“When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably.”
Such is the nature of the reader’s ego: Whenever your favorite author comes out with another thoughtful, beautifully written, culturally relevant book, it’s potent and gratifying validation of your preference for his or her work and, by proxy, of yourself. This week, I have Steven Johnson to thank for gratifying my ego with Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (public library) — an absorbing, provocative, and unapologetically optimistic vision for the society we have the capacity to build if we use the remarkable tools of our age intelligently and wisely. Driven by what Johnson calls “peer progressives” — a cohort of people who are “wary of centralized control, but [are] not free-market libertarians,” who identify as entrepreneurs but work mostly in the public sector, who believe in building “a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy” — this new groundswell is using the power of networks as a problem-solving tool for civic society, and one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time has taken it upon himself to tell its story.
In the introduction, Johnson reminds us of something crucial Anaïs Nin observed more than 70 years ago — namely, the importance of understanding the role of the individual in making sense of mass movements:
Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.
One paradox of the digital age Johnson examines is the challenge of whether it’s “possible to believe that the Internet and the Web are pushing us in a positive direction, without becoming naive cyber-utopians.” To resolve the dissonance, he turns to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “affordances” — the deeply engrained tendencies of each new medium, which shape the message it conveys in consistent and predictable ways. Among television’s key affordances, for instance, was the strong bias for the visual and spoken over the textual. Johnson reflects on Neil Postman’s golden-age-of-TV bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:
You do not need a ‘thorough theoretical understanding of the context’ to assume that the introduction of television will diminish the role of the written word in a given society.
On the web, however, these affordances get murky. It’s a medium that at once allows meticulous micro-customization — like, for instance, those Google AdSense ads that
“know” your search history and preferences, pushing you products and services increasingly more tailored to your tastes — and spews out endless, mass-produced spam. Johnson puts it wrily:
For every website that knows exactly what you want to read right now, there are probably ten penis-enlargement ads sitting in your inbox.
But, he points out, the web is after all software and, as such, it’s malleable and nimble enough to be able to thrive on these schizophrenic affordances:
Software interfaces are not fixed properties; they are possibility spaces, open to a near-infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.
But this capacity for reinvention does not mean the Internet and its descendants are without affordances altogether. In fact, one of the Net’s affordances flows directly out if its shape-shifting powers. Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of deciding how they should work. In the days of analog telephony or radio, the number of people actively involved in the conversation about how these technologies should work was vanishingly small. If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes. A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends, in the long run at least, to build up a much larger community of people who anted to help reinvent it.
Ultimately, Johnson poses, then answers, one of our era’s most profound questions:
So what does the Internet want? It wants to lower the cost for creating and sharing information. The notion sounds unimpeachable when you phrase it like that, until you realize all the strange places that kind of affordance ultimately leads to. The Internet wants to breed algorithms that can execute thousands of financial transactions per minute, and it wants to disseminate the #occupywallstreet meme across the planet. The Internet ‘wants’ both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.
Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps — for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of information. When information is expensive and scarce, powerful or wealthy individuals or groups have a disproportionate impact on how that information circulates. But as it gets cheaper and more abundant, the barriers to entry are lowered. This is hardly a new observation, but everything that has happened over the last twenty years has confirmed the basic insight. That democratization has not always led to positive outcomes — think of those spam artists — but there is no contesting the tremendous, orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of people creating and sharing, thanks to the mass adoption of the Internet.
The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse. The same is true of the Internet and the peer networks it has inspired. They are not perfect, far from it. But over the long haul, they produce better results than the Legrand Stars that came before them. They’re not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.
Future Perfect, which comes on the heels of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010) and The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next (2011), goes on to examine the wide-reaching impact of the peer progressive movement through a fascinating cross-section of Johnson’s characteristic seeming-deviations-that-turn-out-to-be-brilliant-allegories-for-the-core-argument, spanning everything from the history of early aviation to New York’s mysterious maple syrup event of 2005 to what the “pothole paradox” tells us about the future of journalism.