The Future of Politics, Internet style: A Conversation with Steven Johnson

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Steven Johnson, a noted author most recently of “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age“. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at FireDogLake.com.

When I first read Eric S. Raymond’s landmark essay on open-source programming, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, I was delighted. Here was a perfect exposition of my experience with programming and the open-source community. You can write code in a Cathedral model – where Bill Gates is the architect and hires thousands of Micro-Serfs to write code that conforms to his blueprints – or you can write code in a Bazaar model, where your work was part of the community, “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches… out of which a coherent and stable system could… emerge.” I knew which camp I was in: the Bazaar model as embodied in the open-source community was intellectually exciting and full of innovation, even if it didn’t pay as well.

As I became more involved in politics, the ethos of the open-source movement seemed confusingly in conflict with my experience of the Democratic Party. In their book, “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics“, Jerome Armstrong (of MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas (of DailyKos fame) described the explosive encounter of the netroots with the Democratic Party establishment. But that isn’t the full story – the power of the netroots and the open-source movement stretches much deeper, well beyond mere party power politics. Something else is at work – something that Steven Johnson has surfaced and named in his excellent and insightful book, “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age“.

One of my great frustrations about the digital age is how poor our language is to explain and understand what is happening in our midst. At the outset of Future Perfect, Johnson offers us a new word to describe an emerging political consciousness: peer progressive. It is an apt term, well-coined. Peer progressives believe in the progress of humanity – that we are on a path of continual improvement, and that the exciting technological innovations of the digital age offer new and compelling ways forward. While embracing a progressive worldview, peer progressives believe in the power of peer-to-peer networks, not institutions. They are “wary of centralized control, but they [are] not free-market libertarians…they [are] equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (page xxxvi)

In many ways, “Future Perfect” follows directly from Johnson’s earlier books on the impact of technology on our culture. Here, he describes what it means to be a peer progressive, including provide a historical context that suggests there is a long tradition of the decentralized anti-institutional progressive point of view. He goes on to look at the impact of a peer progressive point of view on our politics, our government, our media, and our corporations. A key framework of the book is the difference between the Legrand Star and the Baran network. The Legrand Star is the French railway plan where all roads lead to Paris, the “star” at the heart of the rail system. Johnson uses “Legrand Star” as vocabulary to describe how the priorities of a large institution can deliver a centralized solution with significant constraints. On the other end, Paul Baran is one of the founders of the digital era. His primary insight about how to harness the power of networks led to packet switching, a technology upon which the entire internet, from email to TCP/IP, is built. A Baran Web has no center, and consequently is enormously flexible in responding to a wide range of challenges. Johnson looks at different examples in the spheres of politics, government, policy, and corporate strategy: is this a Legrand Star solution or a Baran Web solution?

I’m ready to call myself a peer progressive. This grows out of my own experience, of having liberal values about many issues, but not seeing government as the solution to many of our challenges. Part of it is my experience of the open source movement, where complex problems (albeit technical ones) can be solved in an open collaborative way without formal institutions given good leadership and clear process. Johnson has begun the process of integrating a peer progressive point of view into a coherent political agenda that combines liberal social values with a more libertarian attitude about institutions. But remember that institutions includes corporations: an important characteristic of the peer progressive is that “peer progressives genuinely like free markets; they’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations.” (p. 29)

I’ll be honest: I have significant reservations about what we might leave behind as we embrace the opportunities of the networked age. (I have written my own book on this subject, which won’t be out for a few months.) Regardless of my own reservations, I am convicted of the moral imperative to peer progressive approaches to our institutions. Johnson notes that “The peer-progressive framework is in its infancy, after all. We don’t yet know its limits.” (p. 208) It is up to us to find those limitations; I suspect we will all be surprised at the resiliency and opportunity that a peer-progressive future might provide. Read this book; our future depends on it.

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