Networking for Progress

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Networking for Progress Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books. 2012. 208 pages. $26.95.

In Future Perfect, bestselling author Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) declares himself a member of the new revolutionary party, the peer progressives. For the most part, it’s a quiet movement, steady, not inherently violent. The recent uprisings in Bahrain, Egypt, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and other well-covered clashes between Netenabled citizens and truncheon-wielding cops do not embody this phenomenon, but are instead merely a symptom. Make no mistake, however: A revolution is afoot.

Peer progressivism is the social change that occurs outside of rigid government structures but in a way that isn’t guided by capitalistic self-interest, at least not exclusively. It’s spontaneous networks of free and equal agents, democratically intertwined. For instance, the crowdfunding site Kickstarter is nominally owned by a for-profit company but is powered by millions of selfless users seeking only to reward worthy creative projects. Wikipedia is peer progressive, as are employee-owned businesses.

The New York City 311 network is one of the most interesting examples. In times of public distress, as occurred in 2005 when a strange maple syrup smell descended upon the city, it served as an information distribution center to calm anxieties. The odor was not toxic, after all. But the 311 network also served as a listening mechanism, recording the time and location of each call until eventually the source of the odor could be triangulated. (Not surprisingly, it emanated from New Jersey.) The peer progressive network is the distributed, adaptive, message block switching protocols that make up the backbone of the Internet.

Peer progressivism stands in contrast to what postmodernist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might refer to as an arborescent: a system in which all information points toward-and all decisions radiate from-the center. Johnson makes a narrative parallel to the Legrand Star, the railway scheme put in place in France by Victor Legrand after the French Revolution. The Star was the quintessence of top-down efficiency, geometrical and symmetrical. It was beautiful-on paper. But it was a bit too perfect, too pretty, and, in the way it privileged central nodes at the expense of outlying and perhaps more defensible points, it proved to be a major liability to the French in the war with Prussia that broke out in 1870.

Today, we are in the midst of a historic sweep from Star formations to decentralized peer-progressive confederations, Johnson argues. The power to collect, process, and use in formation is moving away from institutions of authority toward the outlying nodes of more organic networks. This change is accelerated by the Internet.

Johnson brings up the case of orçamento participativo, or participatory budgeting, committees of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a seminal example of what peer progressivism can do. In orçamento participativo systems, budget setting is not done by elected officials, but rather according to a transparent set of processes. City neighborhoods receive money based on the number of residents and the current state of the infrastructure in that neighborhood; in other words, to each according to her means. Elected officials work more like switches in a machine than like competitors for more money or legislative power for their districts or constituents. The system expanded water sanitation and paved roads throughout Porto Alegre at a rate that was orders of magnitude faster than the old top-down system that came before it.

“In the United States, the recent talk about reinventing government has focused on the potential breakthroughs that Internet-based engagement can produce,” says Johnson. “But the history of those Porto Alegre general assemblies suggests that the more radical advance could well come from the simple act of neighborhoods gathering in a meeting hall or a church or a living room, and drafting up a list of the community’s needs.”

Revolutions, it seems, haven’t changed much afterall. -Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, January-February 2013

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