASDAQ to Etsy to a roadside farm stand. (Words like “government” or “democracy” have a similar flexibility.) A peer network is a way of collaboratively coming up with ideas, sharing and improving those ideas, and deciding which ones should be priorities. Its key values are density, decentralization, and diversity. (It’s important to point out that value of diversity for a peer progressive is slightly different from the traditional multicultural use of the term; diverse groups tend to make better decisions and come up with more innovative solutions to problems, and thus avoid the “echo chamber” effect.) In peer networks, we have lots of people collaborating from multiple perspectives without a small elite of “deciders” to set the course for the overall network. The internet and the Web and Wikipedia were all built with that kind of collaborative architecture, yet I suspect most of us wouldn’t describe those efforts as grassroots organizing.

I bring up this distinction for two reasons, both of which directly relate the problem of climate change. A few weeks ago, I participated in a wonderful panel at MIT’s Media Lab on the whole question of peer progressive politics, with Yochai Benkler, Larry Lessig and Susan Crawford. At some point in the discussion, I mentioned my concern about peer networks and their capacity for long-term thinking. The response was very interesting: Yochai, who has been thinking about these issues as deeply as anyone I know, immediately pointed out that we have the whole concept of climate change — as well as exhaustive scientific evidence to prove its existence — thanks almost exclusively to the collaborative peer networks of academic science. In other words, the ability to think on the scale of hundreds or thousands of years — both back into the deep history of the planet’s past, and forward into the near future — did not come to us from the market or from the state. Were it not for the open, decentralized, collaborative architecture of science — thousands of minds working all around the planet, freely building on top of each other’s work — we might well have no idea that climate change was even happening.

(Yochai’s argument should have occurred to me earlier, because I’d written extensively about the importance of academic peer review to the history of peer networks, including quite a bit of material on Enlightenment-era scholarship and the beginnings of Earth Systems science in my book Invention of Air. But of course, that’s the beauty of these kinds of exchanges: sometimes the most important ideas come to us when we let other people riff on top of our own ideas.)

Still, the knowledge of climate change is meaningless unless we can figure out a way to act on that knowledge. The open architecture of science has given us the ability to see the long-term crisis that confronts us — an extraordinary achievement, and one that we should be genuinely optimistic about. Where we have less reason for optimism is our ability to make decisions as a society based on that knowledge. And this is where we turn to my second point about the role of peer networks in society. To be a “peer progressive,” as I’ve defined it in Future Perfect, is not just to champion peer networks in grassroots politics or academic research or software platforms. It also involves applying those values of density, diversity, and decentralization to more traditional institutions wherever possible: to corporations and governments. Some of the most exciting developments in the peer progressive agenda involve these hybrid forms, where a top-down organization like a city government builds a peer network to make it more agile and responsive to the community’s needs, as in New York’s 311 system.

If our current political system seems woefully ill-equipped to deal with the crisis of climate change, I think a great deal of that incompetence comes from the ways the system violates the peer progressive values of density, diversity, and decentralization — through both the preposterous campaign finance system and the gerrymandering of congressional districts. We don’t have space here to get into the details of it, but suffice to say that both these developments greatly reduce the diversity and density of influence on our elected leaders. (Lessig has written about this powerfully in his book Republic, Lost, and indeed we discussed the topic at length at that MIT event.) If we could reform the political process so that billionaires and multinational corporations didn’t have a disproportionate impact on our political leaders, and gerrymandering didn’t push Congress towards extremist candidates, I suspect the prospects for acting on our climate change knowledge would be far more encouraging than they are today.

For a peer progressive, then, the response to climate change is threefold: encourage and celebrate the peer review collaborations that enabled us to understand the problem in the first place; build and amplify grassroots networks like 350.org that will build awareness and implement both legislative and non-legislative solutions; and then reform the political process so that our leaders (and the laws they pass) are influenced and elected by a wider and more diverse network of citizens. Those last two are not easy steps, by a long shot, but I don’t think they are significantly more challenging than the hurdles we overcame as a society over the past 40 years, culminating in last month’s election: gay marriage initiatives, 20 women senators, a reelected African-American president. The problem is, of course, we don’t have 40 years.


From: Wen Stephenson
To: Steven Johnson

You’re right, we don’t have 40 years. To use a sports analogy, the science is telling us that we’re at the buzzer, and it’s all coming down to a deep three-pointer.

So the question now, to my mind, is whether we can speed up the process of movement-building, innovation, and political transformation — do these things faster, perhaps, than they’ve ever been done before. We probably don’t have time to allow a completely organic, self-organizing, leaderless, bottom-up process to come to fruition entirely on its own. We have an emergency on our hands. And emergencies require decisive action — which requires leadership.

I don’t see how we get away — especially when time is of the essence — from the need for leadership, a kind of guiding intelligence and decision-making structure. Not necessarily “top-down” in the old-fashioned sense — it can and should be informed and inspired by a network of “peers” — but leadership nonetheless.

This is why I’m so interested in the notion of these “hybrid” forms. When you say that “a peer network is a way of collaboratively coming up with ideas, sharing and improving those ideas, and deciding which ones should be priorities,” that sounds an awful lot like effective grassroots organizing. And I wonder if something like the 350 movement might be seen as a hybrid peer network — because, yes, there’s a core leadership group, more or less steering things, but the movement’s strength comes from its network of local and regional groups, throughout the country and the world (it’s truly global). Its success, I think, is based on its decentralized, collaborative nature. The anti-Keystone campaign, and the way it has spread and coalesced, bringing together a really diverse network of players — from First Nations people in Canada to Nebraska ranchers to East Texas land owners (and, oh yeah, a few climate activists, too)   is a case in point. But there’s no doubt it involved leadership.

So, what if part of the network’s collective intelligence includes identifying and empowering leaders — not a single leader, but a sort of leadership core, a peer network-within-the-network?

Here’s another analogy: in the earliest days of the Web, it took the development of an interface, the Mosaic browser, followed by the Netscape browser, to make the Net intelligible and navigable to a great many more people (especially non-techies like me!). This is probably stretching the analogy too far, but in a way, I see something like 350.org — and any number of other grassroots movement-building organizations — serving a similar purpose. What if they’re a kind of emergent interface for a diverse and distributed movement?


From: Steven Johnson
To: Wen Stephenson

I think your software analogy is a great one, actually. If you look at the history of the Web or the history of open source platforms like Linux, there are indeed certain key individuals who have functioned as “leaders”: Tim Berners-Lee or Linus Torvalds, for instance. That leadership historically involved two key roles. They plant the initial seed (or I should probably say kernel, since we are talking software), and then they inspire the broader network that forms around their founding idea. Those are crucial roles, and again, from afar, they seem very similar to the role Bill McKibben has played with 350.org.

But that leadership role also has its limits. It’s not an executive function; it’s not a commander telling the troops what to do. If Steve Ballmer wants something to change in the Windows platform, he can make it happen, because being a corporate CEO gives you that kind of leadership authority. If Torvalds or Berners-Lee want to change something about Linux or the Web, it is literally out of their control. They can cajole and persuade and inspire, but they can’t just issue an edict. That’s the way peer network leaders differ from their equivalents in corporations or governments.

What tends to happen with peer networks is a kind of blurring effect, where the traditional distinction between leader and follower or between producer and consumer gets fuzzier. If you look at services like 311, or the many government-backed challenges  and competitions at challenge.gov, or Beth Noveck’s visionary peer-to-patent system, what you see are situations where people who are not on the government payroll are suddenly allowed to contribute their ideas and judgments to problems that governments are trying to wrestle with. In the older model, there were elected officials and government employees, and then there were ordinary citizens, who “participated” in government by voting every few years and paying their taxes. In the peer network model, those citizens start to take a more active, participatory role, whether it’s reporting potholes or reviewing patent applications. The same blurring is happening with media, where a new middle zone has opened up between the producers and consumers of media. There are still voices in the public conversation that are louder and more influential than others, but it’s much harder to steer the overall conversation than it was 20 years ago.

But let me steer this particular conversation in a slightly different direction at its close. I ended the last post with the idea of three layers of peer networks in the climate change fight: the peer review of academic science; the grassroots networks of 350.org and others; and political reform that would reinstate peer progressive values in the campaign finance system and congressional districting. But during my book tour this fall, a number of people have suggested to me that there’s another layer that we should consider, which is the ultimate vision of what energy use in the 21st century should look like.

We got into this mess by relying on a deeply centralized, hierarchical model of energy production and consumption. As in the old days of mass media, the 1% produce the energy, and the 99% consume it. But all the trends in green energy that I can see suggest that that model is as doomed as the newspaper monopolies ultimately turned out to be.

Micro-renewables are going to blur the distinctions between energy production and consumption in exactly the same way they have blurred the lines between leaders and followers in all these other fields. A world where energy flows between peers in a network (what Jeremy Rifkin calls “lateral power”) would likely be a world where we could live much closer to that carbon target of 350 parts per million. So in the end, it may be that peer networks are not just a vehicle that will help us reach our goal. They might also be the goal itself.